Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Trump's Ethics

Ethically, how defensible is Donald Trump as President? That is, how do his actions comport with the traditional ethical prescriptions? These “what you should do”s come in two distinct flavors, the religious, and the philosophical. We will examine both of these sets.

Let’s start with the ones he most clearly violates.

Kantian Ethics

Immanuel Kant’s basic principle is to ask yourself, before undertaking an action, whether it could be universally applied. If such application would be beneficial, follow through with the intended course, but if not, do not. For example, do not murder someone – for if everyone did so, then, you know, there’d be no people left. Kant also warned against certain actions which were self-negating – if everyone did it they would cease to exist even as concepts. Lying and stealing are good examples of this – if everyone stole then the very meanings of property, ownership, and theft would cease to be meaningful designations in our society. So too lying – imagine a world where everyone had to lie. Truth, lying, and meaning would be rendered…meaningless.

Since Trump is an inveterate liar it seems that he would not pass the Kantian test. Many of his actions, if made universal, would unquestionably harm our society, for example his decisions which made him a failure as a businessman or not paying workers for their labor.

Utilitarian Ethics

The simple credo of the Utilitarians was to maximize good and minimize bad, usually understanding that good is more or less synonymous which healthy pleasure, and bad with harm. This seems to be the default ethical stance of most folks, particularly when faced with messy choices – try to secure the best outcome for the greatest number of people and mitigate the resultant harm necessary to the fewest possible. The train full of passengers, and the baby on the tracks dilemma, with you at the switch for the tracks, is a classic example. Most folks flip the switch, preventing the trainload of passengers from flying off a cliff, at the expense of the one child.

Of course, Trump is not a utilitarian. The healthcare plan he has endorsed is the inverse – to harm many millions, and kill tens of thousands at least, to the benefit of a very few. His whole ethos of scamming the vulnerable to line his pockets is clearly not good utilitarian practice.

Christian Ethics

Focusing on the New Testament, and what I think most Christians would profess is the central ethical tenant of their faith, we are dealing with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Like Kant and the Utilitarians this is not a perfect guide (what of masochists?) but is a rule of thumb. The rule extends across Christian sects, and is equally embraced by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects. We could also add, as general guidance, Jesus’ behavior to be emulated: humility, poverty, and kindness, and the Beatitudes from Sermon on the Mount, blessing the meek, the poor in spirit, and the merciful alongside the peace-makers.

Professedly, Trump is Presbyterian. Yet it is difficult to imagine he would wish others to mock him, slander him, sexually assault him, incite violence against him, or many of the other behaviors he has inflicted upon others during his campaign and continuing into his Presidency.

Islamic Ethics

Typically, Islamic ethics have certain admonishments to adherents which are agreed upon despite distinctions of Sunni, Shiite, or Sufi. Hospitality, refraining from materialism, humility, and an aversion to, I guess we’d call it machismo? Desires and passions need to be curbed, in general, as we see in so many religious traditions. Interestingly there are specific regards to how consistently the morals are applied, and that the more you do them, the better a person you are, which is sometimes implied in other faiths, but sometimes not in such a clear-cut fashion. Importantly, avoiding evil deeds is insufficient – you must actively try to stamp them out in your communities.

Pretty clearly Islamic faith is out of line with Trump’s actions. A man who plasters his name on everything, gets into the wrestling ring, and tries to make himself a big man by bullying others would all be frowned upon. Not to mention refraining from materialism – the man is obsessed with gold.

Buddhist Ethics

Considering the derivations of Buddhism into sects, let’s focus on the core aspects, notably the Eightfold Path. Some exhortations of this credo are to avoid sensuality, lying, and harming others, and to embrace kindness, poverty, and meditation. Desire is the root of all suffering. The view of oneself as anything but impermanent, or to see a distinction between life and death, is not in adherence with the way. By embracing transience and avoiding desire one can reach nirvana – although exactly how is debated by differing paths (spoiler alert: the disputes concern the amount of meditation needed).

Could Trump be a Buddhist?


Now we cross into trickier territory, where the answers aren’t so obvious.

Hume’s Ethics

The ethics of David Hume are unusual, and what prompted Kant to create his contractual system outlined above. Hume was a sentimentalist, arguing that our ethical choices are not merely rational, but essentially influenced by our feelings. This may well be true, but becomes problematic as a prescriptive doctrine. From this comes a sort of ‘do what makes you comfortable’ approach, with Hume firmly guided by the optimistic stance that humans are innately empathetic creatures. Rather than base actions on what ought to be, our actions must be based on what is really the case, on a case-by-case basis. Contra Kant, for example, who may say something like ‘always feed the poor’ Hume may ask, but what if all I have is a PB&J, and the person in need a deathly nut allergy?

For a Trump apologist the problem remains that of empathy. Hume’s model insists upon a view of humans who wish to perpetuate dignity and decency. The Enlightenment Scotsman would almost certainly not condone his attacks on a free press, or advocating killing the innocent families of criminals.

