Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Billy Mays - Sales Genius or Overexposed Blowhard?

The last dispatch of 2008 is on the weighty matter of...

Is Billy Mays a sales genius or an annoying, overexposed a-hole?

If you've watched any TV recently, you've no doubt noticed the proliferation of advertisements featuring what appears to be a pitch man for all products. I am no big TV watcher, but I can't help but notice how often he's on commercials these days. 

You know they guy I'm talking about. He's the white guy with the dark hair and beard with a REALLY loud and annoying voice. Sure, you used to see him every now and again as you flash past the 30 min. infomercials so often on TV at odd hours or over the weekend.

But now...He. Is. Everywhere.

Billy Mays is blowin' up all over the place. He can be seen 24/7 pitching everything from ESPN, hamburger grilling equipment, light switches, stain removers and much more. I personally don't want to try or buy products he's selling because he is associated with them.

Where did this guy come from? Why is he now all of a sudden the pitchman for a prolific proliferation of products?

Why do companies think he's a good pitch man? And, most importantly...why is he YELLING all the time? Is it simply a matter of the attention he can potentially grab by the sheer volume and hyper annoying pitch of his voice?

I suspect that's it. But my alternative explanation is that Billy Mays is an alien sent to this planet to slowly drive us insane. So far he is on track.

What's your opinion?

Marc's 2008 Year In Review

Hard as it to believe, another year has clipped on by. Now, humanity is looking at the end of a decade with 2009 coming up like a freight train hurtling down the tracks in a driving midnight rain on its way to an unknown destination.

The last week of any year can serve as a moment to reflect on what has happened and re-count the best and worst milestones of the previous 12 months. The media does it and I'm sure they'll recap all the key events that most of us know about or care about. 

However, life happens much closer to the street than those type of reports. With that in mind, below is my own personal rear view mirror-gazing "best events of 2008." Some of these items fit into bigger issues, news and the ways of the world, and some are just personal. But either way, they were the key points of the year just gone by to me. Maybe you'll agree with some of these or see common ground with events in your own life this past year.

Marc's 2008 Year In Review:

Another year of wedded bliss. Seriously, Diane and I have a great marriage, but you know, you have to say that keeping a relationship going well over the years requires work. Making it to our eleventh year as a married couple (14 together total) in 2008 is definitely a big deal. To celebrate, we spent a weekend together in New York City - eating, drinking, site seeing and shopping our hearts out for two fun-filled days in early October. 

Our trip to China. What can I say? This was a major highlight of 2008 for Diane and me. We traveled all the way to China, saw the major sites one thinks of (Great Wall, Forbidden City, Buried Terracotta Army, Shanghai, etc.) But, it was better than that for us because we got off the beaten tourist track to hike and bike areas visitors don't normally go. And, we did it with a very small group of people and formed new friendships from that experience too. A full re-cap of our adventures with links to photos is available here.

Barrack Obama elected President of the United States of America. This was huge for me, and I believe the nation. After eight years of...being kind here...very, very poor leadership and judgement from George W. Bush and the Republican Party, America was in an equally sad and predictable hole and change had to come. Fortunately for us, the change came in the form of Obama and his appeal to our better natures and higher aspirations for our families, our communities and our country. The alternatives of more of the same in for form of a McCain presidency or turning the clocks back to the 1990s with the Clinton crowd (who, to be fair had a pretty dang good track record) were both pretty unappealing - at least to me. Instead, we got something new. At last, a 21st century leader with progressive ideas and agenda. 

I have lots of posts on this blog about Obama and the election, so check those out if you want. I think when it's all said and done, the presidential election will prove to be the most important event for more people on this planet than any other single happening. I believe - and lets hope - it is all for the best.

I met Mick Jones from The Clash. The show is reviewed in my article here. But, the reason it makes my 2008 best-of list is that Mick is a guy whose career and exploits I've followed and admired for some time, and he started my favorite band of all time, The Clash. So, meeting him - even just to say hello, thank him for the show and good memories and urge him to continue recording - was a big highlight of my year.

