Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween...the Real Dracula

Happy Halloween everybody. As you prepare your children to go trick-or-treating or perhaps prepare yourself for some Halloween partying, I thought I'd share with you some pictures I took of the real Dracula that I took when we visited Romania in 2011.

Bust of Vlad Dracula in Sigishoara, Romania
That's right people, Dracula was a real person. However, he was not a vampire of course. Rather, he was an extremely brutal, extremely bloodthirsty (in the traditional sense, not literally) dictator of the part of Romania that is now Wallachia and Transylvania. His name was Vlad Dracula and also known as Vlad Tepes...which translates to "Vlad the Impaler." Yep. He gruesomely impaled his enemies on huge spikes among other nasty violence.

Check out my set of Dracula pictures HERE. You can see a bigger set of shots I took on our trip to Romania HERE.

Meanwhile, the quick background on how the real Dracula had his name attached to the now famous fictional vampire character is that author Bram Stoker knew of Vlad's history and how bloody his methods of ruling were and he simply took the name and applied it to his fictional "Count Dracula"vampire character. Stoker also knew of the superstitions and legends of vampires in Translyvania, so he set the Count's home there.

Finally, if you're interested, you can read about our adventures in Romania by clicking HERE to get to my "On the Trail of Dracula" series.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Highest Paid Public Employees Are...???

Anyone who reads this blog knows I like sports, all kinds of sports. Football, basketball, running, soccer and professional bike racing are my primary interests. They are competitive, compelling and the ultimate "reality TV" programming. And in the case of running, something I actually do myself. And, I freely admit my favorite sports to watch are those played by teams from my college alma matter - a public university.

Also, you probably have picked up that I am not exactly a rabid "small government" right winger. In other words, I'm not apt to complain about "the government" on some sort of ideological rant about its size, its supposedly inherent evils and related conspiracy theories. Sure, I bitch about state and federal government when it deserves it, but not on an ideological level.

All of which is to set up something disturbing I saw today online on the Web site Addicting Info. It's a chart created from research conducted by Indianapolis TV station WTHR-TV. It shows the highest paid public employees in each of the 50 states. Below. Guess what? In 40 of the 50 states, the highest paid public employee is a head football or basketball coach at a university. Oh, I stand corrected, New Hampshire's top paid public employee is a university hockey coach.

Check it out...

This bothers me. Yes, I like college sports. Yes, I want my school to have competitive programs for a lot of reasons. And I know that quality coaches don't come cheap. But, I also am also quite concerned that so much public money is being spent on what amounts to securing someone to orchestrate entertainment. It the form of universities, the government is spending a huge amount of money on something that is not really related to education or the betterment of society. Couldn't that money be spent on something more important for students and the nation?

The chart brings up the questions: What do we as a country actually value when it comes to higher education? Is it quality education? Is it creating young people with skills to work in today's economy? Is it research to solve problems and cure diseases? If you follow the money, you have to say no...the highest value we put on public universities is entertainment in the form of sports.

The counter-argument is that by having high paid coaches, programs can perform better on the field and therefore generate more visibility, regard and - most importantly - revenue for their respective universities. And this overall is a benefit to the institutions, students and faculty.

In the end, I understand that the market is what the market is. And, human nature is what it is. Coaches will get what they can get. Universities in this era of limited resources need to get the most bang for their buck when it comes to investing in things that will ultimately generate more revenue. And, everyday people like to watch sports - particularly those associated with where they live or where they went to school.

I guess I'd just like to see more BLUE on the above map than we're seeing now.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mona Rocks the Chop Suey in Seattle

I went to see the band Mona last night at Chop Suey in Seattle. Below is a not-so-great shot I took in the very dark club...

Mona Live in Seattle - Oct. 21, 2013
For those of you who have not heard of Mona, they're an up-and-coming rock band out of Nashville who have attained a large audience in the UK and are now trying to build one here in their home country.

You can read my review of their recently released second album HERE.

I've seen these guys a number of times in Seattle and once in NYC and they always deliver the goods - great, melodic, loud rock and roll with hints of U2, Johnny Cash, the Clash and other great acts.

And, having met the guys in the band a few times at the bar...I can also say they're cool dudes to boot.

Check 'em out.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Government Shutdown - What That Was REALLY About

So the standoff over Obamacare, the functioning of the Federal government and the debt ceiling is now over. Or, at least until January, at which time we may go through this all over again.

And the point of all that was...?

