Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Flippin' the Bird" is Protected Speech

And it should be!

Maybe you just assumed that the hand signal for "f--- off" is protected speech under the law. After all, what's more American than for no other reason than you want to...looking someone in the eye, raising your hand and flipping them the middle finger? How could that not be "free speech?"

Well, today it appears we've received some clarification on the issue as a U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania found in favor of a guy who gave the bird to a motorist and a cop. The judge said that the gesture was a non-verbal expression protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Click here for a report on this from ace legal writer and blogger, Robert Ambrogi.

In the end, I'm certainly not in favor of giving the finger to people...but by God, when the time is right and the need is there, I'm glad to know that it's my right protected by the Constitution.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

W Writes a Book

I read today that George W. Bush is writing a book about key decision points in his life and presidency.

Story here.

There are a lot of cynical, snide and snarky things one could say about the rich irony of this given how bad W's presidency was and how clearly he has shown that his intellect and critical thinking skills are poor.

But I won't.

No, I think Bush's project is all about trying to soften the heavy blow history will deal him in assessing his presidency and his character. See here for a short list of why I think he'll be judged the worst U.S. president in the nation's history.

Unlike Bill Clinton who literally needed money to pay off debts after his tenure as president ended, Bush has been spectacularly wealthy since the moment he was born. So, no, this isn't about money.

Rather, I think it's Bush's attempt to use hindsight and spin to try and justify the litany of decisions he's made.

We'll see what the book ends up doing, but I dare say that for all of Bush's self-satisfying explanations there are a lot of people whose lives have been ended, ruined or seriously set back around the world specifically because of the "decision points" Bush faced and the choices he made at those times. Those people won't be buying that book - literally and figuratively.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Music You Like - It Has to Start Somewhere

As a baby born in 1969, a child who grew up in the 1970s and who came of age in the 1980s, experiencing music was much more difficult than it is now. I mean, you know, there was no iTunes, no Internet, no nothing in in the late 70s and early 80s other than just radio and the record store. So, to find your groove and what rang true took quite a bit of effort.

With that in mind, in my suburban Bellevue, WA existence...I had no concept of nor any access to exotic stuff like the New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, Hanoi Rocks, Social Distortion, the Velvet Underground, Stooges, MC5, or any number of other great alternative bands. Those acts might as well resided on the planet Pluto. The just were just not visible to me. Instead, 90 percent of what you heard was stuff like Duran Duran, Foreigner, Journey, Michael Jackson, Pat Benetar, the Cars, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Rush, Genesis and groups seeking to clone one of these act.

Within the remaining 10 percent, what did stick out to me were bits of lyric that rung true, a sound unlike what else is on the radio, a rebellious look or attitude. Within the narrow context of what I could actually hear on a daily basis, these were the things that struck me as different than the mainstream and what I gravitated to. Not sure why, but that's what happened. There were a few albums that really punched trough to me at that time...and in hindsight served as "gateway" records that opened up a whole world of music later in high school and well beyond. Anyone who loves music has the same story I am sure.

Below I've listed four albums that did this for me. They date from the period of time when I really started to pay attention to music in any serious sense - 1979-1983. These are not highbrow selections that prove "I knew what was happening" back then or that I had some sort of instinct for cool music. No, I suspect they are rather pathetic. Rather, these are the faves I connected with on an instinctual basis. The best you could do was hear something on the radio and check it out at the record store or find something similar. If your were adventurous, you could head to the U-District or Capitol Hill in Seattle to try to find an import. That was it. Based on what I heard on the four albums below, I did this.

While there are more than four albums that I could list as important to opening up new channels and interests in music for me from those days, here are four FOR SURE that did do that for me. Their value lies not in there own quality compared to some other more spicy acts, but instead in their ability to slice through the dearth of the mainstream and inspire an American suburban white boy that there was more out there than the norm...and inspire him to look deeper.

So, without further adieux, here are the four albums that back in the very early 1980s that really cut through and made an impression on me:

Billy Idol - Don't Stop
Ah, Billy Idol. Time has not necessarily solidified him as a rock great, but at the same time he was a clear standout in the early 1980s. His songs were on the radio and his videos were playing on this new thing called MTV. Remember when MTV played videos?

