Friday, October 23, 2015

What I Learned About "Back to the Future" from the Cubs Losing

It took the Cubs losing the NLCS to make me realize what the "Back to the Future" trilogy is all about.

"Really?" I hear you asking. "The Cubs lose every year. What makes this year different?"

This year makes this year different. Let me explain.

At the end of "Back to the Future III", Marty finally backs down from a stupid challenge to drag race, and thus avoids a car accident that would have wrecked his hand and ruined his musical career (covering Huey Lewis songs is lucrative, I guess?). Jennifer looks at the pink slip she snagged from future-Marty, and the text on it disappears. Doc explains to her that the future is unwritten, and this seems to be what the series is all about.

We see this numerous times throughout the movies. In fact, it's pretty much a staple of time travel stories in any medium. It is the rare story that shows timelines as fixed events, unchangeable, regardless of what you do in the past, as this is depressing. "Terminator 3" did this, simply by existing (then they kinda said it in the movie). After the second movie, you think they've stopped the war, but nope, a decade later, more terminators coming back to kill John Connor and revealing that they didn't stop anything - the war is inevitable. Interestingly, the message in the first two movies of that franchise was "the future is unwritten", but then the third crapped all over that idea, and then it crapped all over the first two movies, and then itself.

Okay, back to "Back to the Future". In the first movie, Marty goes from 1985 to 1955 and interferes with his parents' timeline, causing them not to meet, not to fall in love, and not to bone at least three times to make Marty exist in the first place, causing him to fade...from existence! 1955 Doc realizes what is happening, and helps Marty make things right before sending him the future! (Doc likes...the dramatic pause!) Upon arriving in the future, we see things are the same. Well, mostly. The name of the mall has changed, Doc took Marty's advice and defended himself against the Libyans, and Marty's family has gone from being middle class schlubs to being middle class socialites. Also, the car is no longer totalled, and Marty owns the big, black penis analog truck he saw earlier in the movie. Also, Jennifer transforms into Elizabeth Shue, but that happens between movies.

All of this because Marty, disguised as a guy named Calvin, taught George to respect and believe himself. Also because George punched Biff (who also changes from the seedy bully into the subservient lackey). Without trying, Marty changed the future. Then, in trying to set things right, changed it again.

In Part II, Doc brings Marty and Jennifer into the future to save their kids (I'll come back to this in a minute), giving them a glimpse of life in 2015. They see flying cars (after the ridiculous line about not having enough road to get to 88mph, even though Doc just used that exact same road, but I digress), hoverboards, holo-billboards, self-tying shoes, automated waiters, and "Jaws 19". Truly, a wondrous vision of the future. Marty sees a headline about a sporting event, and gets a brainstorm to make some money by purchasing a 20th century sports almanac and bringing it back to 1985 with him. Doc takes umbrage with this and tosses the book in the trash, but old Biff overhears, steals the book and the DeLorean and gives the book to his younger self in 1955, then returns the DeLorean to 2015, because stranding Doc and Marty in 2015, thus guaranteeing they wouldn't be able to foil his plot just...made too much sense? I guess? At least Old Biff warned Young Biff that Doc and Marty might come snooping around, so that's something. He doesn't warn him about George punching his lights out at the dance, Marty running around 1955 causing problems, or anything else, so Biff is just kinda dumb, I guess? And then he has a heart attack. Or something. It's never really explained. Old Biff just kinda dies. Right next to the DeLorean. And no one notices. Moving on.

When Doc and Marty finish in 2015 and return to 1985, they find it vastly different. The high school has burnt down. Marty's neighborhood is still there, but in ruins, and some other family lives in his house. The Doc Brown of this era is dead, as is George McFly, killed by Biff, who then married Lorraine (after she'd had the three kids). Biff also basically rules Hill Valley, if not more, as he's made Scrooge McDuck-levels of money from making massive long shot bets that he knew would hit because the almanac told him so.

Doc explains to Marty that this timeline is an offshoot of their 1985. A branch, stemming back in 1955 when Biff gave Biff the almanac. They go back and fix that, and 1985 springs back to normal. Unfortunately, a bolt of lightning says, "Sucks to be you guys!" and zaps Doc back to 1885, because that date was punched into the time circuit, for some reason. Might want to redesign that, Doc.

Anyway, Part III, Doc and Marty traipse around the Old West, saving a schoolteacher, humiliating Biff's ancestor, inspiring Clint Eastwood, and wrecking a train to get Marty back to 1985 so that he can resist the challenge to drag race I mentioned earlier. The DeLorean is wrecked, and Marty thinks the Doc is stranded in 1885, doomed to live out the rest of his life with a woman he's fallen in love with, and the ability to invent things like the computer and the hoverboard, and become the greatest inventor of ALL TIME. Sounds horrible.