Weathering the recession - so far. I still have a job. So does Diane. That cannot be said for a disturbingly increasing number of Americans as wave after punishing wave of economic realities blast through the sugary false foundations of "capitalism" as envisioned and championed by big business, the rich and their lackeys in DC. Despite this, I'm cautiously optimistic about 2009. Fingers crossed. 

Re-connecting with old friends. 2008 proved to be great year for re-connecting with some very important people from my youth. These friendships were re-kindled through two primary means - my 20 year high school reunion and Facebook. Reunions are traditionally places to re-meet people you spent 3-4 years with back when you were teenagers and re-live some of the glory days...and maybe if you're lucky...you become friends again with a couple of those people. For me, I re-connected with (upon reflection) my best friend from high school through the reunion. So, chalk up the reunion as worth it for me this time.

The other way I found long lost friends was Facebook. Now, I'm not big into online social networking as I think anyone who looks in on those networks can see that a lot of people apparently have a LOT of time on their hands to update the world on their every movement, thought and picture of themselves - a major display of narcissism is evident all over the place. However, I did join Facebook on a whim as I was trying to find out more about online networking for my job. But I have to say, I'm glad I did as I've re-connected with some lost friends from high school, college and previous jobs. The technology works for me as I'm able to see what these people are up to, interact with them and keep some level of friendship going. And, in a couple of cases, actually meet up and re-ignite friendships. 

Mortality reinforced. 2008 proved to be a year of loss that sent a clear message that our mortality is all too real and fleeting. On Diane's side of the family one of her cousins, Glen, and her grandmother, Louise, both died. Glen's death was much more unexpected at 53 years of age, however, both people played a significant role in the life of the family and their loss leaves a hole. 

We all think we're going to live to be 90-something and die peacefully in our sleep after a long, rich life...but each year deaths like these keep proving this notion wrong. You think you know, but you don't know. Diane and I will miss the departed, but also take it as a lesson to live life as best and as full as you can now. Enjoy the people you know, explore, don't live in fear, learn, love and have as good at time as possible when you can.

Our trip to Banff, Canada. I put this trip on the list for 2008 for several reasons. First, the astounding natural beauty (pictures I took can be seen here) of the area served as a strong reminder of how wonderful and fragile our plan is. Second, that same beauty provided the backdrop and playground for us to hike, sight see and enjoy the "great outdoors" as we so much love to do. And third, we went there over the U.S. Fourth of July holiday weekend. This in and of itself provided some context for reflection which can be read in my post here

Discovering Matt's In The Market and Senor Moose Cafe restaurants. If variety is the spice of life, then finding great new restaurants helps build the diversity and power of that "spice." Or at least that's one way of saying that discovery a new place to eat (at least new to us) is one our favorite things. In 2008, there were several such discoveries, but the top two were Matt's In The Market in downtown Seattle and The Senor Moose Cafe in Ballard. 

Matt's is a classy but hip space overlooking the Pike Place Market with a menu that is equal parts innovative and delectable. Whether it's sea scallops, duck, lamb, salmon or one of the many other selections on offer, Matt's serves up a very memorable palate of flavors you'll be talking about long afterwards. The other "new" discovery worth writing about is Senor Moose. Billed as "Mexican Mexican Food," I can't disagree that the chef's approach is much more true to what you'd get in a restaurant frequented by locals in Mexico than the upscale and revisionist Mexican on offer in other places in Ballard and nationally. The Moose is a small, friendly and homey place with a friendly manager/bartender, amble seating at the counter and a huge menu offering exquisite flavors and spices that will have you coming back. No reservations, and sometimes you have to wait...but have one of their delicious margaritas while doing so to take the edge off and begin to ponder the menu for what you'll order when your time comes. Check this place out.

My new iMac. I hesitated to put this one on the list as it may come off as a bit materialistic..."I got a new iMac." But, I decided to include it because it has been a springboard for me doing a lot of new things this year that I really, really enjoy. In particular, using the great tools and features of the Mac and related software for the Mac, I've started this blog, scanned and cataloged my old film negatives into high resolution digital files and created my Flickr Photostream...which in turn has resulted in getting a couple of my pictures published. Each year, I try to do new things. You know, broaden my horizons or do something I've wanted to for a long time. The iMac has been key to this in 2008, so at the risk of sounding like a shill for Apple...getting their computer is in fact a highlight of my year.

