Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Reviews: Swag, The Lives of Tao

by Elmore Leonard
The late novelist Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and set many of his stories in and around the Metro Detroit area. I've read some of his works in the distant past. I was inspired to read this particular book after having a discussion about old time Detroit with a friend from New York, who although he's never been to Detroit, is a huge Leonard fan. Go figure. My friend recommended this book in the strongest possible terms. So not having read any Leonard in a long time, I decided to give this book a read. I picked it up used for cheap. This was a good book. It wasn't great but it was good. I am glad that I read it. I had forgotten how much Leonard was, like Stephen King, a master of description, of realistic conversations, of storytelling. He actually makes you think that you are there, that you are part of the story. This is a something that not every writer has but I really enjoy reading works by those who have it. Even if the plot sometimes drags or gets off course I still continue reading because I want to see what happens next. Before describing the plot though I do want to briefly tell you about Hudson's. Hudson's was the centerpiece jewel of downtown Detroit. It was the tallest department store in the world. And for my money it was the classiest. The internal architecture was a intoxicating mix of Art Deco and pseudo-Gothic. For a long time in Detroit, anything you ever wanted to have you could get from Hudson's. And not cheap crappy stuff made in China or Malaysia either, mind you. I'm talking 100% American son! Or Hudson's sold Old World high quality stuff that didn't fall apart six months after you bought it. Hudson's heyday occurred before I was born but when I was a young lad I still remember my mother taking me and my siblings there on Saturdays. Good memories.

Hudson's is long gone now. To show the kind of nostalgic appeal the Hudson's building had for SE Michigan residents of a certain age, before it was demolished and even afterwards people "liberated" fixtures, nameplates, elevator gate doors, even bricks, to remind themselves of a glorious time now gone forever. I think one of my relatives might even have a nameplate lying around somewhere. You can read more about Hudson's here if you like. Ok I went down that little detour in memory lane because as Swag is set in mid seventies Metro Detroit, Hudson's plays a key role in the story.

There are a number of characters in the story but I am only going to mention two, both because I don't want to spoil the story and because I am trying to write shorter reviews.
Frank Ryan is a Caucasian (race is a factor in this tale) used car salesman who is middling successful at his job. But he wants more. Frank has seen all the tricks when people try to steal cars and he's used all the tricks when he tries to (legally) steal people's money by selling them cars. So when Frank catches a guy who is driving a car off the lot without having checked with Frank he knows the game. Still he lets the fellow get off the lot before calling the police. When the car thief is arrested Frank refuses to identify him. As the thief was not actually arrested in the stolen car the case falls apart. Frank seeks the thief out. The thief is Ernest Stickley, another white man, but most people call him Stick. Stick is initially worried that Frank is gay and is coming on to him but it's not that. Frank has been doing some research about the numbers of armed robberies committed in and around Detroit. Quite a few robberies are never solved. Frank has a proposition for Stick. Frank has come up with a number of rules for armed robbery that he thinks protect the smart criminal from getting caught. If some of those (presumably black) idiots in Detroit can get away with it, then surely two men such as Frank and Stick can do well and avoid capture. Stick is not all that impressed by the voluble Frank but it seems like this plan just might work.

And for a short period of time the two men become successful armed robbers. They go where the money is but they're really more about volume than one big score. However as time goes on Frank gets the idea that he really is a criminal mastermind. He starts breaking more of his own rules. Stick remembers why he's not crazy about Frank in the first place. They get in over their heads and make some mistakes. Big ones. There are the normal amount of double crosses, set piece betrayals and prostitutes with hearts of gold. This was a quick read. I loved the constant invocation of local landmarks, hotels and streets. Obviously much has changed since the times in which this book was set but I enjoyed knowing exactly the areas where the lead characters were. It made the book real to me.

The Lives of Tao
by Wesley Chu
This book combines light satire of corporate life with James Bond type spy adventure, sci-fi Matrix type derring do, Hero's Journey and even a little romantic humor. Occasionally the transition back and forth between all these different tones can make the reader a little queasy but for all that it is an entertaining story if you can get past that. As I think is too common these days it's the first in a trilogy but it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone book.

Humanity is not the most intelligent species on the planet. Not by a long shot. That title actually belongs to the Quasing. The Quasing are a group of extremely intelligent aliens whose spaceship crash landed on Earth eons before the first humans even existed. Their bodies are not designed for this environment as they find it bone crushingly cold and too high pressure. In fact their bodies are little more than gaseous membranes, that are highly susceptible to earthly weather patterns. The Quasing thus can't survive on our planet for longer than a few minutes unless they take refuge in a living being's body. Animals are possible but humans are preferred. This is not quite possession per se but the Quasing are in part the source for many human myths and religions. They've started a few religions for their own purposes. The Quasing doesn't need permission from a human to enter a human body and it's unclear as to whether a human can expel a Quasing. They almost never voluntarily leave. Over time though the human and Quasing will enjoy a sort of symbiotic bond with each other. As long as they can jump from body to body (they are naturally expelled upon their host's death) a Quasing is effectively immortal from a human's point of view. The Quasing also has total recall access to all of its previous hosts' experiences and memories and can share those with its current host, if it is so inclined. They can communicate with their human host via telepathy.

The Quasing really don't like being on our planet. They want to go home. Very badly. Unfortunately they are unable to rebuild or "rebreed" their destroyed spaceship. Again, our environment is poison to them. So they decided, hundreds of thousands of years ago mind you, that as humans looked like they would be the dominant native species on this planet, the best thing to do was to help humanity increase its level of technology and science so that some day in the near future (near future by Quasing standards), humans would be able to recreate the Quasing ship and the Quasing would all leave. That was the plan anyway. Looking at early human behavior patterns the Quasing decided that humans would best be motivated to achieve scientific and leadership advancement by war. So for most of human existence the Quasing did their best to increase war and conflict by any means possible.

However around the 1300s some Quasing had an epiphany. They began to think that going down the path of violence, dominance and war might not be best for Quasing or humans. These aliens called themselves the Prophus. They were however, greatly outnumbered by the orthodox Genjix, who didn't care if every human died as along as they could get off this horrible planet. The two sides began a vicious civil war that hasn't stopped yet. One of the Prophus leaders, Tao (he invented T'ai Chi and was the Quasing of Genghis Khan) must quickly find a new host after his previous host is betrayed and killed. Unfortunately the closest host he can find is Roen Tan, an Asian-American lazy overweight out of shape IT analyst, who initially doesn't believe anything the voice in his head is telling him. And even if it is all true Roen has no interest in getting in shape and joining the Prophus service. That is unless it means he will meet pretty women. Roen starts to believe though when shortly after he hears Tao's "voice" strangers start following him and try to kill him. He also is impressed that Tao, having invented the coding language and processes which Roen uses, is able to perform 8 hrs of Roen's work in about 20 minutes. Tao has more important things for Roen to do. Roen is thrown into training and ultimately a war. Similar to The Matrix, some of his allies are a bit dismissive that the great Tao is really inside such a physically and mentally poor specimen as Roen. This was a fun book. It ran a little long at 450 pages. It's both creepy and funny that Quasing can't control humans except when the humans are asleep. Roen is none too pleased when he wakes up one morning to find that Tao has thrown out all of his sweets and junk food.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Delinquent Water Bills, Detroit and The United Nations

I do my best to pay my bills on time. I expect the same from others. If I use a service I pay for it. If I loan money I want the money returned. I don't think that's too much to ask from other adults. Things can get a little tricky with relatives or other intimates because the relationship warps our understanding of money. So I avoid loaning money to people in those categories. If they need assistance I will give it to them, if I can. But people close to me know that I like my money very much and don't like giving it away. So that preserves the balance.
But where there's no personal relationship there is no misunderstanding of what money means. With people who lack a personal relationship with me there is never any expectation on my part that money loaned won't have to be repaid, regardless of who is the creditor and who is the debtor. My bank expects monthly mortgage payments. The bank is entirely uninterested in my problems making that payment. All they want is their money. I work for pay at my company, not because I enjoy the witty repartee. So, as is incredibly obvious to most adults, when you make a deal or purchase goods or services, you are supposed to live by the deal or pay for the goods or services you bought. Unfortunately in my home town of Detroit, the Water Department is running into some pushback as it seeks to either obtain payment from delinquent customers or shut their water service off. 

