Friday, October 30, 2009

The Noncore

I don't know if I invested this when it came into my head after seeing Future of the Left, but I'd like to think I've come up with a decent term for the avoidance of an encore when performing live - the noncore. Future of the Left (and mclusky before them) have mastered the noncore, i.e. playing the last song of the set in a way to preclude the possibility of playing an encore. During their last tune, they proceeded to disassemble the drum kit, and break most of the strings on Falco's guitar for good measure. It demonstrated quite clearly that no more music would be played for the evening.

One other band who does this quite well is Montonix, who I've written about in past posts. For both of the two headlining gigs I saw of theirs, they concluded the show by leading the audience outside of the club and playing their last song outside. It makes for good theatrics and also concludes the show quite clearly. If you're outside of the venue, then there obviously aren't going to be any more songs.

I know of a few other acts who have tried to spice things up - Pixies would on occasion play their encore first then leave the stage. After some confused applause, they would come back and play the full set. And Manic Street Preachers never played encores in the UK (or something like that, but it was because they're real, man!).

I'm not opposed to encore by any means, but it becomes such a rote thing for a lot of bands. If I see roadies on stage tuning guitars 10 seconds after the band leaves the stage, I tend to stop clapping. Why waste my energy? They're going to play more songs. They know it, I know it, we all know it. The least the band can do is not put the encore songs on their set list. Keep at least the thought of spontaneity there. Then let the crowd cheer for a minute or two if they actually enjoyed the show. Because if the show was great, they'll let you know. That's what happened after Future of the Left finished their set - the crowd still cheered for an encore. But it was never gonna happen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Edward Burtynsky: Oil

Mixing politics and art or any kind is a dangerous thing. Unless you're The Clash, it can come out ham-fisted or preachy. The current show at the Corcoran features the globe-spanning photography of Edward Byrtynsky. The show goes from the vast lifeless oil fields of his home country in Canada and expanses of abandoned junk across the planet to the congestion of Los Angeles and tangles of oil pipes in factories. It is absolutely a political exhibit, but even with the clear title and overarching theme, the politics is only as loud as you want it to be.

Each piece stands by itself as a stunning work of art. The photos are huge, bright and intensely detailed. The deep, deep colors from dark black of the oil itself to the bright perfected green grass of new housing developments, make each piece eye-catching. Perhaps the most amazing shots take place as the end of the lifecycle. One photo show helicopters stretching to the horizon, looking more like bugs than machinery. Another focuses on the intense red of rusted metal and sheer scale of a ship that will be broken down in a ship graveyard.

Corcoran has had a number of really excellent photography exhibits in the past few years -- William Eggleston and Richard Avadon plus Annie Lebovitz and Ansel Adams showing at the same time back in 2007 -- but this may be my favorite. Rarely is a show this sprawling (it covers the entire globe and full expanse of human creation and invention) and yet so focused in it's quality and beauty.

At the end I took away the message not that oil is evil, but that there is that we've built a long and incredible chain of actions around this fuel, and we would be wise to observe it's full path.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Forgive me if this is an obvious thing.

I came home tonight after seeing a really great play (Lost in Yonkers at Theater J - go check it out), directed by my mentor and favorite director, featuring a few people I like a lot and a lot of people I don't know. There was free food after, which is always nice, a chance to see a few friends and aquaintances, a moment to watch one of the actors get cornered by a cross dressing freelance music journalist in a cheerleading outfit who I sat next to during the show, and nice weather. An easy drive home and I walked into the door feeling more refreshed and energetic than I have in weeks - which is unfortunate since it was midnight.

Feeling like I had to squander the most healthy feeling and generally at ease moments I've had in awhile, I grumbled my way to the computer to check my e-mail, and then ostensibly to bed. I signed online and was suddenly stuck by a lightning bolt, bounding up the stairs and out the door to clear reception to make a phone call.

Because my friend is getting married.

And I'm so happy.

I've been feeling tremendously disappointed by people for awhile now, living and watching patterns of denial and self destruction, and slowly coming to a sad dawning realization that maybe this is the human condition. Maybe we don't know any better, and hope for more is a delusion. It's a particularly depressing way to look at the world, and one I fought against for a long time. But it's crept up on me, especially after the last two years, and I doubt it's gone away, even after tonight.

But tonight - tonight my friend got engaged. The announcement, big and bold on my computer screen sent a shock through me. The event isn't surprising, but the announcement is, and it's wonderful. I'm so happy for her. Honest to god pure joy. There have been a lot of times recently where I've heard news, and I've been 'happy' because I knew thats how I should feel, so I let it seem like I was - because that was easy and appropriate. But hollow too.
Tonight, I was beaming. Because my friend is happy, and she deserves it. Very much.

Wandering my cul de sac, I flashed back to years ago, walking through a corn field in Havre De Grace, MD, filiming a movie - listening to a girl complain about about a guy who had a crush on her. Now, they're getting married. It's amazing. On the periphery, on the fringe, I've watched this happen - witness to the major events along the way, blind to the small details, like it should be. They're not the first of my friends to get engaged, but this feels different somehow. It feels very right. It's this moment, this punctuation of showing, as she said, 'that with time anything can happen.' That you can want and work and actually receive, and then share.

I'm filled with joy for someone else, and it was only after I got off the phone that I realized I'm just plain filled with it. And how long it's been since I've felt like this about anything.

Tonight is not about me at all. Tonight is about Amanda and Javier. And the hard work, sacrifice, and dedication - the time, maintenance, caring, and effort it takes to cultivate a relationship to this level alone. Tonight is a gift for them.

And yet, they've given me this incredible gift too.

Forgive me if this is obvious, but I've only just remembered - being happy - just looking at a little red heart next to an announcement on a computer screen - is a wonderful thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paranormal Activity: A Devilish Good Time

Echoing the mockumentary, "found footage"-style of the Blair Witch Project, director Oren Peli provides some much needed polish and finishing to this "real world" horror-trope. For a film with a production value settled around $15,000 (and filmed in about a week), Paranormal Activity effectively succeeds in creating, and maintaining, a suspenseful, genuinely creepy atmosphere without the aid of gore, torture scenes, or gratuitous special effects.

