All posts filed under: Current Events

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PopSmarts: This Summer I Hear the Drumming

Last week saw the anniversary of one of the most horrific events in American history, the shootings of four unarmed college students by National Guardsmen on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. Four casualties may not sound like much of a body count, in a world where collapsing factories kill 900 workers and suicide bombers can wreak havoc in crowded public spaces. Hell, as I write this article, at least 35 people are dead in India after their bus crashed through a guard rail and into a gorge along the Beas River. Thirty-five lives snuffed out, and each of them precious; 35 people, each of whom had hopes and dreams for the future, hopes just as valid as those of Sandy Scheur, or Allison Krause, or Jeff Miller, or Bill Schroeder. But the Kent State massacre was a uniquely traumatizing incident in the social history of the United States. Three days of ugly antiwar demonstrations had escalated into full-scale rioting, with wholesale property damage culminating the torching of the University’s ROTC building. Some student …

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PopSmarts: Looking for God in “Toy Story”

It’s not a revelation to anyone, anymore, to point out that Hollywood is no longer in the business of original ideas. It takes a great deal of money to make and market a movie — any movie. And the Powers That Be have long ago figured out that the best way to ensure a return on their investment is to make films that are pre-sold, inasmuch as such a thing is possible — that is, movies with built-in name recognition: adaptations, sequels, reboots, reimaginings. Movies where name recognition alone will be enough to put butts in seats. Everybody does it, simply because it minimizes the colossal risks of filmmaking. It’s just smart business sense. So it is not unexpected — but still disappointing — to see Pixar fall into line behind this conventional wisdom. From its 1995 debut feature Toy Story onward, the computer-animation studio has mostly concentrated on making original films. Of the ten movies put out by Pixar between 1995 and 2009, only one was a sequel; and yet all were immensely profitable. …

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PopSmarts: Going Clear with William Burroughs

The works of William S. Burroughs are often lumped in with the Beat school; but although he was friendly with leading figures in the movement, his works were far more dark and paranoid than those of his compatriots. While Jack Kerouac tasted freedom in the blissed-out travelogue of On the Road, Burroughs brooded over the systems of control encoded into our very thoughts. Employing the imagery of pulp sci-fi, he characterized language itself as “a virus from outer space,” an intangible invader engineered to keep human minds enslaved. His distrust of language led him to the “cut-up” method, literally taking a scissors to his texts and reassembling them at random. Only by breaking the ingrained patterns of language, he argued, could we break the programmed patterns of our thoughts. From his youth, Burroughs despised all institutions of control — which makes it rather surprising to find that he spent almost a decade enthralled by the Church of Scientology. During the 1960s, while living in England, Burroughs took many courses at the church’s UK headquarters, and …

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Keep It To Yourself: The Writing On The Wall

So I’m standing on the 7th Avenue subway platform in lower Manhattan, circa 1983.  Two knuckleheads are discussing a picture of a baby in a circle.  The primitive image is drawn in white chalk on the black paper pasted over an advertising billboard mounted to the tiled wall.  “I think it means: No Babies On The Tracks,” says the dumber of the two.  After considering that for a moment, the other fool says, “Uh…it looks like a wristwatch.”  All the while your humble narrator was thinking, “Would you chumps mind stepping aside so I can try to get that Keith Haring original off the wall before my train comes?”  They didn’t so I couldn’t. I’m wondering, had I been able to remove the drawing, if I’d be able to do anything with it besides hang it in the private galleries at stately Keepit Manor.  And I’m wondering about that now because, thirty years later, the question has come up in connection with a mural by street art superstar Banksy.  Check it: ‘Slave Labour’ shows a poor urchin sewing Union …

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PopSmarts: The Judas Gospels

 And so we come, by the turning of the year, to the end of Shrovetide and the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. When I was a choir director, these three days of Easter were my favorite time of year. This is the time when Christendom enters its annual long dark night of the soul, and the rites of the Triduum still play out like a ritual drama. When programming music for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, I favored stark, direct songs — old folk hymns like “When Jesus Wept, the Falling Tear” (sung here by Waterson Carthy) and “What Wondrous Love Is This.” The Passion narrative packs quite enough punch without slathering on the cheap pathos, and those rough old English tunes are sturdy things — tragic without shading into melodrama. If you’re thinking that it would be a tall order for any rock ‘n’ roll song to capture that mingled mood of heartbreak and solemn awe, you’d be right. And if you’re thinking that Irish bombast-mongers U2 are unlikely candidates to pull …

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PopSmarts: Damned By Dawn!