Instead, Doc builds another time machine, in a train this time, and comes back to 1985 to tell Marty he's okay, and introduce him to his kids, Jules and Verne, who take nearly being burned at the stake for witchcraft with way less pants-wetting terror than meeting Marty McFly. Maybe they've already been to the future and have seen how world-famous Marty's Huey Lewis and the News cover band becomes. Also, the train flies. [Off topic, but wait, Doc built a flying train in 1885, that's also a time machine? The first movie devotes ample time to letting us know that Doc is a terrible inventor. The only thing he's ever made that works right is the Flux Capacitor, and even that has some major flaws (power consumption, vehicle needs to be moving at 88mph, re-entry can be a bitch). And this was with modern technology. I'd always assumed he'd taken the DeLorean to a shop in 2015 to have it modified for flying. This guy builds a flying time machine train in 1885? Seriously? Sorry, back to it.]

So, what does all of this have to do with the Cubs? In Part II, the sports headline that spurs Marty to buy the almanac is that the Cubs won the World Series, in a sweep. Even if you're not a sports fan, you're probably generally aware of the Cubs and their massive World Series drought, mostly because their fans simply will not shut up about it. In the 80's, nothing indicated the drought would end any time soon (though, they did actually make the playoffs the year Part II was released, losing in the NLCS to the Giants). They came close in 2003, but lost in the NLCS. While they were up and down over the next few years, they were never a real threat to win it all. In late 2011, they revamped their front office, but nothing much changed. And then 2015 rolled around, and the Cubs surged, making the playoffs.

Could the Cubs actually win the World Series for the first time in 107 years? And could they do it in the year predicted by a movie? And, if so, what does that mean about the movie?

First off, the scene in question occurs on October 21st, 2015. Now, due to the changes in the MLB playoff format, there's no chance Game 4 of the World Series would be on October 21st, 2015, so right off the bat (no pun intended), things look grim. Second, they are supposed to sweep the Miami Gators. There is a Miami Marlins in MLB, but they're in the NL, as are the Cubs. They can't meet in the World Series. Stirke two (pun intended). Third, it's a movie. Very little of what's shown in their vision of 2015 came to pass. No mass-produced hoverboards. No flying cars. No self-tying shoes. No "Jaws 19" (unless you count all of the SyFy Channel copycat variants). That's...a whole lot of strikes there.

What did happen was actually almost as strange as if they'd won. The Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs - swept, even - on October 21st, 2015. The same day they were supposed to win it all. Okay, this is less strange, and more coincidental, but it got me thinking.

What if "Back to the Future II" doesn't just show us a crazy possibility of the future? What if the movie shows us an alternate future?

Let's think about this. At the start of the first movie, we have 1985 Prime, which is the same timeline as the audience. Marty goes to 1955 then comes back to what he thinks in 1985 Prime, but is, in fact 1985A. The timeline has been altered. The movie doesn't even try to hide it. The mall, the McFly's (McFlies?), Biff, Doc. All different. In Part II, Doc takes them to the future, Biff sneaks away, and when they come back, they find 1985 changed. Doc is right that the timeline shifted in 1955, but what he's wrong about is that they aren't in 1985A, they're in 1985B, the second altered timeline.

So, when they go into the future, they're not seeing our 2015. It is not 2015 Prime. If it was, that headline would be that the Cubs had been swept (or were on the verge, depending on when the game was played and what time of day it is). Instead, they're in 2015A, a timeline that clearly progressed much differently than our own Prime timeline. I don't think it's far-fetched to claim that the tech we see in 2015A might have been inspired by a successful sci-fi author. Hey, who in 1985A is a successful sci-fi author? Oh, right, George.

In 1985 Prime, George and Biff worked for...some company. George was supposed to finish some reports for Biff. Nicely non-specific, movie! Let's play what if. What if they worked for some sort of investment firm? What if that firm did business with Wayne Huizenga and his company, Waste Management, Inc? In the Prime timeline, Huizenga made a bunch of money, which allowed him to bring baseball to Miami. In timeline A, George and Biff no longer work for this company. What if their replacements changed the way the company invested, and instead of Waste Management growing into an empire, it collapsed, and Huizenga lost all of his money? What if that caused Major League Baseball to develop differently, and more slowly?

I'm not saying that any of this happened, but it's just one example of how this change in George and Biff, that's passed off as nothing major in the movie, could have an impact that would be felt for years.

Here's the thing - Marty never gets back to 1985 Prime. At the end of Part 3, he's probably not even back in 1985 A, but some other timeline, let's call it 1985 C (it's clearly not timeline B). It is very similar to the timeline A, and all we see that we know is different is that a ravine has changed names from "Clayton Ravine" to "Eastwood Ravine", due to Doc and Marty's actions in 1885. No one acknowledges any of this, though, and in the end, Doc and his family fly off to have more adventures in time, even though they've seen that everything they do can have drastic effects. Strangely, a man who had been adamant that he not know too much about his own future is now excited to know whatever he discovers in his adventures.