Paranormal follows the unfortunate happenings of Micah Sloat, a hopelessly goofy, technophilic day-trader, and Katie Featherston, an English student who's been haunted by a malevolent spirit since she was eight years-old. When the movie opens, Micah and Katie have recently moved in together and, much to Katie's chagrin, Micah has just purchased a brand new, wide-angle, digital camcorder to document the supernatural activity that plagues his girlfriend at night. Micah's boyish enthusiasm and persistence to explore forces he does not understand plays well off of Katie's exhausting fear and exasperation to solve the problem as quickly as possible. As their experiences become progressively more serious, the blemishes and cracks in this couple's "engaged-to-be-engaged" relationship come to the surface only to further exacerbate a situation more dire than either expect.

While the first 20-30 minutes might seem like nothing more than exposition cut with some YouTube "real ghost" clips, the film quickly evolves into something deeper as the sinister, unseen force methodically rattles both the characters and the audience members alike. Peli makes creative use out of his budget limitations, imposing a tense unease over the safe mundaneness of the empty home and bedroom. Suspension of disbelief is almost unnecessary in light of pure, simplistic horror ploys that still move swiftly past doorslams and creaky noises. While this Gentlemen wouldn't qualify the entire experience as "frightening," the majority of the theater certainly did and I was still left at the end with the feeling that I had a genuinely fun time. (Admittedly, it took me some time afterwards to shake off the events of 'Night #20' and the ending was pretty freaky, as well)

Film frights aside, perhaps what makes this movie effective is the honest humanity with which Micah and Katie are written and portrayed. From opening to end, you get the impression that Micah and Katie are real people, who do and say ugly things like your real next door neighbors would in such a situation. Even the early exposition scenes subtly play with, not just Micah and Katie's relationship roles, but gender politics in general. It's a quality that makes the characters not just relatable, but sympathetic, as they gradually lose control over their own home and relationship. Even at their most disagreeable, and no matter how much "fault" you may throw around, the film delicately reminds the audience that these characters legitimately love each other, and that whatever futile attempts they each may take to thwart the demonic presence are done only because it's all that they know - that they're doing the very best that they can. It may actually be this dynamic that makes the film the most frightening.

While not a "perfect" film, it doesn't really need to be. Peli makes impressive use of an $15,000 budget, two cameras, 5 actors, and 99 minutes. While less a staple for veteran horror movie goers, my suggestion is to abandon internet snobbery, sit back, and enjoy the ride anyway. If for nothing else, Paranormal Activity is an age-old lesson-learned for Hollywood big-wigs that sometimes less can be a lot, lot more. See Paranormal Activity as soon as you can and, if it's not playing near you, demand that it come to your hometown on their website.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Observations from the Evening of October 21st

Some random thoughts from this Wednesday...

* 930 Club concerts where the headliner gets on @ 8:15 are a rare and wonderful occurrence. It's nice being able to metro downtown and avoid traffic, plus I know the show will be over with time for me to catch the train home.

* 60 degree days in late October make the stroll from McPherson Square up Vermont Ave to the 930 Club quite enjoyable. I wondered as I walked what the going rate is for some of the very nice townhouses I walked past.

* As I was walking I was wondering to myself how the hell did Metric go from a mediocre band to really really good. Their first (proper) album was weak and disappointing. I remember having high hopes when I picked it out of the stack to review at WMUC. I skipped the follow up, and then heard good things about the new one Fantasies, and sure enough it's been one of my favorite albums this year. I went back and tracked down the middle album, Live It Out, and sadly it's about as weak as their debut.

I realized what was bothering me about their earlier work. They sounded like people creating a simulacrum of a rock bands, not like an actual band. In those two albums there are loud guitars, and brash lyrics and choruses, but the melodies are quite weak. It makes me wonder what sparked the extremely high jump in songwriting quality.

* Hall and Oates are super cross-generational. At the concert there were teenagers escorted by their dad, and they were quite pumped. Then there were some more mature women in front of me who were rocking out to "Private Eyes." I looked up Hall and Oates ages on wikipedia the day after the show, and they sit just to either side of 60. The songs have held up incredibly well. Who doesn't enjoy rock and soul?

* They played effectively the same set that they did at Wolf Trap this summer, but at least this time I was much closer. I was thinking about this after I realized the song selection was going to be the same, and I realized that sports fans spend way more time seeing the almost-same thing over and over, so seeing Hall and Oates twice in a year isn't all that crazy.

* My favorite little detail in the work of Hall and Oates is a tossed aside vocal flutter Hall does near the end of the recording of "Maneater" when he sings "Woman is wild - Woo-oooooo." It's this incredibly silly two-seconds that could easily have been cut out in the studio, but they kept it, and Hall even sings that bit live with all the silly energy of the original. It reminds me why I still go to see live music.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The 50 Song Club

On my recent vacation, I came up with a bit of a parlor game for music nerds --- The 50 song club. Simply put, does a band/artist/songwriter have 50 great songs? They need not be singles, just great tunes across their career. For some artists it ain't even a question: The Beatles, Stones, Elvis Costello, Dylan, Cash, Hank Williams (a short career but he was to battling close to 1.000).

It seems simple enough, but there are certainly wrinkles. For example, Prince wrote (and produced, arranged and performed) well over 50 great songs, but what about Madonna? She's sung dozens of classics, but does she have 50 writing credits? Maybe. And what about Kylie? Then there's Timbaland, whose batting average as a featured artist is poor, but what about writing/producing credits? He could probably get to 50 just on his collaborations with Missy Elliot.

And I figure I'd kick it off with a few introductees:

Herbie Hancock - Herbie has dominated the last half century with his writing and playing. There are few artists as fearless.

