Saturday, March 28, 2015

Track of the Week: Velocity Girl "Sorry Again"

I've had the 90s a lot on my brain this week, mostly due to Louis Menand's review article in the New Yorker about W. Joseph Campbell's new book 1995: The Year the Future Began.  I wrote something awhile back about the salience of 1994, I guess I was off by a year, or too slow to turn my idea into a book.

Musically the 90s were a strange decade because the underground music of the previous decade, hip-hop and independent rock music, hit the big time.  I remember being flabbergasted (in a good way) when I went to college in Omaha in 1994, and there were not one but two radio stations that played music that I liked.  One morning my alarm clock radio woke me with the sounds of Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding" and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.  Growing up in the pre-internet 80s and earl 90s there was no way to hear good new music on the radio where I lived, and now I was surrounded by it.  MTV started putting rap in heavy rotation, and even had Alternative Nation on in prime time, rather than just 120 Minutes in the Sunday graveyard shift.  It aired from 1992 to 1997, roughly the period when underground rock was allowed to have a mainstream presence before the Creed-Nickelback-Blink 182 garbagefest of imitators fully took over.

But even in 1994 it was obvious that the lead-footed imitators pushed by a record industry desperate to cash in were crowding out the legitimate indie bands.  I remember much of my early college days hearing Weezer, but I also heard Bush's godawful "Everything Zen" blasting from dorm rooms across campus.  That same autumn I avoided all that with a healthy dose of Pavement and other bands still left of the dial, too esoteric to be gobbled up by the mainstream.  One of those groups was Velocity Girl, and my roommate (also a music lover with similar tastes) and I would play them a lot in the late afternoon as the day was winding down and I was too tired to keep studying.  "Sorry Again" was probably their catchiest song, one that in alternative universe would have been a number one hit.  The male-female vocals interweave nicely, the tonally interesting guitars drive things forwards at a brisk pace, and everything has a certain feeling of wistfulness about it.  The "woo hoo hoos" contrast that with some pure pop sugar.  I guess that feeling of wistfulness balanced with euphoria was perfect for a college freshman glad to escape his past but still searching for a niche, and this song will always take me back there.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Modest Proposal

(Editor's Note: tongue is planted firmly in cheek here.)

It has come to my attention that Congress has passed a bill drastically altering Medicare for those people 55 and under, who will not enjoy the generous benefits that their payroll taxes will continue to pay out to current retirees for years to come.  Even a strict fiscal conservative like myself can understand why Gen Xers and Millenials might feel as if they are getting a raw deal.  At the same time, however, we need to cut costs and end our nation's wasteful entitlement culture.

I have a modest proposal to do both, and to drastically reduce the 47% of "takers" in American society.  We can do this without raising the retirement age or providing new jobs.  For too long we have been beholden to the same old politics as usual, and solutions left over from bygone times.  We should break with the past with a bold, innovative, and disruptive plan.

For too long we have extended life expectancy without asking whether such a task is actually worthwhile.  People live to longer and longer ages, costing the government more and more money.  I am not sure that people are doing all that much in their twilight years, so we are massively subsidizing tired old people to sit around alone and feel miserably alone.  That does not sound like an efficient use of resources, does it?  All that tax money going for medical treatments to octogenerians could be added into the economy if our Job Creators could afford to buy more yachts and mansions!

So I propose this: at age 65 all Americans will henceforth be offered a deal.  If they so wish, they may terminate their life, and in return their families would receive a lump sum payment of $65,000, tax free.  With that money children and grandchildren could go to college, spouses would be able to keep their homes, and most importantly, the government could save a whole lot of money.  The Social Security trust fund would be stocked and Medicare costs would plummet!  Assisted terminations would take place at facilities managed by private contractors, so this plan adds no new jobs to the federal payroll.  In fact, by lowering the number of people in the two biggest programs, it would actually decrease the number of bureaucrats!