So there you have it. Ten highlights of my hear. Sure, there were other thrills and wonderful happenings along the way, but in the end I feel that a year in which you're on balance, happy, healthy, employed, trying new things, meeting new people, and rewarded for your curiosity can be counted as a good one.

By those measures, I'd rate 2008 - stresses and all - as a pretty dang good year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 Concerts Year-In-Review

OK, so it's down to the heart of the holidays. You've seen the family, opened the presents, eaten the meal, drunk the wine and taken a nap. At this point, you may start getting a bit bored or looking for an excuse not to have to spend even five more minutes with those "special" relatives. 

For a few moments respite to fill in the dull moments or to offer a handy excuse for a quick break from family time, below is a little slice of action from 2008 to keep you entertained...my year-in-concerts reviews. Happy holidays and enjoy!

Marc's 2008 Year-In-Concerts Holiday Review Special
2008 was not a banner year for concerts for the simple reason that I didn't go to very many. By my count, I went to only five. I like live music more than that, so I'll be shooting for more shows in 2009. Meanwhile, my wife Diane hit a few that she really wanted to go to as well.

With that said, here are show reviews for 2008:

A new group started by Mick Jones - the guitarist in The Clash who wrote and sang some of their great songs such as Train In Vain and Should I Stay or Should I Go. He also was the main force behind 80s and 90s dance/rock band Big Audio Dynamite. Anyway, starting a year or two ago, he and old buddy
Tony James (founding member of punk band Generation X and also Sique, Sique Sputnik) got together and started Carbon/Silicon to record and tour. The band is basically a straight ahead rock band, but one with Mick-freaking-Jones as the guitarist and singer. This ensures intelligent lyrics, great guitar and a quality band. (Photo below from the Virgin Music Web site.)

And so it was when my friend Sean and I saw them at the very small Seattle venue of Chop Suey as the band toured to support its album, The Last Post. In my opinion, this is the best way to see a show - a major talent in a very small venue for cheap ($20/ticket). Not only was it exciting for me to see one of my rock heroes up close and personal in a crowded little club, but the show was really a blast with the band clearly enjoying themselves while delivering a healthy dose of rock and roll.

As an added bonus, the opening act was Matt Pond PA. I'd heard of this band before, but never actually heard them. None the less, I was really impressed with their set - so much so that I promptly went out and bought their two most recent releases. I'd recommend you do too.

Finally, this show ranks up there for me all time because afterwards I actually met Mick Jones, shook his hand, chatted quickly and thanked him for the show.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy The Last Post CD and see this band if they come to your city. Also, buy the Several Arrows Later CD by Matt Pond.

Every summer, the Seattle Woodland Park Zoo holds a series of outdoor concerts featuring family-friendly artists. Since we live in walking distance to the zoo, we made plans with friends to see one of the shows. (Photo below from post by Kirstie Shanley on the blog Radio Free Chicago.)

As hundreds of sensible upper middle class white people settled in on the lawn and as their throng of rambunctious children ran around freaking out, Andrew Bird and his band diverted my attention away from the weirdness of this crowd to focus on his unique blend of folk, rock, country and - even - whistling. This guy is good, unique and passionate.

For these reasons, I give his part of the show a big thumbs up.

I don't remember who else played that evening. Guess that tells you something about the rest of the program.

RECOMMENDATION: Check out Bird on iTunes and find some of his tunes you like. See him in concert if he comes to your city.

I've been a 'Chain fan for a long time, but never seen the brothers Reid in concert. To put it bluntly, my friend Paul and I were really disappointed in this show. (Photo below taken by Chris at MusicSnobbery.)

The band underwhelmed with a "phone it in" performance at the warehouse-like venue of the Showbox SoDo.

No energy, no between song banter, no improvisation, no nothing. It was just the destinct sound of guys who - despite knowing that all they can do in this world to make any kind of money is tour their now old band- still couldn't be bothered.

What a waste.

It was such a bad show that I haven't listened to them on my iPod in the more than five months since the show.

RECOMMENDATION: Do not bother seeing this band live. Not worth it. However, do buy their Darklands CD. Very worth it.