* Best Stretch - The entire Headhunters period was his funky high point.
* Perfect Albums? - Head Hunters has four of the best songs ever written, period.
* Also Worth Considering - His early acoustic albums are all worth merit and there are plenty of great standards throughout the 60s. And this was while he was playing with Miles, to boot.

Depeche Mode - Started as a dark naughty band with synthesizers, continue today as a dark naughty band with guitars and synthesizers.

* Best Stretch - The band was dominant for the entire '80s. There was not a bum record in the bunch.
* Perfect Albums? - Violator and Music for the Masses both get very close. But Black Celebration is nipping on their heels.
* Also Worth Considering - The '90s were a tough period for the band especially with Dave Gahan's drug use. But there are plenty of great songs littered in the much darker (and that's saying something) albums from this period - Songs of Faith and Devotion and Ultra.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Seasonal Music

Who is the scariest band right now? Kings of Leon. They all have the clap and they are coming to have sex with your daughters.

But I'll discuss some music that is a little less scary than seeing a rock star's sex on fire.

Public Image Ltd. (aka PIL) was the next band for Johnny Rotten (John Lydon to his parents) after the Sex Pistols imploded under the weight of inevitability. PIL were trying to be something different, sort of like a musical corporation, but for most of the time the band were on drugs and screwing around, so in the end most folks just remember them for the music, and for their early stretch it was fantastic. Metal Box/Second Edition was an absolute high point of post-punk. A cavernous and haunting album, and sort of anti-funky with Jah Wobbles big rattling basslines. Then after that album Lydon got in a fight with Wobble and booted him from the band, making Flowers Of Romance a very different album. Voice and drums are the dominant, sounds on the album. And it's not an every day listen, Lydon caterwauls and mutters like someone from another planet. But when the mood is right, it is an invigorating and amazing album.

Decades later, Liars began their career as another in the glut of early '00s post-punk bands. Granted they were a very good one. Then they canned their rhythm section, and brought in one of their friends to drum. Additionally, while recording the second album, They Were Wrong So We Drowned, some stray googling (supposedly) reshaped the album to a concept piece about German Witches and the villagers who hate them. When it was released the album totally boggled the critics and many listeners. Infamously it got the bottom rating from Rolling Stone and spin. But, of course, history has proven them wrong. Liars were vindicate when their next album, Drums Not Dead, an album of mostly drums and vocals (see the pattern emerging) was turned the critical tide and picked back up some of the fans they lost. Personally, I maintain, as I've said before on the blog, that They Were Wrong is one of the finest album of the decade. Sure there's the influence of PIL, but the album goes off into amazing unexpected directions in narrative and sound.

All four of these albums are great listen. Perhaps not anytime, but as things get cooler and darker and spookier, they should all be on the iPod.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Guest Gentleman: 9 Months is Not 8 Years

Today's Submission comes to us from Guest Gentleman Mike Onufrak.

It’s a shame that in this day and age, we have to worry whether voting for a candidate will lead to an armed military coup and a rebellion uprising. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what some conservative groups are advocating. That’s right, an armed, militant uprising to overthrow the government and to unseat the president from his position of power. But who is calling for this?

Sure there are the tea-bagger events, where such outbursts are not only tolerated, but are chanted. The frightening thing about these outbursts, however, is that they’re coming from some particularly unsettling places. Such as from US Senators like Michelle Bachman (R – MN), who said,“I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing, and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States.”( Republican Patrick McHenry (NC) who called for, “…removing from office the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States and all U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives effective immediately.” (

The question begs to be asked. Why? Why after a mere 9 months in office are our own policy makers this fed up over not just the President’s actions in office, but his entire presidential organization? Has Obama really done such injustices to us that he must be forcibly removed from office by an armed uprising? Our former president had a solid run of 8 years without any Senator calling for a military uprising against him. Perhaps we should give our current President some of the same consideration.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Real Ghosts of Youtube

We love ghosts. Be they Casper or Bruce Willis, poltergeists illuminate our basest fears (the unexplainable) and our deepest hopes (Hey! There is stuff to do after we die!). Full disclosure: I don’t believe in the existence of ghosts. However! I cannot in good conscience outright declare that ghosts do not exist. Like God, the concept of paranormal spirits is nigh impossible to prove or disprove, and that is what puts ghosts firmly in the condiments’ section labeled under, Awesome-Sauce. While I look on shows like “Ghost Hunters” and “Monster Quest” with a healthy sense of intellectual superiority, I’m still entertained because I could be wrong.

To get Horror Month started I dutifully waded through the video swamp of Youtube, searching for the juiciest “Real Ghost Sightings.” Like all things Youtube, the results were equal parts tongue-in-cheek, lame as the plastic on your grandma’s couch, creepy-ish but still lame on second viewing, and then down-right creepy. Here are a few samples from each.

We’ll start with the Lame to get it out of the way (PS. There are no scary pop up videos in this list, because they are lazy.) :

These first two are in the vain of “The Blair Witch Project”: shakey hand held camera, grainy night vision, and exclamations of “Holy shit dude!” and “What what was that?!” before something pops out of a doorway.

I suppose I consider them lame because there’s little pay off your investment. I’m left wondering “Why was that guy in a dark hallway?” rather than “Was that real?”

The third a “ghost” peeing in a toilet.

It’s clearly meant as a parody. But it’s a peeing ghost. Lame no matter how you slice it.

In that spirit, let’s move on to tongue and cheek.

From the same people who brought you Urinating Ghost:

and because the just ONE of those isn’t enough:

The third is a good example of a “Youtube Parody.” It takes several elements of youtube ghost-sighting videos -- text or voice over explaining the circumstances of the sighting, the frequency of the sightings, and reasons why this sighting cannot be explained by conventional science or common sense -- and exaggerates them for comedic effect.


These two are not the creepiest out there, but I felt they deserved a chance to strut their stuff. On second viewing (or even first) their premises tend to fall apart.

This one is longer, so skip to 1:14 to get past the filler. Watch from there and read the subtitle’s carefully, unless you understand Russian (maybe Russian? I’m not sure).

