Sunday, August 28, 2011

Movie Sunday: Worlds Fastest Indian

Image from here

This funky little kiwi treat is a biographical story about Burt Munro, a New Zealander who was eccentric fifty years ago, and today would probably have a diagnosis and a prescription for Zoloft. Munro bought an Indian motorcycle as a young man and spent the rest of his life obsessed with trying to make it go faster. Seemingly oblivious to the wild inappropriateness of an elderly man trying to drive 200 miles per hour -- in street clothes -- on a 30 year old motorcycle, he did all he could on the beach at home and then set off for the Bonneville salt flats.

Condensing and simplifying Munro's story for the movie makes it palatable for a broader audience, if a little predictable. Anthony Hopkins does a creditable job in the lead, but the true star of this DVD is a short documentary featuring the real Burt Munro. As talented as he is, I don't think Hopkins -- or anyone with "Sir" in front of their name -- can really communicate the simple, single-minded obsession with metal and speed that seems to make up about 95% of Munro's personality. If the smell of oily metal or driving too fast to believe you are still alive makes up some part of your past, this story will likely resonate with you.

Don't expect big plot twists or Oscar-winning performances, but if you have a weakness for two-wheeled speed or welding, you might want to give World's Fastest Indian a go.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Road Stories: The day the music died

About halfway through my road career I worked for a few months on Linda Ronstadt's Born in the USA tour. Whatever you may think of Ronstadt's work, it's hard to overstate her popularity at that time, and her influence on all sorts of music. Besides her undeniable position as the first female rock superstar, she exposed large audiences to the work of people like Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello, and introduced a new generation to the likes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. Her refusal to perform within one of the prescribed formats influenced a number of subsequent performers to "play what the music demanded."

Linda was already having intermittent struggles with her weight by this time, 
but she was always down to fighting weight for the start of a tour. 
She rocked this Cub Scout uniform, and it was her favorite concert outfit for a while. 
Picture from here.

Linda also had the most astounding singing voice I have ever heard. There are a number of women who have been able to belt out a song over the years. But whether your favorite is Aretha, Annie Lennox,  Mariah Carey (shudder), the little fat one from the Dixie Chicks, or someone else, none of them combine the power and clarity of Linda Ronstadt. Not only was her octave range impressive, she could carry crystal pure notes from a stage whisper to a volume level I still can't believe a human can make, seemingly effortlessly. I would have sworn there were times I could hear her singing over the PA during a concert, as improbable as I know that to be. Linda says Maria Callas was better, but I never heard her, so I couldn't say.

Besides the technical quality of her voice, her interpretation of songs ranged from very good to goose-bump producing. The ballads -- like Blue Bayou and Alison -- would have the house so quiet that her voice seemed to fill your head, though everyone's favorite was undoubtedly her cover of The Eagles' Desperado. I watched the show every night from a spotlight perch about twenty feet up in the lighting rig, and I will admit to wiping a few tears during that song on several occasions.

But it was the rock songs, like It's So Easy, That'll Be the Day, and You're No Good that really showcased her with the band. And it was a good band. Waddy Wachtel on guitar, Dan Dugmore on pedal steel and guitar, Andrew Gold on keyboards, and (I think) Russ Kunkel on drums and Kenny Edwards playing bass.* Many of these people played together for other musicians, all had played on her album, and they sounded great.

For about the first thirty days, this was one of the best tours I was ever on. Linda and the band were having a great time, feeding off of each other's energy, moving around on stage, improvising -- you know, all the stuff we used to go to concerts to see. They loved it, the crowds loved it, and even the crusty old roadies loved it, though we would only admit that among ourselves.

This is from the tour before mine, and the lighting is terrible.
That's probably why they hired us.

The fun all ended when Peter Asher showed up about a month into the tour. Peter was Linda's record producer, and an influential force in music. He was the Peter of the 60's duo Peter and Gordon, before becoming A&R man for The Beatles' Apple records. He quit Apple to manage James Taylor, and produced some of the biggest albums of the 1970's. He was also a major wiener.