Less than a week after the crappy Jesus & Mary Chain show, Paul and I returned to the Showbox SoDo to hear Kinks-man Ray Davies in his mostly acoustic, some electric performance.

Wow! What a difference a few days makes. As Paul says, "this man is a rock star" and he delivered the goods with a mix of his classic Kinks-era tunes with his recent songs to a capacity crowd. He engaged with the adoring audience, telling stories and setting up songs. (Photo at left from Galstonbury Festival blog.)

The topper was near the end when he walked off stage and then sauntered back on with a full "electric" band and proceeded to just RIP into a blistering version of All of the Day and All of the Night...quickly followed by an equally incendiary You Really Got Me.

To say the least, this was a great show. Not only because of its inherent quality, but because it greatly exceeded my expectations.

It also helped put the poor Jesus & Mary Chain to rest.

Visit Ray's site here to get a taste.

RECOMMENDATION: See Ray in concert! Meanwhile, his output over the years is huge, so you'll have to do some homework. I'd suggest a best of the Kinks type collection to get started. 

We had not planned on attending this show, but we're mighty glad we did. The English Beat (known simply as The Beat in the UK) are a band that you may not recognize in name, but you know their songs if you had any musical awareness in the 1980s. A combination of rock, reggae and soul, the band's sound is typically referred to as "ska" and they were among the original wave of "two tone" ska bands to come out of England in the early 80s. (Note: two tone refers to the fact that these bands had black and white members.) Upon their breakup, some members formed the group General Public and others Fine Young Cannibals.

Some of The English Beat's hits included Mirror In the Bathroom, Save It For Later, Can't Get Used to Losing You, Too Nice to Talk To and others.

(Photo from Belly Up.)

Anyway, after a great meal at the bar of Matt's on the Market, Diane, Sean and I jammed ourselves into the packed-to-the-rafters Showbox At the Market and proceeded to revel in the Caribbean by way of London beats on a Thursday night with what appeared to be every white person between the age of 35-45 in Seattle. All the hits were played and a lot of dancing ensued. All-in-all it was perhaps the most joyous show of the year. 

Oh, did I mention it was a Thursday night? Right. Well, Thursday night turned into Friday morning before we were home, and for a guy who had to lead a meeting at 7 a.m. that very same morning. This proved to be...how shall I say...a challenge. I ain't 25 any more you know. But, sometimes you just have to throw down and deal with the concequences later. Which is exactly what I did.  All went well Friday, but it was an early evening that night.

RECOMMENDATION: See this band live if they come to your city - even if it's a weeknight. Check out their "best of" on iTunes...maybe start with the songs Mirror In the Bathroom and Save It For Later and go from there.

Diane on her own didn't do too poorly for herself on the concert front either in 2008. No recommendations from me (I wasn't at these), but just the report that she saw:

Fulfilling a longstanding desire to see "Madge" in concert, Diane and a friend drove up to Vancouver, BC in Canada to see the show there.

Apparently, "M" has something against Seattle and no longer plays here.

Despite some hi-jinks with the tickets she bought via E-Bay (a warning to you all), Diane reports that it was a fantastic concert.

A full review of the show from the Vancouver Sun newspaper is here.

(Picture at left from a post by Shewritesrock at the She Writes Rock blog.)

Diane and a gaggle of her friends went to see "Gorgeous George" as he played the Key Arena in downtown Seattle. (Photo below by: Evert Elzinga/AFP/Getty Images)

By all accounts, this was a good show for those attending with a mix of old Wham! and solo hits, mixed in with some new stuff.

One drawback Diane reported was, "I could have done with fewer ballads and more dancey numbers."

So there you have it.

In 2009, I intend to review shows as they happen on this blog and then aggregate them at the end of next year. So, stay tuned. The first expected review of 2009 will be from the Glasvegas show I'm going to in early January.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Snowflake Fell and It Felt Like a Kiss

That's the title to the new Christmas EP from the band Glasvegas.

If you've read posts on this blog before you know that I'm high on this new group from Glasgow and their debut album Glasvegas.