Now we can get to the truly creepy stuff. Caveat: These videos caused me willful suspension of disbelief, I’m not guaranteeing they will you.

The first two carry all the classic elements. Here’s the video owners boastful description:
“I capture What may be the scariest video on the internet. It has been 5 months since The last sighting of the ghost in my pantry. I filmed the door myself at 12:34 every night for 4 months..”

It’s success may be in its simplicity:

and one more for thoroughness:

I like this last one the best. It’s obviously a digital job, but its a fantastic mesh of convincingly amateur camera work (for realism) and chilling digital effects. Turn your lights off, your sound up, and enjoy...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

One Newsfeed Item Away from an Existential Crisis

I am what one might call a self-hating Facebook stalker. I want so much to be that guy who just uses the infamous social networking tool for the events function; I want so much to laugh haughtily at the people who put every minute detail of their lives on the internet.

But I can't, because I eat that crap up.

The facebook guilt/shame spiral has spun ever-deeper as of late, too, as I've been hungrily following the sad story of a girl I knew in high school, shamelessly riding the highs and lows of her struggle along with her. As if we're friends. As if we still know each other. Maybe I would have heard about it anyway, because I'm from a small town and word gets around fast. Maybe my following her newsfeed is just the best thing I can do for her right now, sending comforting vibes out into the ether in the hopes that she somehow feels them across cyberspace and is cheered for no reason for a moment. But maybe I'm just a morbid voyer, feeding off of her personal drama.

The internet is a strange place; it presents an overwhelming phenomenon of worldwide closeness and local disconnect. The same person who might skype his or her friends in foreign countries might also text or email his or her friends down the street or in the same building, because in cyberspace they are the same distance.

There is something to be said for what we choose to put about ourselves on the internet (because at this point in social history it is largely a choice unless, of course, you wind up in an embarrassing watchdog situation like failblog, or you have an undiscerning photo-happy facebook friend.) And there is something to be said for the me-centric culture that exists today: is it developing because of social networking sites that encourage us to put up every detail about our everyday lives, implying that we are important and special, or is it our me-centric culture that makes these websites thrive? Did we as humans create our selfish culture or does modern culture make us selfish? Is it selfishness at all or simply fulfilling a basic need to reach out to our fellow man in any way that we know how?

So does it make me a jerk that you post more about your life than I do, and I judge you by it? Maybe.

And that is what keeps me up at night. Is is my fault or her fault that I am addicted to her pain? (It has to be someone's.) But as much as I want to sit on my high horse and judge anyone who puts up intimate details of his or her life on the internet, I can't. Because when she writes about her life, I read it. And I feel for her because, and maybe this is the whole point, she is revealing something very basic and human and emotional about herself, and my instinct is to corral and nurture. I read her updates obsessively but I don't want her to keep hurting; I want to read about how she's getting through it. I want my empathetic, feel-better vibes to reach her, not because I want everyone to know I'm a caring person, but because I'm human and I know pain too. I want her pain to be somehow lessened, even though I haven't seen her since high school.

Maybe that's the difference between these posts and some others I judge without shame. This girl is doing a little more than announcing into a vacuum; she's using social media to relay a painful topic to people who may want or need to know. I may not be able to empathize with her exact situation, but I can empathize with that. Last year, when my grandmother passed away, I sent out a generalized mass email to my close friends who needed to know, letting them know the details of the funeral and the charity we were accepting donations for in her behalf, and that I would not be answering my phone as I was not ready to talk out loud about it. There is something to be said for the instant communication/comforting disconnect the internet provides.

Maybe what I should do is message this girl and let her know I'm thinking about her, even though we barely know each other anymore. Even though we barely knew each other in high school. Maybe I should reach out and use Facebook for good, rather than stalking.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Let Us Discuss The Yoo Too

As I was pondering this topic I realized an interesting little fun fact - my top 5 U2 albums are all the ones with one word in the title - Boy, October, War, Zooropa and Pop. And my least favorites (i.e. everything this decade) all practically have sentences for titles.

But let's step back a bit. First off, I admit I did not go to their concert at Fed Ex Field last week with their super space-bug stage set. It looks really cool and all, but having to sit through all those mediocre new tracks just couldn't convince me to see the band play under the big bug. Something happened between All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. First they completely lost their ability to write great tunes. To turn a terrible phrase, Bomb was a total dud. I think I recommended just two tracks on the album when I reviewed it for WMUC, and one was "Vertigo" which is just "Elevation" all over again.

And then there's Bono. Sure he was always earnest, with the mullet and the white flag and the Live Aid and the song about refugees, but he crossed a line from earnest crusader to completely intolerable pain in the ass sometime in the mid '00s. I have no problem with celebrities voicing their political views, but good lord keep a balance between your art and your soapbox.

I'm not just going to slag off Paul Hewson for the rest of this blog post, though. I'm going to reminisce about the good times. The first three U2 albums are fascinating and still sound great thanks to the youthful vigor. The band came out of the deep pool of post-punk (Martin Hamnett produced their first EP) to make really anthemic rock. Their emergence, and much of their career seems to mirror R.E.M.'s. Both bands were trying to take post-punk and new wave to different places, and both succeeded almost immediately from a sonic perspective, even if the massive success took some time, and both seemed to take similar stylistic turns at their height of success in the '90s.

After the first three records, they got big, of course. I like plenty of songs on Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. But things got really interesting again with Zooropa, an album that started as a stopgap EP, and turned into a really fascinating artifact. "Stay" is one of the best songs they've ever written, both clever (in keeping with their '90s selves) and poignant. Then there are plenty of weird, sexy and wonderful songs like "Dirty Day" and "Numb" and "Lemon" and "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." All of these songs seem to match the weird excess of the concerts they were performing during the Zoo TV tour.

Zooropa has gotten more love in retrospect, but most folks still seem to dislike Pop. The easy thing to say is that they rushed it to get it done in time for their tour, but there are still plenty of great songs on there. "Do You Feel Loved" and "Please" and "Gone" are as good as any rockers they wrote in the '90s.

