Monday, January 30, 2012

Song of the Week: Scratch My Back

Continuing with the blues theme, this week's song comes from Texas based blues band The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  From the band's founding in 1974 until around 1990, their lead guitarist was Jimmie Vaughan; older brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a fantastic guitarist in his own right.  It was during his tenure that the band had their biggest hit:  1986's Tuff Enough.

From a 1985 concert in London, here's The Thunderbirds with Jimmie on guitar and Kim Wilson on vocals/harmonica with Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back".

Friday, January 27, 2012

MST3K Friday: Parts: The Clonus Horror

This film actually made the news a couple years ago when its creators sued the creators of the movie The Island for copyright infringement.

"I think you're neat." "I like how keen you are."
"Why's Gilligan there?"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

When the Women Come Out to Dance, by Elmore Leonard

When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of short stories by Elmore Leonard (author of Get Shorty and Out of Sight). The description states that each story features a “strong female character in trouble”, and this is for the most part true. There are a couple stories where the woman character is the impetus for the story, but not the main character in it, and one story where there are no women characters at all. This is just a minor quibble. The true reason for this collection to exist is to showcase Leonard’s talent for creating likeable characters and crackling dialog.

Women includes nine stories, some previously published and some unpublished until now. As you can expect with a collection such as this, some stories are stronger than others. For example, the two longest stories (almost long enough to count as novellas), “Fire in the Hole” and “Tenkiller” are two of the best. Also included is a story called “Karen Makes Out” featuring the Karen Sisco, star of the book/movie Out of Sight and television show Karen Sisco. It deals with a brief fling Karen has with a guy who may or may not be a bank robber. This is probably my favorite story in the whole collection.

Stories like “Hanging Out at the Buena Vista” and the title story “When the Women Come Out to Dance” while good, didn’t quite capture my imagination the way the others did.

A must for fans of Elmore Leonard. If you haven't read Elmore, they are a microcosm of his work: memorable characters definded in few words, dialogue that is snappier than just about anyone ever, abundant humor. Cool.

Update (1/16/2011): Since the collection came out, the story "Fire in the Hole" became the inspiration for the TV show Justified (not to mention the basis for the pilot episode).  I've reread a couple of the stories, but not the whole collection.  It's a nice way to get a quick hit of Elmore Leonard before getting on with your business.

Posted on the old blog 8/16/2005.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Song of the Week: Red House

I know I've said I'm a huge fan of some of the bands featured on Song of the Week, but I say it when I mean it.  I'm a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix.  Catch me on a good day and I'll call him the greatest guitarist who ever lived.  Of course everyone's familiar with his big hits and some of this more psychedelic music, but Hendrix was also a stellar blues guitarist.  In college, I picked up a CD at a local record store that was nothing but him playing the blues.  Here's one of my favorite Hendrix tunes of all time:  "Red House".

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Brainstorm About Brainstorming

Have you ever sat in an interminable brainstorming session at work?  Two hours locked in the conference room with the same people talking about the same topic?  More like brain drizzle if you ask me.  That's also the position taken by Susan Cain in this New York Times article.
SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 
But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
Sure, collaboration is good and sometimes helpful, but there's also a lot of useless time-wasting in groups and meetings.  For me, personally, I don't come up with the important questions or even most of the problems with our proposed solutions until I actually get my hands in there and start working on things.

From later in the article:
...brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.”
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
And this part really sets my teeth on edge:
Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.
How are kids supposed to learn if they can't ask questions?

OK, I'm not going to deal with that right now because it's off topic.

Like I said, for me, it's getting my hands on the problem that helps me actually come up with the right questions and right solutions.  I think, though, that a line from late in the article underlines the fundamental problem with brainstorming/group thinking.  Cain writes, "People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure."

So what's to be done?  Certainly we can't, and shouldn't, eliminate brainstorming sessions entirely.  We should encourage collaboration, but balance it with the need of people to be able to disappear into their own space, locked away from anyone else, to work in a problem in solitude.  To quote Cain again, "Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time."  And like a lot of management books preach, we should go into meetings with a clear agenda and not go over our allotted time.

 As Picasso once said, "Without great solitude, no serious work is possible."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection

Loren D. Estleman is a writer most famous for his 20 Amos Walker, PI books and this is a collection of 33 Walker short stories.  Publishers Weekly puts him just below Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald and people whose opinions I respect greeted the release of this collection with effervescent praise.  One weekend, the Kindle edition of the book was offered for free, so I snatched it up.  Now, I'm happy I got it for free.

