Thursday, February 27, 2014

¡Venga, Paco!

Paco de Lucia, the great Spanish guitarist who died yesterday, was grievously misunderstood by much of the world, including some of his staunchest fans.

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma has done all sorts of dilettante-ish dabbling, e.g. his misguided attempts at jazz. Nobody judges him by that stuff, just as nobody judges Michael Jordan by his baseball playing. Yet in America Paco de Lucia is thought of as a technically gifted guitarist specializing in atmospheric noodling and collaborations with sparkly-toothed "fusion" types.

As someone who's spent lots of time in Spain, I know that's not who he was. Actually, he was one of the most staunchly traditional flamenco guitarists of his generation. Forget the bloodless image you may have of him and listen to this (one of his many collaborations with the flamenco genius Camaron de la Isla):



It was assumed that when it came to flamenco, Americans couldn't possibly appreciate the real shit. And so none of these recordings with Camaron has been easily available here (this is also why de Lucia stuck to noodly atmospherics outside Spain). I, myself, got lucky. During an early visit to Spain in the 1990's, a local pressed a cassette tape into my hand and urged me to check it out when I got home. It was my first taste of the great Camaron, mesmerizingly backed by a guitarist whose red-blooded ardor was encouraged with shouts of "¡Venga, Paco!". It blew my mind to discover that it was de Lucia. Wait...that guy???

That was who and what Paco de Lucia really was. I became an enormous fan, and have, over the years, scooped up all the Cameron/de Lucia CDs I could get my hands on. And I'd suggest you do likewise.

Here's another taste:



Last, but definitely not lease, this one was recorded in a bar (the only place where flamenco - like jazz - should ever be performed) and absolutely KILLS:



Real Chinese restaurants assume Americans won't like briny, funky fermented bean curd sauce ("foo-yee" in Cantonese, "foo-roo" in Mandarin). It's never on the menu, you always have to beg for it over the waiter's insistence that you won't enjoy it. Yet everyone I've turned onto it loves the stuff (it's best on watercress). Same for real flamenco. Chowhounding, music-hounding, and all other sorts of hounding require looking deeper, crashing through barriers, and seeing past the misdirection. The only alternative is to passively accept and embody the blandness that's expected of you.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Confidence vs Arrogance

Confidence is knowing you're right.

Arrogance is thinking it makes you superior.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ease of Harold Ramis

Many of you come here for contrarian opinions, so, amid all the lauds for recently deceased writer/director Harold Ramis, I hope you'll tolerate a contrary view of this hero of mine.

Ramis didn't have a sensational career (writing and/or directing Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Analyze This, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs, etc.) because he was a genius - even though he was a genius. He had a sensational career because he was a company man. A drudge. A guy more about getting stuff made and put out there than investing the sort of care and love that elevates good work to greatness.

Ramis ground the sausage, as they say, stamping out film after film, many successful, some not. Because he was a genius, a number of these films were highly enjoyable in spite of his disdain for extra-measure craftsmanship. A Harold Ramis mediocrity could still kick the crap out of many people's best work. When you're that smart and talented, quality comes easily.

It came so easily that he never seemed to go the extra mile. Ramis' genius stooped to conquer, opting for a low friction/high reward approach. Despite his success (essentially setting the bar for modern cinematic comedy) and his work's intermittent brilliance, Harold Ramis may have been the most disappointing creative figure in my lifetime.

I hesitate to write all this, because everyone agrees that Ramis was an extraordinarily nice guy. And I'm not surprised. There's an ease in taking the easy route - to choosing buttery glide over creative agony - and it's unsurprising that someone who'd made that choice would, himself, personify ease. People who sweat blood to elevate goodness to greatness tend to be more difficult to get along with. What's more, if he'd pushed harder and settled less, he'd never have had the career he had. So I'm not saying he necessarily chose the wrong path. 

But what disappoints me about Ramis - what fuels this inexplicable rebuke of a much-loved guy who made me laugh for decades, who treated people right, and who "earned his keep on this planet", to quote Bill Murray's tribute to him this week - is his film "Groundhog Day", which was a honed masterpiece. Groundhog Day is my favorite film, and I find it very difficult to forgive Ramis for blithely allowing himself to fall so very far short of that mark before and since.