Anyway, Billy's attitude, lyrics, the aggressive nature of his, they were all very appealing. And, at a time when most teenagers were walking around trying to look like a member of Ratt, Def Lepard or (on the other extreme) Duran Duran...Billy's spikey blond hair and torn shirts look really struck me as cool. When his Don't Stop EP (EP was a term for a short record of 4-5 songs) came out with Money Money, Baby Talk, Untouchables know it...Dancing With Myself I was smitten. I quickly learned that Billy had previously been the singer in a London punk band called Generation X. This lead me to check out as many of these groups as I possibly could. As a result I found my all time favorite group, The Clash. Also, I discovered the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Damned, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division and many more.

Stray Cats - Built for Speed
Rock and roll stared in the U. S. of A. and when it did it was a combination of country and "jump blues" that came to be called rockabilly.

In the early 1980s The Stray Cats championed a revival of this type of music with a New Wave/Punk dressing. And I loved it. There was something about the cool guitar sound, the rebel attitude, slicked up and back hair and tunes about girls and cars that just sounded so cool to me. By listening to these lyrics and reading interviews with singer Brian Setzer, I was introduced the older rockabilly artists such as Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more.

And, I started to take Elvis Presley seriously. In the 19070s and after his death, he was kinda an over-the-hill joke. But, listening to the Stray Cats got me to revisit his Sun Records and early RCA output, and I am a big fan now. I never got to see the Stray Cats in concert back in the 1980s, but many years later I saw them live as they toured through Seattle in 2007.

AC/DC - Back in Black
I remember in my freshman year in high school a classmate who was, shall we say, very New Wave said to me one morning..."look, I hate metal, but you HAVE TO have Back in Black by AC/DC. It's a must."

Hearing this from a guy who was sporting a Flock of Seagulls hairdo made an impact. For sure, I'd already heard Shook Me All Night Long and Hells Bells. But, based on this dude's comment I went out and bought that Back In Black cassette tape (that's what you bought back in those days you youngsters reading this) within a week. Later, I would become friends with a guy named Doug who was a huge AC/DC fan and between Mr. Flock of Seagulls and Doug I came to love AC/DC. This is good enough on it's own. But, it also opened my mind to other types of hard rock and heavy metal. Getting to love AC/DC led to other explorations by me into Metallica, Guns 'N Roses, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and a few other bands of that ilk.

Oingo Boingo - Only A Lad
I had never heard of Oingo Boingo. Some of you may not of either...even to this day.
But one afternoon after a long freshman day in high school, I bummed a ride home after school with a friend of a friend named Eric. He put in a tape (again, remember cassette tapes were it(!) then) called Only A Lad by this group called Oingo Boingo. Well, this was something different. The combination of driving beat, quirky lyrics about "nothing wrong with the capitalism," being "on the outside" or "faceless surgeons armed with razors cutting out our imaginations" frantically delivered by Danny Elfman along with the horns, guitar and sax of the band created a manic stew that was impossible to ignore. This led me to check out their entire set of albums...and you should too. To me, Oingo Boingo was the great doorway to alternative music. I'm not talking about punk here, but rather the truly strange underground music scene that never gets airplay on the radio but sells out live shows everywhere it goes.

I also have to give a special call-out to my high school friend Scott N (last name withheld to protect the not-so-innocent) for introducing me to "deep Beatles" and the Stones. Yes, I had heard all the early stuff like I Want to Hold Your Hand, Satisfaction and such, but Scott had the real goods...he had Sergent Peppers, the White Album, Sticky Fingers and more. The insertion of this channel of music really turned me on to not only the more interesting later output by the Beatles an Stones, but also other acts such as The Kinks, Van Morrison, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others. Thanks Scott!

So there you go...four records and one guy who introduced me to albums of music that opened up my mind, my interests and my wallet to new forms of music that have served me so very well through the years.

Do you have a similar story? I'd love to know what albums set you off on your musical ventures.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Carolla Goes to Podcast

Earlier this week I wrote about how the Adam Carolla radio show was canceled, and my lament about the loss of another example of great free entertainment. 

I also wondered aloud what alternatives to regular radio are for access to quality, free broadcasts.

Well, looks like Carolla wasted no time.

I noticed today that he has free podcasts available on iTunes and other places. 


"W-Villes" Have Arrived

I heard a story on the radio today about the sharp increase in "tent cities" in urban areas across the United States. 

While these type of homeless settlements, if you will, certainly existed before our recent economic downturn...the issue today is that there are beginning to be more of them as more and more people lose their homes and possessions. As the cold hard reality of the bad economy takes hold in larger numbers than we've seen in a long, long time, shelters are full up. So what do you do? 