Now, just in time for the holidays, the group have released a very unique short six song set of songs that are far more appropriate for the holidays than most you'll hear. That's because unlike most commercial exercises in appeasing the masses with happy-talk holiday pap and nostalgia, Glasvegas deliver the goods with real, emotional and searing stories of joy and depression that have their say (and their place) among the holidays. Recorded in that hotbed of all things Christmas called Transylvania with a local backing choir, this record is a treat. (Photo at left taken from The Cousin Brothers blog.)

Here's a review song-by-song:
  • Careful What You Wish For. Starting with the sound of whipping winter winds, this short song quickly moves into a longing, lamenting and beautiful refrain about how the holidays can be a lonely time. While short, this song serves as a good first track for this set musically and, mostly, lyrically.
  • Fuck You, It's Over. Ah yes, that old traditional Christmas time chestnut "Fuck You, It's Over." Great for singing with the family on Christmas Eve. Actually, when you think about it, what could be worse than breaking up with your lover during the holiday season.  And, thinking for it a moment longer, who among us hasn't spent at least one holiday season feeling the sting or remorse over a breakup. And then, for a moment further, who hasn't felt like saying to the that former girlfriend or boyfriend...regardless of time of year..."Fuck you, it's over." This song brings all this Yuletide angst together in one tidy, concise and cathartic song. Wallow in it. Love it. 
  • Cruel Moon. This is an incredibly moving and heart wrenching song about being homeless at Christmas, and how - in these trying times - how any one of us is only a few days or weeks away from being in the same predicament next holiday season. "Walk on by and I'll be fine, this cardboard cover keeps away the ghouls of the night...I shared the same dreams as you yesterday and you think this is a world away? Beware of darkness for this could be you someday...under a cruel moon." Very moving stuff intensified with piano and strings that gives one pause to think about ones one fortune and consider compassion for others at this time of year.
  • Please Come Back Home. This is the most traditional holiday song on the EP with the subject centered on a person missing his girlfriend during the holiday season. But with lines like "Our living room's a deadroom without you here" and others it just seems far more honest, real and emotional than most similarly themed songs.
  • A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss). This is a song about a person feeling down during the holiday times and "a future that's going nowhere," but his/her outlook is suddenly restored when a snowflake falls and hits like a loving kiss with all the "ringing of the bells screaming out love." All will be OK we are told and, based on the passion and honesty that this song is delivered we believe in the power of a communal holiday love to restore the human spirit. Moving stuff.
  • Silent Night. This is a pretty much straight forward version of the classic. The first part of the song is just the singer with a echoey piano for a very solitary feeling. After the first refrain, the song transitions into a choir backed section sung in the local language of Transylvania. But you already know the words, so the foreign dialect only adds to the endearing warmth of the song. Only a constant echoing, chilly winter-drenched tone in the background reminds you that this is a song produced in the 21st century.
I'm sold on this band already, but this unexpected holiday bonus really drives my admiration home. I'm told this set will be available on iTunes as of Dec. 16. I'd recommend checking it out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Bailout

Or at least Senate Republicans can't.

While I have some pretty big problems bailing out auto companies that have gone out of their way to produce sub-par products and failed to change with the times, I realize that failure of these companies will have a ripple effect as subtle as a tidal wave in the overall U.S. economy.

Today, the Rs filibustered into defeat a measure that would have secured funds for the Big Three automakers to keep them going with stipulations and oversight. And what prey tell as the Republican objections? They thought that auto workers make too much money.

All this points out a few pretty important things:

1) The Senators who voted against the measure were predominately from Southern states. Guess what? Non-union car makers (Toyota, BMW, Mercedes, etc.) are predominately based in Southern states. So, on a very transparent level, these Senators are trying to tilt the playing field for lower paid, non-union employees in their states...and naturally pump up revenue at the foreign companies who contribute to their campaigns. Country first? Hardly.

2) Republicans are still following a failed ideology. One has to wonder where today's thinking was when the big Wall Street bailout passed? Did the Republicans hold up the show because they thought white collar Wall Street workers needed to take a pay cut? Nope. Why? Fundamentally, they are anti-union, anti-worker in the belief that somehow the "free hand" of the market will make all things good. This has been painfully proven to be untrue.