Seriously, who got what out of that saga?

Do mainstream Republicans benefit? No. Do Democrats or Obama himself "win" with this whole thing. Not really. The American public? Certainly not.

And, could the radical minority of Republicans in the House (Tea Party) really have expected the Senate and Obama to roll over on Obamacare? Not credibly or realistically.

Indeed, my belief is Tea Party Republicans never actually thought Obama and the Democrats would cave. Sure, they might have hoped they would, but that was not the goal of the Tea Party-fueled crisis this time around.

Rather, I think the Tea Party had distinct goals of their own on this action. Holding funding of the Federal government and debt ceiling hostage in an attempt to de-fund or neuter the already passed and Supreme Court reviewed Affordable Healthcare Act did four things quite nicely for the Tea Party - all related to electoral politics and power within the party. And that's why I think we saw what we did over the last month.

So well were the following things accomplished, I think they have to be considered as primary goals...

1. Establish renewed visibility for the Tea Party and a radical-right pecking order going into 2014 and 2016 elections. Had you ever heard of Ted Cruz before five weeks ago? How about some of the other Tea Partiers who got their mugs on the news? Me either. But, now the Tea Party is on everybody's mind and those interested in running the Republicans as far to the right as they possibly can now have a handful of nationally known leaders who will, without a doubt, be in line for House Speaker or running for President in upcoming elections.

2. Ferret out RINOs. One thing Tea Party Republicans hate more than Democrats are politicians they view as "Republicans In Name Only" or RINOs. The Tea Party definition of "Republican" is extremely conservative, so what most the rest of us think of Republicans would be too liberal for them. By pressing the issue they way they did over the last month, the Tea Party conference forced Republicans to take sides. Are you with the Tea Party or are you not?

And why do that? Well, midterm elections are coming up in 2014 and the well funded Tea Party leaders want to find out who to target in the primaries to try and unseat RINOs and get their own "Republicans" in office.  And if shutting down the government and threatening the world economy is how they had to do that political dirty work, that's just fine with the Tea Party.

3. Make a point to the "true believers." There's nothing like grandstanding to make a point to the constituents back home. In this case, the Tea Party Republicans have focused on a law they view as an abomination and affront to "liberty," the Affordable Healthcare Act. By drawing attention to themselves as champions against the law, they assure their constituents back home in their districts are 100 percent sure they are as right wing as they are. By extension, they offer themselves up nationally as an "alternative" certainly to Democrats but also mainstream Republicans. Personally, I think that's radically delusional, irresponsible and foolhardy too. But that's the mindset of the Tea Party.

4. Frustrate Obama and the Ds at all costs. The one unifying goal among Republicans of all stripes since the moment Obama was elected president in 2008 has been to obstruct, frustrate and undermine his and the Democrats agenda at all costs. And there is no more a fervent group against Obama than the Tea Party. So their actions over the last month are just a continuation of this very consistent strategy by conservatives. If Obama is for something, oppose it. If Obama is against something, support it. Stymie, delay, whatever it takes to slow down, alter or stop legislation or policy by the White House. Through these tactics, the Republicans are attempting to make themselves appear to be a strong alternative to Democrats come election time. Why vote Democrat if nothing ever gets done? Get it?

So there you go. Four clear objectives accomplished by the Tea Party over the past few weeks.

And all of this is bad enough as a shallow, narcissistic and detached operation by small men and women with huge egos and ambition. But if that's all that it was, you'd just shake your head and move on. But the real tragedy here is that the shut down of the government and brinkmanship over the debt ceiling  over Obamacare has impacted millions of Americans in a negative way - paychecks missed, benefits on hold, access to services cut off, access to public land eliminated and more. And, on the debt ceiling issue, you have the rest of the world watching this and becoming increasingly concerned over our financial situation and increasing dysfunction in government.

Friday, October 11, 2013

UW vs. UO...It's Been a Long Time

It's been a loooooong time since the University of Washington football team has beaten the University of Oregon on the football field. Nine years. Almost a decade.

This weekend's game is shaping up to be the Husky's best chance in the past 10 years to pull off a victory against the Ducks. Will they? Hard to say. They're not favored and the Ducks are awfully good. But, the game is at home for UW and the team is better than it has been in the last nine years.

But nine years is a long time.

To give you an idea of how long it's been since the last UW victory in this border war, cast your mind way back to a distant time called 2003. That's right, that's the last time the Huskies prevailed on the gridiron against the Ducks.