The reason for the Water Department's new aggressiveness in going after delinquents is probably related to the city's bankruptcy. Not only has the Emergency Manager made it clear that business as usual can't continue but of course the Detroit Water Department can't be privatized or merged into a regional service provider unless it shows that it can actually get customers to pay their bills.  I mean would you invest in or purchase a business where customers used the product but refused to pay for it? No you wouldn't. These decisions make sense for the entire organization but inevitably there are going to be some people that get hurt and may not even be deadbeats.

On July 1, the department is planning to relaunch its dormant financial assistance program with the help of the Heat and Warmth Fund, also known as THAW. The program is funded by 50-cent donations from paying water customers. More than $800,000 is available.THAW will help determine how much customers who qualify for assistance must pay. DWSD officials stressed that all customers will have to pay something toward their bill. Water service to 7,556 Detroit customers was cut off in April and May, according to the department. Now, the department officials said enough shutoff crews are in place to halt service to 3,000 delinquent accounts per week.

The overall effort to collect on more than 90,000 active accounts owing $90.3 million past due has drawn criticism from activists and a coalition of welfare rights groups. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, called the shutoffs inhumane and “economically short-sighted.” The department’s shutoff campaign is targeting customers — residential and commercial — who are more than 60 days late on their bills and who owe at least $150. The average monthly bill for water and sewer service in Detroit is $65, according to the department. An 8.7% increase effective next month is expected to increase bills by $5 a month. The rate hike was partially blamed on delinquent bills. City Councilman Gabe Leland, who supported the rate increase, said the financial assistance program’s availability next month — about three months after the shutoffs began — reveals how the DWSD sets its priorities. “It seems like right now the department is taking no prisoners,” Leland said, adding that people should pay their bills. “To shut people off, that’s one thing. Let’s do it with some more preparation.”

Of course this being Detroit, a welfare rights organization even attempted to get the United Nations involved on the theory that water is a universal human right or that disparate impact theory showed that the people harmed by shutoff notices would be mostly black and thus therefore the shutoff policies were racially discriminatory. This kind of logic makes my head hurt. I'll leave that to lawyers who are actually qualified to discuss it. Bottom line as I see it is if you use a service you pay for the service. All else is folly and laziness on an individual level. If you want to collect water in your backyard from the rain and use that water to brush your teeth, go to the toilet, clean your body and for your drinking needs you go right ahead and do that. But if you want to have clean safe treated water that runs the gamut of your preferred temperature range delivered instantaneously to your home, well you need to pay for that, just like everyone else does. Now, all of that individual responsibility stuff out of the way there are at least three systemic issues here:

1) What happens when an economy simply doesn't need as many people as it used to? Unemployment in Detroit is chronic. This is in large part because the high-wage, relatively low skill auto jobs that built and sustained the middle class in Detroit have vanished thanks in part to automation, globalization and departure for the suburbs or southern states. This didn't happen overnight but honestly there is nothing the current President or either political party is doing to change employment patterns in the "inner city". You can have all the individual responsibility you want to but if you lack money, some bills get dropped. It's a related issue that I haven't touched on for a minute but this is also why I am opposed to "immigration reform". There are too many American citizens that are falling by the wayside. We can't provide jobs for our own and we want to bring in more people? But seriously, what if late model capitalism simply doesn't require the workers that its predecessor model used to? How do we handle that as a society?

2) Isn't there some residual pride left in people? Is it really a human rights violation to have your water shutoff? Again, we may decide that it is. But in that case we will all have to pay additional taxes to provide water "free" of charge to all. I have no issue doing that for seniors or people of extremely low means. But for your run of the mill American, poor or not, I would balk at doing that until I had more information on their circumstances. Housing in Detroit is not exactly expensive. 

3) Related to number one, a black man with an associates degree has roughly the same economic chances as a white man with a high school diploma. Education pays for everyone but it pays better for some people than for others. Again, if we (that is the US) have through history and current practice shut large out numbers of people from the employment market then we're going to end up with some unknown proportion of them not being able to pay water bills. So again, we need to provide jobs for people, even those who do not have a college degree. And the highest need for jobs is in the black community.

I don't have all the answers on this. I think that we have to distinguish between the truly destitute, for whom we can find assistance, and the person who simply doesn't think his or her water bill is something they have to pay. Unfortunately the only way to make that distinction is to shut off service to delinquents. If they want the service, they'll pay their bill. If they can't step forward and let's have a discussion about what happens next. I am sympathetic, especially as the Detroit bureaucracy has a well deserved reputation for notoriously bad record keeping and organization. There will definitely be a high number of false positives caught up. But there will be many more folks who just got used to paying late and are screaming because the free ride is up.

What's your call on this situation?

HBO Game of Thrones: Season Four Differences Between Book and Show

Ok, Season Four of HBO's Game of Thrones saw more differences between the books and show than I could remember or to be more precise more than I would care to write and certainly more than you would care to read. Presumably the series creators believed that their choices, minor or not, were necessary for the narrative advancement. As Game of Thrones has become HBO's biggest hit ever, officially surpassing The Sopranos, Benioff and Weiss deserve all the praise they receive for successfully translating Martin's textually dense and narratively complex works into the visual medium. That doesn't mean I wasn't irked at some thematic alterations. The biggest and most disappointing change to me (and apparently quite a few book readers judging by vicious comments on fan blogs) was something that I can't in good faith detail here because it's not been 100% officially ruled out of Season Five. I can say that there was some Stark revenge from an entirely unexpected source which was left out of Season Four. My heart turned to stone upon watching the last few episodes of Season Four and realizing the show dropped something big. If you've read the books you know exactly what I'm talking about! But in the admittedly unlikely event that next season includes it, keep quiet about it here. For this post I want to mention some of the more important, interesting or shocking changes from the book to the screen. I'm not interested in a character's name change or a man with no manhood trying to run some game on a woman who was actually a little girl in the books. Those are small potatoes. But when you change a character's knowledge or his motivations for patricide, I think those changes matter a little bit more.
I will shy away from discussing nearly certain future events or even future events that appear to be generally likely. If you've read the books I hope that you will share that restraint as well. However the very nature of this post requires listing some events which didn't happen in the show. For all I know the show creators could rectify some of this next season. So if this entire discussion is something you consider vaguely spoilerific, well you know what to do regarding this post. The first book in A Song of Ice and Fire was published in 1996 while the most recent was published in 2011. So read the doggone books. Of course if everyone read the books I wouldn't be this guy any more so there's that. Hmm. I strongly believe that the series' first three books had a quality and pace not matched by the last two releases. I would have preferred more televised fidelity to the high quality source material of the first three books. I will be less concerned with how the show handles the upcoming adaptations. Next season I think the show from necessity as opposed to convenience will invent more of its own story lines, prune back some of Martin's and create even more surprises for book readers and show viewers alike.