You might think that few would take the government up on their offer, but you underestimate how few people have any real money to live on in retirement.  With pensions being scrapped and wages stagnant, more Americans than ever will be facing a grim end to their lives.  Instead of making them suffer through those years, why not let them die, and do something to make their families happy and secure in the bargain?  "But this is morally repugnant!" you might say.  I ask you, is it not more morally wrong that we must mortgage our future because our elders refuse to spend our nation's tax money more efficiently?  Is it not a moral outrage that 47% of our country are "takers"?  What kind of moral example does that leave to future generations?

I ask you, why are we letting disruptive practices bring glorious progress to the rest of American society, but leaving death off limits?  Valuing life is such a 20th century way of thinking, it's time to think outside of the box in innovative, data-driven ways about the new normal we live in and how to best adjust to it.  It's also a lot more cost effective than the fanciful notion that every citizen deserves to live into old age.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Evidence That Baseball Uniforms Need Livening Up

I have been following baseball for a little over thirty years now (the '81 World Series is the first I can recall), but in all this time the game's uniforms have never been as dull as they are now.  Back in the 80s teams were still quite daring, but the retro impulses in the game that came in the wake of Camden Yards in the early 90s meant a return to the classic look.  Nowadays this has calcified into uniforms without flair worn by players who prefer a baggy fit and no stirrups showing.  A recent episode of the Sully Baseball Daily has inspired me to present some evidence for my thesis.

Just check out this photo of the 1986 Mets, their striking racing stripes, tight pants, and stirrups pulled high.  They look just like the magnificent bastards that they were.

Now check out the more recent vintage of Mets uniforms in action:

Their pantaloons are ridiculously baggy, very little sock is in evidence, and the uniforms are elegant but totally without distinction.  Sort of like the Mets in the recent years, actually.  Is there any doubt which set of uniforms looks cooler?

Some teams once had great daring in their uniforms, and were willing to really break the mold.  Take for instance the Houston Astros.  I always loved their "tequila sunrise" pullovers and the pants with the number on the pocket.  While this look got toned down a little later, it still looked futuristic.  Nowadays the Astros have kits that are as bland as bland can be.

Some of the uniforms of the 1970s and 80s have been accused of being ugly, but at least they had some style.  Take for instance the yellow and brown "Taco Bell" unis of the Padres, which incorporated a color palette rarely seen after 1981.

Dave Winfield just looks great here, and the racing stripe's swoosh is mirrored by his exquisite sideburns.  Baseball players have always had the flashiest facial hair of any sport, going all the way back to the wax moustaches sported by the likes of King Kelly in the 19th century.  Now compare this photo to a representative image below from last year's Padres.

The color palette is just blah.  These guys could be from any team, whereas in the old days only San Diego would dare combine brown and yellow.

While good taste would seem to dictate that leather belts are a better option than the sansabelt pants of the 70s and 80s, they actually gave players a more streamlined appearance.  Take a look-see here at Andre Dawson in 1987.

He looks sleek and powerful, every inch the MVP of that year.  The pullover shirt and elastic waistband actually add to the effect. Now look at this:

Here's a more "classic" take on the Cubs' classic look in their current unis.  However, the uniform just seems to hang there, like pajamas, and the pants are so long it looks like they will get caught in the cleats.

Enough of the comparisons, below are some examples of uniform styles of the past with a healthy dose of flair.

Road blues!

Cleveland Indians uniforms marginally less offensive without Chief Wahoo!

The Pittsburgh Pirates sporting the bumblebee look and pillbox hats!

The Expos using traditional colors in an interesting fashion!

The Seattle Pilots' captain caps!

The Phillies' unique maroon color scheme!
(or maybe not)

The Oakland A's' white shoes-gold jersey combo!

There you have it, but I could go on and on and on.  Baseball is a sport where the uniforms matter more than in any other.  In a crowded sports landscape I would prefer that the game go with some more visual flair, even at the risk of those uniforms being labelled "ugly."  It would certainly make things more interesting.

Monday, March 23, 2015

My Favorite Reality Show Is Officially Back

I'm not much of a fan of "reality" television, partially because it is anything but, and mostly because it features the kind of people that I normally try to avoid in real life.  However, there is one reality show I cherish and love, and as of today, it is officially back on the air: the Republican presidential primaries. Our political system has become so corrupt, idiotic, and ridiculous that I have made the decision to turn it into entertainment.  As Elvis Costello once trenchantly said, "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused."  Or more depressingly, it's better to laugh than cry at the sorry state of our political process.