After that album things have gone down hill again, at least to my ears. Maybe the new decade will bring one last blast of innovation. I wouldn't put it past them, any band who started out with the name Feedback can't be all bad.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gentlemonth: Horror and the Supernatural

The harvest approaches. The light wanes with each fleeting day. Men and women shudder at the dubious, damp, dank, dark. Scarecrows and straw-men are raised once more - peering in ghastly silence. Fields and forests seep with the hushed trills of imps. Rusty tractors slowly amble, droning and coughing, trancelike in their tiresome toiling. Creaking floorboards sound out hollow moans. Families lock their doors, and soak their sanity in superstition.

And, rightfully so.

October is here. All Hallows Eve is fast approaching and you know what that means. Gather 'round the camp fire, Gentle Readers. For this month, in the spirit of the harvest, of ghost and goblins, of magik (with a k) and mayhem, of undeath and desire, we discuss the torrid tales percolated within humanity's unconsciousness. Stories so foul, tales so horrifying, legends so dreadful, knowing that they stray from the mouths of mortal men will leave you aghast.

That's right, Gentle Readers. This month, These Gentlemen discuss fan fiction. And we - hold on. What the-
Jason Heat: Ozkirbas, we are not discussing... fan fiction.

Ozkirbas: Where did you COME from!?

JH: Fan fiction does not have a place on These Gentlemen!

Oz: Not even supernatural fan fiction?

JH: Especially not supernatural fan fiction

Oz: But, it was for the la-


Oz: Ok, seriously. Is there a trap door somewhere or - hey. Hey, where'd you go?
How'd he do that? Weird. Well, it's October and (now that fan fiction is out) These Gentlemen are taking on Horror and the Supernatural! My classy companions and I venture deep into the mythos and ethereal wonder that permeates the dark recesses of American culture. Myths, monsters, urban legends, and horror motifs abound! Pray that we are fruitful. And, that we return with our lives and minds intact!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Switching Sides: The Case for Universal Health Care

Before you begin reading, please take note that this will be a lengthy essay. I believe that up to this point I have never written anything of such immediate importance to the American people. I owe it to the issue at hand to give it the full length and time necessary to fully articulate what is at stake.

Six months ago, I wrote in "The Three Transgressions" my opinion on how we ourselves have provoked the problems with our Health Care system. Chief among my concerns was addressing the desire for public health care. I deemed it a political diversion, a red herring, something designed to keep our eyes away from the real focus. In some ways, I remain steadfast in this belief. Our reliance on pharmaceutical companies built on the principle of keeping everyone just sick enough is an abomination upon our society. However, on another topic, my view has changed entirely.

We need a system of universal health care. I am going to explain why, and point-by-point address every concern, legitimate or fallacious, which prevents us from a country as caring for all of our citizens, and how we can make this a reality.

1) Universal Coverage and the Natural Monopoly

Politicians who are against social health care or even simply having a public option will tell you that the real way to drive down costs is to deregulate. If we give private health insurers more leeway with how they do business, it will reduce costs for them and let them lower costs for their patients. Lowering costs will lead to competition, further giving insurers cause to make things easier for their customers. That's capitalism at its finest - you introduce competition, and the first thing that will happen is lower prices to attract more people.

The people who tell you this are either deliberately misleading you or actually have no idea how insurance works.

Insurance operates by pooling risk -the more people under one umbrella, the more the risk is spread out.

It is therefore impossible for any private insurer to provide coverage as well as the government can.

I'll explain another way; you are paying for electricity. When you use electricity during the month, the power company bills you for however much you use. If you use less, you pay less. More, and you pay more. What you do with your power does not affect anybody else using the same grid as you. To compare health insurance to this system or others like it is a lie.

There is no business model in the world comparable to insurance. I repeat, there is no business model in the world. You cannot draw comparisons between health insurance and utilities companies, or car sales, or department stores.

The reason is that when you pay for health insurance you are getting nothing. Health insurance companies do not provide a service for you. They bill you each month hoping that you will never in your lifetime call upon them to do anything. And in the event that they do, you still aren't getting a service - hospitals, doctors, drug companies - they provide the service. The insurance company simply pays for it.

But they don't want to pay for it - they want to continue taking your money for nothing. They create any number of scenarios wherein they will not pay. I used to work in car insurance, and had to tell a woman whose car had died, leaving her with no way to get to her job, that there was nothing we could do because she hadn't been in a collision. Health insurance works the same way. Furthermore, in the case of those who cannot become insured due to pre-existing conditions, competition does nothing to help them. Deregulating insurance will do nothing to help those who already cannot obtain it.

So it doesn't matter how little you use your insurance, they will always charge you the same amount for it. Moreover, they have the power to change their rates simply because they want to. Here is the major difference, though, between insurance and any other service you might pay for. When insurance companies do pay out to other people, they recoup the losses by charging everybody else a little bit more. The smaller the pool, the more that ripple is felt.

Therefore, insurance which covers 300 million people is automatically 300 times as cost effective as a private insurer with a million customers.

Therefore, even if you had 2 private companies covering everyone in the country, it would still not be as efficient as the single payer option.

Insurance is a natural monopoly. This means that regardless of how well they work, it is impossible for two competing companies to provide service as well as one without competition. People will try to tell you that this is un-American, that it follows a socialist ideal, and that it will be bad for business and everyone will suffer. These people do not know how insurance works. Either that, or they do and are just lying to you. Either that, or they are simply following an ideological objection rather than a scientific one. There are some people who would rather pay more for the same service because they do not want government in control of health care. This is purely ideological. It is the same thing as arguing religion.

People who object to this theory will point to the fact that several times in history, utility companies have tried to convince the government that they are a natural monopoly. However, statistics prove that deregulation actually drives down costs significantly in the energy field. To those people, I say again, because I really have to drive this point home, insurance does not operate like any other business in the world.

