Saturday, March 24, 2012

Anorak Without Portfolio

We're off!

After wrapping up this recent American football season, I reflected a bit on all those storied sports-team names, many of which have been around for decades. Couldn't we use a few new names in the mix? We've got the Chiefs, Braves, Warriors and so forth...what about the Hunter-Gatherers? Everyone loves the robust ring of the Spartans, but I'd love to see the Athenians...maybe their helmet logo would be a flowing white robe! The Rebels (usually depicted as wide-eyed marauders with unspecified, gleeful rage) are a big hit, but how about someone cheering on the Union?
The Giants and Titans have a natural foil in the Mighty Mites, while such phenomena of the physical world (Heat, Blaze, Storm) could be joined by the formidable Indian Summer. The fierce animal representations among these teams still have plenty of room, and I'd like to propose - in the wake of the Eagles, Seahawks etc. - the Cattle Egrets.
Slow, stealthy, but they'll take the cautious road and prevail in the end...

Apocalypse And-How

Construction workers, seen in Charles Ebbetts' 1932 photo
 Seems like 2012 is flying by: here we are about to embark upon summer. Amazing. Of course, we'll soon get to see if everyone's calendar is the real deal, eh? Gloom, doom, and a cast of thousands - er, billions. Oh boy. I don't know, though...sunspots or aliens or whatever other malicious agency may take a backseat to humankind's own innate ability to self-oppress.
I declared myself apolitical back in post #2, so I'm not going to cheerlead for either side of the field in this upcoming U.S. election. I do notice it tangentially, though, and hear of this primary or that crop of delegates...everywhere pronouncements and nostrums and forecasts. It's a bloodless business this time around, though. It's as if we're all numbed from promises and hype that invariably come saddled with chicanery, compromise and nasty surprises. So we see a cluster of stuffed shirts get up and speechify and attempt to make all the right noises, but it all seems so hollow. Maybe we're just sick of the photoplay and all its attendant concerns - concerns which, in the end, probably won't be addressed.
I'm guessing that a lot of the numbness and rote falls to our dulled consumerist hamster-wheel lives. We've no more frontiers, no more great challenges. Sure, the more well-meaning may point to such abstractions as "inequality" and "justice" and "the war on x" with great fervor, but here's a sad truth: great chunks of the world aren't fixable, even with the best intentions. With our numbers growing, we'd sure better see to some sustainable initiatives, although I'm now in the aforementioned idealist camp even by typing that thought...Red- and blue-state rhetoric aside, we are become more fragmented by the day.
Apparently, the "sovereign citizen" movement is alive and well and growing rapidly. It essentially rebels against any tax collection, but also such instruments as drivers' licenses and so forth. And out in the sprawling reaches of food movements may be found stauch vegans, anti-GM ("genetically modified" seeds and foods, aka "Frankenfood" to use Jello Biafra's term), groups, as well as relative newcomers like the "paleo-diet" advocates, who reject government guidelines in toto and most foods not available or not comsumed during the Paleolithic Era (not making that up). Then there are Birthers, Truthers, advocacy groups for everything under the sun, all ready to march and fight for their piece of the awareness pie. Hell, who needs cataclysms when we could just snuff our own selves out?

Looking around again, I see that our numbers, our leading economic indicators are all on the uptick. That can be read as good or bad or genius or dumb luck (x is just riding the coattails of y's policies, etc), depending on which way you're grinding your axe. When I go to work every morning, though, I see the streets full of people. Streets full of cars, of commerce, of people with places to be and work to be done. Local places, national retail or food chains...everyone is busy.
My town (Shreveport, Louisiana) has had a number of new industries locate here in the last several years, and each new site means people working - bringing home money - seeding that money ever outward and oiling the local economy. The Port of Caddo-Bossier has moved 70,000 tons of materiel this year, a new record, comprised of a great conglomeration of every sort of commodity, supplies and equipment. Every sign points upward for our area, and we're only one medium-sized city among so many in this country.
So: which direction do we move in? Growth or dissolution? Catastrophe or continuity? Again, I don't want to repeat myself on this page, but I will reprise a comment I made a while back. We've got to live, to find and create meaning, and to be appreciative and industrious with the gift of life. If we can't find ways to develop our ongoing lives in some coherent, rewarding manner, maybe we're headed for the scrapheap after all.

But I hope not.