Hindu Ethics

This is complicated – the most so of the faiths. In essence, most Hindus would agree to following dharma, which is essentially the 'right path'. Non-violence is a big part of it, but not always – sometimes violence is justified with certain provocation, for example. Self-restraint is a part of it as well, as is notions of purity which are mixed with honesty – a lack of hypocrisy in one’s actions is important. Some provisions are clearer – against stealing and sexual covetousness – others more oblique, such as a general admonishment against desire in most forms. In some ways these ideas should be equally familiar to adherents of the Ten Commandments of Christianity as a Zen Buddhist.

Naturally since Trump steals money in wages unpaid, scams, casinos, and possibly money laundering, not to mention sexual coveting (with three wives and a vulgarity attached to his dealings with ‘Miss’ pageants) he would be a bad Hindu. And I mean, come on: self-restraint?

Confucian Ethics

Confucius’ teachings say that relationships are paramount, most notably those of family. Parents come first, especially ancestors, and filial piety is key. Your attitude toward strangers is seen as secondary to honoring and being loyal to your own kin, and older generations take precedence over the younger. Still, due consideration is needed for those around you who keep you secure – your colleagues, for example, even if they be of inferior rank. They make your life possible, after all. Essential to his ethics, too, is that honesty is the supreme virtue. Without it the rest is worthless.

An argument that Trump, with his family and loyalty, is a Confucian in disguise? No. Consider ancestor worship – surely Donald Trump’s immigrant forbears would be disgusted by the practices he espouses against a group which includes his four grandparents and even his own mother. Plausibility of a Confucian Trump evaporates when we recall the critical virtue of  honesty.

Aristotelian Ethics

Finally we get to the pre-Christian philosophy of the Greeks. Indeed, it was Aristotle’s ethics (which I somewhat profess to be my own) which made me consider this project in the first place. Aristotle’s ethics are achievement-based, that is, the emphasis is on making the most of yourself. You need to fulfill your potential – life is a race in which you are trying to beat your own best time, to strive to your greatest heights. It aligns with arête – creating a life of virtuous character and conduct. What is virtuous? “Doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.” These right actions must be done with intent to count as virtuous. Further, moderation is essential to defining virtue, for excess and deficiency are both to be avoided.

When I considered Trump and Aristotle, initially I paused. Was his success the most reprehensible counter to my own Aristotelian adherence? For, regarding making the most of yourself and achieving personal validation – Trump is undoubtedly a case-study to make us wary. But it is the other aspects taught in the Nicomachean Ethics which give me heart. Trump is not a model of moderation, nor, in his bumbling, haphazard campaign and first six months in office have we seen much of the “right thing” done in the right way or at the right time. The man may be too stupid to be an Aristotelian, to be honest. Courage, gentleness, generosity, truthfulness, gregariousness – all are specifically cited by Aristotle as examples of his moderate mean course of action. All are out-of-step with Trump's actions.

As such my fears are put to rest. So long as Trump continues to be a boastful, mean-spirited, liar whom actively goes out his way to be cruel in harming his fellow citizens, harming the prestige of his office and the prestige of the nation, and harming the very planet I will continual to be comforted that no person professing moral traits – of any philosophical school or of any religious doctrine – can align themselves with this wretch, without exposing themselves to equal parts of censure for hypocrisy proportionate to his disregard for all of humanity’s ethical norms, morals, teachings, and virtues.

Happy 4th of July.

Post Script Bonus:

Ferengi Rules of Acquisition

In the world of Star Trek the ethical codes of Earth are decidedly progressive and utopian. World peace, money abolished, San Francisco is the capital... yadda yadda. However, the Ferengi (aliens that look like weird bats) have the Rules of Acquisition, which is all about deals and backstabbing. Notoriously untrustworthy and greedy, the Rules are inviolable, and from a prescriptive guide on how to interact with others. In that way they constitute a sort-of ethics. Some examples include: "Once you have their money never give it back." "It never hurts to suck up to the boss." and "Every man has his price."

Despite the promising examples above consider the following few violations (of many): Rule 2 - "Never spend more for an acquisition than you have to." (Trump Taj Mahal?) Rule 74 - "Knowledge equals profit" (The man doesn't read and celebrates the poorly educated). Or Rule 229 - "[p]Latinum lasts longer than lust." (No comment.)

Friday, June 9, 2017

This Whole Post Is Really Interesting, But Also Kind of Sad And Creepy, And Should Probably Be Avoided Altogether

Generally NSFW-ish.

A great many years ago I was leaving college, and wondering, in bloke-ish fashion, why nearly every hetero male fantasy has the woman in a skirt. Attractive women are attractive in anything they wear – that’s why fashion models can pull off nearly any absurdity on the runway, because, if you have the right genes, it doesn’t matter what you wear: you’ll look good doing it.

My analysis eventually confirmed that most of these male sexual fantasies are of the ‘hit and run’ variety. Airline stewardesses, maids, nurses, secretaries – these are ladies you aren’t supposed to be having sex with, or whom you only have a very limited time, or a very high-risk location in which to do the deed. Skirts offer easier access than sexy tight jeans and so it plays into the whole quick and risky thing.

