Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why We Should Thank Rod Stewart for Grunge

The current state of rock 'n roll couldn't be better.  The music is more accessible than ever and the bands are, if not better, then they are certainly more plentiful than they have ever been.  We all owe awful music of the early 1970's a great deal of gratitude.  If not for the likes of Rod Stewart and the Jackson Five churning out the trite crap that still cling to our synapses like dog poo on our shoes, the punk rockers would not have rebelled against it. If not for the punk rockers, like the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, the Ramones and The Clash, then other types of rock 'n roll might not have ever happened.  I am not a huge fan of punk, but I do appreciate what they did for popular music.  Rock 'n roll was in a rut and punk rock gave it a well needed kick.

I usually don't have a lot of use for genre.  I tend to think that when you start putting music (or any creative form) into categories, you start losing what it is all about.  Rock 'n roll is about freedom and rebellion, so when a bunch of corporate executives start packaging it and putting it into easily defined boxes of "country & western," "rock," "rock-a-billy" or "blue grass" etc, it stops being about rebellion and starts being about revenue.  No one doubts that some good has come out of the business of music, but those of us who like expanding horizons, have to look elsewhere.  In 1978, Neil Young had just released his Comes a Time album.  This is a decent traditional acoustic album, not his best and not his worst.  Then he heard the Sex Pistols and Devo and he became embarrassed of his own work.  He tried to pull Comes a Time from the shelves; he even bought a bunch of them himself to prevent his fans from hearing it. This might be one of the reasons this album is lesser known than a lot of his others.  While most musicians in his circle were recoiling from the punk movement, Young embraced it.  He immediately started working on Rust Never Sleeps, perhaps his best album, solo or otherwise.

If you listen to the second side of Rust Never Sleeps (for those of you who don't have vinyl, I am talking about the second half of the album), it doesn't sound like California in 1979 but more like Seattle in 1992.  Here is where grunge was born.  It is angry, socially conscious, full of distortion and ambiguity.  There are no answers in the lyrics, only images at war with each other and the listener.  You don't sit put this album on if you intend to relax.  It was recorded live at San Francisco's Cow Palace, but the audience noise was removed giving it a rawer sound than most studio albums.  Side one is acoustic with some of his most powerful lyrics with songs like "Pocahontas" and "The Thrasher."  He recorded some of these during the Comes a Time sessions.  I can see why these songs didn't make it onto that album.  They fit better with the angry songs of side two. In 1978, it took someone who had creative control and a large following to produce something like Rust Never Sleeps. Nowadays, with people carrying virtual recording studios in their pockets, the business executives only has control of your creativity if you want them to.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teddy Ballgame and the Elusive .400

I once sat in the center field bleachers at Fenway Park in Boston with a foreign co-worker and tried to explain the rules of baseball to him. Since he was from India and familiar with cricket, it was a lot easier than if he had never seen a ball game, but it was still very difficult. Baseball is an odd game, not much like most team sports where the offense has the ball and drive it down a field of grass or ice, into a goal or over a line for a given amount of time.  Baseball is not timed, has no goal but a plate and the ball doesn't score but the player does. It is much complicated than it seems and yet, most Americans know how to play even if they have never even tried themselves.

Baseball is a game of failures. In Major League baseball, a good hitter will fail 70% of the time, hitting only three times while coming up to bat ten times. Getting three hits (H's) in ten at bats (AB's) is called a 300 hitter because their average is .300 (H/AB).  The best hitter of all time failed 60% of the time aka a 400 hitter.  Of course, I am talking about Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.  He is the last hitter to hit .400 and he did so 70 years ago.  Only a few players since then have come close.  The two most recently were Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins (1977 hit .388) and George Brett of the Kansas City Royals (1980 hit .390).

Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 and what I have always found amazing about this is that he did not win the MVP award (Most Valuable Player).  That award went to Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees winning with 291 votes to Williams's 254.  1941 was a great year for hitters because this is also the year that DiMaggio had his famous record setting 56 game hitting streak.  If I had to pick one of these players, I would pick the player who hit .406 for an entire year over the player who had at least one hit per game 56 times in a row.  But since I wasn't even born in 1941, it is a moot point.  For those 56 games, DiMaggio hit .408.  Impressive, but for the same time period Williams hit .417.  Is it more impressive to spread them out over consistent games?  I don't think so.  Williams had a 21 hitting streak in May that year where he hit .536 ... that is amazing.  With hitting like that baseball is more of a game of success than failure, but Williams in an oddity.

Why did DiMaggio get the MVP?  For one, he was a much better fielder than Williams.  With poor defense, Williams would have been a great Designated Hitter but that rule wasn't added until 1973.   When Red Sox fans compare Williams with Carl Yastrzemski (Yazz) who replaced him, there is no comparison.  Williams was a better hitter but Yazz was the complete player, like DiMaggio.  Also, Williams was not as likable as DiMaggio.  Williams didn't like the fans and didn't handle the media well. Since it was the media voting for MVP that alone could explain it. Williams was very stubborn guy. Because he always hit to right field, opposing teams would often shift to the right sometimes leaving a huge gap in left field.  Even though he had the ability to hit into left, he refused to do so.  This didn't go over well with the fans.  Can you imagine his average if he had?