Lysa, Littlefinger and Sansa
In the show Lysa Arryn (Tully) is hot to trot for Littlefinger and can't wait to share some of her crazy pie with him. Once they are alone Lysa reminds Littlefinger of how long she's been pining for him and what she did on his orders. These acts included murdering her husband Jon Arryn (Hand to the King and Ned Stark's/Robert Baratheon's godfather) and then writing to her sister Catelyn Stark to blame the murder on the Lannisters. These actions helped set the stage for war. More than a bit discomfited, Littlefinger suggests they not talk of these things. No one hears them. However in the book Lysa does not mention any of this to Littlefinger in private. It's when Littlefinger has interrupted her attempt to throw Sansa from the Moon Door that a hysterical distraught Lysa angrily reveals both her adultery with Littlefinger and all she's done at Littlefinger's behest. See the difference? Sansa hears ALL of this. Now Book!Sansa is only about 13 and may not have realized all that she heard. I mean if you're trying to avoid being tossed from 600 feet by your crazy aunt, your total attention is likely dedicated to that task. Still, if Sansa ever stops to remember a few things that Lysa was saying or put two and two together she will know that Littlefinger is her family's single greatest enemy. It was Littlefinger who manipulated the Stark and Lannisters into a war which saw the destruction of Stark hegemony. Revenge for "losing" Catelyn Stark may have been among the motivations for Littlefinger's actions. It's not in the show but the reader learns that one reason that Lysa was willing to help destroy her blood family and her sister's family might have been because her father Hoster Tully tricked Lysa into getting an abortion before marrying her off to Jon Arryn. Lysa was carrying Littlefinger's child.

On his death bed a delirious Hoster Tully tries to apologize but sadly doesn't realize he's talking to Catelyn, not Lysa. Lysa refused to visit her dying father. And Catelyn's never able to figure out what her father was rambling about. Lysa's last words to Sansa, gloating over the deaths of her sister and father, certainly indicate some long hidden malevolence.

There was no near miss with Arya and Sansa at the Eyrie. I understand why the show wanted to set this up but in truth it's logically incoherent. The Stark name is well known in the Vale. Although the Vale stayed neutral in the war because of Lysa's orders (which is say Littlefinger's orders) the titular ruling Lord is Arya's first cousin, the previous Knight of the Gate was Arya's great uncle, the Blackfish, and there are several other powerful Lords who were close friends to or mentors of Ned Stark who were quite vexed at being forced to stay out of the war. Upon hearing that Ned Stark's daughter was at the gate, no one would have let her leave. The conversation wouldn't have stopped with news of Lysa's death but would have continued. "I.e, your aunt is dead but your father's good friend Lord Royce is here and rumors say your sister is as well." Under those circumstances would Arya and The Hound have left? There would have been safety for Arya and a promise of recompense for the Hound. In the book there was a patsy for Littlefinger's murder of Lysa, a troubadour named Marillion, who had previously attempted to rape Sansa and was singing to drown out Sansa's screams as Lysa tried to kill her. And speaking of Sansa, in the books released so far she never ever reveals her identity to the Lords of the Vale. There are a few Lords and others who are suspicious of Sansa's identity.

Brienne, The Hound and The Mountain

There was no fight between Brienne and The Hound. They never even met. It was one of those things that was great for the show in that it settled who was a better fighter but to me it felt like fanservice making up for the mostly inaccurate accusations of show sexism and generally accurate accusations of excessive mammary gland display. I didn't like the scene because I thought that it made the Hound a bit more noble than he is. Although no one noticed it at the time he openly admitted that he was protecting Arya with no hope of compensation. While that may have been the case it's extremely doubtful that the Hound would ever have admitted that. In the book The Hound's disabling and possibly deadly wounds were obtained in the inn fight with his brother's men depicted much earlier in the show. He and Arya part ways before they get anywhere close to the Vale. Also although it's lost in the "women can fight too!" hoopla around the Brienne character her defining characteristic arguably may not even be her astounding strength and endurance but her rock solid morality and sense of honor. Although the show depicts Cersei sneering at Brienne's honor and implying that it's heavily mixed with lust for Jaime, book Brienne is an oft melancholy but surprisingly durable and honorable warrior. Her loyalty is beyond question. Ironically she may well be the "true knight" that Sansa had idealized. Fortunately so far Brienne has been a tad more pragmatic than Ned Stark. And speaking of the Hound's brother, the thuggishly evil Gregor Clegane, the poison which Oberyn used was so incredibly painful that the man's unending screams were heard throughout the castle. Responding with her normal sense of compassion and solicitude, Cersei had the Mountain moved to the dungeons so he wouldn't disturb her sleep. The Mountain wasn't lying in bed peacefully. Oberyn specifically chose a poison that would make the Mountain's last days on earth unimaginably painful. In the book while displaying the spear to Tyrion and explaining his planned duel tactics he tells Tyrion not to touch the matter what. The duel between Oberyn and The Mountain lasted a little longer. Oberyn's speed and dexterity wore The Mountain down.

Tyrion and Tywin Confrontation

Along with incest and violation of guest right, kinslaying is one of the greatest taboos in Westeros. It's just not done. There are exceptions to this rule but it's safe to say that most people would think twice before doing it. In both book and show it's hinted broadly that Tywin uses the farce of Tyrion's trial to get around the otherwise ironclad prohibition on kinslaying. Think about it. Tywin Lannister, who uses monsters like Amory Lorch and the Mountain, who has exterminated entire houses for revolt, and who is known far and wide as a vicious and ruthless pragmatist, still did not dare to kill his son, though he clearly hated him and had countless opportunities to do so. Similarly, Tyrion, who has every reason to hate his father and wish him ill, still takes his father's side in the war with Stannis Baratheon and Robb Stark. When left on his own Tyrion doesn't try to cut a deal with Stannis for King's Landing. He does not free Sansa Stark or broadcast news of his siblings' incest though he knows all about it. In Westeros it takes a LOT to turn someone against their family. In the show Jaime frees Tyrion and explains that Varys has a ship waiting. Tyrion, upset about his narrowly averted fate, walks upstairs, finds his father's apartments, kills Shae, after she grabs a knife, and kills his father. Tywin is incredulous that Tyrion loved a dead whore (Shae).
In the book this was handled a little differently. Jaime frees Tyrion but makes the mistake of saying he owed Tyrion a debt. Tyrion presses his brother on this statement. Jaime admits that Tyrion's first wife Tysha, whom Tywin had ordered gang-raped, was not a whore. Jaime lied on Tywin's request. This is critical because Tyrion's entire adult personality is based largely on the belief that he is unlovable because of his deformity. It is why he only sleeps with prostitutes. He has horrible self-esteem. To find out that no, a non-prostitute really did love him and that his father and brother lied to him sets him over the edge. Angered beyond measure by this revelation that the ONE Lannister he thought he could trust betrayed him, Tyrion decides to hurt Jaime with a mixture of lies and truth. He tells Jaime the truth about Cersei, that she has been sleeping with their cousin Lancel, many other men at court and for all Tyrion knows the court jester as well. Tyrion also lies and tells Jaime that he murdered Joffrey and was quite happy to do so. Jaime leaves. It's then that Varys finds Tyrion and leads him away. However Tyrion figures out that they are beneath the Tower of the Hand. He wants to know the path to the bedchambers. Varys shows him the secret passageway while invoking his inner Willy Wonka saying there's no time. Tyrion arrives at the bedchambers and murders Shae. There is no hint of self-defense. And when Tyrion murders his father it's his father's ugly dismissal of Tysha, not Shae, that causes Tyrion to pull the trigger. These are small but extremely important differences. 