After watching one performance, Peter stamped his little feet, called the band and road management team together for a meeting, and read them the riot act. The gist of his diatribe was that this was not the Linda Ronstadt and Her Band Do Anything They Feel Like Doing Tour, it was the Linda Ronstadt Living in the USA tour, and people came to see the songs performed like they heard them on the records. He told Linda to remain at her microphone stand, ordered the rest of the band to "stay in their lights," and forbade any sort of improvisation or shenanigans.

Needless to say, that ended the good times. The music was still high quality, but the spark was gone. That tour became what most of the rest of them were -- a wagon train trek across the country. Each day ran into the next, all of us doing what had to be done, but looking forward to the day when we wouldn't have to do it again.

I didn't know it at the time, but that was one of the early shots in the annihilation of the concert as an artistic form of expression. Within a year, virtually every performer under major industry management was having their concerts packaged the way Linda's was packaged, namely as a set piece regurgitation of their recorded music. A couple of years after that, tape assist to fill in background tracks became common, which eliminated any ability to vary even the tempo of a song.

Music is a product now, carefully designed, produced, packaged, and marketed. Virtually all creativity and innovation is gone from the mainstream, and we are left with whatever Sony, Viacom, and the rest believe the bulk of us will continue to pay for. I know there are still people out there doing it from the heart, but music industrialization makes it ever harder for an old fart like me to find them. And it's a shame that most people will never have the opportunity to see their favorite musicians cut loose and have some fun.

* It was a long time ago, and for some reason many of my memories of that period are somewhat fuzzy. I put it down to sleep deprivation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Just in case you still thought your vote matters

After 16,000 or so Republicans in the 30th most populous state in the country paid $30.00 each to tell us who they would vote for if the Iowa Caucuses were held today, the Republican presidential field is apparently already down to three candidates. I would like to think that neither the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, nor the Wicked Witch of the Midwest could win the general election, but I thought the same thing about a washed up actor in 1979. Keep stirring the economic malaise and fold in a foreign policy disaster or two in the next year, and I suspect Charlie Sheen could get elected with the right campaign staff.

So why is it that an election that happens fifteen months from now is already 90% half-decided*? The answer is -- say it with me -- money, of course. Now that the Supreme Court has declared corporations to be people, apparently in direct contradiction to the inconvenient fact that corporations were specifically created to be not people, and tacked on the double bonus of unlimited campaign contributions and no one having to tell where they got the bags of money, it's a new day. Campaign commercials have already started airing in my state, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1996, and where McCain/Palin took almost 60% of the votes in 2008. It seems like the Republicans could run about three commercials a day starting next November 1st and be confident of winning, but I guess they've got money to burn.

At least the three candidates who are apparently still standing. The rest will have to live on their government salaries and farm subsidies. It's going to be an interesting fifteen months. And by interesting, I mean I'm sure I'm going to want to eat a gun by the time it's over. Luckily, Louisiana is working on a law to allow concealed weapons on college campuses, so I may have the option.

* Thanks Yogi. They really don't make them like you anymore.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

You might be a redneck

I keep the iPod on shuffle when I'm driving, often at volumes higher than is probably appropriate for a man my age. On long road trips, this can help achieve the mile-devouring light trance that (I assume) is familiar to everyone who drives long distances.

Six hours into a seven hour drive yesterday I was pulled from reverie by a familiar screaming guitar solo. My first thought was, "Wow, I love this song!" A few seconds later I realized it was "Free Bird."


I was a little embarrassed for myself initially. Then I decided I didn't care. Seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on July 4th of my senior year was one of the great experiences of my young life. The drive back was the most memorable part of the day, but it was all good.*  You can change where you live, but you can never change where you're from.

I didn't go the full Beavis in the car. I mean, I was on a public highway. But I cranked it loud enough to thump the rear deck, and you definitely would have seen my head bob once or twice.

I guess it's true that some birds you cannot change.

* Except apparently for the purple punch. Several announcements were made that concert-goers were to avoid the purple punch.