It started out well enough with a story called "Greektown".  The setting painted a nice picture of Detroit, the language and dialogue were punchy, and the story had a nice hook.  Walker was hired by the owner of a Greek restaurant to find his half brother - a man he thinks is behind the murders of several young women around town.  The story rolled along pretty nicely until Walker made a deductive leap as to why the half-brother did what he did.  His conclusion was not supported by any clues I noticed planted throughout the story.

I noticed this leap in several other stories.  As I kept reading the collection, the punchy dialogue I liked so much started to feel forced and out of place.  Now, there are some good stories in the part of the book I read, but for the most part the stories were "meh" or worse (I stopped reading about halfway through the book).

I'll read a couple more stories in here if I have time and nothing else to read, but I won't be devoting much of my reading time to it.  If the second half of the book changes my opinion, I'll post an update.  But for now, I can't recommend it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Song of the Week: Long Hard Times to Come

This week's Song of the Week comes from Gangstagrass.  What is gangstagrass?  It's both the name of the band and the name of the style of music they play.  It's a fusion of bluegrass and rap; two musical styles that aren't typically in my rotation.  However, I dig these guys.  Along with most people, I first heard of them when they did the theme song for FX's great show Justified, which returns this Tuesday (January 17th) for its third season.  I think Justified is one of the best shows on TV these days, so check it out if you haven't yet.

Here's the Justified theme song, "Long Hard Times to Come"

And a second selection, "On the Run":

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Right as Rain by George Pelecanos

Late one night, off-duty DC police officer Chris Wilson is accidentally shot and killed by fellow officer Terry Quinn. Though his actions were declared “right as rain” by the review board, Quinn is wracked with guilt over the shooting and given the hairy eyeball by many of his fellow officers. You see, Quinn is white and Wilson was black. Quinn doesn’t consider himself a bigot (he is dating a Latina after all), but he can’t help thinking he was a little quick on the trigger because Wilson was an angry looking black man with a gun. Meanwhile, private eye Derek Strange is hired by Wilson’s mother to find out more about Chris’s death. The truth leads to drug dealers, crooked cops, a wayward sister, and an unlikely friendship.

If there’s any doubt the crime novel is the 21st Century’s answer to the 19th Century social novel, look no further for proof than George Pelecanos. His Right as Rain uses the classic framework of the private eye novel to discuss the issues of drug abuse, racial tension, and urban decay. An interesting thing about the edition I read is that it included study guide questions (mostly about the racial aspects) in the back of the book. Makes me wish I was part of a book club.

Before you start thinking this is a boring, super high-brow, capital-n Novel, it also happens to be fast-paced, well-written, and damn exciting. Both Strange and Quinn jump off the page as fully realized people, not just characters in a book. Their language and worldviews can be shared by any number of your friends. Pelecanos’s eye for detail makes the setting (DC and Silver Spring, Maryland) come alive. Those familiar with that area are in for a real treat.

Pelecanos handles his subject matter with great aplomb. When dealing with matters of race and cultural identity, it is very easy to get real preachy real fast. Much like Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War (there’s another social novel author for you), the book rarely descends into beating you over the head with the author’s point of view.

Fans of crime books or books that tackle Big Ideas couldn’t ask for a better one that Pelecanos’s Right as Rain. I’ll definitely be picking up more of the Derek Strange series.

One of the best books I read last year.  Highly recommended.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Song of the Week: Such a Night

Yesterday (1/8) would have been the 77th birthday of Elvis.  To celebrate, here's one of my favorite tunes of his:  "Such a Night".

Here's another one I stumbled across on YouTube that's pretty good, too.  It's called "She Is Not You".

Friday, January 6, 2012

MST3K Friday: Squirm

Featuring one of my brother and my favorite shorts:  "A Case of Spring Fever".

"No Springs!"
"I accidentally married one of the sheep."
These clips don't include my favorite line (also the stinger): "You da worm face now!"

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Winter Classic

Yes, I survived my trip down to Philadelphia for the Winter Classic.  Needless to say, it was awesome.  The weather wasn't too bad and was able to survive the cold temperatures quite nicely.  The gates opened at 1pm and that's when I got there.  Took a chance to wander around the whole park and snap some nice pictures.

Here's one such picture for you to take a gander at:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Song of the Week: The Hockey Song

It's the good old hockey game!  A silly song this week because I'm heading off to the WINTER CLASSIC!  Yup, I was able to score tickets to this year's event between the Flyers and the Rangers.  It's going to be fun and coooold.