Even in the common fantasies where speed/place/adultery isn’t a big part of the draw, for example cheerleaders, the skirt still is an important part of the vision. As Jackie Treehorn so eloquently stated:

And with 85% of males, in a 2014 study, fantasizing about having sex with someone who is not their partner, that risqué aspect of on-the-fly, don’t-get-caught naughtiness is important.

So that’s what I wrote back then. I noted, finally, that different shades of this basic concept are based on catering to different psychological fulfillments. They represent archetypes of what guys want in their most intimate moments. Do they want to be controlled, to submit their trust to someone else giving directives and making decisions? Dominatrix. Do they want someone to take care of them, soothe their fears, help relax their anxieties, and tell them everything’s okay? Nurse. Do they want someone young and innocent, full of energy and kind of simple who can look up to them (pun not intended, but it works too well to leave out)? Cheerleader. Secretaries are submissive and willing to take dic-tation. (I got a million of ‘em!) Stewardesses, like nurses are to cater to your needs. Tennis instructors are young and peppy but they control the balls on the court (here all week folks!), putting them more in the domination side of the spectrum. College Humor did an amusing video, also in 2014, on the barista as sex-symbol (again, a service-based fantasy):

Millennials consume a lot of porn – more than older generations, and usually on digital devices (we don’t buy magazines, DVDs, and such, which was one of my very first posts on here a decade ago). Of course porn is a big part of the wish fulfillment we’ve been talking about. The fantasies are played out in short online video clips which are easily “consumed”.  Since so much of the fantasy is in the head of the viewer they can fill in the gaps left out of a clip that’s only a few minutes long. PornHub (who else?) has some interesting stats on this (of a vaguely NSFW content, of course – not in terms of imagery, but language).  People in my age bracket spend about 9 minutes watching porn per session. This is a far cry from the “golden age” of pornography’s hour+ features, or even the 30+ minute story-based porn of the VHS/DVD era. Last year Vice did a piece on Millennial porn consumption that was well-cited.  Basically we have less sex, and it is more porn-like, which is pretty unfulfilling (ironically, perhaps, given that porn is designed to fulfill fantasy, after all). We watch more porn, but it leaves us miserable (which just may be this generation’s default, honestly) and seems to mean we’re having less sex – real fulfillment seems ever more elusive.

*          *          *

This all brings me to ASMR.

I was introduced to the concept quite by accident. A co-worker back in 2015 mentioned that she did reiki. I smiled and nodded, quickly checked for nearby exits – and later that evening looked up “reiki roleplay” on YouTube so I could find out what it was. (I knew it was some sort of spirit healing mystic energy BS but had no specifics. Was it the same as ‘auras’? Was it somehow ‘psychic’? I was curious.) I got results like these:

And this:

… and this:

…and this…:

…and on and on for about 200,000 results. Obviously I was intrigued by this ‘ASMR’ since all the reiki people seemed to whisper during their roleplays. But if today you type in “ASMR roleplay” on YouTube you’ll get around a million results. Search for just “ASMR” and it jumps to eight million videos.

I’m not proud of what followed.

I don’t experience ASMR – which adherents claim is a pleasant tingly sensation you get listening to whispering and certain sounds (crinkling paper, latex gloves, spray bottles, tapping on hard surfaces, and such). But the videos were hypnotic, and I ended up frequently watching them before bed.

There is a clear trend in many of these, of “personal attention”, and really there’s no way to describe it, so I picked three videos of this sort to include, to give an idea of what these videos are all about. If you find them disturbing try to stick it out and watch for a couple of minutes:

As the title of this blog post says: kinda creepy, and kinda sad. These three all have millions of views. I’ll reiterate that I’m not proud: but in the evening I inexplicably found attractive young ladies whispering into the camera and pretending to stroke my face to be quite soothing. Whoduh thunkit.

Now, I know I’m not alone in this, and a few other videos will make this clear, that this trend ties in with the fantasies I mentioned previously regarding porn. Take a look at these ASMR roleplays:

“ASMR - MEDICAL EXAM - mouth to mouth resuscitation”

Realistic Barber Role Play *Straight Razor Shave and Mustache Styling* ASMR

“ASMR FIRST CLASS Flight and SPA Service - Flight Attendant Role Play

[ASMR] Gaming Store Roleplay

I think it’s safe to say most of these cater to male fantasies. I should note though, that there are roleplay ASMR videos that are presumably targeted towards women, for example:

“Beauty Brow Salon/ ASMR Trimming & Shaping Your Eyebrows

That said – the number of hits on YouTube for ASMR “for men” or “men’s” is around 300,000; whereas “for women” and “women’s” is only around is only half as many. A lot of these content creators, the ones who get millions of views, have Patreon accounts and sponsors for products. By looking at the ASMR creators’ accounts we can perhaps see that this is a largely male-oriented market. A typical video produced by these young women, as a backer reward, is to read off the names of their patrons, in ASMR:

(I embedded the videos above to underscore the visual point I was making regarding attractiveness, which is not needed for these, but still applies.) Note the list of names is mostly male. Or try this one, from the gamer girl above:

Which, by my count (thankfully she provides a list), has about 25 female names scattered as patrons throughout a *40 minute* video. Each name only takes a few seconds to say, so… yeah. The women account for about three minutes of the video, tops.