Back in the Great Depression of the 1930s, similar settlements sprung up too. They were dubbed "Hoover-villes" after the Republican president Herbert Hoover whose administration ushered in the depression. 

Maybe we ought to call the influx of tent cities today, "W-villes." Or mabye "Decider-villes."

I've Entered the "Name Your Dream Assignment" Photo Contest

I have entered three ideas into the "Name Your Dream Assignment" photo essay contest.

The winner of the contest will get $50,000 to help make their winning dream assignment happen.

You can view (and vote!) on my ideas by clicking here.

As background, you can see my online portfolio of pictures by clicking here.

Thanks for your support.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Time for Pirate Radio Again?

I read today that the Adam Carolla show has been cancled, and the reasons for it have me thinking that the time has come again for pirate radio.

Don't know who Carolla is? Don't know why his show has been cancled? Never heard of pirate radio? Wonding what the hell I'm talking about?

Well let me explain...

First, Carolla. He is a comedian and actor who has been on TV (The Man Show, Crank Yankers, Family Guy, Dancing With the Stars), in movies (The Hammer) and on the radio (Loveline, Adam Carolla Show) for many years.

Up and until this week, he had his own nationally syndicated radio show on LA-based station KLSX FM. It's been a long running, moring drive time comedy and talk show in which everyday life is disected and commented upon. With features like, "The Week in Rage," "Gay Walking," "Deaf Frat Guy," "Will Angie Eat It?" and many others...Carolla delivers his world weary, no-nonsense, whip smart brand of humor that speaks to me and a lot of other people as the show enjoyed good ratings. High brow entertainment? No. Make you laugh out loud live while you're driving to work? Most definately. But in any case, if you like it or not is not the point.

Next, his show has been cancled because the station is going through difficult economic times. Which, given all that's happening in the economy, is understandable. Advertisers are pulling back or pulling out. Bills (and talent) are increasingly hard to pay for stations. So, I get it on one level.

However, the station's choice of new format tells the bigger tale I think. The station is not folding. Oh no. Rather, it is moving to a pre-programmed, all-music format. That means no DJs or on-air personalities and an automated playlist. So yes, much cheaper to produce. This is a trend that started in radio and TV well before the current economic troubles as media companies (like most companies) seek maximum profit in as short a time as possible. And now of course, it's worse. Not to mention, when the economy turns around, I doubt these stations will give up their "cost efficient" models and go back to live, in-studio programming.

The upshot is a drastic reduction in original, live and free entertainment such as the Carolla show. Nope, just pre-programmed fodder. To get quality talk or music you like, increasingly you have to pay for it - usually through a satelite radio subscritpion. You can see the same thing happening on TV. Where the best shows? HBO and Showtime. Premium paid channels. And for every Damages or maybe No Reservations-type shows on basic cable there is a daily universe of horrible programs on regular cable...most of which is cheaper to produce than dramas, commedies or movies.

So anyway, this is a disturbing trend that is not good for society I think. I mean, we're less well off without access to free, live entertainment via the radio and TV. Seriously. Our culture is moving from a bold and creative one to a dumbed down, pre-programmed dull society...unless you pay extra. Not good.

And this trend brings me to the next item...

Pirate radio. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s there was a thing called pirate radio in the UK becasue in part radio programming in the nation was so horrible. It was a situation in which some people got together, scaped up some boradcasting equipment, got together some personalities and some records and a few boats. Yes, boats. They then stationed these boats in the English Channel out of British or any national jurisdiction and used them as a platform to broadcast music and shows that people actually wanted to hear rather than BBC-controlled broadcasts. I think there's a movie coming about about it sometime later this year actually.

Anyway, the Carolla situation got me thinking...maybe with Web technology and all being what it's time for some pirate radio 2009 style. That's the spirit we need.

I think we're in a weird period here where traditional radio is less and less interesting and more and more commercial, but while technologies like podcasting and streaming audio and video exist, they are not mainstream enough yet...or at least as easily accessed as regular radio or cable TV.

But none the less, the foundational elements of free, live and compelling entertainment are here today.  So, how to create original, live audio content that can get to the masses easily for free? What is today's equivalent of those pirate radio boats?