The ever hubristic Ted Cruz has predictably been the first to throw his hat in the ring, and time will tell if he will be like Rick Santorum in 2008 (one early victory followed by a pummeling ) Pat Buchanan in 1992 (losing with enough votes to shake things up at the convention) or Mike Huckabee in 2008 (not much, but good enough to get a show on Fox News).  I doubt he'll seriously challenge for the nomination, as hilarious as that might be.

I am already plenty entertained.  Cruz wants to be the leader of a diverse nation, but he started his campaign at Liberty University, an institution devoted to a radical interpretation of evangelical Christianity.  It's yet another sign that the Republican Party is less a center-right party with a broad membership (as you would expect in a functioning two party system), and more a vehicle for an extremist right-wing ideology funded by craven corporate interests.  The fun comes in when the true believers that form the party's base get so whackadoodle that they self-destruct a la Todd Aiken.  The moneymen in the party establishment know deep in their hearts that they need the Tea Party lumpen in order to win, but also that satisfying them will lead to a candidate wholly unpalatable to the rest of the nation.  The resulting jiu-jitsu leads to the likes of Mitt Romney disowning his own health care reform, or John McCain dumping his old critiques of American interventionism.  Both men trashed their true selves to get the nomination, then suddenly found themselves much too conservative for the general electorate.

This time it seems like the establishment is trying really, really hard to shut things down early and get the inevitable establishment victor (likely Jeb Bush) through the gauntlet with the fewest embarrassing moments possible.  I just read that Florida's primary got moved up to the earliest possible position, and that decision is transparently a play to get Jeb the nomination.  Of course, the Tea Party hordes are not pleased, they already staged a walkout of his speech at CPAC, chanting "USA! USA!"  Whether this was meant to be a comment about the fact that Jeb's spouse is a Mexican immigrant is up for speculation.  (Or the fact that Bush is a Catholic.  I always thought it would be a cold day in hell before the Republican party would nominate a Catholic, but I guess their voting demographics have changed since my youth.)

Here are my earliest predictions for the prospective candidates, which I will be updating as the crazy events unfold.

Ted Cruz: He'll be trying really, really hard to be this election's conservative choice.  So far in his political career he has shown a lot more interest in being noticed and talked about than in actually governing, and this run for presidency pretty much seems par for the course.  I predict third place in Iowa, with diminishing returns.

Jeb Bush: The establishment candidate getting all the money with an operation already in place, Jeb is the most likely to win the nomination.  His stances on immigration and Bush fatigue will hurt, but it looks like the party bosses are getting behind him, and he populist challengers will be splitting their votes too much to stop him.

Chris Christie: Now that the smart establishment money is behind Jeb, Christie is dead in the water.  There's still a chance he'll be indicted, his state's economic numbers are crap, and he is despised by the conservative base for his overtures to Barack Obama after Sandy.  The establishment hardly sees him as reliable after the way he treated his convention speech in 2012 as an opportunity to polish his own knob.  Christie hates losing, and won't enter the race if he thinks he won't win, which is why he denied the VP nomination last time around.  For that reason I doubt Christie will even run.

Scott Walker: He's the one guy capable of winning the establishment away from Jeb, mostly because of his attacks on organized labor, which make corporate plutocrats cream their Brooks Brothers slacks in delight.  However, he is much too obvious a Manchurian Candidate for the Koch Brothers, and seems about as a smart as a bag of hammers.  The establishment, desperate for a win, will want to avoid candidates without gravitas or brains.  Walker will do well in the Midwest, and maybe even finish second overall.

Mike Huckabee: The obligatory Christian conservative candidate.  Cruz might steal his thunder, but Huck will make some decent showings in Iowa and the South.

Rand Paul: Paul is an interesting case, in that he does not really fit into either the establishment or ultraconservative camps.  Considering that the national party is pushing aggressive foreign policy against Obama, his more isolationist stance will probably rub the base the wrong way.  Most ultraconservatives will view him as weak tea compared to the stronger stuff like Cruz.  If world events increase anxiety about American power, he will be lucky to finish in the top three anywhere.