Let's look at the incident that sets up Part 2. Doc comes back from the future and demands that Marty and Jennifer come with him to 2015 to do save their kids. Right away, this makes no sense. It is just patently illogical. Doc believes that the future isn't written, so how is it logical in any way to bring someone to the future to fix something? Just tell them to avoid certain things, and be done with it. Also, if you're going to have Marty intervene to save their son while knocking Jennifer out and leaving her in a trash heap, why bother insisting that she come? That's a simple answer - so that she doesn't change anything in her timeline.

Doc brings Marty to 2015 to show him how the timeline can be changed. The incident in which Marty intervenes is ridiculous. Doc has Marty pretend to be his own son and say, "No" to Biff's grandson. Yeah, there's a chase, but basically, Marty's son said yes, Marty says no, the front page of USA Today changes, and everything's right with the future. Seriously, what would be the point of that? How does that accomplish anything to actually save Marty Jr?

It doesn't, but that's not the point. Doc's intention was for Marty to see that newspaper, and to see it change after his intervention. Doc is trying to illustrate to Marty that the future is written, but it can be changed. It can always be altered. My guess is that Doc saw Marty of 2015 A, saw him a broken, beaten man, unable to play Huey Lewis cover tunes on the guitar, working some crappy job, getting fired by fax, and decided to help Marty help himself. He doesn't count on Biff throwing a wrench in the works and giving Marty a full-scale example of this, but it works.

Things go to hell, and Marty makes them better. Nothing is quite the way it was, but things are good. For most people, things are better. Marty's family is happy, Doc has a family and is happy. Hell, even Biff seems happier as a lackey than he did as a bully. Herein is where we find the point of this trilogy. Doc's line, "Your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is what you make it." doesn't mean that the future is a blank slate, waiting for us to etch our lives into it. The future is there. It is always there, and always will be. Otherwise, Doc wouldn't be able to travel to it. No, what he means is that the choices we make determine how our futures play out, and we're going to make mistakes, but these mistakes, while not entirely reversible, are also not entirely irreversible, unless we allow them to be so.

That's the key - we have the power to change our lives. Even if we've screwed something up: a relationship, a job, a driving record, we can still affect positive change in our lives. That doesn't mean everything will go back to normal. In fact, nothing ever returns to the way it was (you could say that possibility has been erased...from existence! ahem, sorry). However, if we work at it, sometimes we can make things better. We just have to believe in ourselves, respect ourselves, and put our minds to it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Stuff We Listened To: The Cure: "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me" (1987)

"Disintegration is a return to goth glory after The Cure's foray into pop with 1987's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me" - Josh Jackson, Paste Magazine

One of the things I love is music. I can't get enough. As a teenager working part-time, I spent most of my meager pay on CDs. I rarely rode the bus without a walkman or discman. In college, when mp3's burst onto the scene, I filled my hard drive with them. When I got my own car, I had boxes of tapes and CDs, and only music stations programmed on the radio. Later, I got an iPod, and nearly filled it with music. In our apartment, I have four different CD racks chock full of albums, and more in boxes. My latest iPod is nearly half full. My phone has about 20 albums on it. I periodically have to clean out the music folders on my computer because they take up too much space. This blog is named after one of my favorite Faith No More songs.

Recently, in my car, I scrolled through the hundreds of albums on my iPod, and settled on one I hadn't listened to in a while, The Cure's well-known 1987 smash hit, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.

Listening to the album again, it struck me that I still love it, but the words of Josh Jackson quoted at the top of this post hung with me. It is a critique often levied against this album in favor of other works of the band. It's too "pop". It's too "commercial". It's too "upbeat". The comments aren't wrong, but I have to ask: is this a bad thing? Does being pop and upbeat make this a bad album?

Whereas 1989's Disintegration is moody and dark and atmospheric, a return to - and prime example of - the gloomy-goth rock they're rightly famous for, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, is a departure from that sound. Lighter, more 80's pop-oriented, full of upbeat songs and sounds, and lots of horns.

Like, all the horns.

This album is just chock full of horns.

Does this make it a bad album, though? Are these criticism even accurate? Let's look at it on a song-by-song basis.

1. The Kiss

One thing The Cure does not get away from is the minutes of intro. On first listen, you could think that most of the songs on this album are instrumentals, and just when you're settling into that groove, Robert Smith starts singing. Right off, this is a dark, angry song. The synth in the background is melancholy, but the drums are angry, and just under a minute in the lead guitar snarls to life, clearly indicating the intent of this song. By the time we get to the 4 minute mark and Smith starts singing about tongues like poison, guts being pushed inside out, getting her fucking voice out of his head, and wishing she was dead (seriously, he howls "I wish you were dead" repeatedly to close out the song), there's no doubt that this song is dark and stormy and angry.

The first lyrics are "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me..." Roll Credits!

Makes you wonder what other albums would be titled if they used the first lyrics as the album title. Disintegration would be called I Think It's Dark and it Looks Like Rain. Wordy, but fitting. The Pixies classic Doolittle would be Got Me a Movie. Not bad; I could see it being the title of a Pixies documentary. The Offspring's underrated ignition would be called Ahhhh fuck fuck fuck fuck! IMHO, an improvement.