*          *          *

So, by combining these two threads, the one of fantasy, Millennials, and porn, and the second of male-directed ASMR fantasy roleplays, it leads us to a weird place. I guess the question is, have we inadvertently, through ASMR, begun to create emotional porn?

Unfunny jokes have been around for ages, that, since women are emotional and men are clearly little better than Neanderthals, that “porn” for women is a man who will listen. Or cuddle. Or do the dishes. Ha ha – stale humor at its finest. These are all examples, though, of displays of emotional intelligence. And with that I wonder if male-oriented ASMR videos are doing the same sort of thing.

In the world of online porn there is a huge business, like we saw with ASMR, of patronage – young women with a video camera on their laptop who perform for tips.  Is the whispering of one’s name on YouTube while lovingly gazing into the camera all that different? It’s an emotional connection, instead of a sexual one, but as we saw – with many of the roleplay videos they are the same archetypes as pornography. There’s ASMR of school girls, yoga instructors, hotel clerks, masseuses, maids, police officers, and on and on. And there’s a large contingent of cosplay crossover, so you can get Harley Quinn or sexy aliens or some other fantasy female to whisper to you as well.

There are only a handful of studies on this stuff – we don’t know how many people actually get tingles when they watch these videos. But I feel confident, among the 8,000,000 videos, many with millions of view apiece (apparently the most-watched has been seen 18 million times) that they suggest, in concurrence with the plethora of male-oriented content and male backers, that a lot of it is not so much for tingles but just to see pretty ladies being virtually nice to men. And while Millennials are watching porn for ever-shorter amounts of time, these emotionally resonant ASMR videos of affirmations, compliments, and telling you "everything's going to be okay" are usually around half an hour in length, and often longer.

I’ve been watching these videos for two years now, and they are proliferating ever more quickly, meaning attractiveness is increasing at an accelerating rate – with millions of views at stake it’s no wonder. For a few hundred bucks in startup equipment, making a few videos a month, you can earn a decent salary – if you become a top creator. It may beat the alternative way for young women to make money from online videos, though. 

Which is… sad. In a generation that already is so into porn, but for whom their sex lives are increasingly unfulfilled, perhaps the trend over the past few years of ASMR catching on is a way of filling the emotional void many people have from their lack of meaningful relationships. Studies suggest that even people who are having a normal amount of sex compared to previous generations still watch porn – the quantity of sexual activity doesn’t seem to change folks’ porn-viewing habits much.

While not a new idea (see Charlie Brooker or the film “Her”) we may be seeing the first non-sci-fi version of this virtual connection. Instead of computers trying to comfort us, we’ve opted for real young women – who stroke our faces across an impossible screen. And if that isn't as or more tragic than substituting sex for pornography  I don't know what is.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Gen Z

I’ve taught for about nine years, and middle school for the past three. My first year of teaching them they were fine, tractable. I could impart moral lessons on them and be all teacher-y. And last year was... okay. But I was increasingly concerned about the cohort that they seemed more...“depressed”? This year? Straight up nihilists. They seemingly believe in nothing. It is all pointless, all lies, all doomed.

Trump won? Okay - democracy clearly doesn’t work. Global warming? Great - didn’t want to live past 25 anyway, and now it’ll be too hot to do so. Media a joke? Don’t care to watch that crap since clearly *someone* is always lying and the fact that it makes it on television shows the need to just tune it out. SJWs? Great, I guess, whatever. They’re pretty good on equal rights and tolerance except for all the people getting shot.

Interestingly, though, they are excited by one thing (besides slime/Rubik's cubes/fidget spinners/yoyos and other vaguely spectrum-y forms of stimulation - which, mind you, is not a bad thing but a *very* interesting development. Even the “mean girls” and popular kids have spinners and Rubik's cubes, for cripes’ sake. That, to me, is extraordinary.) namely they are interested in their identity and appearance, whether that materializes in Instagram or fandom membership, or some other form.

And before y’all get “IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THUS” on me - no. I study world history, I know already all the Victorian and 1960s and Adam Conover you want to throw at me. Instead of getting defensive, please just listen to someone very much on the front lines of the rising generation - I have taught thousands of students (class sizes!) and this is the culmination of what the 90s began. 

In the pre-Instant Messenger days of middle school you had to watch ‘The Simpsons’ so you could show you were cool the next day, and got the jokes. There was very limited fandom to choose from, compared with the infinite vastness of the internet, and Simpsons was essentially king. But as Mike Rugnetta so expertly pointed out:

“Nothing you [The Simpsons] depicted was normal - because normal doesn’t exist. Normal is a lie invented by politicians and jerks to help them sleep at night. And this was a thing we needed to understand - desperately. Your authority figures - your Chief Wiggum, your Monty Burns, Principal Skinner and ‘Super Nintendo Chalmers’ - though vested with power, suffered their own significant shortcomings; they were fallible and human. And so my own teachers, directors and coaches came in to focus as multi-dimensional people who wielded the power they had not because of that power’s benefits, but sometimes in spite of it... Your media elite are incompetent, confused, or con artists - completely oblivious or operating on some very thinly-veiled agenda. You damn every cultural institution - politics, religion, media, family - as an effort of haphazard though purposeful manipulation by people just barely in control.