Got that timeframe in your mind?

OK, here are technologies now common in everyday life in the USA that were not around in 2003:
  • Facebook - launched the next year.
  • iPhones and iPads - still a few  years away.
  • Twitter - did not exist.
  • YouTube - that's right. No YouTube when the Dawgs beat UO last.
  • BlueRay DVDs - oh, how did we ever watch non-HD movies at home!
  • Kindle - or eReaders of any kind had not yet been introduced.
  • Digital cameras - Ok, they existed, but they were no where near as pervasive as they are now, and they certainly weren't on people's mobile phones.
Imagine life without any of those things. Barbaric. (Kidding, but get the idea.) In any case, all of those things have come to pass and into our lives since UW beat Oregon in football.

All right, how about pop culture? Back in 2003...
  • Lance Armstrong was still winning multiple Tour de France races and hailed as a hero by everyone (except the didn't take doping charges to make them hate Lance).
  • Martha Stewart had yet to be convicted of insider trading.
  • Janet Jackson had not yet to have her "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl
  • Shamwow! and the Snuggie - not. yet. invented.
  • Zumba - not around. Just saying.
  • The TV show Lost - had not started yet.
And on and on. So much has come to pass in the nine years since the UW came out winners against Oregon in football. So much.

And guess what? It's more than likely the Ducks will make it "a decade of dominance" with a win Saturday in Seattle. I'm not saying for sure they'll win, but I think it's likely. I'll be there to ether witness the turning of that decade or the downfall of the streak. Should be fun!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Manic Street Preachers Go Acoustic with New Album Rewind the Film

A few years ago, Manic Street Preachers put out a fiery album called Journal for Plague Lovers that, in my mind, truly brought that band back to life as a vital, important force in rock and roll. You can read my review of that album HERE.

Cover of Rewind the Film
Well, flash forward to last month. They did it again. Vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist/vocalist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore have delivered the goods anew. But this time it isn't aggressive, electric rock and roll with lacerating lyrics on all types of political and social issues. Nope. The new album, called Rewind the Film, is a distinctly subdued, personal and introspective affair that touches on feelings and ideas around getting older, nostalgia, missing friends and staying vital despite the inevitable changes life doles out. And, its mostly acoustic with warm guitars, horns, strings and subtle percussion creating the sound. And it's good.

Actually, "genius" in my book. No, seriously. This is a great album and proof positive that smart, adult music is still out there and comes in many forms. Throw in a couple guest lead vocals and a song sung by Wire and you've got something diverse and special. And good for the Manics for pulling back from their usual sound of the last few years to try something different.

Here is my song-by-song review of the album. At the end, I've made some recommendations on what you may want to get from Rewind the Film.

This Sullen Welsh Heart. "The hating half of me has won the battle easily." This is an appropriate song to start the album, not only because it points the way forward to the tone, texture and sound present on the rest of the songs but also because of its subject. Pointedly, this song is about growing older, recognizing some of the traps you might have fallen into and understanding that as great as days gone by may have been, you are not the same as you were back then. People change and you've changed. Introspection for the 40-something crowd if  you will.

Hopefully those changes are in the whole for the better, and also hopefully - despite your mellowing and evolution - there is some little element or spark left that fuels your now more mature self in an older and wiser way. Or at least that's what I get out of the song.

Vocally, the song features a duet with guest singer Lucy Rose who delivers a very touching female voice to James Dean Bradfield's male lead - making the point that the subject of the song is equally applicable to women as it is to men.

A contemplative acoustic guitar and distant synth or strings are the only music to accompany those voices, ensuring you are definitively going to hear the words and ponder their meaning. Put it all together and however subdued the song is, it's a highlight of the album right off the bat.

Show Me the Wonder. "There is no threat just an invitation, a sense of belonging, a sense of inspiration." By far, this is the most upbeat, pop-y and toe tapping song on Rewind the Film and compared to the prior song it is an explosion of sound. Bright and catchy horns, upbeat acoustic guitar strum and belted out vocals all combine to make this one a joy to listen to. Great stuff!

Thematically, the song seems to be commenting on just how unpredictable the world can be - in a good way. Isn't it a "wonder" the way certain things work or don't? And isn't it fun to embrace that uncertainty? Some things are just not understandable on a rational level.