Universal health coverage will only reduce what everybody pays. Do not believe the argument about increased costs. This really is a better deal than what we have.

2) Efficiency of Care

Let me break down the costs of health insurance for you by country.

#1: United States (13.9% of Gross Domestic Product)
#2: Switzerland (10.9%)
#3: Germany (10.8%)

Those numbers indicate that the United States pays more for health insurance than any other country in the world, followed by Switzerland and Germany, respectively. The common trend here is that all 3 of these countries have privatized health coverage.

The spending on average by other countries with social health care is 7.2% of their GDP. These are countries with Gross Domestic Products significantly less than the United States still spending half of what we do percentage-wise.

Now, the claim many make when this point is raised is that they are receiving inferior coverage. Obviously, that is why so many Canadians cross the border into the United States to receive health care. Their long waits and rationed care make it easier for those with private health care to simply cross the border and get access to our fast, efficient coverage.

This claim is completely wrong. In fact, studies on the issue prove that the level of health care the United States provides is significantly less than that given by countries with socialized systems. The reason so many Canadians come over the border? Organ transplants. The overwhelming majority of expenditures by Canadians is on organ donations. Why do they come to the United States for these?

Because the United States's mortality rates amongst the younger population are incredibly higher than Canada's. They can't get the same access because their countrymen are just too healthy.

Furthermore, Switzerland has already put into place the kind of reforms that we are clamoring for here in America, and is still nearly 50% more expensive than the most expensive social system. When more people get coverage, coverage on average improves. There is absolutely no mathematical data to refute this, and more than enough to support it.

To put it in more visible numbers - the United States, which pays more for health insurance than any other country and, along with Canada, makes up nearly half the world's pharmaceutical market, still has the 9th highest cancer mortality rate in the world. Out of every 100,000 people in the United States, 321.9 die of cancer.

There have been studies published which point to the United States having higher survival rates than nearly any other country when it comes to breast, colon, prostate, or rectal cancer. The reality is that we have the highest survival rates because we have more people getting cancer. More people getting cancer means that, especially when using data involving the four most survivable forms of cancer, of course the United States will appear to have fantastic numbers. The truth is that no matter how good the numbers look, we are another world leader when it comes to cancer deaths.

The fact, mathematically provable, is that France has the best health care in the world. They pay more for universal health care than any other country, but still 40% less than what we pay in the United States. They are more cost efficient, more health efficient, and charge people less. There is absolutely no evidence to support the theory that our quality of health care will suffer due to universal coverage. None. There is only conjecture and ideology. Every scrap of data proves that the opposite is true.

3) Health Care Rationing and "Death Panels"

Another common claim is that, with more people insured, we will not have the supply to meet the demand. Thus the only way to provide for everybody will be to ration off health care. This has led to the belief that there will be "Death Panels" - people who get to decide who lives and who dies based on need for coverage.

I'm reasonably certain most educated people have abandoned this idea, but I still feel it needs to be addressed. Death Panels already exist. If you have health insurance, you are already paying for them. Every day, doctors argue with insurance companies to actually shell out the money to pay for their customer's treatments. Every day, insurance company review boards plan out ways in which they can avoid having to pay anything. Your health care is already rationed. This is a problem now. The argument was put best for me in terms of buying a new car.

You decide to buy a new car. You're very excited.

A friend of yours says "Don't do that - you'll have to pay for insurance, maintenance, gas - it'll be horrible!"

You say "Oh wow, thanks! I'll just keep the car I have."

Do you see the problem here? Our current system has all of the same issues as the ones being espoused as reasons not to have universal coverage. People who cling to the theory that we can expect to have our lifespans controlled by the government apparently find it perfectly acceptable to have this done by private companies instead.

Being a doctor means that you are, at least half the time, on the phone with an insurance company asking why your patient isn't getting coverage. If nothing else, instituting a universal, single-payer system means that doctors will have more time to treat patients. The myth that care will have to be rationed out is exactly that - a myth. Your insurers are doing this to you right now and expecting you to look the other way because they know you will support universal health care if you stop to think about it.

Speaking of time with the doctor, another common point is that there are absurdly long waits in emergency rooms for countries with social systems. It's not uncommon to wait 4 or 5 hours, or longer, awaiting attention for even the worst injuries or ailments. Of course, when people make this argument, they ignore that the same thing happens here. Countries with social health care are not unique in this - sometimes there are more people than a hospital can accommodate at once. This has to do with the doctor to patient ratio, not health insurance involved. Although, as stated above, if there wasn't so much time spent arguing with health insurance companies, that would very likely result in at least a marginal overall improvement in the amount of time doctors could be with patients.

At this point, if you're following along, you have to be asking yourself, "well, why would politicians not support something which is so obviously good for the country?"

Easy. There is a Democratic President in office and Republicans want to make sure that doesn't happen again in 2012. They don't care if you have health care or not, they want to take a stand against a system because they know if it is implemented that it will work. When that happens, it all but guarantees a second term for Barack Obama. They will say anything to prevent this from happening. It is no mistake that the legislators against health care are overwhelmingly Republican. This is not a matter of "conservative" versus "liberal." This is purely political, and the American public is going to suffer for it if we let it happen.

"But what about Democrats who don't support universal health care?"

I'm glad you asked. Let's look at the recent Senate Finance Committee vote which shut down the hope of a public option.

All 10 Republicans on the committee voted against having a public option. 5 Democrats also voted against it, bringing the count to 15-8 against. Those 5 Democrats were Max Baucas (MT), Blanch Lincoln (AK), Bill Nelson (FL), Kent Conrad (ND), and Tom Carper (DE).

Notice anything about those Senators? With the exception of Tom Carper, they are all Democratic Senators from states with a majority of Republican voters. I shouldn't have to draw you a map here.

On this I'm digressing from why health care should be socialized, so let's move on to the next point.