An interesting way to start off the "more upbeat" album.

Horns Level: Nailed to the floor.

2. Catch

In 1996, The Cure released a new album called Wild Mood Swings, which may well be the spiritual successor to this album, as that is similarly criticized for being too upbeat, and largely forgotten, while Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is criticized for being too upbeat, but its wild mood swings are largely forgotten. Where "The Kiss" starts with that raging guitar and drum intro, "Catch" slides right into Smith do-doing over some light synth and drums. 

The song is about meeting a girl, and reminiscing about a girl Smith "thinks [he] used to know". A girl who used to just stand around and smile and stare vacantly off into space for hours at a time. A girl who fell down a lot. A girl who Smith used to "spend the night/just rolling about on the floor". A girl whose name Smith never caught. 

Imagine you're the girl he's talking to in this song. Oh, I remind him of a girl who may or may not have existed, was a clutzy space-cadet, and occasional sex partner. Hey, thanks. Of course, if you really are like the girl he (sort of) remembers, by the mid-point of the song you've stopped paying attention and are staring at clouds.

I like to think this is a much more innocent song about a dog. The "rolling about on the floor" line always makes me think of playing with a big dog. Also, I like the imagery of proto-goth Robert Smith in full make-up and hairdo snuggling and frolicking with a furry dog. It's like imagining Marilyn Manson sitting on his couch watching "Chopped" and yelling at the chefs that they didn't use the galangal correctly.

Another possibility is that the girl he's singing to and the girl he is singing about are one and the same. He barely remembers her, never knew her name, and isn't sure of anything (except the sex - he remembers that). That makes it either sad -- he's singing to a former love about their good times together (and her clutziness/epilepsy/seizures) -- or hilarious. You remind me of someone...oh right, you. 

In any case, it is a pretty little song. As much as I make fun of it, I really like the play on words in the chorus:
And she used to fall down a lot,
That girl was always falling again and again.
And I used to sometimes try to catch her,
But never even caught her name.
Supposedly, this is actually about concussion-related hallucinations Smith had, and the girl he met later who resembled the girl in the hallucinations. I like my dog theory the most.

Horns Level: Staring vacantly off into space.

3. Torture

Back to the minute-long intro, and an angry song. The intro is dark, with a bassy synth driving the rhythm. A minute in, Smith's howling voice breaks in about how he's in a "room without a light", a "room without a view". He calls it "one more treacherous night", and "torture". He's hung upside down, tied up, beaten. He can't take anymore. Then he goes on to sing about skin being pulled so tight it "screams and screams and screams for more". 

His skin screams for more? Interesting.

He closes out the song repeating that "It's torture/But I'm almost there."

Ok, so Robert Smith is apparently into freaky, kinky torture sex. Honestly, I'm not judging -- as long as you and your partner are consenting, safe, and open about expectations, have fun in the bedroom (or wherever) -- it's just a little unexpected.

So, sounds angry, probably isn't. Also, towards the end, first appearance of the horns.

Horns Level: Trying not to picture any of this mentally.

4. If Only Tonight We Could Sleep

Hold off, horns, we're veering into more standard territory here.

3-minute intro, synthy and atmospheric, slow-paced (but not plodding), almost sultry. Smith's tortured voice is slightly subdued as he sings about sleeping, and the flute at the end just solidifies the atmosphere. If this were by a band that didn't have a reputation for writing incredibly depressing songs, people would have an entirely different reaction to it. 

It is beautiful. The lyrics seem dark, as sleep is usually used as a metaphor for death. At first blush, it sounds like an overdramatic suicide pact. However, he talks about falling into "a deathless spell", and sliding into "deep black water" and breathing. This leads to some of my favorite Cure lyrics on this album:
Then an angel would come,
With burning eyes like stars,
And bury us deep,
In his velvet arms.
 The song closes with Smith crying out, "Don't let it end!"

Most think this is about death, either the physical death of a partner, or the end of a relationship. I find a much simpler, more elegant interpretation fits better, though: two lovers, basking in the afterglow, wanting to just stay that way forever.

Horns Level: Horns can help you sleep. No, really.

5. Why Can't I Be You?

Did I mention wild mood swings earlier? I'm pretty sure I mentioned wild mood swings earlier. I hope I did, We've gone from "I wish you were dead" to "She was pretty" to "hurt me more" to "nap time". And now we get the horns. Full-on frontal assault of horns. No warning, no quarter. All horns, all the time.

When people say this album is "pop", this is almost certainly the song they're thinking of. Not just upbeat, but practically manic in its upbeat-ness. Some people think this is a love song. Some think it's pure lust. I always thought it was kind of sarcastic, maybe even mocking of someone who thinks they're just awesome. "Yeah, you're soooo great. I wish I was you." Or, perhaps mocking people who have this attitude. Some say it's an attempt to see through the eyes of his fans (after a fan approached him and said, "I wish I was you"), or his response that he wants to be normal like his fans.

Whatever the meaning, this song is just soaked in 80's synth Pop. Which is then smothered by horns.