Another thing about this song is that the video is really good. For all their musical talent, the Manic Street Preachers have a long history of putting out videos that just come across as lame to me. Not this time. Check out "Show Me the Wonder" by clicking HERE. It's a fun romp that pulls on nostalgia and revels in budding love. I think you'll like it.

Promo Shot of the Manic Street Preachers - 2013. L to R: Sean Moore, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield
Rewind the Film. "Rewind the film again. I'd love to see my joy, my friends." No matter how old you are, most of us think from time to time how it might be nice to go back and re-live some of the best moments of our lives - to embrace youth once again, feel things again for the first time or just "listen to your old records." And this is the topic of this song. Sung by guest vocalist Richard Hawley, this is a narrative as told by an old man wishing he could go back and experience life again. Normal singer Bradfield belts out the chorus lines to punctuate the point even further.

Musically, this is one of the more complex songs on the album. Articulate acoustic guitar, synth, strings, drums and subdued bass all combine to create a rich backing for Hawley's "old man" voice. Also, the video for "Rewind the Film" is touching - so, the Manics are two-for-two on videos! You can see it HERE.

Builder of Routines. "How I hate middle age, in between acceptance and rage." Featuring verses with a sparse James Dean Bradfield vocal backed by muted music box chime and strummy choruses and middle-eight sections, this song is a pretty straight forward comment by the band about getting older, their struggle to continue on as a vital musical force and not relying on their storied, glorious and tragic past.

To that end and to the point, there appear to be a couple of clear references to former band member, lyricist and stylist Richey Edwards in the choruses. Edwards of course famously went missing in 1995 never to be seen again and is presumed dead. Bradfield sings "only in you do we see ourselves," which I take as a comment on how profound Edwards was to the band and how the band views its ideal but now unattainable selves as vital, youthful and fueled by rage.

The other reference is the line, "so sick and tiered of being 4 real, only the fiction has appeal," which is the other side of the story. Guess what? The other three in the band have gotten older and had to try and live up to the fury of the Edwards years. The line references the "4 Real" that Edwards carved into his arm with a razor in front of a journalist when the writer questioned his and the band's sincerity. The fact is that the surviving band members have had to live up to that all these years - so much so that now that is not possible...with only the "fiction" of those times is the only appealing part of it any more.

The Manics Perform Acoustically on BBC2
4 Lonely Roads. "And if we can, we must hold our heads up." This song is sung by guest vocalist Cate Le Bon. I assume the Manics chose her to sing this one because a) she's from Wales like they are, and b) her haunting voice is a match for the feeling of this song.

Lyrically, this one appears to deal with the need to rise above difficult times with love. There are many lonely roads that we all follow at times (four of them? could be for all I know) and sometimes you just have to walk those roads so to speak to get to a better place...a place where, as the song says, "darker Hell stood up on high, then disappeared." And at the end of one of those lonely roads, what does a traveler learn? That "if we can, we must hold our heads up...a little love."

Musically, Le Bon's lilty voice is an asset against the subdued but enjoyable little mid-paced melody. I'd also add that this is the third song out of the four to start the album where the music definitely takes a back seat to the vocal and lyrical content. Don't get me wrong, nice music here and very complimentary for the vocal. But, for a band that has built so much reputation on bombast and big, thematic hooks and fireworks, this song and others on Rewind the Film really show a change...and in my book a great new direction.

(I Miss the) Tokyo Skyline. "Feeling like an alien is so much fun." From comments I've read by the band about this song, it's really an homage to the wonderful time they had on their first visit to Tokyo back in the early 1990s when they filmed their video for Motorcycle Emptiness.

According to the lyrics, the feeling of being totally alien in a foreign land and the almost universal inability to communicate with the people is appealing to James, Nicky and Sean. Placed in the middle of such technical wonder and a massive city filled with people...but yet not able to communicate. Beautiful isolation in the midst of millions. So very Manics.

I love how the Japanese sounding violin complements soothing electronic waves that begin this song - a nice contrast between people's perception of traditional Japan and modern Japan. After that, the music serves once again as a nice, clever but subdued background for the vocal delivery - this time back to Bradfield.

Anthem for a Lost Cause. "So it seems that every song is now just one last chance." Acoustic guitar opens this one up with strings and horns joining, then Bradfield's voice. The music takes a step up in the mix and importance in this song compared to earlier numbers on this album. More pronounced are the horns and guitar, the pace picks up a little and we hear a few crescendos as the voice hits its emotional peak in the choruses.