Rick Santorum: Will lock down the gay-hating bigot end of the Christian conservatives, and that's about it.  Expect no repeat of his showings in 2012.

Marco Rubio: Comes across too callow and untested to get the establishment vote, and not nearly fiery enough for the true believers.  Not sure he will bother.

Ben Carson: He's the real wild card. As a political outsider he might appeal to many hardcore conservatives, and he helps provide cover against accusations of Republican racism.  Might just win South Carolina, but not come close to the nomination.

John Kasich: Yet another conservative governor, but not conservative enough.  Unless he privatizes Ohio State University or mandates vaginal inspections of all unmarried women to make up for it, he will be on the fringes.

Rick Perry: He probably has an even bigger embarrassment up his sleeve than his "oops" moment.  I cannot believe this man would seriously think he could get away with running again.  At times I wonder if Rick Perry is a real person, or a performance artist playing a helluva joke on the country.

Bobby Jindal: Yesterday's news.  His state is a basket case, the voters have turned against him, and he has been personally slammed by the conservative PM of Britain for his erroneous comments about Muslims in Birmingham.  If he runs it will be yet another example of his misplaced faith in himself.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Track of the Week: Dave Van Ronk "Green Green Rocky Road"

This week I've been on break, which has meant I get to have control of the TV during day hours when I do not have to worry about offending my toddlers with non-animated programming, or to subject my wife to my esoteric tastes.  I decided to rewatch Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that really put its hooks into me. I've never seen a better film about the experience of having your dream die.  It's something I am well acquainted with.  After watching the film I busted out the soundtrack, which was in heavy rotation last fall after I got it for my birthday, but had been recently neglected.

There's a lot of great stuff on it, but I appreciate the fact that it closes out with a Dave Van Ronk song.  Van Ronk was one of the inspirations for the character of Llewyn Davis, to the point where the cover of his album, Inside Llewyn Davis, is practically identical to Inside Dave Van Ronk.  That also happens to the title of his rather well-written and entertaining memoir.  It offers a much more realistic (and jaundiced) view of the Greenwich Village folk revival than one is normally used to hearing.  I've read way too many memoirs by aging musicians, but his is by far the best.

This might be due to the fact that no one is reading the book for juicy revelations and the like, because Van Ronk never really made it into the big time.  Others he rubbed shoulders with in New York, like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary ended up taking a ride on the fame train.  Dylan, of course, was powered by his superlative songwriting, while others managed to take the folk sound and make it safe for the Top 40.  Some of it was good, like The Mamas and the Papas, and much of it was, well, dreck. (This side of the folk revival was parodied bitingly in A Mighty Wind.)

Van Ronk's music hewed closer to the blues side of folk music, which his gruff voice was well suited to.  Just listen to "Green, Green Rocky Road" and hear that great voice intersect with some lovely guitar picking.  It's great stuff, but it sure as heck isn't The New Christie Minstrels.  There's a great and sad moment in the film where Davis does a cold audition in Chicago for a folk music manager (based on Albert Grossman.)  He delivers a sublime performance, and the manger sniffs and says "I don't hear green."

A lot of people are doing artistically interesting things in the world today who will never be household names.  I can only hope that they, like Van Ronk, are able to leave behind evidence of their creativity for future generations.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Misplaced Media Obsession With Elite Universities

My parents both attended Kearney State College, now known as the University of Nebraska-Kearney.  Regional state universities like this rarely factor into our higher ed discourse.

Over the years I've noticed something very strange about our public discourse on higher education, namely that a massively inordinate amount of attention is paid to elite universities.  This is especially the case in high-brow publications like the New York Times, which once had a whole blog dedicated to the college application process.  That same paper will print articles about said process on a regular basis, including a Frank Bruni column last weekend.

Bruni writes as if the phenomenon of parents pushing to get their kids into the Ivy League is much more widespread than it actually is.  At one point he even acknowledges this, but doesn't think the schools that most students attend are worthy of comment.  The vast majority of American college students attend second and third tier state universities or community colleges, but their institutions and what's happening to them rarely make the news.  Those who attend private schools are more likely to matriculate at a small college little known outside of its region than at the likes of Harvard.