3) The importance of a 60 seat majority for Democrats. You want health care reform? How about a new energy policy that not only creates millions of jobs American but cleaner air? You think that maybe we ought to do something about immigration or maybe Social Security. Well, it is NOT going to happen without the 60 seat majority.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Educational Publisher to Use One of My Pictures

The Educational Publishing Division of Times Publishing (Hong Kong) Ltd. will use my picture of the polluted Shanghai skyline in a new set of educational books and web sites to be published early next year.

Here's the picture they'll use:

(Photo: Marc Osborn)

For those interested in seeing more pictures I've taken in the last couple years, the link to a set of "selects" from my Flickr Photostream is here.

My full Photostream is accessible here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

African Animals Are On the Way

I've been using a digital SLR camera for the past couple years (Nikon D70), and I am a convert to the quality and ease of use of digital pictures. I have posted many of these pictures here on the blog and, more so, on my Flickr photostream - located here.

However, prior to 2006 I used my Nikon film SLR camera, leaving me with great prints but no quality digital versions. This has meant no easy way to share, publish or even create photo books or big prints from our trips to places like India, Spain, Africa, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and other lands.

Until now that is.

This past weekend, for my birthday, my wife bought me a high resolutions scanner capable of scanning photo negatives.

So, I'm now in the process scanning in my negatives to share them and create some new prints. First up, our trip to Africa. Should be fun.

Click here for a teaser picture - one I took of a charging elephant while in Tanzania.

I'll try and have more up on the Photostream before the holiday break at the end of this month.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Get Milk

I am not gay. I do not live in San Francisco. I was not an adult nor politically aware in the 1970s.

However, this past weekend my wife and I saw a truly inspirational movie about a San Francisco man who, in 1977, became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in America.

The movie, directed by Gus Van Sant, is titled "Milk" in reference to the real life subject of the story - Harvey Milk.

Played expertly by Sean Penn, the compelling character of Milk is portrayed beginning in his pre-San Francisco days, then on to his early efforts at organizing San Francisco's Castro district into a voting block with real power in city politics, through his early campaigns for office, delving into his personal life and continues on up to his profound victories in winning a seat on the city supervisor board as well as defeating a state-wide anti-gay rights measure.

(Photo of Harvey Milk from the Living Cinema blog.)

These were all real and important events - both personal and historical - and they were well played by actors who you completely believed. 

But, as good as all that was, I felt the movie was far more than just believable replay of events centering on gay rights. No, this movie carries more importance in my mind...transcending a single issue and moving into the broad territory of heroism and political inspiration that we should all seek to emulate or - at least - seek out as we try and build a better America in our own towns, states and country. To me, these broader themes are evident in the movie in three ways:
  1. It doesn't take an "elite" to make change happen - Milk was a everyday guy, with a regular education, with a regular job and went through the same ups and downs in relationships and with family as most people. However, he had the backbone to do something when he saw wrong happening in his neighborhood, his city and his nation. That "wrong" was the way gay Americans are treated by their fellow citizens and by the government - denying them the same basic rights against discrimination among other things.

  2. The right thing to do for one group is the right thing to do for everyone - Milk's message became broad. While he plainly said his political efforts were primarily focused on gay rights, he also acknowledged that it became more than that. Society has discriminated and dis-empowered gays, but it has also done so to minorities, the unemployed, the poor, seniors and others. In the end, Milk was carrying the banner for these other under-represented groups and said so. To me, this was very appealing aspect of his character and how his political ideas evolved.

  3. Relevance -  Broadly speaking, important change takes time and typically involves struggles requiring inspiring leaders. The issue of gay rights, and human rights really, has just as much relevance today across the country as they did in the 1970s. Think of all the state initiatives to ban equal rights (employment, housing, benefits, military service, etc.) for gays or to establish them, to ban marriage for gays or to recognize, that come up every election cycle. And, think about how much debate, heat, hate and love those contests bring to the surface...including the best recent example of Prop 8 in California. So, Milk's fight goes on today.

Sadly, Harvey Milk is no longer with us. For those of you who have not seen the movie or heard of Milk before, I won't spoil why that is for you because I think learning this fact on your own is important...offering up further evidence of how difficult it can be to make change in the U.S.A. and the lengths some will go to try and stop it.

My bottom line on this movie is - do yourself a favor and see it and judge for yourself.