Here are previous Slog postings referencing Groundhog Day. Also, don't miss Stephen Tobolowsky's superb podcast on the making of Groundhog Day (he appeared as Ned Ryerson, the annoying insurance salesman)...and Radio Open Source's two radio tributes to Groundhog Day, from 2006 and from 2007...and Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin's insightful web site.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Einstein's Epigrams

I love this quote so much that I decided to replay it:

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
- Albert Einstein"

I could kick myself for having found that quote only after having written this article.

By the way, Einstein is horribly underrated as a quotemeister. Check out these absolute gems.

Netflix Pays Up

So Netflix has decided to pay the piper (pun intended). See my posting from Saturday for background.

This move leaves me more confused than ever. If Comcast and Verizon are renewing their insistence that Netflix's streaming problems are not their fault, and occur before the data reaches them, then why is Netflix buckling to the extortion?

Hat tip to Vaughn Tan for the NY Times link.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Damn You, Bonaparte!!

"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Damn. It turns out Napolean formulated Leff's Fourth Law a couple hundred years earlier than I did. What's more, he stated it more eloquently than I did, and he wasn't even a native English speaker!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Untangling the Netflix Streaming Catastrophe

Netflix is supposed to be streaming to me in HD, but, during prime viewing hours, I'm getting only a 560kbs bit rate, which is substantially worse than VCR (i.e. my picture looks like absolute crap). Yet speed tests indicate that the bit rate from my Internet service provider, Verizon, is at 17-25 mb/sec - more than enough for HD video streaming. Indeed, Amazon streaming, YouTube, and all the other services work fine. The only problem is with Netflix. And even Netflix streams beautifully (4.3 mb/sec, 1920x1080) the moment the clock hits 1:00 am - i.e. the end of Netflix's prime time.

I called up Netflix, whose rep just drowned me in ditzy happy talk about how important my satisfaction is to them. There wasn't much they could say. Obviously, my set-up is not the problem, given that all other services work perfectly all the time and Netflix works perfectly outside of prime time.

Anyway, this is no small matter for me. You see, I'm currently catching up on House of Cards, and I want to watch it during prime time, and I want it to look crisp. So, as an imperious entertainment-addled first-worlder, my only possible response is along the lines of "THIS SHALL NOT STAND!!!".

I've spent hours reading up, and discovered that I'm not alone. There's a public furor over Netflix streaming quality, and it's extremely difficult to pinpoint a villain. Here are the various facets in a nutshell:

1. In mid-January, our beloved government took a swipe at net neutrality. Net neutrality means that service providers are not allowed to play favorites - i.e. cannot throttle certain services because they're popular (and therefore more costly accommodate), or because that service hasn't paid them bribes, or because a service happens to compete with core businesses of the service providers (for example, the cable companies offering much of our nation's broadband services directly compete with Netflix). Net neutrality is not dead, but it's been wounded some.

2. Just after that ruling, Verizon reportedly insisted that Netflix pay for delivery of its huge data stream (up to 25% of Internet traffic at times). That's not how the Internet works, so of course Netflix has not paid. And rumor has it that Verizon has retaliated by throttling Netflix's data speed. Or maybe not.

3. Verizon insists it's not throttling Netflix. But their statement was very carefully worded, leaving ample weasel room.

4. Among the weaselly recourses, there's a sneaky way service providers can degrade transmission of a given Internet service without deliberately throttling it (which in some cases is still illegal, and which would certainly ignite customer rage if ever revealed). Rather than deliberately throttle, they can simply direct certain services through their most outdated and overloaded switches and channels. There's no law saying content providers need to keep all their equipment in tip-top shape, or that they need to give equal access to their best routings. So...defacto throttling, while breaking no laws. Yes, the mobster approach ("I'm not saying I'm gonna deliberately break your knees, but I know how much you enjoy walking around...").

5. Bizarrely, Netflix itself recently insisted that Verizon isn't throttling them. That, of course, doesn't mean that Verizon isn't throttling them. Netflix has a critical interest in denying that any of this is happening, regardless of whether or not it's their fault. If their service doesn't work - even due to other entities - that's horrendous for their stock price (which has been touchy lately). In fact, a lot of the rumor-mongoring was likely the doing of activist shorts trying to drive down Netflix's stock price. There's more and more of that sort of thing.