4) Paying for Nothing

Proponents of private insurance insist that with our current system, people only pay for the coverage they want. Socializing medicine means that we'll all be paying for everybody. We don't want to pay for everybody, they say. If someone can't get a job to pay for their own insurance, or has a pre-existing condition not covered, then that's their problem. It's hard enough taking care of yourself, you shouldn't have to worry about everybody else.

Ignoring all the proof that social medicine reduces costs for everybody, we could hope people would at least care a little more about looking out for the less fortunate. But even being as greedy as possible, universal health care is still smarter.

The ballpark figure of uninsured in America is 50,000,000 people. This means that if nothing else changes, if instituting universal health care is the only thing that happens and all other current systems remain in place, we can expect a 16.7% increase in our costs. Leaving alone the fact that this is still a 100% increase in the quality of care for 50,000,000 people, let's examine why this is simply incorrect on the whole.

We have already established that as coverage range increases, so does the quality of coverage. The numbers from other nations don't lie. Now, let's think about what happens currently to disprove that 16.7% with some hard examples.

The "250,000,000 already insured" that opponents of the universal system like to throw around ignores a basic fact. As many as 25,000,000 and likely much more of that number are underinsured. This presents the same basic problem as those with no insurance at all. Rising costs have led to people simply not being able to afford even employer-based health coverage. Even though they are listed as insured on surveys, they still do not have the coverage necessary to provide for them when they need it.

What does this mean for you? Well, when hospitals have to provide care for someone who can't pay for it, they often just list it as bad debt. That bad debt does not simply disappear. It gets written off and paid for by charities, the government, or passed on into what the medical industry charges private insurers. The money has to come from somewhere, but in every case it still comes from you. Do not be fooled by the claims of paying for people who can't afford their coverage - you are doing this right now. You might not see it, but every time your health insurance premium rises for no reason, or there's a budget shortfall and your local school doesn't get a big enough grant, you can bet that somewhere in the reason are the uninsured and underinsured of America.

Covering everybody will only make it cheaper. Right now these people avoid the doctor as much as they can because they don't have insurance. Ultimately, they end up in the hospital anyway, with a disease or injury far more progressed than it would be otherwise. This means treatment takes longer, costs more, and may perhaps do less. If that patient dies? Their bill does not disappear. You pay for it. You are paying for it now whether we have social health care or not. If that person did not have to worry about insurance, they may have gone when their illness was still treatable, reducing the costs involved for everybody.

Don't let greed or indifference blind you to the obvious. There is no financial reason not to have universal health care.

As I stated earlier, the only serious objection someone can raise to universal health care is that they do not want the government controlling the industry. This, again, is an ideological problem, not one based in fact. And in this case, the ideology is going to end up being more expensive for the entire country. I am not here posing a moral argument for universal health care or espousing my overwhelming support for our President or his administration. I am presenting the facts, unadulterated, which prove beyond the shadow of a doubt a universal system is superior to a privatized one. Calls of "socialism," "Death panels," ad infinitum, are red herrings meant to distract voters from something proposed for our benefit and for our own good being turned into a purely political issue.

These facts were presented to me in roughly the same form I now give them to you. I entered a debate on the side of keeping health insurance private, but my arguments simply could not stand up to the overwhelming tide of contrary evidence I was assailed with. Once I did the research proving the opposition's claims were true, my prior objections seemed nothing short of plain silly.

So now I turn to you. There has never been a time in the span of my life where health care was more prominent an issue and the reality of universal health coverage closer to us. This is where we must band together as a nation - put aside labels of political affiliation and realize that this really is the right thing to do. Your Senators, your Governors and Congressmen, your elected representatives of all office, they will listen to you if you speak loudly enough. Enough voices acting as one can accomplish anything, and it is high time they began acting to accomplish the right things.

I urge you, call your legislators. Send them letters. If necessary, rally so that they can see your numbers. We see news programs all the time showing footage of people banding together in large groups only to display their own ignorance or petty wants. This is something which is legitimately good for everybody. It is right for all of us. We can take this moment to educate ourselves and fight for something positive for us, our children, and our grandchildren. All we have to do is become active on this one thing and we can ensure a real, lasting, positive change.

Thank you, and God bless.

Health Care for all Colorado
What is a Natural Monopoly?
NCHC: Facts About Healthcare - Health Insurance Costs
Why Does U.S. Health Care Cost So Much?
Snapshots: Health Care Spending in the United States and OECD Countries
WHO Statistical Information System
Business Roundtable Health Care Value Comparability Study
Newsweek: We Already Have Health-Care Rationing
"Rationing" Health Care: What Does It Mean?
NCHC - Facts About Healthcare - Health Coverage
CNN Money - "Underinsured" Americans may raise all health care costs
How Many Are Underinsured? Trends Among U.S. Adults, 2003 and 2007
Why I Answered Ozkirbas's Question The Way I Did

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Where I Lived: Wrigley Field

I don't like the Cubs. I've never pretended to like the Cubs. When I first lived in Chicago, in the summer after my junior year of college, I may have tolerated them, but, unquestionably, the Cubs have never been my favorite baseball team.

When I first moved to Chicago for good, in August of 2007, I moved into an apartment I'd never seen before. I'd opted to stay at camp for another three weeks that summer and make a little more money before I became a starving artist, so I'd left the burden of finding a place to live on my roommates to be, two friends of mine from college. I figured whatever they got would be fine, it would be a transitional apartment more than anything, since all of us were planning to move out the following year. In fact, I remember I even told them I wanted to live near the stadium, because it was also right near the iO (formerly Improv Olympic) Theater where I'd be taking classes.

Boy. Big mistake.

Here's the McDonald's across the street from Wrigley Field.

Okay. See the corner of that white house on the right side of the picture? Yep. That was my spot.

Now, common opinion of the Cubs tells us that they're lovable losers. A team who just can't catch a break, with the most die hard fans in the world, fans waiting over 100 years for a championship. Okay, ready world? Here's the truth. The Cubs are a joke of a professional franchise, a team full of players who know they don't have to try (and don't), with a fan base consisting of an army of drunkards who treat Wrigley Field like a giant bar where a baseball game might occasionally break out. Of course, it doesn't help that up and down Clark Street by the field is a string of some of the nation's top douchebag bars (see I Hate Clark Street) to help Cubby fans get liquored up before they watch their team lose.