It’s coming on St. Patrick’s Day now. That’s when all the amateur Irishmen come out for a night on the piss and an annual flirtation with Celtic folk music. In particular, the Pogues will come out for their yearly spin in the CD player, and it is to them that we turn our attention this time — and to an odd bit of trivia to both enhance your listening pleasure, and to give you an air of sophistication as you spend the evening getting schnockered with your cronies. One of the first pieces I wrote for Popdose was this guide to the Pogues, and what I strove to emphasize — what still strikes me now — is the band’s vast, omnivorous musical reach. It’s an injustice to think of them as “only” an Irish folk group. Oh, they had a greater command of (and reverence for) the Irish folk tradition than their detractors — or even some of their fans — would care to admit. But the Pogues were always chameleons at heart. At the …

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PopSmarts: The Camera Always Lies

I’ve always been a know-it-all. I was the kid who actually did read the encyclopedia for fun, and I carried my reputation as a fount of useless knowledge into adulthood and into the workplace. Break-room conversations would wind into arcane corners, until someone would say, “Ask Jack — I’ll bet he knows.” And I’d find myself grappling with questions like why Easter moves around so much in the calendar, or why riders of show-horses wear those puffy trousers, or how a faulty car came to be called a “lemon.” I’ve been asked to end arguments, to settle wagers, or simply to satisfy someone’s curiosity. And I’ve always done it — sometimes willingly, sometimes not. For one glorious week, I found a way to make it pay, parlaying my mastery of trivia into a winning stint on Jeopardy! But my true calling has always been as the Office Explainer, telling you everything you could possibly need to know about the ephemera of art, science, and history — and slightly more than you might need, in fact, …

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Book Review: “Profiles in Courageousness” by Rep. Jack Kimble

Political satire is usually pretty lead-footed. It’s hard to do well, with the result usually falling into the realm of smug, obvious, and overwhelmingly direct (Capitol Steps), or fear-mongering and overwrought (Bob Roberts). It also has a limited shelf life, because politics also have an innate sense of urgency. (If I’m even three days late on an SNL episode, I’ll skip the political cold open because it’s no longer relevant and/or the jokes are so obvious.) This is why Rep. Jack Kimble, R-California, 54th District is so wonderful. He’s a self-made Internet star with a YouTube channel and Twitter account, both of which he uses to parody the medium-specific ephemera of the 24-hour/online news-cycle and political ramblings of self-proclaimed political crusaders and moronic idealists with too much power. And now he’s released the e-book Profiles in Courageousness, a fake political memoir. It’s the kind of flag-waving, values-praising, extremely carefully worded, praising-a-past-that-never-was, written-by-committee “autobiography” ever candidate has ghostwritten for them 11 months before the first primary. (Kimble, of course, isn’t real. California doesn’t have 54 districts; he’s a …

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An Open Letter to Manti Te’o, from Jan Brady

Hi, Manti Te’o. It’s me, Jan Brady! I’m a sophomore at Westdale High School in California. I live with my three brothers, two sisters, and parents. Oh, and Alice! Don’t forget Alice! (She’s our maid, but she’s more like one of the family.) We’re a real bunch. A “Brady bunch!” Ha-ha-ha-ha! I think it’s really neato that you play sports. My favorite sports people are Don Drysdale and Joe Namath, and it’s too bad that you didn’t win the big championship game, but I bet you’ll still be the Big Man on Campus until you graduate. But that doesn’t mean that you can go around and tell people that you have a girlfriend who isn’t real, and that she died. Lying is wrong, Manti. And you shouldn’t lie to people to try to get them to like you. If you have to pretend for them, do you really want them to be your friends? But we Bradys don’t judge, Manti. Also, I understand. Even me, the great Jan Brady, lied about having a boyfriend! I …

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Keep It To Yourself: My Precious