Horns Level: Of course you want to be me. I have all the horns. MAX HORNS.  

6. How Beautiful You Are

If you could average the tone of the previous 5 songs, you'd get this one. Not aggressively angry, not quite happy, not sad. It does however start off with the line, "You want to know why I hate you? Well, I'll try to explain." and goes on to tell the story of walking through Paris with the subject of the song, apparently a gorgeous woman, when they run into a father and his two sons, apparently peasants. They don't actually say anything, but gaze upon the glorious visage of this young woman with obvious longing. The woman responds by telling Smith to tell the family to beat it. Smith hates her for this.

Ok, it's kind of bitchy, but does anyone really like having people stare at them? Don't we routinely tell kids that this is impolite? Or is that only for things like deformities and general ugliness? Beautiful people are meant to be stared at? Seems a little extreme to hate someone just for this reaction, but maybe the idea is that this is the seed of the hatred, and once she exposed her inner ugliness to him, he started to see beyond her outer beauty?

One thing that always stuck with me was the idea of Robert Smith hooking up with a super model. I know The Cure was huge in the 80's, but really? Turns out, this is a song version of Baudelaire's poem "Les Yeux des Pauvres" (The Eyes of the Poor), which tells a much more detailed version, and emphasizes the duality of external beauty and inner ugliness, of thinking you know someone and suddenly being proven completely and utterly wrong.

I really like this song, though. It has a great, driving bass line and a chorusy guitar playing along with it, counterpointed by a flowing synth organ. Smith's vocals are great, as is the imagery of the peasant family speaking with nothing but their eyes. It is also quite poppy,, horns?

Horns Level: Still playing the last song.

7. The Snakepit

Another slow-building intro, bass-heavy this time, undulating, writhing, calling to mind the titular snake pit before any words are heard. Very cool. I'm not actually sure this song belongs on this album. What it reminds me of, especially when the woodwinds come in midway through is their song "Burn" on the soundtrack from "The Crow" (1994). It never builds to the crescendo that "Burn" does, but it always feels like the precursor to that song.

They would probably never admit to listening to The Cure, but I'm pretty sure this song inspired the sound of "Voodoo" on Godsmack's first album. (Side note: want to feel old? Godsmack's first album was released closer to 1987 than 2015. I feel old now. If you're reading this, and Godsmack's first album came out before you were born, well, now I feel super old. Thanks for that.)

Horns Level: We're drinking ourselves senseless. Use some woodwinds.

8. Hey You!

The worst Pink Floyd cover ever. Or is it the best?

If you bought US version of the CD before they released the "Deluxe" edition, you probably have never heard of this song, unless you read all of the fine print on the back of the CD case. If you did, hey there! Welcome to the nerd club! Due to the limited space on CDs at the time (74 minutes), the song, the last track on Side 2 of the original vinyl, was omitted. When the Deluxe version was released a few years back, new technologies allowed for 80 minutes on a CD, and the track was included. So, we got not just a remastered album, but we'd also get to hear this "lost" track. It was like a little time capsule.

I now understand why this song, over any of the other seventeen, was left off this album.

Maybe it's just that I've listened to this album so much over the past 15+ years that I've gotten used to how each song flows into the next, but every time I listen now, the intro to this song simply jars me. The first time I heard it, I checked to make sure I was still listening to the same album. The snare roll and rocking guitar riff sound more like the intro to a cheesy late-80's talk show on basic cable than a Cure song.

That said, it's not a bad song. It's quite good. Super catchy guitar riff, super-80's sounding saxophone, and about 5 lines of lyrics, asking for a kiss. It just doesn't fit with anything else on this album. I'm not even sure it's a Cure song. If you played this song (without the vocals) for 20 different people who had never heard it before and asked who the 80's artist was, you would get a variety of answers, and none of them would be "The Cure". The closest you might get would be The Cult, and even that would be a shot-in-the-dark guess.

Horns Level: Confused. Possibly delirious.

9. Just Like Heaven

Arguably The Cure's most popular - if not the most successful - song. If you've paid any attention to pop culture over the last 28 years, you must have heard some version of this song. 7 Seconds covered it in the 80's. Dinosaur Jr. covered it a few years later. Goldfinger covered it in the late 90's. Reese Witherspoon starred in (ugh) a RomCom based on it. Low point in the song's history, IMHO.

Here in it's original context, it is clearly an 80's song, but mostly because of the synths used. Remove them, and it is could almost be from any of the past few decades. 

I'm always torn on the mood of this song. Musically, it's bouncy and upbeat. Lyrically, it starts off happy - I love the first verse, and the idea of charming a girl with a magic trick (or, as Robert Smith as said, "the more adult trick of seduction") - and then moves on to the girl loving the boy, but the boy not reciprocating, or at least not conveying his love for her very well. In the final verse, he opens his eyes, and she's gone, but was she there to begin with? Was she just a dream? I think that's how I interpret this song - a dream that feels so real you think it is, and when you finally wake up from it, you long for whatever was the object of that dream. In this case, the singer's perfect woman.