And then we all grew up and became teachers. And parents. And, entering our thirties, increasingly powerful figures. Our middle schoolers of today grew up in a world where the curtain was already pulled away, where the adult generation decided that if it they were going to be CEOs they would wear hoodies while doing so. Religion is declining among the Millennial bracket. As per Camus or Sartre, without a cause, like God, for explaining suffering and stupidity and absurdity life hurls at us we just have to navigate our complicated and arbitrary existence as best we can. Due to the economic collapse these kids grew up during and which we graduated into, we’re not starting families, buying homes or diamonds or whatever (too much avocado toast clearly) and frankly - we just aren’t like earlier generations. The Millennials abhor convention, as Rugnetta gets at, and, as new teachers, we had no compunctions in sharing Howard Zinn and “Lies My Teacher Told Me” to our students. Millennials don’t believe in the old narrative: “go to school, college, good grades, good job” - so why should their kids? The 90s kids who got married out of high school have kids whom I now teach in 6th and 7th grade. They are the first wave of this. 

But as a consequence those same students have even less faith in their world than we did, who previously held the record low. Our middle school kids are comparable to nihilists. With us raising them, modeling behavior, and teaching them, it’s not that surprising. Growing up with every taboo being broken before our eyes it’s only reasonable that we would do the same for the kids we encountered. It depresses us, because we saw the curtain torn away from us. But for Gen Z it’s absence is a given, and the conclusions they draw appropriately reflect the reality that Oz is not a great and powerful wizard.

However, as pointed out, the fact that they care about themselves, their fandom, and their social media, may be a cause for hope. Real nihilists (if that’s even possible) presumably wouldn’t care about dank memes, SpongeBob references (really? still?), Magic the Gathering, Flight Club’s sneakers or... fidget spinners. It’s very consumerist, which I find worrying, but it’s something. They only have faith, and only believe in, themselves.

That may be the greatest difference between their generation and ours.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Live Take Trios

The last time I dealt with live albums was apparently in 2009, so I’d say an update was due.

As such, here are three good live albums, my favorites, for a number of different genres:


If you only want one: Live at the Regal – BB King. This well-known work showcases King’s excellent guitar skills, good crowd chatter, and lots of energy. Everything you want in a live album from one of the best guitarists ever.

Second opinion: At Newport 1960 – Muddy Waters. ‘Newport’ is probably Waters’ best recording, outside of an anthology. It has a mature sound – a trim 9-song set made some years after he’d first recorded these favorites.

A contrasting view: Irish Tour ’74 – Rory Gallagher. If you want something different, try Gallagher’s impressive blues-rock album. He was probably the only artist with enough cred to go to Northern Ireland to record this during the Troubles.


If you only want one: At Folsom Prison – Johnny Cash. Famous country singer plays for a pack of prisoners, who bring incredible energy to the whole proceeding. The expanded 19-track version is worth the extra three songs.

Second opinion: Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas – Townes Van Zandt. ‘Old Quarter’ captures the ‘solo performer in a country bar’ sound. Van Zandt was a consummate Country songwriter.

A contrasting view: Live – Allison Krauss and Union Station. For a more bluegrass-y country sound the sprawling 25-track, hour and forty-five minute album is an excellent choice. Krauss, as always, shines as both a fiddler and a top-notch vocalist.


If you only want one: There and Now: Live in Vancouver 1968 – Phil Ochs. It’s a rare album in which the spoken word sections are as good as the music, but Ochs pulls this off with his bemused and acerbic reflections on America at a crossroads. It feels increasingly prescient.

Second opinion: We Shall Overcome – The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert – Pete Seeger. To contrast, the optimism of Seeger’s Civil Rights-era concert turns Carnegie Hall into a singalong, which is incredibly infectious. Some filler of this two-disc work puts it just slightly behind Ochs in my estimations.

A contrasting view: Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 – Tim Buckley. The folk singer in a coffeehouse cliché is upended in this delightfully ethereal set. The often haunting lyrics are matched with atypical vocal and instrumental pairings.

Jazz: Swing – Bop

If you only want one: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Benny Goodman. This landmark swing album was the first time jazz got its due as ‘important’ music – by making stuffy Carnegie Hall’s classical set want to dance.  Tremendous energy makes it the top choice.

Second opinion: Ellington at Newport – Duke Ellington. Ellington’s career was practically over in 1957, but by pulling out all the stops he gets Newport to go wild. One of the tracks towards the end is actually called “Riot Prevention” – available only on the proper two-disc re-release (the original 5-track vinyl was actually a faked ‘live’ recording done in the studio which doesn’t capture the energy nearly as well).

A contrasting view: A Night at the Village Vanguard – Sonny Rollins. For the bop/hard bop fans, if swing isn’t your thing, try the ‘Saxophone Colossus’ at the peak of his powers. The original six-track album is tighter, but if you like what you hear try the full 18-song playlist.