Friday, August 12, 2011


If you have a dollar, and you lose ten percent one day, you will have 90 cents.

If you gain ten percent the next day, you will have 99 cents.

If this continues long enough, you will be out of money.

I'm still a little upset at my friend the nuclear engineer and part time financial manager who pointed this out to me.

You're welcome.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Movie Sunday: 633 Squadron

Image from here

I know this one is not going to have what you would call broad appeal, but I'm writing it anyway.

My parents came of age during World War II. I don't think it's possible for us to understand the impact that it had on their generation and culture. "What did you do in the War?" was a common question even during my childhood, a full twenty years later. And WWII movies were still a booming business in 1964, when 633 Squadron was released.

The film is based on a 1956 novel of the same name, which draws from several real events and missions during WWII.  It holds the distinction of being the first aviation film shot in color and Panavision.

633 Squadron tells the story of a group of fighter-bomber pilots training for and executing a special, especially dangerous mission. The squadron flies the de Havilland Mosquito, one of the most amazing and beautiful airplanes of the era.*  The Mosquito was one of the fastest planes of any kind in the war, made possible by its twin Rolls Royce Merlin engines and the fact that it was made largely of wood.  Yes, wood. The light weight and high power made it particularly graceful in flight, and it was well-loved by its two man flight crews.

de Havilland Mosquito in flight. Picture from here

The plot and characters of 633 Squadron are somewhat typical of the time. Cliff Robertson does a credible job as the hard-bitten cynical wing commander, and Maria Perschy is delicious as "the woman" (every good war movie of the day seemed to have exactly one).  There is a bit of ironic tragedy, and the film is made late enough that a bit of the horror of war is beginning to seep through the glory and righteousness typical of earlier war films, but it's not exactly Apocalypse Now.**

The real star of this movie is the Mosquito. The film includes a great deal of footage of real Mosquitoes in flight over beautiful Scottish countryside, and the planes are mesmerizing to someone who built as many models as I did as a child. George Lucas credits the primary action sequence in this movie with inspiring the "trench scene" in Star Wars.

So if you like old war movies, or are a fan of planes of the era, you should check out 633 Squadron. It's currently streaming on Netflix.

* The Supermarine Spitfire, Vought Corsair, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the North American P-51 Mustang round out my childhood top five. But the Mosquito was always my favorite.

** Also, you should watch Apocalypse Now, if somehow you have managed not to see it. Awesome movie.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Don't call me a "liberal"

I try not to write about politics any more than I can help, but recent events have agitated me to the point that I can't actually hold my tongue (or my fingers, I guess) anymore.

It seems that every time I get into a discussion with more rightward-leaning friends or acquaintances, or witness such a discussion secondhand, the phrase "you liberals are all the same" will eventually be fired, turning the discourse from the topic at hand to a question of ideology. Of course, in this case the ideological divide is pre-framed between patriotic, God-fearing Americans who believe people should take responsibility for their actions and live within their means, and homosexual socialist muslim-atheist abortion peddlers who want to drown us all in crack babies, taxes, and bureaucratic red tape. An extreme -- though sadly not unique -- example appeared yesterday on in the comments to an article on the Texas drought.

As you can see, reactionary idiotic rudeness is not limited to any single political viewpoint.

This is usually the point at which I disengage from the conversation. But just to be on the record, I want to state unequivocally that I am not a "liberal." Yes, it's true that I am happy that government exists, that they make sure our railroad tracks are all the same size, and that no one feeds us dog meat and calls it beef.* I believe in liberal ideals like "science" and "education," and I somehow manage to see the economy as a part of our environment, instead of the other way around. I like roads, and bridges, and schools, and I think I'm glad they are not all built and controlled by private companies. At least not yet.

Speaking of roads, bridges, and schools, people build fortunes using our public roads and bridges, the government-developed internet, and labor from our public schools, colleges, and universities. Their overseas interests are protected by our federally funded armed forces. I take some issue with those same people acting like they did it all themselves, and that any attempt to reclaim some of their profits to continue funding that infrastructure is somehow immoral.