The theme of the song seems to be a lament over something lost - a love, a career, a battle of some sort. Something that was once "a glittering prize" is now just ashes. Is this the Manics commenting in a morose way about their past career and inability (or desire) to "kick out the jams" with the fury of days gone by? Or, is it more a more universal idea about how loss hurts and at some point becomes a lost cause. I think it may be some of both.

As Holy as the Soil. "Would it be that hard, just for once, we could save the world." Here we have song that's rare on two counts. First, it's sung by bassist Nicky Wire and not normal singer Bradfield. Second, unlike most other songs sung by Wire, this one sounds really good. His monotone talk-sing style has evolved since he first took on a clear lead vocal years ago on "Wattsville Blues" off their album Know Your Enemy.

Piano and acoustic guitar introduce Nicky's now more tuneful, but still unconventional, voice. Horns soon join in as flourishes, and Bradfield chips in singing on the chorus as drums and guitar kick in together in a deliberate beat. Later in the song, the horns are back as more substantial backing. A nice touch to build the song.

Now, as for the meaning of the song, well, Wire's lyrics describe a number of things - people, places, feelings, things...even the Roman "as holy as" and then transitions into a statement of "I love you so will you please come home." He is saying as holy as those things are, so too is love for the person he is singing to.

It could be about brotherly love for missing band member Edwards and the sad truth that it would be great for him to be there with them now, but knowing he never will. Or, the song could be more general about the longing for the return of a love currently gone or somewhere else. Either way, a surprise tune on the album.

3 Ways to See Despair. "There are three ways to see despair, and I've seen them all I'm scared to say." This is a minor chord, downbeat drudge that's really unlike the other songs on Rewind the Film. From comments I've read by Nicky Wire, it's about how things once great and promising sometimes turn into something tragic. This is a similar theme to "Anthem for a Lost Cause," but that song delivers the goods in a more appealing and interesting way. I might not be listening to "3 Ways..." very often.

Running Out of Fantasy. "My obsession with change has bled me dry." From the sludgy, slowness of the last song, "Running Out of Fantasy" re-establishes tunefulness and melody to the album. Whew. Very simply, the song is about losing one's sense of wonder and innocence as one gets older and experiences the often all-too-cruel world. Musically, we're back to acoustic guitar, strings, a little piano and Bradfied's voice - and this is great. A very nice delivery and quite listenable.

Manobier. This is an instrumental with the only vocals appearing as background toward the end. It's an atmospheric tune that opens with a distinct acoustic guitar riff and builds up into a "chorus" of spooky synth sounds. And what you may ask is a Manobier? I didn't know, so I looked it up. It's a coastal village in Wales. OK, so that's not surprising given where the Manics are from.

30 Year War. "Its the longest running joke in history, kill the working class in the name of liberty." If the start of Rewind the Film was a soft, melancholy personal introspection about getting older, then the last song is a spikey salvo of social commentary.

The Manics have always been a political band, commenting in songs on things they dislike in modern political landscape or referencing things they do like - or find ironic - from history. "The 30 Year War" is just such a song and by far the most political track on the album...perhaps pointing the way their next album, out in early 2014 and to be called Futurology, will head.

The "war" referred to here is the three decade long slide into conservative politics and corporatism in the UK in particular, but I think the message works for the U.S. too. The notion that convincing the working class that it is their best interest to vote for politicians who will enrich the already rich while simultaneously destroying the very institutions that keep the working class educated and employed is clearly a point of scorn. All the "Eton scum" graduating into "front bench" MPs in the British Parliament to ensure that "the old boy network has won the war again."

Also, there's some commentary in the song about cultural elitism through the part of the song that talks about putting away "Lowery's paintings" because he (a British artists in the mid-20th Century) refused a Knighthood from the Queen.

Against this landscape of right wing and upper class domination, the lyric then moves in an ominous direction with the line repeated "I ask you what is to be done?" This clearly references Lenin and the potential of revolution.

Yes indeed, a whiff of revolution to leave you thinking - about the point of the song, about the state of our world and about what might be coming next from the surprising Manic Street Preachers.

What To Get
Show Me the Wonder, This Sullen Welsh Heart, Builder of Routines, 30 Years War

Want To Try More?
Rewind the Film, Tokyo Skyline, Anthem for a Lost Cause, 4 Lonely Roads, Running Out of Fantasy

Might Not Be Your Cup of Tea
Manobeir, 3 Ways to See Dispair, As Holy As the Soil