Jazz: Post-Bop

If you only want one: The Koln Concert – Keith Jarrett. After years of jazz fusion Jarrett recorded an achingly gorgeous solo piano concert, all-improvised on the spot. One of the highlights of any sort of concert performance, in any genre.

Second opinion: Swiss Movement – Les McCann and Eddie Harris. A festival atmosphere prevails in this soul-jazz recording. Most notably, McCann and Harris hadn’t played together before this – but the lead single crossed-over to become a hit all the same.

A contrasting view: Sunday at the Village Vanguard – Bill Evans Trio. If you like quiet jazz where the sounds of the polite diners in the background stirring iced tea are as much a part of the performance as the musician’s instruments, this is the album for you. They even cover a Disney tune, “Alice in Wonderland”.

R&B and Soul

If you only want one: Live at the Apollo – James Brown. The best live album in any genre, in my humble opinion (and many other people’s). The energy is unparalleled, the showmanship is A+, and the crowd is the most frenzied.

Second opinion: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 – Sam Cooke. This is the album that made me rethink Otis Redding – because Cooke out-growls and out-pleads him. Gritty and hard-working, it does sort of up-end the ‘cool’ image of Cooke – but for the better.

A contrasting view: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! – James Booker. An unusual work (is it R&B? Jazz? Blues?), Booker is so sunshine-happy that it seeps deep into your bones. Nice if you like standards with lots of flourish and fun.

Rock: Jam Bands

If you only want one: At Fillmore East – The Allman Brothers Band. Duane Allman was a ridiculously talented guitarist, and Gregg a top-notch composer. Together, backed by their great band, they spin out Southern rock tracks into 25-minute masterpieces.

Second opinion: Live/Dead – Grateful Dead. Probably the most famous group representing the jam-band mentality, this first release benefits from being highlights culled from various sets, months apart. If you’d prefer an uninterrupted take of their groove, try ‘Europe ’72’.

A contrasting view: Band of Gypsys – Band of Gypsys. Recorded in the last days of 1969, and the first days of 1970, Jimi Hendrix split from the Experience and released six tracks lasting 45 minutes. It’s the last recording of his lifetime, and shows him at his most musically ambitious.

Rock: Non-Jam Bands

If you only want one: Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads. The proper, 16-song version of the concert is one massive crescendo – first with just Byrne on stage, and then he’s joined by one band member, then another. By the end there’s a crowd of musicians performing to a crowd of cheering fans.

Second opinion: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana. On the other end of the spectrum, let’s take Nirvana’s grunge and strip it down to the basics, in an intimacy that allows listeners to see past the snarl. Did you know Kurt Cobain could sing (and not just scream)?

A contrasting view: The Concert for Bangladesh – George Harrison et al. The first charity concert, was, of course, created by Harrison, who got an all-star lineup to help raise funds, from Ravi Shankar to Bob Dylan, to Eric Clapton. A triple-album of great energy directed for a cause to help the then-(and now again) suffering country.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Six National Historic Sites

So National Historic Landmarks are relatively rare, with about 2,500 designations. Spread across thousands of years from Native American designations, through the colonial era, to very nearly the present, as well as a geographical area from Morocco to Micronesia, helps give some context to that number.

But National Historic Sites – there are approximately 80,000. So, North Dakota, for example, has the smallest number of Landmarks (7) whereas New York has the most (274). Their respective numbers of National Historic Sites, however, are 437 for North Dakota (Hawaii has the least, at a measly 345) and New York still claiming the top spot with…5,875.

When I think National Historic Site – I think ‘house tour’. And plaque. So with that in mind, here are six Americans who I think deserve at least a plaque, and maybe some preservation. Maybe even a Landmark - but definitely, at least, a Site:

1.      Toni Morrison’s Childhood Home (2245 Elyria Ave, Lorain OH) Lorain County, 47 (the number they use to designate the districts within the Department of the Interior)

The great, Nobel-prize winning novelist absolutely deserves recognition. Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S Buck, Hemmingway, O’Neill, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and even Isaac Bashevis Singer’s apartment – they all got their houses preserved, along with many other important authors, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Willa Cather. Morrison undoubtedly deserves equal recognition.

Important point, before we go on: Regarding the Nobel author’s home not mentioned: Saul Bellow, his house is currently lived in, near Bard college, which is obviously problematic for protection / declaration purposes. You can’t make a museum if the tenants are still inside, after all. And this is also the case with Toni Morrison’s childhood home. But a plaque, and some sort of agreement that when they die / move out it will go to the government – and that they’ll keep it in good order – I think we can manage that. This will also apply to a few other entries, such as the other literary Nobel Laureate not mentioned…

2.      Bob Dylan’s Childhood Home (Corner of 7th Ave East and 25th St, Hibbing MN) St Louis County, 72

Dylan’s home is something of a tourist attraction in Hibbing. He was born in Duluth but moved to Hibbing when young, staying in the home until he moved out to go…be Bob Dylan, I suppose. They’ve even renamed 7th Ave Bob Dylan Drive. Like Morrison’s home, currently occupied.