The reveals between Tyrion and Jaime permanently alter the relationship among all of the Lannister siblings. There are legitimate questions about what Varys' purpose was in releasing Tyrion. Cersei never confesses incest to her father. Tywin had no intention of giving up The Mountain to Oberyn Martell. Jaime never agreed to leave the Kingsguard and marry to save Tyrion's life.

Roose, Ramsay and the Greyjoys

There is no aborted rescue mission by Yara (Asha in the books) Greyjoy to the Dreadfort. The Dreadfort is not easily reached from the Iron Islands, being even further away than Winterfell. Once captured by Ramsay, Theon doesn't see his sister again in Book 3. The show pulled events ahead from later books and invented some storylines here. And believe it or not the show greatly reduced the sexual violence which Martin describes in horrific detail during many of Ramsay's hunts of women.  It's safe to say that even cable couldn't include all of Ramsay's depravities. Martin goes above and beyond to be as disgusting and as disturbing as possible describing Ramsay's activities. It is important to realize, as the show did not make clear, many of the women Ramsay hunts are former residents of Winterfell. In the book there was no "Locke". Instead the man who crippled Jaime was a sadistic and psychotic mercenary who routinely switched sides between the Lannister and Stark forces. In the books this man ultimately came to a nasty end presided over by The Mountain, not killed in the far north by Bran-Hodor. Bran and company are never captured by Night's Watch mutineers. Given that Show!Roose was upset that his son had maimed and degraded a less important hostage like Theon, it's doubtful that Show!Roose would have kept Locke around. Locke maimed the much more important Jaime Lannister. Roose Bolton knows what his best interests are. Employing someone who irritates and angers Tywin Lannister is neither prudent nor smart.

Anyway there were many more differences but that's enough for now.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hillary Clinton: Clueless, Dead Broke and Not Well Off

When Mitt Romney was caught on tape speaking dismissively of the 47% of American citizens who did not pay income taxes and presumably would be immune to his appeals for their vote, it's safe to say that that was a game changer, or at least one among many for his campaign. It locked in many people's perception that Mitt Romney was an out-of touch plutocrat with a disdain for the working class and the impoverished. Obviously this perception was fanned and fed by the Obama campaign and its surrogates supporters in the media who went out of their way to make sure everyone knew about the Romney quotes. That's politics after all. If you trip and fall into a ditch, know that your opponent will go out of his/her way to run over you with the bus. Strangely enough presumed 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton seems to be going out of her way to make some of the same mistakes that Romney made. As she is not a declared candidate nor are we in a Presidential election year her gaffes may not have the same bite that Romney's did. Additionally, outside of a few extremely progressive/leftist circles she is not quite yet seen as relentlessly pro-plutocrat as Romney was. Romney looks like the caricature of the evil businessman who buys up a widget company, fires all of the semi-moral midlevel executives and then moves 90% of the manufacturing to slave labor camps in Sri Lanka, that is right after he gets a tax break for dumping mercury in ponds.

But just as a woman CEO at Duke energy shows that crony capitalism and ignoring of pollution costs is not something that is hindered by gender, perhaps Hillary Clinton's continued unforced error statements concerning her wealth will show us that gender doesn't prevent you from saying stupid things.
You would think that someone with a net worth (depending on whether you include her husband's or not) of anywhere from $21 to $100 million would recognize that no matter how they achieved it, they're doing very well compared to the vast majority of Americans.
Yet Clinton not only claimed that she was dead broke when she and Bill left the White House but recently went on to claim that despite what you might have heard, she and Bill are NOT truly well off. WTF?

Everyone always wants more. I get that. It's just human nature. The writer wonders if he could have been a musician. The actor daydreams about being a professional athlete. The musician decides that she wants to act. The fellow who pays tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for each classic car in his collection is jealous of the guy who takes a weekend flight to a Paris art auction to drop three million on some obscure Romantic painting. And so on. But there are still a few ground rules:
  • If you can pay your mortgage off with one're well off.
  • If you don't have a're well off.
  • If people overpay your daughter for a job she's unqualified for just to do you a're well off.
  • If you never have to choose which bill gets paid late this're well off.
  • If unexpected car repairs don't damage or destroy your're well off.
  • If creditors aren't leaving blood curdling threats on your're well off.
  • If you can send your daughter to Sidwell Friends School without any financial're well off.
  • If people pay you $200,000 to hear your verbal're well off.
  • If your net worth description has "million" anywhere in it... you're well off.
I did not vote for Hillary Clinton when she ran for President. I think it was a mistake for President Obama to bring her into his administration. I don't think Clinton has any real achievements or accomplishments during the Obama Administration. I think her continued gaffes around her wealth point to someone who has no reason to run for President other than personal aggrandizement. Clinton is quite cynically trying to cast herself as just "regular folks". This is nonsense. I do not believe that great wealth necessarily makes you moral or immoral. The same is true of poverty. Ironically Clinton's pattern of statements on this issue give credence to the idea that the only way to appeal to some Americans, in this case Democratic voters, is to pretend that, despite your great wealth, you're really not all that wealthy. In fact you're just like them. Well FDR was extremely wealthy. And so was Bobby Kennedy. They never ran from that. They succeeded in connecting not by downplaying their wealth but by emphasizing shared values and a political program, things that are so far absent from Clinton's public appearances. Maybe she will rectify that. Maybe she won't. But in any event let's not pretend that someone possessing Clinton's wealth is not well off. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, that insults my intelligence. And it makes me very angry...


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Music Reviews: Ruth Copeland

Ruth Copeland
Ruth Copeland is a British singer/songwriter who for a time was married to an Invictus producer. Invictus, as you probably know, was the Detroit based record label that grew out of Motown after a dispute between Berry Gordy and three of his most important songwriters (H-D-H) For a brief time in the late sixties and early seventies Invictus was a semi-successful rival to Motown, going after some of the same local talent as well as venturing into more rock based as well as experimental or low down funk music that Motown initially avoided. This latter group of music very much included P-Funk. Copeland wrote or shared writing credits on a fair number of songs on Parliament's first Invictus release, Osmium. I was surprised to learn that she had co-written "Come in out of the Rain" which must rank among the funkiest and most soulful songs which P-Funk performed. The lyrics still apply today, sadly. Copeland also sang backup on that cut, I think. Actually there are a surprising number of early seventies Invictus songs which were written or co-written by Copeland. Repaying her favor with one of their own Parliament (well most of it) backed up Copeland on her two Invictus albums and resulting tours when she decided to become the label's first "blue eyed funkateer". The songs are well written and I love P-Funk so I like most of the two releases. However Copeland possessed a clear and piercing soprano that was nothing at all like the voices of contemporaneous soul performers like Aretha Franklin or Lyn Collins. Copeland's voice was much much closer to a singer like Freda Payne. So in my view there's a few times that Copeland tries to be a belter of songs rather than a crooner and generally misses. Her voice is not built for such things. She doesn't have a lot of resonance. She can get histrionic pretty quickly. 