I think the Web is indeed the answer. I think that as radio and TV go down in quality and diversity, we'll see little by little, more and more people or groups creating their own content and posting it online as streaming broadcasts, video "webisodes," podcasts and more.  And, as technology continues to advance I think that online content will be easier to get in your car, home and work...more than from a PC or even cellphone. Online will be where the action is rather than the airwaves. 

Sure, you'll still be able to pay for good stuff on satellite radio or cable TV, but at least the creative juices will continue to flow for everyone thanks to the free and open Web.

Let me know if you disagree.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

100 Posts from The Western Front

This post is the 100th entry on The Western Front blog since I started it back in April 2008. (Picture at left from

In that time, I've averaged about nine posts per month - focusing primarily on subjects such as politics, music, travel, photography, food, entertainment and a few other odds and ends.

I hope you've enjoyed what you've read or viewed here, even if you don't always agree with what I've said or like what I've posted.

The goal I have for this blog is to use my first hand experiences and time spent considering certain topics to create posts that deliver one or more of the following:

  • Provoke thought
  • Share knowledge and opinions
  • Share photography
  • Have a good time

So, if you read The Western Front regularly, my hope is that after 100 posts, you have checked out some new music that you would not normally have come across, that you are hearing some political ideas that maybe run differently than yours to at least ponder (or if you agree with me you're getting your fill of my preaching to your choir), that you've viewed some pictures from around the world that you've not seen before, that you've gotten tips on some good restaurants and movies, that you feel like you've read some entertaining essays or opinions on society that make you think, and that you've had a few laughs.

The one year anniversary of this blog is coming up in about six weeks. I'll be playing around with some new formats to see if I can update The Western Front with a new look for the next 12 months. And, I'll re-cap the "Best of The Western Front" around that time too.

In the meantime, let me know if you want to know if there's something you want to know more about.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Psycological Cost of Layoffs

Companies around the U.S. are laying people off in record numbers - more than 3.6 million since the recession began, and 560,00 in January 2009 alone.

The U.S. unemployment rate is at 7.6%.

The number of people seeking unemployment is 5 million.

But those are all numbers. They neatly quantify things in an all-too-easy way that lets those of us not laid off (yet) shake our heads, complain a little and move on - perhaps hoping we're not next, but generally disassociating "us" from "them." Numbers help us do that.

However, I think the "cost" of a layoff - let alone a massive wave of them - to a person, a family, a community and a nation of people is much, much more than numbers.

On a psychological level for the individual, we're taking about legitimate trauma. Why me? Why now? What did I do? I must not be very good at what I do. How will I be able to pay my bills? What if I cannot? Will I have to sell my house? Car? What about my kids education?

A layoff causes an real and emotional crisis in a person's life. Some get over it relatively quickly, many do not. Either way...we're talking trauma here! And why? So a company that targeted 20% profit but only made 12% profit can "send a signal" to the market or Wall Street? So executives can make their bonuses anyway? Or, because as we're seeing more of now, traditionally industry giants have to cut back massively after decades of short term thinking and miss-management?

Replicate that trauma across the county in each state as companies large and small "shed cost" or "make adjustments" to meet their numbers - or in some cases actually go under.

What are the implications of so many many lives upended? I'm no psychologist, but it seems like if you've got millions of people walking around in personal crisis, unemployed and not too many opportunities to re-establish a good're gonna have some problems that don't necessarily show up in government economic reports.

And what about those people having to do the layoffs? Sure, they still have a job, but telling people their position has been eliminated knowing the economic conditions we're in and what that could mean for people...well, that can be traumatizing too unless you're a cold, corporate tool. There are probably all too many of those out there. For every one CEO who takes his $60 million bonus and divides it up between all his employees as did Leonard Abess, thousands more companies will simply toss their people aside.

In short, I think layoffs of this magnitude will have an negative psychological impact on everybody involved, and ultimately therefore an impact on our culture and well being as a country. It will be harder for us to be optimistic, harder on our personal relationships, harder for us to relate to each other, harder for us period. The potential is there for a very pessimistic and negative society. 

These are not things easily measured by numbers. However, if they occur with enough people over an extended period of time, we may see things that we can measure like more divorce rates, poorer health for our population, crime rates, lower high school and college graduation rates and others. All of this will exacerbate our all-too-well-know economic problems.

So, what is the psychological impact of layoffs of the magnitude we're seeing today? I would say it goes way beyond the typical numbers we see into areas that are not so easily packaged and dismissed.