Barbara Tuchman
A Cold-War Heavy Hitter
Ah, the American literary world at midcentury. Yes, I did review Al Silverman's The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors a few posts back, and that fine book does concern itself with the milieu of the Postwar era. I've finally read a key product of those times, however, and would like to heartily plump for its continued appreciation.
I yearningly (again) note that the age was one of a national reading habit that was quite broad and deep, so that books and their writers stood atop every other means of cultural expression (except, some would argue, film) in their appreciation, consideration and discussion. John F. Kennedy was noted for his tastes, among them an enjoyment of Ian Fleming's James Bond yarns. He was struck by another writer as well, and his lauding of Barbara Tuchman and her landmark 1962 study of the First World War's beginning days helped propel that book to the dead center of our literary conversation, even earning her a Pulitzer Prize.

Tuchman was a bright, studious young woman who graduated Radcliffe in 1933 and struck out into the world as a traveling journalist. She found she enjoyed the labors and rewards of the writing life, and her third book, 1958's The Zimmerman Telegram set up research for her following effort, the one that so influenced Kennedy that he had copies shipped out to key leaders worldwide - The Guns of August.
She chooses for a starting point the twilight of the old European order, as the crowned heads of the Continent gather in England for the funeral of Edward VII in May 1910. Thus begins an immersion into a world of empires, monarchies and all their attendant jealousies and rivalries. The assemblage is one of "scabbards, plumage and silks," and the increasingly simmering tensions are made no better by the fact that these monarchs in large part share the same blood.
Part of Tuchman's groundwork is a survey of the countries' intellectual ferment of the times, and we thus review little-remembered texts such as Norman Angell's The Great Illusion (1910), which argued that the "modern" Europe enjoyed an equilibrium and prosperous stasis that would make war not only unwinnable but unthinkable. Angell's thoughts were at odds with those of a German General Staff writer named Friedrich von Bernhardi, whose Germany and the Next War of the following year made a bold case for auspicious, preemptive action that would secure Germany's place as iron-fisted master of Europe.
That book and others like it dovetailed wonderfully with the growing idea of Kultur, a Pan-Germanic ideology that contained a mystical aspect involving blood, conquest and fate. Such publications were met with concern by men such as H.G. Wells, who cast a critical eye over German behavior and foresaw "...the permanent enshrinement of the war god over all human affairs." The warlike attitude seemed to dictate that battle was a vital, cleansing, even regenerative act that brought all that was best and noblest to the combatants' hearts. Such a mentality is reflected in the early-war poetry of men like Rupert Brooke and Thomas Mann, years from "In Flanders Fields." Even though Germany had prevailed at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War and hobbled France, she saw her neighbor as a bit of unfinished business, a proud peacock thwarting Imperial aims. If England and France were enjoying expansion and empire-building in the first decade of the new century, Germany was restless and cagey.
The Kaiser had a template to affix his boredom to in the Schlieffen Plan, named for the former Chief of German General Staff. The plan said simply to sweep upward through Belgium (neutrality be damned) and land a smashing blow into Paris, then turn about and take on Russia (the precise plan Hitler tried to employ later). Every refinement of the plan involved Belgium, and the little country was destined for horror. It's fascinating to read of the genteel nature of that initial sweep through Belgium, with its notices of occupation posted by the invader, with a tone almost begging compliance. Perhaps the first indicator of what lay ahead could be glimpsed during the Battle of the Frontiers, across the endlessly disputed Alsace and Lorraine lands, where sabers and lances faced rifles and machine guns. All 12 of the garrison forts around Liege were in rubble by mid August, thus providing "...a cause and an example." Wilhelm had - a few years earlier - expressed a wish that his troops present themselves like the "Hun" of old, and this label and image soon came to be a shorthand for growing barbarity.
England, hewing to the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, dispatched the British Expeditionary Force to Rouen. That a "kindred" nation would do such a thing was greeted with disbelief by Germany, and this seething sentiment raced across the land. The landing added to a feeling of persecution among the Germans. "What chance have we, attacked on every side?" mourned a German official. Such went the thinking: the Germans were angered and confused that England would horn in, that Belgium would fight back. In a fine passage, Tuchman dissects this thinking - that the people would never rise up, no, it must be the instigation from on high - hence the horrid death toll among local officials. A deadline for Germany to rethink its assault came and went, and England was thrown into an emergency consideration of its options. It was only through Tuchman's toil through hundreds of primary sources, papers and memoirs that she was able to knit together this big-picture narrative.
Turkey, for example, has her hand forced by the seizure of two warships then under construction by British contractors (ships seized with little regard for Turkey's reaction). They could not longer remain on the fence after the vessels entered the Dardanelles in order to shell several Russian cities, an act which unsurprisingly earned them a declaration of war, as well as set the stage for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. She offers many interesting portraits, such as the glowering Lord Kitchener (he of the famous recruiting poster later redone with Uncle Sam), and the two admirals who played cat and mouse throughout the Med and the Aegean while their leaders wrung their hands, Wilhelm Souchon and Archibald Milne, and even Tirpitz (architect of the German Navy), frozen out finally by the Kaiser. The BEF commander Sir John French is ably drawn, as is a veteran of 1870, summoned back from retirement with a new honorary "von" to add to his name - Paul Hindenburg.