All the same I like her voice. Nobody was going to mistake her for Dusty Springfield but then again we all have to find our own way in this world. If you were ever curious as to what P-Funk would have sounded like backing an Englishwoman with her own take on the funk well the record exists for you to peruse.

Her song "Crying Has Made Me Stronger" is a modernized blues  f*** you lament but told from the woman's point of view instead of the man's. It's almost an answer song to BB King's "Ain't Nobody Home". "Hare Krishna" is a very positive song which seems like it should have been a bigger hit. I believe that Copeland sings both lead and backup choir on that piece. She adds serious menace to a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire". I enjoy the call and response with guitarist Eddie Hazel. Copeland gets nasty on the Clinton written "Don't you wish you had what you had (when you had it)" which I think is a sonic textbook on exactly how to play and sing ever so slightly behind the beat and make everything as funky as can be. "I got a thing for you Daddy" opens up with Hendrix inspired backwards feedback before going into a funky breakdown that sounded like something you would have heard in Detroit area strip clubs circa 1974. Or so I've been told anyway. "Your Love Been So Good To Me" finds Copeland in full coquettish sex kitten mode. "Thanks for the Birthday Card" is a more introspective song that wouldn't have sounded too out of place on a Neil Young or Carole King album. "The Music Box" is probably one of the least funkiest and most melodramatic releases P-Funk ever recorded. The lyrics are sad. There's a children's choir and crying added in for effect. YMMV on this. Copeland goes back to the Rolling Stones' catalog for her cover of "Gimme Shelter" which is most noticeable for making the song danceable. It also has a guitar solo which never stops. Again I like such things but I know other people can take it or leave it. "The Medal" is a slightly overwrought anti-war anthem.

If you are curious about blue eyed soul singers before Adele, Teena Marie or Amy Winehouse or just are a P-Funk completist and want to have everything they recorded then you will want to look for the Copeland albums Self-Portrait and I Am What I Am.

The Medal  Crying Has Made Me Stronger Hare Krishna Play With Fire Don't You Wish You Had What You Had (When You Had It) I got a thing for you Daddy Your Love Been So Good To Me Thanks for the Birthday Card The Music Box Gimme Shelter

Movie Reviews: Non-Stop

directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
The director previously directed Liam Neeson in Unknown. He also directed Orphan. Like both of those films Non-Stop has a big twist about 2/3rds of the way thru the story. However whereas Neeson was perfect in Unknown and the story in Orphan, although seemingly ridiculous near the end, worked for most of the movie, here I'd have to say that Neeson puts this film on his back and carries it (just barely) across the goal line. But the film really didn't deserve to score a touchdown. It's one of those touchdowns where instead of the running back breaking through the line and dragging people into the end-zone , the quarterback places the ball exactly one inch over the white line, ever so gently breaking the plane. It may be a touchdown according to the rules but it's hardly something that you can brag about. It's not the stuff of legend. Still, a touchdown is a touchdown. Neeson is a good, solid exciting actor who works well with what's on display in this film. Neeson's a big man, well over six feet. The confined spaces of the aircraft work to give his character an irritation as well as a sense of physical dominance that serves the story well. 

Years ago this sort of whodunnit would have been placed on a train or boat (Murder on the Orient Express) but in today's world it obviously makes more sense to set this story on an airliner that's making an international flight. Similarly, in another era Neeson would have been playing marshals, kings, and other Type A characters so it fits that in this movie he's playing a federal air marshal, Bill Marks. Marks doesn't like flying. He is a high functioning alcoholic and is carrying some unprocessed grief over his deceased daughter, along with a ribbon she used to wear.  You meet all sorts of people on air trips of course and Marks meets a woman in his age range, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), who sits next to him and might be flirting with him, a truculent man named Zack White (Nate Parker) who doesn't like Marks' tone of voice or authoritative attitude, a sexy woman (Bar Paly) whose cleavage and semi-public grinding with her boyfriend attract plenty of attention, and of course his old friend, stewardess Nancy Hoffman (Michelle Dockery) who along with the pilots, other stewardesses, and the other air marshal Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), knows that Marks is an armed air marshal.
While he's settling in to enjoy what he hopes will be a typically uneventful flight from NYC to London, Bill gets a text message from an unidentified person. This shouldn't be possible as Bill's federal communications network is supposed to be encrypted and private but the message is there all the same. The message explains that unless $150 million is deposited into an account in 20 minutes someone on the plane will die. And every 20 minutes after that as well the unknown texter will kill someone on the plane.
Well that will just ruin your day. Marks tries to play this according to protocol but discovers that protocol won't work as the marshal service itself has been compromised. In fact thanks to some nifty but unrealistic moves, many people on and off the plane are convinced that Marks is the actual hijacker. It's up to Marks to try to figure out who he can trust and who he can't. This becomes a matter of urgency as more people die, fighter planes are scrambled and Marks comes to believe that the texter is actually on the plane. There are the normal double crosses and faulty assumptions. If you were on a plane you thought was being hijacked or worse was going to be blown up would you sit on your rusty-dusty and hope that other people did something or would you try to take action yourself? It's only your life we're talking about. This was an okay movie. It would have been fine to see it in theater. That actually might have been preferable, what with the sound and special FX. But it was by no means a great movie. I didn't care for the reveal or the ending. Talk about unintelligent. Julianne Moore didn't have a whole lot to do. Lupita Nyong'o had even less acting to accomplish. To make a play for your heartstrings there is of course a little girl traveling unaccompanied who touches Marks' long dormant paternal instincts. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

June 2014 Book Of The Month

It looks like this book could be an important companion piece to the book We will Shoot Back, which we earlier discussed. The author, Charles Cobb, is a former SNCC member and on the ground activist who actually participated in the human rights struggles of the sixties and had to deal with the reactionary threats and violence directed at Black people or other supporters who dared to suggest that segregation was wrong, black people were human and that blacks could vote. Cobb was there as were many other people. It is of course instructive to realize as many of the great names have died or lost their way struggling against personal demons, that nothing that the "leaders" accomplished, not one single thing, could have been done without the active support of many more people, of whom Cobb is one. Cobb, who is a journalist, is interested in showing the importance of armed self-defense in helping midwife real American democracy. His argument is that guns made the civil rights movement possible. He is dissatisfied with the idea that Rosa sat down, Martin stood up and white racists saw the light. It is a great frustration of mine that guns and gun culture have become in the American imagination almost exclusively the provenance of right-wing, reactionary and occasionally down right racist politicians, groups or individuals. People constantly forget that a key portion of Southern and for that matter Northern white supremacy was that black people did not, could not and would not defend themselves. And in this culture letting everyone believe that they could hurt you with impunity was not necessarily the best idea. In fact it was a stupid idea. It tended to attract bullies. Cobb describes how black WW2 vets were important in helping to relieve and reverse years of deliberately inculcated fear. Once you've seen that men whom you were told were superior to you can die just like you can, it tends to change your attitude about things.