These small colleges and non-flagship state schools are currently experiencing a storm of epic proportions.  The recent closing of Sweet Briar, probably the most well known of the recent scores of small colleges that have died, has brought out at least some discussion of the problem.  In states like Wisconsin, Scott Walker has slashed the university budget in a way that is especially nasty for regional universities.  UW-Eau Claire is buying out hundreds of employees, and UW-Rock County is looking at professor layoffs.  The flagships have resources beyond state funding to draw from, and can more safely jack up their tuitions because they are so desirable.  Not so much for regional universities.

When I was a professor, both contingent and tenure track, I taught at regional state universities.  Although I never attended one, my parents did, and their degrees brought them out of the working and into the middle class.  About half of my students at both schools were, like my parents, the first people in their families to go to college.  Despite the presumptions about the supposedly meritocratic nature of our elite universities, my best students would have been the best practically anywhere else.  There is an insanely misbegotten belief that everyone who is capable of getting accepted to a top school applies to them.  Those that think this have no idea of how classism and regionalism work in this country.  When I was in high school the idea of applying to an Ivy never crossed my mind, it would have been as likely for me to go to the moon.  My intuition was that people in places like that would look down on a person like me, and time has not changed that assumption one iota.

I was luckier that others because my parents could financially support my college education.  Many students don't have that option, or have to stay near their parents or even financially support them themselves while still in school.  Others go back to school later in life to get an education.  They don't have the option of packing up and moving to a dorm on some leafy campus in another state.  These students depend upon regional state universities for the opportunity to have a better life.  These same universities are now being gutted and turned into the equivalent of glorified vocational schools. We are going back to the bad old days of higher education, when a true college education was open only to a privileged few.

Here's a challenge to all the pundits and publications out there: start writing about the kinds of schools that most college students attend.  Yes, I know these are the kinds of places you wouldn't dare let your own precious children even apply to less they sully your reputation, but these institutions matter a whole lot more than Harvard does for a person like me.  The parts of our university system that do the most to promote social mobility are under attack, but we spend the majority of our time fixated on those that maintain the elite under the guise of "meritocracy."  It's time to stop doing that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Great Moments In Stuntman History

I was talking with a colleague of mine recently about all the Bible epics that get broadcast near Easter time.  We laughed a bit about their over-seriousness, but then I got to thinking about how much I love their pre-CGI grandiosity: the sets, the costumes, the "cast of thousands," the stuntmen being put in danger.  While it has become a cliche to rip on CGI and think sentimental thoughts about practical effects, there is a real insight there to be gleaned.  Watching older action movies part of the thrill one feels comes from the knowledge that actual people are putting themselves in real danger before our very eyes.  I still remember watching the second Matrix movie in the theater, and being impressed by what they could do with the computer effects, but mostly underwhelmed in the chase scenes, which lacked any sense of danger.  With that in mind, here's a list of some of my favorite stunt scenes.

Ben Hur Chariot Race

This is the king daddy of all stunt scenes.  I am still amazed that nobody died making this with all the horses flying around like crazy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Truck Chase

This scene is all kinds of amazing, but nothing really tops the stuntman being dragged beneath the truck.

Smokey and the Bandit Bridge Jump

Back in the late 70s and early 80s our popular culture had an obsession with cars jumping stuff, which perfectly coincided with my childhood.  I reenacted this scene many times with my Matchbox cars and some plywood in the driveway.

The French Connection Car Chase

Only the chase scene in Bullitt rivals this one, but there is something about the elevated train supports whizzing by that gives it that extra feeling of danger.  I've heard that some of this footage was shot on streets that were not blocked off, and that some of the pedestrians were real people.  Both shocking and amazing.

Compilation of Hong Kong Action Stunts

Ok, this is cheating a bit, but this video is pretty freakin' amazing.  It doesn't take a lot of money to make an action movie worth watching, just people willing to do some insane stuff.  This video is so crazy I think I felt pain while watching it.  Most of the stunts come from Jackie Chan movies, which usually overcome their deficiencies with some inspiring feats of physical recklessness.