3.      Ansel Adam’s Home (Address unknown, Carmel Highlands CA) Monterrey County, 27

To complete the trifecta of entries still occupied, Ansel Adams home is still occupied by his daughter and her husband. It was the house he lived in towards the end of his life, once famous, and has built-in gallery spaces and lots of light (and of course a darkroom, etc.) It seems he wanted it to be a museum / gallery someday anyway, though, which is why I’m pretty hopeful for it being added eventually.

At least there's a bench...

4.      Emperor Norton (624* Commercial St, San Francisco CA) San Francisco County, 38

Emperor Norton used to have a plaque (although not an official US Government one) but now even that is gone. Perhaps because his building is gone. The nationally famous eccentric, we know from he same famous Census entry which listed his occupation as “empror”, tells us he lived at an apartment complex now gone, and replaced by a sky-scraper. A plaque, then, would have to suffice commemorating where he once lived.

5.      Willard Libby Radiocarbon Laboratory (Kent Chemical Laboratory Building, 1020 E. 58th St, Chicago IL) Cook County, 16.1

Willard Libby should be a household name, but for some reason is not. He discovered, at the University of Chicago, radiocarbon dating (practicing on a mummy) and opened up all of our modern understanding of history. He deservedly got the Nobel prize for it in 1960, but for one of the biggest scientific ramifications of the century, unlike dozens of other such Sites already included, no memorial has yet been declared.

6.      Edward Gorey House (8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth MA) Barnstable County, 1.3

Finally, a quick shout-out to the great illustrator Edward Gorey, whose home, already well-preserved as a museum and dedicated to the author’s life, would be fairly simple to add, thanks to the efforts already undertaken by historically-minded citizens.

Of course there are many more, very deserving, designations that could be added. Just in illustration alone: What of Charles Schulz, of ‘Peanuts’ or Winsor McKay, of ‘Little Nemo’, or Dr. Seuss? But tonight here are just six favorites, to get started.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Top Twenty Episodes of Television?

Here are twenty carefully curated episodes of television I think you should watch. And I mean that – they are mostly my favorites, yes, but with a tweak, in that I picked episodes I think anyone could ‘drop in’ on, even without seeing the rest of the series. I tried to therefore skew towards more stand-alone features.

Not included are episodes of mini-series disqualifying five of my favorite shows:  John Adams, Dekalog, The Singing Detective, Brideshead Revisited, and Band of Brothers. Oh well.

Since it is silly to rank these so disparate achievements in television, here is a non-hierarchical, chronologically-based list:

The Obsolete Man – The Twilight Zone, S2E29 1961

This is a personal favorite. ‘The Monsters are Due on Maple Street’ comes in at a close second, and then there are the ones I like, but really appreciate more than enjoy, such as ‘Nothing in the Dark’ or ‘The Invaders’. I’ll go for social commentary, like in ‘Obsolete’ over paranormal most every time.

Free for All – The Prisoner, S1E4? 1967

Hard to choose an episode from this series. The most reliable choice, then, is to aim for the earlier episodes, before the web gets too tangled. ‘Free for All’ doesn’t need too much background to understand, which is fitting for “The Prisoner”, a show which notoriously does not reveal the background of the whole premise.

Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You – Connections, S1E10 1978

“Connections” is my favorite show of all time, hands down. So picking a single episode is tough, but it had to be either the opening salvos of ‘The Trigger Effect’ which lays out the premise, or ‘Death in the Morning’ which got me interested in history – or the finale. Since the last episode covers much of the first, and then expands, I chose it over the others.

The Psychiatrist – Fawlty Towers, S2E2 1979

I’d be pressed to find a single episode of “Monty Python” that I liked as thoroughly as “Fawlty Towers”. For my money this is the apex of the show – Basil is at his most Basil-y, abusing the guests and simpering, teetering between the fawning hotelier and the rude clerk. The laughs build to a crescendo, and are the best of either season.

The Edge of Forever – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, S1E10 1980

Carl Sagan! The Big Bang, the origins of the universe, the difficulties of multi-dimensionality; this is my favorite episode as it depicts Sagan in his element no matter the context, from describing Flatland using an apple, to travelling around India waxing poetic on Hinduism and creation.

Q Who – Star Trek: The Next Generation, S2E16 1989

The show I most enjoyed as a child. “TNG” was an excellent show for a youth’s developing moral compass – the main cast is so wonderfully supportive, loving, and noble. Which, of course, is why Q – the near-infinitely powerful Puckish prankster being, was my favorite. Also – the origin of mysterious cube ships…

A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream – Frasier, S1E17 1994

Instead of picking an example of Frasier at its height, this episode, I think, is the turning point, where the show found its feet, its beat, and the right formula that proved so successful over most of the next decade. Even with no knowledge of the characters, it’s so funny and well-written you can join right in.