Kohl's Lawsuit: Deadbeat Client or Harassment; Brad Ausmus: Unfunny Joke

A long time ago before I was the sober responsible grownup that I am today I used to use credit irresponsibly and run up bills that were more than I could pay in one month. Doing this a few times and getting dinged with late fees, interest, and other penalties and having the highly irritating experience of having a few paychecks effectively spent on debt service before I even received them was more than enough for me to revert back to my parents' training of not buying something if you couldn't pay cash for it. After all we all must be able to distinguish between a want and a need. Grown ups do that. Children don't. Generally speaking, if you can't or won't pay cash for something, chances are you don't need it. I believe that if you owe money you should pay what you owe. That's what's fair. However just because someone owes money doesn't give the creditor the right to take extra-legal steps that include tactics of harassment or worse in order to get their money back. As a creditor there are a number of laws you must abide by when seeking to get your money back, whether you are doing it yourself or have outsourced it to a legbreaker collection services agency. In Michigan, a woman who owed Kohl's department store felt that the store was being far too aggressive in seeking to recover a particularly small debt. It's unclear as to whether the debt was more than 30 days late. Fed up with the tactics she filed a federal lawsuit. Yes that's correct. A federal lawsuit.

Enough with the calls.That’s what one consumer is telling Kohl’s in a federal lawsuit that claims the department store is stalking her and harassing her by phone over an overdue credit card bill, calling her at all hours of the night over what she calls a measly $20.“They started harassing me over $20 and I was like, ‘Screw it, oh well,’ ” said Lisa Ratliff, the 29-year-old plaintiff from Ypsilanti who got so fed up with the phone calls she sued over them. “It’s really annoying if you’re trying to get things done or you’re trying to sleep or you’re working or spending time with your family …I just want them to stop harassing me.” 
Ratliff said she was going to pay the bill but got so irritated by the repeated calls that she decided against it. Instead, she’s suing over Kohl’s collection practices — tactics that she claims are prohibited under federal law. In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Ratliff’s lawyers claim that Kohl’s violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a 1991 law that makes it illegal to call a cell phone using an auto dialer or prerecorded voice without the recipient’s consent. The lawsuit, filed by the Krohn & Moss Consumer Law Center in Chicago, is seeking damages under the act, which allows victims to sue for $500 per violating call — or up to $1,500 per call if they can prove the party knowingly violated the law. Kohl’s officials did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment. No attorney of record is yet listed in court documents for Kohl’s. According to Ratliff’s lawsuit, the Kohl’s phone calls — which included both automated and live operator calls — started in November 2013. Until then, she said, she paid her bill in full every month and that her total credit line was $400. When the calls started, she owed $20. Now it’s up to $100 because of late fees and interest, she said.
The woman may well have a case, at least according to the local attorney giving some analysis in the clip from FOX 2 News.
Fox 2 News Headlines
Also in local news the Detroit Tigers, who had a great start with people talking about the pennant and the World Series have sunk into the toilet since and now have people wondering if rookie manager Brad Ausmus really knows what he's doing. Faced with questions of how he deals with the stress and unpleasantness of losing, Ausmus responded with a wisecrack that wasn't funny. The current political-sociological environment made it even less so. Detroit Tigers rookie manager Brad Ausmus is known to be quick with a quip. But he strayed over the line Wednesday and he knew it. It started when he was asked after the 2-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals how he has been able to keep his cool during his team’s horrendous streak.“Yeah, it’s not fun,” he said. “Like I said, once I get to the field, I’m always in a good mood, especially if I’m driving and it’s sunny out. Once I’m here, I’m ready to go. I feel like I’m the exact same person that you would have seen on day one of spring training.”And when he goes home? “I beat my wife,” Ausmus said. “I’m just kidding. No, luckily, my wife and kids are fantastic. I do get a little mopey at home, but my wife and kids are good. They’ve seen me be in a bad mood after a loss, so they’ve been great.” His joke drew some hearty laughs and some nervous laughs from the media and, after answering another question, he came back to it. “I didn’t want to make light of battered women,” Ausmus said. “I apologize for that if it offended anyone.”  I think it's pretty obvious that Ausmus did not mean to endorse beating one's wife nor was he making fun of abused women. He apologized almost immediately because he knew the joke wasn't funny or appropriate. I think it should end there. Sometimes we all say things that aren't funny or just don't fit in the environment we happen to be in at the time. Ausmus is a guy who hasn't had this level of scrutiny previously. He still needs to learn that not everything that pops into his mind needs to be shared with the rest of the world. I don't think that MLB or the Tigers need to say or do anything else to Ausmus. Leave it there.

What do you think?

1) Does Ms. Ratliff have a federal case?

2) Does Mr. Ausmus need to attend sensitivity training or pay fines?

3) Did you ever get so irritated with a creditor that you told them off?

Monday, June 16, 2014

HBO Game of Thrones Season 4 Finale Recap: The Children

For the 5011th time I really do urge you, if you like this story, please do read the books. The first three are really quite good, perhaps even excellent. There are many themes, subplots and dramatic arcs which are done differently in the books. The books do have their drawbacks, which the show creators have generally adroitly worked around but there are some things which the show has altered which are not necessarily for the better. There's a thin line between generous adaptation and fan fiction. I think that this season the show drifted overmuch towards the latter. The show creators are confident enough to make their own narratives. Maybe we'll talk about that in a final GoT post sometime soon. Jon Snow has left the Wall to speak with Mance Rayder. Mance is upset by Jon's betrayal. Jon counters that he was being true to his Night's Watch vows but Mance reminds him of his dalliance with Ygritte. Mance tells Jon that winter really is coming. Mance is trying to protect his people from the Others. Mance sees himself as a refugee leader. Mance figures out that Jon intends to kill him. Mance mocks Jon as his intended act would be almost impossible to pull off and extremely dishonorable under all forms of hospitality. Before Jon can respond there's an attack on Mance's army. It's Stannis, who alone among would be leaders, has taken the Night's Watch request for aid seriously. Obviously he wants to burnish his credentials as "king" but that's Stannis. Mance surrenders but refuses to kneel. Jon advises Stannis to take Mance into custody but treat him fairly and listen to what he says. It's what Ned Stark would have done.

Maester Aemon says words over the dead Night's Watch members before the survivors burn the bodies. Jon visits Tormund to ask if Tormund would like to preside over wildling funerals. Tormund is still suspicious of and angry with Jon. Like Mance he also wants to know if Jon loved Ygritte. Tormund saw that she certainly loved Jon. Tormund asks Jon to burn Ygritte north of the Wall as she was a woman of the Free Folk. Although Jon pretended coldness with both Tormund and Mance, when he burns Ygritte's body we see tears. Obviously he loved Ygritte.