So imagine it, for a while, if you will. During Cubs season, Clark and Addison is basically like a zombie movie. But replace all the zombies with drunk people in Cubs clothing. And right in the middle of it, is my little two bedroom apartment. Oh yeah, and at this point, I can't freakin' STAND the Cubs.

Here's a favorite anecdote of mine, probably the best one from my stay at 1113 West Patterson Avenue. Now, another thing you have to understand about Patterson Avenue, the street on which I lived, is that it's not an avenue at all. It's an alley. That's not an overstatement. The entire street is an alley behind the McDonald's. So people would frequently wander drunkenly down said alley, looking for...well, whatever drunk morons look for.

So on St Patrick's day, 2008, which might as well be calle "Get Drunk Enough to Beat Your Girlfriend in Public Day" in Chicago, I'm having a debate with my roommate about just how harmless the hoards of drunk people who have overtaken my neighborhood actually are. She's saying how "they're just having fun," when we look out the window, and see three drunk gentlemen strolling by our place. The one in the middle has his fly open, and holds his penis in his right hand. As he walks, he produces a stream of urine in front of himself. His friends are giving this no thought, as they all stare straight ahead, walking aimlessly. As he urinated. In front of my house.

Go Cubs!

Needless to say, I moved out as soon as possible (a month early) and really love my new place. It's quiet, has better restaurants nearby, and less Cub fans. And I haven't seen any live urination since.

Tucker Max: An Explicit Life

There are a few men that I would enjoy having the pleasure of meeting. I would love to meet the Dhalai Lama. Meeting Joss Whedon would be fantastic. I think seeing Eric Whitacre compose music would be the experience of a lifetime. And, then there are men I can affirmatively say that I would rather they not come within a 500 mile radius of myself or the people I care about. Lately, Tucker Max has been climbing to the top of that list.

For those unaware, Tucker Max was an internet blogger who launched a website in 2002 chronicling the supposedly true stories of his drunken experiences and sexual encounters. Whether or not his stories are actually true I won't contest, mainly because 1) I know his rabid fan-base will swear up and down, "Uh-huh! Yeah! It's SO true! Don't you know!? He does this stuff, like, all the time!" (Ugh.) and 2) whatever persona he's presenting has worked itself into the public consciousness so much that, at this point, they may as well be true. When people mention Tucker Max now, they either sneer or laugh. When he comes to town, people either run to the hills and proclaim him a monster, or flock to worship their little celebri-god. Me, personally? Whatever little Calvert Countian that's left inside reaches for his pitchfork and torch, every time. Or, a picket sign, if that's too violent.

Admittedly, when I discovered Tucker Max for the first time, I was a fan, but for a moment. I was 17 - a freshman in college - and I should have known better, but I didn't. I remember sitting in my room, laughing over his stories and reading everyone I could find, but in the pit of my stomach I knew something wasn't right. Slowly, the initial shock value over what I was reading subsided, and that pit started growing deeper and deeper. Each time I read a story, a little bit of shame joined that growing pit. And, then a little bit more. And, a little bit more still. Most of the time when I feel "ashamed" of something, it's usually a situation where I have little to actually worry about and I tell myself to get over it and to, "just be me." This time, alone in my dorm room in front of my computer screen - with no one in front of which to be ashamed - I did something different. I understood that there was something very wrong with what I was reading. And, while I couldn't place what it was, I decided it was best to distance myself from the material. I closed my browser, left to be social, and I remember thinking this exact thought:
"Don't worry. A little shit-site like that? People will get bored with it. It'll eventually die off."
Guess what? Didn't happen. Tucker Max's popularity has only increased over time: manifesting itself into three books, one of which (I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) will become a full-feature film. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the representative sample of a genre labeled "fratire" - especially known for its political incorrectness and hypermasculinity. For those unaware, hypermasculinity is one of the primary reasons why homophobia and violence against women is so prevalent in human society. Wikipedia will tell you that fratire is a "reaction" to the feminization of masculinity. The mere fact that its definition implies that its existence is "feminism's" fault should echo the logic of someone telling a victim of spousal abuse that her existence causes her husband to get drunk and throw beer bottles at her to feel more manly.

Anytime I remember that Tucker Max has written a book, I think of this clip.

Above, you'll find an excerpt from the episode titled "Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life." In the course of the episode, Dennis, an egotistical, self-centered, womanizing jackass, decides to write and sell a set of memoirs about his "sexcapades" because, well, he honestly thinks he's that awesome - despite having done nothing of value and contributing nothing to society. Of course, this is part of the premise of It's Always Sunny - it satirizes popular culture by presenting a group of the most heinous, self aggrandizing individuals on the planet Earth whose problems are created entirely by their own egotism. We laugh because we aren't, and don't want to be, these horrible people. The difference between Dennis Reynolds and Tucker Max is simple: Dennis Reynolds is a satirical character created for our amusement and Tucker Max is a real person who (supposedly) really has these adventures. Think hard - that's all there really is.

I understand why the man is appealing, I do. People who paint themselves up - as the rebel, the underdog, the trailblazer, the scoundrel - have an easy appeal. And, why shouldn't they? They do what we want to do, when they want to do it, regardless of society's morays and restrictions. We, as society, eat that shit up and lick the plate. A person comes a long in every generation who breaks down barriers and makes changes - that person always has followers. Sometimes, I think we forget that rebels are cool because they break down walls that need to be broken down. We forget to look at what they're actually doing:

The above article is a solid read with an interesting statistic - read it and tell me what you think below. It seems apparent that Tucker Max is the Dionysus of chauvinism. I'm not a fan of black and white morality, but - as far as I'm concerned - that kinda makes him the antichrist. Just sayin'.