Horns Level: Lost and lonely.

10. All I Want

Bear with me here, but I'm about to compare The Cure to a band they've probably never been mention with in the same sentence, except to say, "These two bands are nothing alike." The intro to this song (and the guitar throughout) reminds me of At The Drive-In. I'm not sure if I'm crazy or just stupid, but the jarring distortion on the guitar, the discordant melody, something in there reminds me of the post-hardcore stylings of ATDI. If Cedric Bixler starting singing instead of Robert Smith, I don't think I'd be surprised.

Vocally and lyrically, it reminds me of U2 in their sappier moments. Again, I can't quite place what it reminds me of, but I'm thinking something like "Two Hearts Beat as One". Or, maybe "All I Want Is You", because of the title. So, basically, this English song is like a combination of a Texas band and an Irish band. I'm not sure what that say about any of the above. Or about me.

Features one of The Cure's oddest lines, which many fans hope they're hearing wrong. 
All I want is to be with you again.
All I want is to hold you like a dog.
That...that's supposed to be "doll", right? "Hold you like a doll." Nope. If you listen close, it really sounds like "dog", and the liner notes confirm. He wants to hold her like a dog. I'm not sure what that means, but it makes my dog theory for "Catch" seem a little more plausible now, doesn't it?

Horns Level: Thinking about petting dogs.

11. Hot Hot Hot!!!

The worst Buster Poindexter cover ever. Or is it the best?

I'm not sure what to call this but "80's Funk". Funky guitars, funky bass, funky synths, but still pretty clearly The Cure. Smith's vocals, especially in the verses, are crazed, eliding words, taking audible breaths at times. It almost feels like he's mocking pop music here. 

The lyrics themselves are quite good, telling the tale of a man witnessing lightning striking multiple times in his life. Depending on who you believe (and which of Robert Smith's comments you believe), the song is either about sex or drugs (probably both). I always assumed the former, not least because of the lightning strike motif, and how that reminds me of Michael Corleone being "struck by the thunderbolt" in The Godfather. I always thought of this song in those terms - at various times in his life, the narrator met women who struck him with their beauty. Things are cast into disarray, turmoil reigns, etc.  

A fun song to sing along with, especially the Fat Albert-esque "Hey, hey, hey!" chorus.

Horns Level: Ha ha ha, you thought we'd left? We're back, baby! ...but just for a moment.

12. One More Time

Sometimes bands write songs while recording, but then save those songs for a later album. It fascinated me when Frank Black released the demo he'd made the night before the recording sessions for their first album Surfer Rosa, and I heard a raw version of the song "Subbacultcha", which wouldn't be on an album until Trompe le Monde, their fourth and final studio album (of that era). Listening to it, and then the rest of what made it onto that first album, it's clear that the song didn't belong there, and they made what turned out to be the correct decision to hold it back until they had a group of songs in which it made sense.

The Cure face a similar situation here, as this is essentially a Disintegration song two years before the album existed. Heavily chorused guitar, sprawling, echo-y drum line, synth wash in the background, wind chimes, and some sort of woodwind carrying the melody through the 2 minute intro. Smith's vocals are subdued, building towards the end of the second verse. He finishes in a subdued howl. The lyrics are pretty straightforward - hold me one more time. Putting it on this album isn't a terrible decision - it's a nice break from the rest of the album - but it does stand out, though not as badly as "Hey You!!!".

Horns Level: A flute is not a horn.

13. Like Cockatoos

I feel that songs like this one get forgotten about. "Like Cockatoos" is dark and mysterious, starting off with this weird washing sound, then a clean guitar playing an arppegiated chord a few times until the chords come in, playing the simple melody that is repeated throughout the song. Smith starts singing about a minute and a half in, and just starts rattling off the lyrics, telling a quick story about a couple at the end of a bitter fight that leaves the relationship in tatters. As the lyrics end, the synth picks up the melody, twisting and shaping it into something even darker, and eventually overpowering the rest of the band.

I really like this song. It's angry and dark, and a nice departure from the last few tracks. It really sets up the rest of the album.

Horns Level: My wife threw the horns out the window in a rage. Now the cockatoos have them.

14. Icing Sugar

Another dark one, with some great bass work driving the pace and feel of the song, and a saxophone ruining it. Don't get me wrong, I love saxophones, and enjoy bands that use non-standard instruments in rock music. I just feel like this kind of saxophone is so cheesy that it should be avoided at all costs. If you lifted this saxophone line, and laid it over a Kenny G song with the same tempo and key, it would not sound out of place. In case you're not catching my drift, that is a bad thing. Replace the sax in this song with a lead guitar, and the song sizzles, and could probably sneak onto a mainstream radio station today (in fact, the Deluxe Edition has a demo with no sax, and a synth in it's place - so much better). With the sax, it is relegated to an 80's niche station.

The song is reportedly about doing cocaine (icing sugar is very fine sugar, frequently used in movies to simulate cocaine), which is very 80's, so the saxophone was a good choice, I guess?