And admittedly I find it a little difficult to blame all of our problems on the poor. True, they did trick the banks into signing them up for those subprime mortgages and ruin our economy, but I think that may have been a lucky shot. Mostly they seem to work hard and die early. Oh, that's right. They clog our emergency rooms and raise health care costs. And fill our privatized prisons. I almost forgot.

On the other hand, I'm okay living in an armed society, but I don't try to kid myself into thinking that it makes us safer. I think people should work if they can, though I also think it would be great if we could help create jobs for those on the edges.

I think government is best that happens closest to the people. I don't believe that government -- especially central government -- should regulate our personal behavior, child-rearing, morality, or religion to the extent that they do. And I'm more than willing to debate what level of social safety net we will provide, and what level of food, shelter, and medical services should be guaranteed to those who cannot afford to pay.

But what part of thinking that government should stay out of people's medical decisions advances the idea of the nanny state? Why is government subsidizing higher populations, crappier food, or overseas companies in my interest as an American? Why is it so patriotic to give away our shared resources to multinational corporations, allow them to do whatever damage they desire exploiting them, and then socialize the cost of cleaning up their mess? And what part of "small government" requires us to maintain a military presence in over 130 countries?

European social democracies -- as we know, the most evil of all forms of government -- tend to have taxes about twice as high as what we pay (or are supposed to pay) in the U.S. But every business owner knows what they are getting in exchange for that money. They don't have to pay health insurance premiums. They don't pay for retirement benefits or disability insurance. They don't pay separately for infrastructure that the government provides. They pay less for well qualified workers than comparable American companies, even though the cost of living is higher.

What do we get in return for our tax money? The biggest chunk goes to hospitals and doctors who work around the clock to help eighty-eight year olds survive to be eighty-eight and a half. It goes to pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs here for ten times what is paid in other countries for the same compound, because insurance will pay it. The prices are justified to cover their R&D costs, because no one can live without a cure for Restless Leg Syndrome, Low-T, or any of the other made-up ailments about which we are supposed to "ask our doctor." The truth is that in their rush to be the first to market, pharmaceutical companies pay for full scale trials of huge numbers of drugs that turn out to be neither safe nor effective, instead of taking the slower but massively less expensive route of small preliminary trials. It's far easier to make up ailments for drugs that make it through the process than it is to create drugs from scratch that treat something we care about.

The next biggest chunk goes to defense contractors to develop advanced weapons that will never be needed, perform studies that show we need them, build computer and communications systems to control them, and (increasingly) provide private soldiers to supplement our depleted armed forces. We burn tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of gallons of fuel per day to drop $20,000 bombs from $50 million dollar airplanes onto sheep herders and farmers who live mostly without electricity. Increasingly, this work is done by fighter pilots in bunkers in the U.S. flying unmanned drones a world away. The percentage of our country's defense budget that goes to soldiers and their families is pitifully small.

For that matter, why is it only about money? Surveys and studies consistently find that -- beyond a certain subsistence level -- money is not what makes people happy. It's family, and fellowship, and good health. Safe streets and good schools. Culture, nature, and a sense of belonging. Why aren't we pursuing these things as a nation, as well as economic growth?

Please ask yourself these questions. I would love to hear any answers that don't involve personal insults or vague cultural stereotypes. Just don't call me a liberal.

* I'm disgusted enough at the stuff they do let people feed us.  Mechanically separated chicken anyone? I would hate to think what would happen if government were much smaller. Also, before the Civil War, every railroad company laid tracks of whatever size fit their own locomotives. It was only possible to drive to the edge of their territory without moving everything to a different train.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Miss Manners

Image from here

Biscuit has been reading The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness : a Complete Handbook for the use of the Lady in Polite Society, on her Kindle. It was written by a Florence Hartley around 1873, it was free, and it is apparently a laugh riot. Almost every night she regales me with some helpful hint for planning a soirĂ©e, arranging one's calendar for receiving callers, or addressing invitations for ladies of every situation. That is, as long as your situations are limited to rich and single or rich and married. Maybe rich and widowed; she didn't read that part.