Batting average is supposed to measure a player's ability to hit. Because of this, when a player reaches base by way of a walk (BB), it doesn't affect his batting average. So the AB of the Batting Average stat doesn't include walks. As of 1953, AB doesn't include sacrifice flies either. A sacrifice fly is when the batter gets an out by hitting a fly ball into the outfield but moves one of his teammates along on the base path (from first to second or third to home etc.) Because this is good thing, the idea was that the batter's average shouldn't be penalized nor rewarded. So batting average formula could be seen as  AVG = H / ( AB-BB-SF).  But the AB stat on its own excludes walks and sacrifices.

I bring up the rule of 1953 because if it had applied to Ted Williams, his average in 1941 would have been somewhere around.411.  So if anyone ever comes close to hitting .400 in the future, keep it in mind, until they hit at least .411, their names shouldn't be put beside Ted Williams'.  I would love to have seen what he would have done in 1942.  But unfortunately, he didn't play in 1942.  Just a few months after he was came in second in MVP voting, Japan attached Pearl Harbor.  He didn't return to baseball until 1946.  This is where the true sacrifice took place.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Beginning of the Great Revival

Currently, the American economy is pretty bad and our image overseas has taken some hits.  Despite this, American pop culture and entertainment is still king around the world.  Movie theater receipts may be down in the US with Americans streaming in high definition in the comfort of their own living rooms.  Our film industry is booming in a lot of places overseas.  The Chinese market is the largest in the world with 1.3 billion potential customer, but their censors only allow 20 foreign films a year to be shown in theaters.  Movie theaters are being built in China at a rate of two per day.  It would be a hit to our economy if, for some reason, China would stop showing American films even for a handful of films.  This summer's biggest releases, the latest installments of Transformers and Harry Potter, were delayed until late July this year.  Why?  Because the government has been blocking foreign films for most of the summer to give maximum attention to The Beginning of the Great Revival.  It was also produced by the state and is just a huge propaganda film.

The Beginning of the Great Revival is about the founding of the Communist Party of China.  It dramatizes the events from 1911 to 1921 in a positive and heroic light.  It is directed by John Woo, the same guy who directed Mission: Impossible II and Face/Off.   It is less than two hours long but has an all-star cast of 100 performers that any Chinese film goer will recognize.  In some parts of the country, it has been the only film available to watch.  All school children are required to see it.

I'd love to see this film purely for curiosity sake.  It is getting panned (2 stars out of 10 on  I am sure some of the bad reviews are due to the anger over the censorship.  It probably has no chance of coming to the Vermont.  With so many great American films, British or French (or from the rest of the free world) coming out every year, I think I can skip this one.  As an American tax payer, enough of my money goes towards the Chinese economy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Werther Effect

The US's homicide rate is half that of our suicide rate. Suicides are not big news so we generally don't hear about them unless it is someone famous or someone you know committing it.  If you look at all the stats of American suicides, the typical  suicide would be a 75 year old white man who is unemployed.  Men usually commit suicide with guns while women use some sort of poison or drugs.  Because of this, men are more successful and the numbers skew towards them.  Black people are much more likely to die in a homicide than suicide; for whites, the opposite is true. Some suicidologists (sociologists that specialize in suicide) theorize that African Americans have many external factors that they can blame for their depression (institutional racism, urban crime, etc.), while most Caucasians have mostly internal factors.  The idea persists in the American society that if you are white and unsuccessful, then you only have yourself to blame.  Oddly enough, nations where life is easier and there is more opportunity, like the US, have higher suicide rates than where life is miserable.  The US, Japan and Germany have consistently high suicide rates. Perhaps spending most of the day trying to find food or water prevents you from reflecting on how miserable you actually are.

Suicide numbers spike after a famous person commits suicide.  Not only do they spike, but they spike for people who seem to have a lot in common with the person who died.  For example, a lot of young blonde women committed suicide after Marilyn Monroe offed herself.  The month she died there were 200 more suicides in the US than any other August in that era. This is called the Werther Effect. It gets its name from the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.  This is an 18th century German novel where the protagonist, Werther, kills himself after a long period of unrequited love.  After its publication, a slew of copycat suicides followed committed by young men in the same method as Werther in the novel with a pistol to the head.  You might see this as the beginning of blaming the media for suicide.  Does the media or a novel or a heavy metal song plant the idea of suicide in the person's head?  No, of course not.  The idea is probably already there and when someone they idolize or admire kills themselves it may just act as permission being granted.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

There Will Be No December 30th in Samoa This Year

The Independent State of Samoa is an island nation about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.  It is a short distance east of the International Date Line (the imaginary line that separates today from tomorrow).  In 1892 they agreed to be in this time zone so that they could on the same business day as their largest trading partner, the USA.  Before the invention of the telegraph, it wasn't very important to have a standard calendar with consistent time zones because people and data traveled so slowly.

On December 29th of this year, 2011, Samoa will be changing sides of the international date line.  The line will be redrawn so that they will be west of the line.  The change is due to the fact that they now do more business with Australia, China and New Zealand than they with the US.  They prefer to be on the same day as their strongest trading partners.  So after the change, they will be three hours ahead of Australia rather than 21 hours behind. Seems like a logical change from their point of view.  What makes this really interesting is that they will not have a December 30th this year.  At midnight on December 29th, they will be on December 31st.  So if you live on Samoa and your birthday is December 30th ... you are off the hook.

This isn't the first change they have made to realign themselves with Australia.  Back in 2009 they stopped driving on the right side of the road and changed to the left.  That must have a been a blast!   The changes for this were economic as well because it is much cheaper for them to import cars from Australia, with the driving column on the right, than to import from the US.