On August 20th Brussells was occupied, and here the book sheds further light on events. After a sequence of logistical movements (tracking the troops can be tough sledding, and the book does presume at least a passing familiarity with the belligerents) we re-enter the human sphere. The Belgians, far from simply throwing up their hands in defeat, fought back not only with their meager armed forces, but also at the civilian level, and we begin to see the depravity of reprisals. These roundings-up and outright executions, to say nothing of the looting, razing and burning of entire towns was not just happenstance, not just a growing wave borne of fear and desperation, but official German policy.
If the world was stunned by the rapid development of hostilities, it reeled in revulsion before the news of the burning of Louvain and its ancient, venerable library. The carnage carried through to the march through France as well, and is at such odds with the leaders' experience and expectations. France, for example, still clung to her pantalons rouge (red uniform trousers), white gloves for officers, and movement by field drill and classroom example. Her soldiers received no entrenchment training, as this would soil their uniforms! Sadly - direly - she employed drums and bugles when possible to aid her headlong, impossible attacks.
In the chapter "Blue Water, Blockade and the Great Neutral" Tuchman looks back at the naval picture of the last several years, with the concept of "freedom of the seas" fully plumbed for all its historical and political import. The last part of the chapter's title refers to America, who'd had a course of neutrality set and argued for by Wilson. Perhaps the U.S. could avoid all the entanglements and broker a peace, thus raising her profile and influence? So went the hope. By the third week of August we find the French - if not in full rout - then retreating steadily, moving through towns and villages they know will be occupied by the mounted "Uhlans" (another evocative name retrieved from the past) by the following nightfall.
All eyes are on Paris, where defending commander orders the unthinkable: destruction of whatever may be of aid to the invader, even an historical bridge like that at Pont Neuf. So the stage is set for the Battle of the Marne, and more importantly the construction of the trench system that locked a generation of young men into slow, mud-caked death. Although the optimistic German projection of a four-week campaign is soon dashed, the outcome is not yet a foregone conclusion, and such is Tuchman's skill at placing us amid the chaos, fatigue, stubborn pride and slaughter.

She elects to omit Franz Ferdinand's assassination almost completely, as that event would necessitate a quagmire of explanations. Her portraiture of the principals is striking in its stead - this world where a daydreaming Kaiser addresses his cousin, Czar Nicholas II, as "Nicky" before signing his correspondence as "Willy." We receive a record of war-by-caprice, of attack based not on shortage or necessity but of perception: desire, jealousy, greed and martial ambition. The sad thing is, nothing was learned from August 1914 nor the years that followed its dusty heat. Indeed, in the words of D.H. Lawrence, "All the great words were cancelled out for that generation." Mania, fear, and elaborate revenge fantasies fueled the subsequent war, and fuel conflict yet today.

Barbara Tuchman left behind an enviably substantial body of work, and even netted a second Pulitzer for her 1972 life of Joe Stilwell. Over a ten-book writing career she prevailed, and never flagged in her insights (as evidenced by, for example, 1984's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam).
It was that one book that put her name on everyone's lips, though - that chronicle of a world so long vanished, and the cauldron of fear that swept it away.