So what's going on with my Netflix service? One explanation is the "Complex Internet" theory, which notes that any given Internet service must pass through many jumps to get to my house, and any of those intermediary jumps might randomly slow things down. I reject that explanation here, because, again, service is always bad in prime time, and always great outside it. That's not entropy.

Another explanation is that this is the natural result of lots of neighbors, also on Verizon, slowing down the Internet by using Netflix and other services at night. But, again, my Internet doesn't slow down. Even during prime time, my connection is never less than a healthy 17-25 mb/sec.

After diving down this unexpectedly deep and labyrinthian rabbit hole, my conclusion is that it's probably Netflix's fault. If Verizon was retributively throttling Netflix, then it would make little sense for them to deliver Netflix so beautifully outside of prime time. Furthermore, if Verizon was trying to avoid the appearance of throttling, the degradation wouldn't be so steep and so sharply timed. Finally, even Verizon's most bitter accusers are citing throttling rates of around 14%, but I'm seeing my service consistently degraded by about 90% (per stats in the first paragraph, above). Nobody accuses any service provider of that level of throttling.

So it seems to me that Netflix is having trouble meeting demand. Complaints appear to have started building last fall, right about when Netflix started promising much more ambitious video quality in its streams, and also when it started to became apparent that their scheme to have service providers cache for them wasn't going to catch on.


I haven't shorted Netflix, btw.... ;)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Salinger, Chowhound, and "Flappy Bird"

An app called "Flappy Bird" created by an indie game designer in Vietnam become a phenom, sailing to the top of the charts and creating an absolute sensation. As with all sensations - including ones as innocent and well-intentioned as this cute little game - there were a host of concurrent nasty rumors (all baseless) and savage criticism (all overblown), fed by sharply-worded media reports from outlets thrashing for a share of all the attention. The guy received death threats. It was a circus, a nightmare, all over nothing but a cheerful little game.

Last week, at the apex of its popularity, the designer pulled Flappy Bird from the market, explaining that he wanted his life back. Read the story here, and a follow-up interview with the designer here.

That move blew everyone's mind. The tech world and media struggled to make sense of it. Why would anyone recede from limelight? Fresh nefarious rumors were spun and more harsh articles were written. Is he sick in the head? Why wouldn't he welcome this sort of attention?

For my part, I couldn't believe their disbelief. Here's my perspective on JD Salinger, another guy presumed mentally ill for rejecting limelight. And for a hound's eye view of an earlier Internet phenom, have a read through the story of my adventure creating, managing, and selling Chowhound.com.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TV-Hounding Update

My TV-hounding skills have proved pretty sharp. Most series I've latched onto have turned out to be winners. I cheat, though, cribbing from Alan Sepinwall, whose blog is essential reading in this golden age of television (I wrote more about him - and linked to some of his best-of lists - here).

Here are a couple of previous gigunda postings where I touted most of my favorites:

"Must CTV"

"More TV Rapture"

Anyway, I have some updates:

You're likely bored and bewildered by the endless sequels and remakes of the Hannibal Lechter story. But forget all those (including even the Demme original) and just watch the NBC series Hannibal, which is extraordinary. It's slow, broody, deep, subtle...all the qualities one wouldn't expect in this drama. Yeah, it's psychologically disturbing, but not very violent or terrifying. Hannibal is a show aimed at those who appreciate fine touches and great acting/writing/directing/cinematography/art direction, not horror fans. And it returns for its second season on February 28.

Also slow, broody, deep, and subtle: True Detective. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson act their asses off, capably matched by Nic Pizzolatto's superb writing and Cary Joji Fukunaga's unparalleled direction. I started off this first season (currently 5 shows in) merely loving it, but the last two episodes stepped things up to incredibleness. This show's Breaking Bad good (and remember: I was into that show early, first mentioning it here way back in 2009)!