In a hole in the ground there lived a lawsuit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet lawsuit, filled with the ends of contracts and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy lawsuit with nothing interesting in it to read: it was a Hobbit copyright lawsuit, and that means…money. Actually, there are a couple of recent infringement suits involving the new J.R.R. Tolkien-based flick and we’ll take a look at both.  Right, off we go to Ye Magickal Lande of District Court! In the first suit, Tolkien’s estate sued Warner Brothers for copyright infringement of the super popular Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books.  The complaint – for $80,000,000 – was filed just before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, first in a trilogy of films Warner Bros. will somehow wring out of JRR’s original Middle Earth novel.   Also named in the suit are Warners’ New Line subsidiary as well as the Saul Zaentz Co., which owns certain LOTR/Hobbit film and merchandising rights.  (But that’s not really news because everybody likes to …

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Keep It to Yourself: Just Desserts?

  I scream, you scream, we all scream for hardcore pornography! Hippie royalty Ben & Jerry were not amused when L.A. smut merchants Caballero Video released a series of dirty DVDs with names and packaging mimicking their wholesome family treats.  The naughty flicks have titles like ‘Boston Cream Thighs, ‘New York Super Fat and Chunky’ and ‘Hairy Garcia.’  [Cue my teenage daughter: ‘Ewww!’]  The line of adult features is promoted under the name “Ben and Cherry’s XXX Ice Cream” (‘Porno’s Finest’) and looks like this: A lawsuit ensued.  I hear my smart, attentive and attractive readers collectively breathing, “So what?  Isn’t this just garden variety parody?”  Answer: NO.  Let’s briefly talk about trademark dilution, specifically tarnishment. Ahem.  Trademark dilution is “the lessening of the capacity of a famous mark to identify and distinguish goods or services, regardless of the presence or absence of (1) competition between the owner of the famous mark and other parties, or (2) likelihood of confusion, mistake, or deception.”  In plain English, dilution law protects a trademarked product when someone makes a …

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Numberscruncher: Of Course, Mitt Romney Lies!

It’s a given: Mitt Romney has issues with the truth. I think it’s cultural. People in business learn to lie, and in the big-stakes, big-money worlds of consulting and private equity, the truth isn’t all that valuable. In my investment banking days, one colleague told me that I should never say “I don’t know” when asked a question. That made me look weak. Always act like you know what you’re doing and say something  One of my bosses said that I should focus on marketing stocks. If there wasn’t new information to get people excited, just invent something! A third boss said that no one can get ahead in business until they learn to lie. It may be worse in finance than other businesses, but Dilbert’s pointy-headed boss is too familiar to too many of us. It’s not like these are bad people, they are just playing the game. Mitt Romney doesn’t seem like a guy who would lie to his wife or kids, but he would tell shareholders what they needed to hear for …

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World’s Worst Songs: Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”

While the scope and audacity of the September 11 attacks was shocking, that the United States had finally been hit was not. Informed citizens understood that there were people in the world who did not see us as a force for universal good, who in fact wished us great harm, and who had the means to hurt us badly. To many Americans, however, the attacks came like a bolt of lightning on a clear day. Why would anyone do such a thing to a country as benevolent as ours? How could they hate us so much? What was wrong with the people who hijacked those planes? Surely they had an inconceivable sickness, deep in their souls. There were answers to these questions, but the answers weren’t easy or comforting. They were rooted in history and geopolitics over nearly a century, and they would upset cherished notions about America’s image, her intentions, and her actions. They may have caused some people to adopt a more nuanced view of what led to the attacks, but many others …

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Numberscruncher: Who Built What, When?

The 2012 Republican Convention’s theme for Tuesday, August 28 is “We Built It,” a riff on an unfortunate comment by Barack Obama. Obama was trying to make the point that government provides education, infrastructure, police protection, property protection, and other things that have to be in place before a business can be successful. So what was it built on? Entrepreneurs are touchy about other people trying to latch onto their success, because starting a business is hard work. Even harder is getting up every day and trying to get people excited about what you are doing so that they will part with enough of their money so that you can make payroll. Most entrepreneurs would far rather do what they do than have a regular job, but that doesn’t make their jobs easy. Even a liberal like me was soured by my experience applying for a City of Chicago business license; it’s pretty annoying to have a career bureaucrat talk down to you how to start a business – to say the least. And yet, …