One Strange Day, One Strange Tale
McHattie and Houle, trapped and desperate
Once in a great while I come across a movie that's solid and engaging in every aspect, one that leaves me with a deep impression. Perhaps rarer still is the one that really impresses me, while managing to be unlike anything I've ever seen.
Such is the case with a 2009 film I recently stumbled upon called Pontypool. It's a darkly clever story, delivered with impeccable pacing and fine ensemble performances. It's a Canadian film, which means that its arrival here in the U.S. probably entailed distribution issues of some sort (I found it on Netflix myself, and I'd like to interject that I appreciate that company's willingness to act as a conduit for films from a great many countries). So, being a Canadian product, there's a lot of that country's talent involved, with Ontario Province being the flick's birthplace.
Director Bruce McDonald is from Vancouver, but ended up eastward and at the helm of a number of acclaimed movies, including Dance Me Outside (1994), Hard Core Logo (1996) and Picture Claire (2001) before undertaking Pontypool in 2008.
Here's a brief partial synopsis: Fiery but haggard radio host Grant Mazzy (the very prolific Canadian character actor Stephen McHattie) is enroute to the station in an early morning snowstorm, when a woman appears at his car door, hammering the vehicle in desperation - before vanishing. He arrives at the station, pours a mugful of whiskey and settles in for another acerbic shift. McHattie is joined by the fine Lisa Houle as his put-upon producer Sydney Briar, while Brit Georgina Reilly is Laurel-Ann Drummond, a young intern. One news item takes things away from the ordinary, as a station reporter begins to relay descriptions of a strange gathering at a local doctor's office, a gathering that soon turns violent. There's something afoot, and Provincial officials are concerned - Mazzy is even contacted by the BBC for comment, a development that seems absurd given the fact that Mazzy and Briar can't even get a true picture of the bizarre, rapidly developing situation right across town.

The film was adapted by Tony Burgess, from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, a book that's postmodern perhaps in its refusal to hew to "proper" plot resolution. Burgess's interest in semiotics - a dense branch of linguistics dealing with the significance of signs and symbols - plus a love of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a novel dealing with linguistics and technology in a bleak future America, led him to write the book.
McDonald saw it as a natural for film, an intuition that proved right on the mark. The film was shot digitally, and there was a bit of an outcry from those preservers of the 35mm production process, but the final result, from the opening sequence of Mazzy's voice as a blue waveform against a black field, captivates. The plot does turn on language, on speech, and its chilling use of the Canadian National Anthem is a provocative moment that led me to believe that there might be some intra-country political commentary woven into the tale underneath the stark, rapidly escalating tension.
In any case, it's a gripping fable, ultimately larger than the church-cellar radio station and the air staff that inhabit it. See it if you're at all able.


Donovan, in his magic '60s
 Donovan's Sprightly Masterpiece
Some performers are so evocative in their work that they leave footprints of an age, of a spirit in their wake. Such is the case with Donovan, and in some sense he does seem tethered to a very distant cultural past. Far from fading away, he's engineered (such a dour, mechanistic term) a relative resurgence for himself over the past couple of decades.
After an uneven stretch in the '70s and '80s, 1992 saw the release of Troubador: The Definitive Collection 1964-1976. He then collaborated with fan Rick Rubin for 1996's Sutras album. He's released new music, played everywhere from the Kennedy Center to Austin's SXSW, and shows no sign of slowing - he's got ongoing 2012 tour dates. Among his body of work, however, I'll steer the casual fan or new listener to a wondrous 1968 release, with its subject, like Donovan himself, "...singing songs of love."