No. It's still terrible.


15. The Perfect Girl 

What was that about mood swings? Back to the bubbly pop. Straightforward, clean, pretty but nothing special. Honestly, had this song been left off the album, I don't think anyone would have noticed. I do like the theme of the strange girl being the perfect girl. At least there's no horns.

Horn Level: At least there's...hey!

16. A Thousand Hours

I've referred to Robert Smith's vocals as howling at times. That's probably because of this song, in which he refers to himself as "howl[ing] into this wind".

At any rate, this is another of his, "I'm almost out of energy" songs. I'm pretty sure there's one on ever few albums. There's this one, "Closedown" on Disintegration, "39" on Bloodflowers, and I'm sure plenty others. As time goes by, and he keeps going on, this can feel a little melodramatic, particularly after Bloodflowers, when he announced the band was calling it quits after the tour for the album, and citing the lyrics to "39" as his confession that he has nothing left. And then releasing another album a few years later. 

And touring again.

And then releasing another album. (EDIT 10.8.15: And touring again!)

It's not as bad as Metallica writing sequels to songs (can't wait to hear "Unforgiven IV"...or, if they want to tap in to the idiot demographic, "Un4given"), but it's kind of obnoxious. Then again, it wouldn't be a Cure album without a heavy dose of angst.

Horns Level: Ready to hang it all up.

17. Shiver and Shake

You're just a waste of time.
You're just a babbling face.
You're just three sick holes that run like sores.
You're a fucking waste.
Those are the first four lines of the song! How great is that? The rest of the song just continues like that. The best part is that the prevailing story behind the song is that he wrote it about Lol Tolhurst (believable, since Robert Smith is as well known for clashing with his band mates as he is for his gloomy lyrics), who plays keyboards on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Presumably, he's playing keyboards on a song about how much Robert Smith hates him and thinks he is "Useless and ugly". You'd think that he'd be gone after that, right? You'd be right, too. 

Well, except that he stayed through the subsequent tour, as well as the recording of Disintegration.

Hands down, one of my favorite songs on this album. Maybe not the best song on the album, just my personal favorite. It definitely falls into the "angry" category, which is why I love it. Robert Smith just lets loose with this torrent of vitriolic bile, tearing to the subject of the song. Read these lyrics and just let it wash over you.

This is a great song to sing when you're frustrated with someone. Just don't sing it to them. They might not be British and as understanding as old Lol. As much as I love this song, though, I can't help but think of the emo kids that Smith helped create, sitting in darkened corners of the lunchroom, angry at the jocks or girls or whoever, but too timid to actually do anything about it. It's not like Smith would actually fight, right?


Horns Level: * you, buddy! We're still here!

18. Fight

Fight! Fight! Fight!

No, seriously, those are lyrics to the closing song. Ok, it's not about a physical fight, more about pushing through pain and suffering (and angst - can't forget the angst), but it's an intense song, as Smith builds the tension up to the "Fight! Fight! Fight!" bit that makes up most of the second half of the song. Similar to "Like Cockatoos", the synths make this song, starting out subtle, but then exerting themselves with a stinging, rhythmic melody that overtakes and carries the last couple of minutes of the song.

One thing that always interests me is song order on an album, and how bands decide on that order. I'm sure sometimes it is out of their hands, but I would think they get some say, especially when they have some experience. I've gleaned some general practices that seem to be commonplace - the first song should ease the listener into the album. The last song should be lighter, particularly on heavier albums. Your first single should be a few songs in, if not the third song. Second single a few songs later, around 7. This album (I know it was originally a double album) violates most of that. "The Kiss" is actually a great opener, with just the drums and rhythm guitar, taking a few minutes to get into the lead guitar. "Fight", however, is not a typical "album closer". 

I imagine most bands try to shape the album a certain way, to give it a flow, a pattern. Some like the loud-quiet-loud aesthetic, some go by order in which the songs were recorded. Frank Black sorted the songs on "Frank Black and the Catholics" alphabetically (though I always wondered if he changed song titles to get them in a certain position). I bring this up, because I cannot figure out why The Cure chose the order of the final six songs. "The Perfect Girl" and "A Thousand Hours" are so out of place at 15 and 16 that it is jarring. The album goes from the dark mystery of "Like Cockatoos" to the rolicking danger of "Icing Sugar", and then we get the bubbly poppiness of "The Perfect Girl" and the sad bastardness of "A Thousand Hours", before swinging back into the rage and anger of "Shiver and Shake" and "Fight".

"The Perfect Girl" should be earlier on the album (or perhaps held off to be a B-side to "Friday I'm in Love"). "A Thousand Hours" would work perfectly as the album closer (though I love "Fight" in that role).

This is even more glaring when you look at the original LP track listings. Side 3 started with "Just Like Heaven". Perfect. It's the big single, lead off the second half of the double album with it. That side was rounded out with "All I Want", "Hot Hot Hot!!!", "One More Time", and "Like Cockatoos". Why not put "The Perfect Girl" on this side? Anywhere in the middle would probably be fine. Then, move "Like Cockatoos" to Side 4. 