Treehouse of Horror VII – The Simpsons, S8E1 1996

Admittedly, I picked this episode for the last of the three segments. The first two aren’t bad – Bart has a twin in the attic (which creeped me out as a kid) and Lisa creates life (which really, really disturbed me ‘cause I guess existential crises came to me young). But the last segment, ‘Citizen Kang’ is pound for pound the best writing of the entire show’s run.

The Final Sacrifice – Mystery Science Theater 3000, S9E10 1998

“MST3K” is tricky – I preferred the Joel format with Dr. Forester, but Mike’s commentary was stronger. In the brief years when Mike used Joel’s format, unfortunately, there aren’t many good episodes. So, here’s a late Mike – just ignore the Pearl Forester / Brain Guy / Bobo garbage that sandwiches the good stuff.

Noel – The West Wing, S2E10

If “Fawlty Towers” gets the award for Best Comedy Episode, I’d make ‘Noel’ Best Drama. Sorkin’s writing at this point was incandescent, and Whitford’s acting won him an Emmy. It digs deep, is heartfelt, painful at times, and profound.

Boxing Daria – Daria, S5E13 2001

Looking back, I was spoiled by this show. Watching it with my sister, long before ‘the Bechtel test’ I took good writing of nuanced, three-dimensional female characters for granted. ‘Boxing Daria’ feels like any other episode – not like the finale of a show’s run. It plumbs psychological depths previously unexplored with remarkable vulnerability.

Jane and the Truth Snake – Coupling, S2E5 2001

Stephen Moffat’s first great work, “Coupling”, deals with 30-somethings and their obsessions with dating and sex. I know he went on to do “Dr. Who” (‘Blink’ very nearly made my list) and all that, but this show is so funny, so endlessly re-watchable, I consider it to be superior over all, and this episode perhaps the most hilarious. Tough call.

Snowflake Day: A Very Special Holiday Episode – Clone High, S1E11 2003

This ridiculous, single-season animated show has the premise of Gandhi, JFK, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Abe Lincoln going to high school together. The opening of ‘Snowflake Day’ sets the tone: “I can hardly believe it’s only been a year since the United Nations abolished religious holidays, for the non-offensive, all-inclusive, Snowflake Day.”

The Message – Firefly, S1E12 2003

The trend of super-depressing episodes of psychological trauma notwithstanding, ‘The Message’ is easily my favorite “Firefly” episode of the series. We get the background and see the costs of the main character’s pasts. Props to Joss Whedon.

A Scandal in Belgravia – Sherlock, S2E1 2012

Literally can’t recall how any of the mysteries of this have been solved, except the Hound of the Baskervilles ‘cause it was so dopey. But – the characters, the witty banter, the excellent pacing – “Sherlock” always entertains. Runner-up, of course, ‘His Last Vow’.

Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 2 – Louie, S2E5 2012

On with the theme of devastation! “Louie” was such a great show because it was both hilarious, and poignant – you could cry from pathos and from laughter.  And he always made you reflect, or took you somewhere new. The ending of this episode may be in my top two or three standout scenes in all of television.

The Greater Fool – The Newsroom, S1E10 2012

So, since I’m a Sorkin junkie (I even own “Studio 60”) I’ll give him another nod with the last episode of the first season. The first ten minutes of the show rightfully went viral, but I think his most brutal and incendiary political commentary is shown here (all the more needed on the list since my “West Wing” episode is not particularly political).

Escape from L.A. – BoJack Horseman, S2E112015

This whole show is like watching a train wreck in slow motion where you can’t take your eyes off the inevitable horror and damage. No part of BoJack’s excruciating arc demonstrates this fact better than ‘Escape from LA’. Of all my recommendations this is the hardest, since it is most wrapped-up in the series’ plot.

San Junipero – Black Mirror, S3E4 2016

Charlie Brooker’s show is very fitting to end on, as it is our new Twilight Zone. I was impressed with five of the first seven episodes (spread over two seasons and a special). The most reason season was the weakest, but ‘San Junipero’ is the best episode he’s crafted so far. It’s a nightmare (dream?) which you can never truly wake up from.

But wait, I hear you say, what about the 20th promised episode? Well, having not seen such essential viewing as “The Sopranos”, “Breaking Bad”, “Lost”, or “The Wire”, clearly I need to keep a spot open on my list – until such a time as when I am able to say more definitively based on what’s out there what deserves the final spot. Feel free, however, to fill in the gap with any of the following fine Honorable Mention episodes:

Honorable Mentions

I Love Lucy – ‘Lucy Does a TV Commercial’ S1E30 1952
Dick Van Dyke Show – ‘Coast to Coast Big Mouth’ S5E1 1965
Twin Peaks – ‘Cooper’s Dreams’ S1E6 1990
Batman: The Animated Series – ‘Joker’s Favor’ S1E22’ 1992
Iron Chef – ‘Lobster Battle: Ron Siegel’ S6E35* 1998
Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law – ‘Turner Classic Birdman’ S3E5* 2005
Doctor Who – ‘Blink’ S3E10 2007
Mad Men – ‘The Wheel’ S1E13 2007
Adventure Time – ‘I Remember You’ S4E25 2012

South Park – ‘Truth and Advertising’ S19E9 2015