Donovan Philips Leitch was born in Glasgow on May 10th, 1946, and although scorned by some as a UK Dylan knock-off as he performed for ever-larger crowds 18 years later, he had in fact been playing guitar since the age of 14, and had a strong affinity for both the folk traditions of the British Isles and the Pop boom then at its early peak. In 1964 London's PYE Records arranged his first forays into the studio, but it was the following year when he met producer Mickie Most (born Michael Peter Hayes, a man who'd already tasted huge success both as a performer and producer of acts such as The Animals and Herman's Hermits), and then became the first act signed to Clive Davis's new CBS imprint, a label called Epic.
Several May '66 sessions resulted in a US #1 hit in "Sunshine Superman" - the album attained #11 US as well. That LP signaled his influences and intent, featuring as it did sitar, harpsichord and strings among its instrumentation. The folk approach now seemed beside the point. The young man, known simply by his pleasing first name, was developing a true and original voice.
He followed these successes with "Mellow Yellow" in October, a #2 smash and gold record besides (the subsequent LP saw no release in the UK: indeed, the Sunshine Superman album had been a delayed, bastardized pastiche). In mid-'66 he beat various Beatles and Stones to the punch with a marijuana bust. Regardless, he kept writing and his contribution to the Summer of Love was A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, a two-record set comprised of "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" and "For Little Ones," the latter disc recorded especially for children.
His moment was certainly flowering, and he was featured in Karl Ferris's short 1967 film Wear Your Love Like Heaven, shot at England's 14th-century Bodiam Castle. The film contained visual imagery to accompany four songs, and also featured a young woman named Jennifer Boyd, more about which momentarily. Another first came as he provided an interview for the inaugural issue of Rolling Stone, in which he advised youth against drug use, the result of some recent changes of heart: he'd used some drugs, but now felt them to be unnecessary in the production of his art. Jennifer Boyd, Patti's sister as it turns out, ran a shop in London called Juniper, and so provided the songer with another infectious single, released in late '67.
Boyd then accompanied Donovan as he joined the Beatles' contingent on a visit to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, India in February '68. While there he traded licks with Lennon and McCartney, even teaching them a new picking technique that resulted in such numbers as "Dear Prudence" (Donovan and McCartney later jammed at Abbey Road during some of the 1969 slow-down that almost saw the group disintegrate). It was now that the singer was preparing what would be the capstone to this fantastic period of creative production.

There was a song that - while he'd written it and felt it was strong - he'd considered giving away to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to an old mentor, Max McLeod, who'd had a band called Hurdy Gurdy. He kept the song for himself on the advice of Mickie Most, and was delighted with a #5 single in both the US and UK. The song was "Hurdy Gurdy Man," and the album that was built up around it was as fine as anything from that era of brilliance.
In between the two sessions for the album (November '67 and April '68 at London's Olympic Studios), Donovan was a guest on John Peel's Top Gear program, and made the trip to India, where those impromptu jams at the ashram set up the later sessions with McCartney.
For the title track, John Paul Jones provided bass and acted as arranger and musical director. There's a gentle acoustic intro with a lilting, dream-state vocal, before the music expands insistently upward and outward. The lyric searches "...down through all eternity," hears "the crying of humanity," then this tonic for an ailing and wounded world is bolstered by a buttery, acidic guitar solo courtesy of session ace Alan Parker. It's a fine, atmospheric start to things, and as it turns out, George Harrison even provided a final verse for it - creating a version of the song that didn't even see the light of day until years later on stage.
Donovan picks up the harmonium for the next song, and creates a warm Indian drone for "Peregrine," a meditation (literally) on peace and transcendence. It's a deftly sculpted sonic reveire, asks only peace, and who can critique him for it? It's hard to fault such a beautiful sentiment or song. With "The Entertaining of a Shy Girl," Donovan muses that very proposition, and his light conversation is joined by a nimble arrangement highlighted by Harold McNair's flute. Trad (traditional) jazz was big in the UK right before the Beat Boom, and he seems to access that jaunty approach for "As I Recall It," where he's joined by some music-hall piano and swinging tumpet. The "sun was high," good times were there, good times are recalled anew. Yet then he returns to another plea for simplicity, for working things out, in a tune called "Get Thy Bearings." Jazzy sax from McNair and some mellow, loping upright bass from Danny Thompson settle us in, as the deceptively simple lyric offers "All the world knows what I'm saying - the world knows quite well," as the music finds a groove, stays for a moment, then fades.
Next, "Hi It's Been a Long Time" begins with finding an old friend, but then turns darker: she's been beaten down, apparently by life in the counterculture - "...dragged as any hippie should be," - and the song's strings add much to this bittersweet moment.
Inspired by a print on his bedroom wall during the India trip, "West Indian Lady" uses multi-tracked vocals and flute to paint a brief portrait of someone drinking "from the cup of joy," and so ends Side One. That magic tune called "Jennifer Juniper" kicks off the second side, and this song, with Donovan pronouncing the Js as "zh," is, again, more than a mere trifle. In this sweet, perfect Pop nugget he wistfully daydreams of a charming young girl, in a delivery to fly straight into the face of the day's growing negativity.
The lass "rides a dappled mare," and "Is she pretty? Yes, ever so..." Longtime friend David "Gypsy Dave" Mills co-wrote another meditation called "The River Song," and its distant bongos call while a simple but hypnotic acoustic figure underpins the lyric. Mills also co-wrote the next two songs, and the bongos and harmonium reappear for "Tangier."
Marrying poetry to evocations of grit and even squalor is no mean feat, especially regarding so popular a topic as the shimmery, stoned streets of ancient Morocco. The musicians pull it off, in an unfolding raga tapestry sprawl of expanse, flight and release. He then devotes a few moments to a thing very dear to English hearts: "A Sunny Day." In so doing, he joined acts like the Hollies, Kinks, Small Faces (and later, Blur) in a little celebration, one that is continued with "The Sun Is a Very Magic Fellow," co-written by Beatles road manager Mal Evans (while on that same fruitful India trip!). The sun, wind, rain, sea and moon all pass in review to offer their secrets and gifts before a girl appears, to "sing all my cares away."
He concludes with "Teas," about the loss at the bottom of a "cup of rich brown memory," and the trumpet sounds softly over thoughts of a half-remembered friend or lover.