North of the Wall Bran, Meera, Hodor and Jojen are stumbling through a snowstorm when they see the giant heartstree that Bran and Jojen have dreamed of. But when they approach they are attacked by wights. Bran wargs into Hodor to help defend the group but it's too late for Jojen, who is stabbed to death. The remaining trio is saved by a feral looking being calling itself one of the children (semi-supernatural beings who were the original inhabitants before The First Men-ancestors of the Starks and Wildlings). The being takes Bran to meet an old man who appears to be part of a tree root system. For now let's call him "Three Eyed Raven". He says he has things to teach Bran. Things are starting to go south for Daenerys. Similar to many people with good intentions but not much experience she is learning that life is not as simple as just showing up with dragons and telling people to be nice to each other or else. The freed slaves are still trapped in mental dependence and want to serve their masters again. As for the dragons, it turns out that dragons make no moral distinction between eating goats and eating human children. Daenerys is forced to chain up her dragons. Powerful scene. The dragons do not understand what they have done wrong.

In King's Landing, The Mountain, per Miracle Max from The Princess Bride, is not dead but only mostly dead. Oberyn's spear was poisoned. Over Pycelle's jealous objections, Cersei gives care of The Mountain to the tender mercies of Qyburn, who likes the challenge of attempting to save the man. Qyburn warns Cersei that there may be certain changes in The Mountain but as long as The Mountain retains his strength Cersei doesn't care what Westeros' Dr. Frankenstein does. Feeling her oats Cersei confronts Tywin and again refuses to marry Loras. She interrupts his angry tirade by threatening to reveal the truth, that she and Jaime are and have always been doing the do. This is her nuclear gambit to avoid losing influence over Tommen. Tywin doesn't know what she's talking about or does he. The scene could be interpreted differently. Either Tywin knew and pretended not to (remember his crack to Jaime about fathering children named Lannister) or as Cersei suggests he really didn't know. Well either way he does now.  Cersei runs off to find Jaime, tell him what she's done and ride the train. Jaime's dismay about Cersei's big reveal or her undiminished desire for Tyrion's death don't prevent him from hopping on the sisterly slip-n-slide. This scene shows that the previous "rape" scene between the siblings really wasn't a rape. Would a rape victim run enthusiastically back to her rapist?

Brienne comes upon Arya while Arya is practicing her swordplay. Initially distrustful, Arya is fascinated by the fact that Brienne is a woman warrior. They are hesitantly exchanging stories of their fathers when Podrick and The Hound come into the picture. Podrick realizes that it's The Hound while the Hound immediately assumes that they're after the bounty on his head. When Brienne realizes Arya's identity she tells Arya of her oath to Catelyn. Arya wants to know why Brienne didn't save Catelyn's life. The Hound correctly recognizes that Brienne is from King's Landing and carries Lannister supplied weapons, gold and armor. A knock down drag out fight commences in which ultimately Brienne is victorious. The Hound has his ear bitten off and is knocked over a hill. While Brienne and Podrick are searching for Arya she steals money from the Hound and silently refuses to kill him, despite him reminding her of the foul things he's done. Arya finds a ship and wants to go to the Wall where her last brother is. The ship's not going to the Wall. The ship is going to Braavos. The captain is about to eject Arya before she gives him the coin and says the words Valar Morghulis. Arya gets her own cabin for the trip.

Jaime was evidently not unduly influenced by Cersei's ministrations because he releases Tyrion. Jaime says he was helped by Varys who has provided a ship to help Tyrion leave. All Tyrion has to do is take the steps and turn right. Well, Tyrion has other plans. He goes to the apartments of the Hand, evidently to confront his father. Imagine his shock when entering his father's chambers he hears Shae call out Tywin by the same pet name she used to call Tyrion. When Shae sees it's Tyrion she tries to get a knife but Tyrion disarms her and after a brief struggle strangles her to death. Picking up a crossbow, Tyrion goes looking for Tywin and finds him in the bathroom. Intuiting that this is something more than your normal father dwarf confrontation Tywin says that they can still work everything out and that he wasn't really going to have Tyrion killed. Tyrion doesn't believe him as he believes Tywin has wanted him dead all of his life. But what really got Tyrion's goat was the fact that Tywin was doing the do with Shae. Tyrion loved Shae. This can come across as a little bit abusive in its logic (the whole I loved her so I had to kill her thing) but for all its ugliness it's true. Tywin is honestly shocked that Tyrion loved a whore. Tyrion warns his father not to use that word again and when Tywin does, Tyrion shoots his father twice, killing him. Varys smuggles Tyrion onto a ship leaving King's Landing.

What I liked
  • The pain and confusion of the dragons at being chained and imprisoned by their "mother" was a very obvious reflection of their mother's pain and confusion that a former slave would prefer dependence over freedom. Daenerys is forced to "enslave" her dragons and allow something close to slavery for humans.
  • Ygritte's funeral. We see what Jon has given up for "duty".
  • Mance's explanation that his intentions are not conquest but protection.
  • The creators pulled stories forward from books 4 and 5 in order to ensure that all characters had something to do this season. That wasn't easy to make everything balance out.
  • War brings change and not all change is for the better.
  • Tyrion's final confrontation with his father. The pain is raw.

What I didn't like
  • The fight between Brienne and The Hound. Didn't happen in books. This felt like people laying around thinking about who could win a fight between Godzilla and Doc Savage. I wonder if this was also fan service for those concerned that the show had too much (sexualized) violence against women. The fight was well done (acting, choreography) but it really did damage to both character's narrative arcs from the books. There's a line from the books where opponents to the Hound, point out that he's badly wounded and not long for the world. The Hound's response is something along the lines of "Maybe. But you're all already dead". He then proceeds to make good on his boast. 
  • Tyrion killing Shae in both passion and arguably self-defense. IIRC in book there was no self-defense at all-at least not on Tyrion's part. I'm curious as to whether show viewers think that Tyrion's domestic violence changes what they think of him. Is he morally diminished?
  • There are other Lannister family dynamics left out which also helped explain Tyrion's anger but more on that later.
*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here NO SPOILERS. NO BOOK DERIVED HINTS ABOUT FUTURE EVENTS. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea....

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Music Reviews: Hot Chocolate, Funkadelic: Maggotbrain

Hot Chocolate
Hot Chocolate was a racially integrated though mostly black British band that walked in the interstices between light funk, pop, calypso, disco, rock, soul and reggae. So they had a variety of different sounds but all of their different styles were held together by the insistent warbling tenor of bald Jamaican born primary songwriter and lead singer/front man Errol Brown. I think in the US they're probably best known for the song "You Sexy Thing", which charted as high as number 3. I don't think they ever had wild mass success in the US but they certainly did ok in the UK and Europe. Throughout the 70s and 80s they had many hits. Hot Chocolate was a band which consistently delivered the goods and got a fair amount of radio play if not critical recognition. They weren't really disco but were disco enough for some to write them off completely. Oh well you know that old Liberace line about crying all the way to the bank. I was motivated to write on them because I recently heard their hit "Everyone's a winner" on satellite radio. I hadn't heard that song for decades. It brought back some pleasant memories of times long past. "Everyone's a winner" was quite typical of much of Hot Chocolate's best work, what with the very heavy dominant bass line, low pitched drums, slightly distorted guitar (in this case a guitar synth) and triumphant group vocals. Hot Chocolate was not deep funk in the mode of James Brown or P-Funk but was reminiscent of bands like later EWF, Kool and the Gang or Tower of Power. 

Hot Chocolate wrote good songs with nice melodies and danceable rhythms. Their discography may not have any lost masterpieces that will make you rethink popular music but how many groups can really claim otherwise? 