I used to read the local newspaper most every day, back when people did that sort of thing. I would scour the front section pretty thoroughly, skim the local, sports, and entertainment sections, generally saving the comics and columns for last. One of my favorite columns -- after Dave Barry, of course -- was Miss Manners.

I never read Miss Manners as a youth, assuming that it was all about which fork to use, and whether white could be worn after Labor Day. I started reading in the 1980's when every twenty-something with a Volvo* believed they were only days from being invited to the Carringtons' for cocktails and sex. So we all had to buy Cuisinarts, wear LaCoste and Docksiders, and learn which was the proper spoon for snorting cocaine.

I was generally well-mannered. My parents had made sure I knew to say please and thank you, and not to spit in mixed company or fart at the table. My father was a big believer in chivalry, and tried to make sure I treated women with respect. They even sent me to cotillion. But my paternal grandfather was a working class house builder and my mother's father was a subsistence farmer and country schoolteacher. Neither of my parents probably ever saw a teaspoon growing up, much less a fish knife or finger bowl. I definitely had a few things to learn before I was ready for dinner at Sardi's.

Image from here

Imagine my surprise when I learned that most of Judith Martin's column was not dedicated to the arcane niceties of upper crust society at all. Sure, there were questions about whether fried chicken could be eaten with the fingers,** but most of the questions were split between examples of people trying to exert more control over others than is proper ("How do I ask people to give me cash for my wedding?"), and people asking impolite questions ("How do I ask a friend if they are pregnant/gay/happy with the present I gave them?). Our Miss Manners always took the offender firmly -- but politely -- to task, whether it was the "Gentle Reader," or the party from whom the writer had taken offense.

It was her response to impolite questions that stuck with me the most. This is partly because I hadn't really thought of innocent questions as potentially impolite before, and because restraint from such inquiries seems to be so commonly honored in the breach. It is striking how much of what we think of as politeness and good manners is specifically engineered to avoid such interrogations.

Many of the people who wrote feeling offended had actually been guilty of asking such questions or trying to find a polite way to do so. Our patient columnist pointed out repeatedly that a question is an aggressive type of speech -- a sort of command in reverse. It says "tell me what I want to know," and can place significant pressure on the recipient, causing immediate friction and often eliciting a defensive response. In many cases, the questioner receives an answer they do not wish to hear. "Does this make me look fat?" is a classic example.

This applies almost universally to any form of the question, "Why?" (or "why not?"). I have tried to think of an occasion when this might be appropriate, and the only possibility I can come up with might be, "Why would you ask me that?"  The "why" question is invariably asked in response to information that the questioner does not wish to accept on its face. The explanation will probably be impossible to politely express, none of the questioner's business, or more likely, both. It's a child's question, and it is difficult not to be patronizing in one's answer.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that there is virtually always a (more) polite way to provide someone with an opportunity to salve our insecurities, satisfy our curiosity, or fulfill whatever other motivation we have for asking questions. Instead of asking, "Do you like my haircut?" a person can simply remark that they have had a haircut, leaving their companion free to either offer a compliment (if they like it) or (otherwise) bring up their own hair appointment the following week. If you can't think of a polite way to provide a hint, the question is probably not appropriate, no matter how close a friend is your companion. The polite way will not always get the result you want, but you are more likely to get what you are due, and less likely to cause offense in either direction.

I focused on this practice for years, but I'm afraid I may have lost some of the habit recently. Curiosity is a necessary trait for a researcher, and questions are our stock in trade. It is easy to blur the line between "Why did you write it this way?" and "What on Earth made you buy those shoes?"

Also, you should not be too nice to your servants. Apparently, it spoils them.

* The term "yuppie" is a good example of the attitude of the time. "Young, upwardly mobile professional" was another way of saying "middle class nobody who thinks they are on the way to becoming a fabulously well to do person of consequence." Today we tend to call such people "in foreclosure."

** I don't exactly recall the answer, but I think it centered on what sort of dinnerware was provided. It still seems to be a matter of some dispute.