The record showcases the singer at the absolute peak of his lyrical might. The selections amaze in their arrangement and diversity, execution and organic flow, and are still accessible and pleasurable as free-standing moments of pop artistry, That he was able to produce an album of such assurance and grace is remarkable. That is should succeed as a vibrant musical statement and endure over 40 years later is incredible.
Donovan joined a select group of his era who set the trends rather than followed them, and so he shares - with groups such as the Hollies - the blessing of generational popularity, influence and appeal. Accordingly, this album is for not just fans of  '60s pop, but for anyone who enjoys finely wrought, persuasive music from any time or place.

Much to say, many ways to say it
Into the Wild Blue with Wired
The year 1993 was only 20 years ago - not a long time, unless you're talking about technology. Personal computers (to say nothing of mobile phones) were bulky, limited in their capabilities and really little more than curiosities. People weren't yet simply "meat bodies," housing and nursing their pitiable data and direly needing upgrades. The whole world was yet to be wired, then un-wired.
It was then that a group of journalists, entrepreneurs and techies, led by forward-looking editor Louis Rossetto and heavily influenced by ex Merry Prankster and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, founded a new magazine they called Wired. It was to examine not only the explosion of tech - though it's done that at the leading edge of the discussion - but also the effects all this cascade on us on the receiving end.

I really hadn't read it until I borrowed a few issues back around '04, and was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't just some nerdy rag, it genuinely seemed to want to discuss all aspects of the developing world. Tied into the content was critique, insight, and a willingness to largely suspend the gee-whiz angle for sober, real-time pieces on everything from cyber-crime and espionage to practical applications of basic, developmental inroads and simple human behaviors.
I picked up the April issue, and wasn't disappointed.
A number of digest-format sections get things underway, and offer lots of variety. Clive Thompson has a piece on the value of introversion, and in TEST we get a look at GPS-based athletic performance watches and new-gen electric motorcycles. PLAY has a look at the animations for the growing Game of Thrones book phenom, a profile of mixed-media artist and photographer Alex Hartley, a poke at horror movie tropes and a discussion of Lena Dunham's new HBO project, Girls.
We meet two Stanford profs who've introduced Udacity, a bold, free online course program, and then Mary H.K. Choi has a bit of advice to avoid drowning in a sea of memes. There are the ongoing fun features "Jargon Watch," "What's Inside" (weird origins of everyday items) and back-page treat "Found," wherein the mag imagines common tech sights of the future.
The features are a diverse bag as well: Jason Fagone profiles Iowa software writer James Erwin, a man who went from a lunchtime, on-the-fly Reddit response to turning that response into a hot-optioned screenplay, while Felix Salmon looks at the problems tech companies face in staying afloat and profitable amid potential snares like IPOs. Michael Chorost examines new refinements in prosthetics development (sadly, a need that's grown much), and David Rowan intrigues with his article about Reid Hoffman, who, after several startup misfires, introduced LinkedIn, and who has a lot to say about personal vision and reinvention.