There are tons of over-the-top adult cartoon series with highly stylized senses of humor that do nothing for me. I get the impression they're mostly geared toward viewers who go heavy on the Red Bull. I'm also not a fan of Adult Swim, the cable network that's home to a lot of those shows. But their series Rick & Morty is so so so brilliant, so deeply funny. It's super gross-out stuff, yet the asides and references make Bullwinkle look like Caspar. The show's building an enormo following among folks who don't ordinarily view cartoons (if you haven't heard about it yet, you probably soon will). You can catch up with previous episodes (they're all good, but the show keeps getting better each week) here.

I raved once before about The Americans, on FX ("a new espionage thriller set in the 1980's, about a Russian sleeper cell in the American suburbs. It's a seemingly normal American couple under such deep cover that they don't even speak Russian, or reveal their earlier lives to each other, even in private moments. And the show's as much an exploration of their sixteen year marriage - even they're not sure what's "cover" and what's "real" - as of their spycraft."). Not only is it one of my favorite TV series of all time, it has the distinction of being the one show I can recommend to anybody and be absolutely certain they'll love it. No one's ever reported disappointment in this one. And it returns for its second season on February 26.

Extra bonus: GoWatchIt is a website and mobile app where you can plug in any movie and it will tell you if it's available on Netflix (disk and/or streaming), Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc. You can save a Queue, and ask GoWatchIt to notify you when a given title becomes available on any/all those services.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Empowerment Postscript #3

Even though I completely misunderstood my friend's email about Mormons, I was glad to be reminded to tie that group into my theory of anti-empowerment. The Mormons put the most affable, most American face on what otherwise would surely have been universally viewed as a weird, dangerous cult. Again, minorities campaigning for equal treatment often make the mistake of leading with their differences, when precisely the opposite tack is most effective.

Of course, my friend wasn't talking about Mormonism in general, but specifically about polygamy. He writes:
"That discussion was in the context of marriage equality. Polygamy has definitely not been accepted, even for most boring dudes."
True, of course. And a lot could be said about that (e.g. unlike other minorities, polygamists will never garner support from the left, which views the practice as misogynist). In the end, though, there are extremes of extremes which can never be mainstreamed. This observation comfortably fits my argument that minorities are most easily accepted into plurality when they lead with their dull integrability rather than their proud dissimilarities.

One angry-seeming black power salute from Obama and he'd never have come close to the senate, much less the presidency. Remember how that innocent fist bump rocked the nation?



The same applies to the lack of conspicuous nipple clamps adorning the gentlemen making the case for marriage equality. The path to mainstream inclusion often involves some shaving off of the most extreme differences - which is why the staunchest group members often viscerally reject a course of pluralization.

Mormons, who've cannily presented themselves with signature sunny affability, rather than flaunting their strange underwear and creation dogma, have largely been accepted. We welcome the integrable and hesitatingly accept some weirdness, but polygamy's beyond the pale. As early and highly-skilled pioneers in the strategy I'm advocating, church leaders disavowed that practice when reality sunk in. Some radical practitioners persist with group marriage, and, as a result, their communities are isolated and persecuted by the mainstream.

Mormons were compelled to disavow polygamy. And Obama, by the same token, was compelled to stay well to the right of mainstream America on, for example, marijuana penalties. Such moves maintain the plurality. Plurality, like all compromise, is tepid and dull.

Speaking of extreme behavior, I find it interesting that the transgendered are often included in discussion of gay equality. To a conservative, that seems like yet another sneaky liberal encroachment. While a majority of Americans may be more or less favorable to normalizing homosexuality (in terms of choices framed by society as being freely available to children, etc.), normalisation of transgenderism seems, at least for now, to be pushing it. I don't think America's ready to culturally enshrine this lifestyle choice; to have one's child taught that when he grows up he might find himself in love with a girl or a boy or that he might choose to chop off his penis.

The question of whether transgendered people deserve equal rights is moot. Everybody deserves equal rights, period. But as to whether the practice should be presented as just another reasonable lifestyle choice, that's going to be a tough sell, ala polygamy. They'll likely have to let that one go.