Sometimes I wish the soloists in the group, particularly the guitarist, had been given a little more room to stretch out but apparently it wasn't that kind of band. You hear a little bit of what could have been guitar wise in the song "You Could Have Been a Lady". I LOVE that song. Groove was what Hot Chocolate brought to the table. Hot Chocolate was all about fun. I didn't know that they wrote the anti-racist song "Brother Louie". I had only heard the version by the group Stories and had no idea it was a cover. The version by Hot Chocolate makes it clear (thanks to the competing spoken word sections)  that they are condemning all forms of bigotry in all communities while the Stories version chickens out and is imo a little more self-interested. When I heard the Stories version I thought it was a just a ripoff/shout out to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar". The song is also used in Louis C.K's show as intro/theme. Go figure. I like the updated blues song "Emma" and enjoy the rueful broken hearted lament of "So you win again". Brown eventually left the group to embark on a solo career which didn't do too well because (1) most people didn't know who he was outside of the group and (2) he had already mostly spent his creative muse writing for the group. It happens I guess. None or at least very few of us have limitless potential. I guess it would kind of stink to finally go out on your own and realize that you had already done your best work with people whom by that point had started to work your nerves. But that's what life is sometimes. Jorah Mormont would approve the track "Sometimes it hurts to be a friend".

Everyone's a Winner  You Sexy Thing  Brother Louie  Emma  I'll Put You Together Again
It started with a kiss  Girl Crazy  So You Win Again  Making Music
Man to Man  Rumours You Could Have Been a Lady Confetti Day
Sometimes it hurts to be a friend Heaven's In The Backseat of My Cadillac

by Funkadelic
Okay. Funkadelic is the greatest rock group of all time. Bar none. Story. End of. Some people will talk about The Rolling Stones, others will bleat about Led Zeppelin or The Ramones or blah, blah blah. Balderdash. Funkadelic did everything those groups did, did it first and did it better. And there were very few groups who could do what Funkadelic did musically. Nobody had the musical range and energy they did. Because of racist ideas about what is considered "rock" and who gets to listen to or perform "rock" music, at its creative peak Funkadelic was usually ignored by mainstream (white) rock critics or only referenced in passing when a white musician mentioned them as an influence. This has started to change somewhat in the past few decades but back in the day few people outside of a small dedicated cadre of fans in the black community or alternative rock community knew about them. Of course I am somewhat biased as Funkadelic was a Detroit group. To reduce Funkadelic to its simplest components one would have to imagine a group born from a simultaneous mind meld of Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Blue Cheer, MC5, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Hendrix, The Isley Brothers, Sly Stone and Cream with a little DNA of J.S. Bach, Jimmy Smith and Black Sabbath added in for taste.

Maggotbrain is the third Funkadelic album and the last with complete contributions by the original group. Unfortunately Funkadelic's business practices could be as anarchic as some of its music. After this album, much of the original band departed, fed up with lack of proper monetary or composer recognition, damaged by substance abuse issues, or just because they had other serious personal or musical issues with front man and bandleader, George Clinton. Well it happens. I always say whatever was going on behind the scenes is, certain criminal behaviors aside, rarely as important as the finished product. I judge musicians by their music. I usually don't care about their personal lives.
Maggotbrain is the definitive Funkadelic album. It combined all of their influences into a well produced release that is both wide ranging and tightly focused. This is guitar/bass/piano based funk. No horns. The title cut is, similar to what "Machine Gun",  "Eruption" or "Stairway to Heaven" would be for other musicians, a coming out party for Eddie Hazel and a redefinition of what could be done on the electric guitar. George Clinton told guitarist Eddie Hazel to play as if he had learned that his mother had died. Well that's a grim request but in "Maggotbrain" Hazel did just that, making a ten minute guitar journey that leads the listener through all the stages of grief to come out the other side. There are other uglier rumours about how the title was conceived. I think it had to do with copious consumption of LSD. Hazel's work on "Maggotbrain" shows how the greatest musicians can talk to us through their instruments. There were accompanying musicians on the track but recognizing greatness when he heard it, Clinton either cut them out completely or mixed them at very low levels. Some may argue for a Hendrix influence here but Hazel sounded like this even before Hendrix. I think it was parallel development. If you want to talk about greatest guitar solos of all time "Maggotbrain" must be on the short list.  Maggotbrain

"Can You Get To That" is a gospelly acoustic folk-song that owes a lot to both the Beatles and Sly Stone. I love singing along to this piece. A long time ago my cousins and uncles and I used to have friendly competitions as to who could sing along with the bass vocals on this song. I like singing in the low register though sadly my voice is only a modest baritone and not a real bass. I think that was Gary Shider holding down the low notes. The lyrics are suitably sardonic. "When you base your love on credit and your loving days are done/Checks you sign with love and kisses later come back signed insufficient funds.." I could really see someone like a Richard Thompson or Richie Havens doing a cover version of this. Well it's too late for Havens...  Can You Get To That
"Hit It and Quit It" is very simple lyrically as the singer details his desire for his girlfriend to shake it to the east, shake it to the west and move it all around. Quite understandable no? It's the drummer Tiki Fulwood and vocalist/keyboardist extraordinaire Bernie Worrell who really get a chance to shine here. Again this song has a lot of gospel and soul influences. If you don't shake your tailfeather upon hearing this music you might want to check what you're sitting on because it's obviously broken. Hit It and Quit It
"You and Your Folks" could be construed as a sequel to "Hit it and Quit It". If the previous song is an ode to sexual unity, "You and Your Folks" is a plea for racial/class unity. This song features the bass player, Billy "Bass" Nelson, on lead vocals. Production wise it appears that both the bass and the bass drum have been mixed a little higher than normal. Or perhaps Fulwood was just hitting the drums that hard. In any event this is a slow nasty funk song that will sonically invade your eardrums and leave funky larvae therein. Nelson is known to have very strong feelings about the proper role of bass (dominant) in funk and the proper tempo (slow) for funk. This song is an excellent example of that. If you simply just can't get enough fat bottom end in your life, this is the song for you. Hazel's reverbed guitar solo never really stops but it is mixed far below the vocals, bass and drums. You and Your Folks
"Super Stupid" provides a platform for guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross to go off. Lyrically the song is about a drug addict who makes the mistake of snorting what he thinks is cocaine but is actually heroin. The lyrics aren't important. They are just building blocks to the glorious guitar meltdowns. This song is a little less danceable than others though for some strange reason I always imagine Godzilla doing the Charleston to this song. It's just a funky riff. Super Stupid

"Back in our Minds" and especially "Wars of Armageddon" are both freak out tracks that sound like things Zappa would later do. There's a lot going on the tracks musically but "Wars of Armageddon" is a free form jam I think might be more of interest to other musicians than us listeners. It's also a look into Clinton's id, which is not really something you necessarily want to see unfiltered. Back in Our Minds  Wars of Armageddon
I really enjoyed the mix of the various masculine (tenor, baritone, bass) and feminine (soprano, alto) voices. This is what updated soul, blues, rock, and funk sounded like in 1971. If you are at all any sort of fan of the music of that time, you already have this release. If you don't have it, I wonder why. This funk experience will leave you somber, exhilarated, exhausted, in a cold sweat begging for more.