The cover story is a chilling look inside the NSA facility in Bluffdale, Utah that's now under construction and expected to be operational by September 2013 - a facility that will do nothing less than track everything electronic...from everywhere on Earth. Yet it's another story that packs the heaviest punch here.
Carl Zimmer has a report on the ongoing search that'll hopefully be to viruses what the introduction of Penicillin was to bacteria. He examines the struggle against a foe that constantly changes, replicates and simply adapts to anything we throw at it, and looks at the waepons in this fight, but also the thinking: what about adapting our own molecular structure to resist viral threats? A comprehensive timeline and visual breakdown accompany this article (not for nothing has the magazine won design awards), and then it hit me. Yes, Wired has positioned itself as a leading tech publication, and has survived two failed IPOs, the tech bubble and even sticky wickets such as an iPad download glitch. It's more than that though. The best magazines are those that - while they might look like a niche title - have quality writing across a broad spectrum of topics and interests...they speak to many concerns and developments, and the sum of their pages is more than the whole of their parts. They are, literally, the general-interest magazines of our time, and provide what we used to get from Life and other such informative publications.
The title has persevered, and I think it's going to remain a leader.
Check it out - you'll definitely find interesting reading.

A New Take: Key & Peele
Let me say, before I get into all the whys and wherefores, that these guys are funny.

Key, (left) and Peele: chemistry to burn
I don't need any qualifiers - "laugh-out-loud," "insidiously," "effortlessly" or so forth. The two are simply funny, with a chemistry that's rare and rewarding.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are both alumni of MadTV, where they showed up in the show's latter seasons and left a big imprint on its quality. The pair's gifts for not just dead-on impressions but their flawless comic instincts fit the program's sensibilities like a glove. New Yorker Peele got further screen time in Reno 911 and Chocolate News, while Detroit native Key logged a four-year stint as host of Animal Planet's The Planet's Funniest Animals. Furthermore, both had exposure with Second City troupes, Peele in Chicago and Key in Detroit.
The two were ready for a star vehicle, and it arrived with the January 2012 debut of a new show, scheduled following the new season debut of Tosh.0.
It's a simple arrangement. The two appear onstage before a studio audience and do a little riffing to warm things up, and so set the stage for a collection of filmed segments - and here the impressions and original characters flow like wine. As both are bi-racial, they've got endless opportunities for commentary, and lampoon not only white and black culture but the societal results of the mixture of the two, and the results are almost invariably hilarious.
Live bits include reactions to a person who hasn't seen certain "essential" movies, white guys fighting at a bar (complete with girlfriend anxiety), and the burden of being the lone black guy at a white party. Peele reportedly let an SNL gig as Obama go, but boy, is it live here. We see the President stopping his limo to show up a street rapper, teaching daughter Malia about living out in the real world, and giving an address accompanied by Key as Luther, his "anger translator."
Celebrities provide much fuel, and sketches include L'il Wayne (faring poorly at Riker's), a smackdown between Bobby McFerrin and Michael Winslow, and a community address co-hosted by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, each vying for audience sympathies. Kimmy and Megan are two semi-recurring airheads, and reality TV provides parody opportunities such as the inscrutable head chef of Gideon's Kitchen.
Like In Living Color and the (sadly short-lived) Chocolate News, the show catches some heat because of the two's racial makeup: indeed, in an NPR interview they revealed that they've done stuff just like spoofs they saw on the Wayans Brothers' brilliant show, and are a little nonplussed at the barbs.

There's no backing off: they tackle black "authenticity" in a soul food bit, portray a couple of peeved soon-to-be-slaves, pose as entertainers who've carved out a niche in the bar/bat mitzvah market, and - as a gay couple named LaShawn and Samuel - give two very different reactions to the announcement of the legalization of gay marriage. They seek out absurdity in such situations, really, and there is zero malice, or even critique, in these sketches.
While there won't be any new episodes until autumn, you can still pull up the ubiquitous YouTube to catch up on clips, and here is where the two take things to the next level. Alongside the segment selections are also options to view "response" videos by a pair of buddies - loquacious, hyper Vandaveon and reserved Mike - who provide commenetary on various K&P sketches, along with tips to make them better. It takes a minute to realize that they're actually Key and Peele, who've adopted mannerisms so different from themselves that they've once again disappeared into a character completely. It needs to be seen to be believed.
There, then, is one of my new favorite sketch shows ever. Hopefully these guys will be around for awhile (and not, say, spirited away by the dangling promises of feature-length movies). We need their laughs.

So ends Volume I - twelve posts. Wow, it's been lots of work, but a blast as well. My continued thanks for your interest, and best wishes across our huge world.

No comments:

Post a Comment