(Though, who knows; twenty years from now I may look back at myself as having been ignorantly, disgustingly backward on the issue. There's absolutely no way to know at this point. As I once noted, a sanctimonious amnesia blocks people from acknowledging their own view of gay rights from just a couple decades ago, leaving them strangely unable to sympathize with those who haven't yet caught up.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Empowerment Postscript #2

I concluded my previous posting (a postscript to this) by saying:
"The message was delivered by boring, well-dressed, reasonable people, not dudes defiantly flaunting their nipple clamps"
...and a friend emailed in this comment:
That hasn't worked too well for the Mormons, has it? And how more boring could one get?
I think absolutely the contrary is true. There have been societies that were relatively tolerant of new religious movements and cults, but America sure isn't one of them. The reason Mormonism has flourished and been viewed with uncharacteristic (if not total) tolerance here is precisely the image of boring, well-dressed, reasonable affability on the part of its practitioners - almost a caricature of the world's image of Americans.

So Mormonism is a perfect example of what I'm describing. Rather than staunchly leading with what makes them different ("Empowerment!"), they lead with what makes them a comfortably dull fit amid the plurality.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Empowerment Postscript #1

This is a postscript to my previous posting, "A Case Against Empowerment".

As I noted in a comment beneath that article:
"The reason gay rights have transformed with such miraculous speed is that this is exactly the tack they took. "We just want to love who we love, like any American." Not "a gay thing", just an American thing. The message was delivered by boring, well-dressed, reasonable people, not dudes defiantly flaunting their nipple clamps (which would have absolutely nothing to do with it anyway). Dull pluralism. That's the right tack, and we've just seen how very well it works."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Case Against Empowerment

Prior to Obama, black presidential candidates were running for black presidencies. Melanin-forward!

Obama was a presidential candidate who happened to be black. And one could almost hear the foundational national "duh" as it became instantly obvious that that was the only smart approach. A fog had lifted, and I'd imagine it was excruciatingly embarrassing for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to suddenly realize how wrongly they'd been going about it.

The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. And the opposite of being a discriminated-against minority isn't becoming an empowered minority, it's pluralism. Boring old pluralism.

The old model was "empowerment". That notion rings nobly in the ears of many Americans, but it plays to the dualism which gives birth to discrimination in the first place. That dualism needs to be transcended, not stoked. This is a profound lesson America learned in 2008, but I'm not sure it was fully digested.

Obama didn't offer, and hasn't run, a black presidency. Love him or hate him, he's about way more than melanin. Why on earth would I want a female presidency, or a Jewish presidency? Administrations aren't like novelty flavors of KitKat bars. I don't want some glorious rainbow, I want smart governance. I'll vote for a good president, period!

This lesson covers more than politics. The antidote to discrimination is (dull) pluralism, not (sexy) empowerment. Fight the duality, don't feed it! Down with empowerment!

(Note that I'm talking about today, not 1850 or 1950. Countless heroes absolutely needed to stand up solidly for rights when they had none. But in present day society - characterized by lingering and insidious discrimination rather than the more explicit and brazen sort - a tactical shift needed to happen, and Obama exemplified that shift. Lead with your quality, not your melanin...or gender, or ethnicity, or whatever issue you're worried people might be hung up about.)


Update:

See also postscript #1, postscript #2, and postscript #3.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bell's Beer

I've been waiting for Bell's Brewery (from Kalamzoo, MI) to send their beers to NYC for twenty five years. Tonight, they arrived. Their lineup can be a bit inconsistent, but if you stick to the hits (e.g. Two Hearted Ale, Expedition Stout, Amber Ale, and a new power lager, Quinannan Falls, which is stupendous), you'll enjoy some deftly balanced, three dimensional brews, often with a focused flavor core from which secondary flavors amply cascade.

I took this shot at Williamsburg's Barcade which, to my surprise, turned out to do a decent job of epitomizing 21st century Brooklyn:



Monday, February 10, 2014

Star Blanded Banner

I can live with poisoned dogs, evicted homeowners, and $55B diverted to Putin's cronies to produce these Olympics. But I can never forgive the insanely poor treatment of the Star Spangled Banner played back at podium ceremonies.

Granted, it's not the greatest tune in the world (my favorite anthem, fwiw, is the one from Vietnam), but there are some harmonic subtleties which can be handled any number of interesting ways. And the Russians' version deliberately paves over every one of those junctures, resulting in utter pablum. The melody's intact, so it gets the job done, but we musicians can easily discern the arranger's smug smirk.

I don't have much sense of patriotism to offend, but this has sure insulted the bejesus out of my musical sensibilities...

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