Side 4's original track listing was:

Icing Sugar
The Perfect Girl
A Thousand Hours
Shiver and Shake

Move "A Thousand Hours" to either the beginning or end of Side 4, and put "Like Cockatoos" before "Icing Sugar". That would have been amazing! It wasn't a time issue, either, as the current Side 3 ran a little over 20 minutes. "The Perfect Girl" is shorter than "Like Cockatoos", so Side 3 would be a little shorter, and Side 4 would run just under 19 minutes. It's still a good album as is, I'm just glad I listen to it in the age of CDs and MP3s, so I can instantly skip over those two tracks.

Horns Level: Still ripping into Lol.

So that's it. That's the entire album. 

The Cure released four singles from this album: "Why Can't I be You", "Catch", "Just Like Heaven", and "Hot Hot Hot!!!". Those might just be...hell, they are the 4 poppiest songs on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (ignoring "The Perfect Girl"). No wonder people think this album is "too pop" or "too upbeat". Even I'm guilty of this, as I'm pretty sure the reason I think this album is so horn heavy is because of the brass bonanza that is "Why Can't I Be You", in which I'm pretty sure every instrument in the band is replaced with a horn. Even the drums. All horns. The rest of the album though, the horns aren't particularly noticeable...until "Icing Sugar", but even then, it's just one.

Granted, even some of the darker songs are more poppy than the rest of their discography at the time (though I do wonder what we'd find if we examined their work after Disintegration. "Friday I'm in Love" comes to mind), and lack the moody atmospherics for which the band was loved. Of course, it also lacked some of the angsty, brooding, borderline emo lyrics for which the band was notorious.

Disintegration is still the best album they put out, and there are others that might be superior to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, with its jarring shifts in mood and tone from song to song, slamming from one extreme to the other without warning, but to simply call this a pop album and dismiss it out of hand is short-sighted, and unfair. If anything, the tone of the album is angry and dark. They probably could have split this into two releases, with all of the poppy stuff on one, and the darker stuff on the other. The upbeat singles led them to success, but with all of them on one LP, would it have survived the scrutiny of the media thinking The Cure had completely lost their edge? Gone too commercial? We are talking about a media who went into a frenzy when Robert Smith got a haircut.

On the other hand, would that "darker" album be hailed as one of their best?  Well, maybe not. Those songs are still not as good as most of Disintegration, but it would have been interesting to live in a world where songs like "Snakepit" and "Fight" were radio hits.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Independence Day, Too

Ok, so it sounds like we're (finally?) getting a sequel to 1996's "Independence Day". Fortunately, Will Smith does not appear to be involved; all that is known is that it will feature his character's stepson, or at least a character with the same name (though played by a different actor, even though the dude who played him in the first movie is still acting), the lesser Hemsworth (speaking in terms of muscle mass, not acting talent), and Jeff Goldblum. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich are once again teaming up to write and direct, respectively.

So, yay? I guess? I'm not sure why people were clamoring so vociferously for a sequel, but they're finally getting it. The studio almost literally threw money at Devlin to write a sequel after the crushing success of the first one, but he threw it back in their faces and said, "Dean Devlin ain't for sale, bitches!" Actually, he placed it back on their desk and said, "Dean Devlin is totally for sale, and I tried, but it's all terrible. Just utter crap." He went on to write the screenplay for 1998's "Godzilla" abomination, so think about how bad his "Independence Day 2" scrip must have been.

The first ID4 was fun. It had great effects, funny lines, a superb action story line, the alien threat felt real and was scary. The final act had emotional impact and catharsis. It was a cool movie. It wasn't a movie that made me feel like I wanted to see more. Nor was it really set up for a sequel. The invaders are dead. Wiped out. There might be survivors, but what's left of the world's military should be able to handle them. When the President meets with the alien just before trying to nuke them, he sees their plan, and says "They're moving from planet to planet...their whole civilization..." So, does that mean the whole civilization is currently attack the Earth? That's the way I'd always interpreted the line, especially given how many aliens Goldblum and Smith see on the mother ship. I always just figured that was all of them.

Maybe not, though. Maybe that was just the advanced guard, prepping the planet, wiping out the resistance in anticipation of the rest of the troops. Maybe the rest of the civilization is still on the previous planet, living it up, and this was just their opening salvo. Maybe this is how it goes - they attack, the inhabitants fight back, but are depleted for when the rest finally show up. In this case, it's 20 Earth years later, and the humans actually managed to win, but their society has been crippled, Just as they start to get back to normal, the bulk of the aliens show up, establish some ground bases (Houston is probably up for grabs, after being nuked in the first movie), and start to take over.

Whatever the story is, I'm sure it will feature two things in quantities bordering on excess: explosions and sass. I can hypothesize on what it will be and what it should be, but in the end, that is so far out of my hands I'm better off playing the lottery and expecting any sort of real result. This news does bring up two questions from me, though, which perplex me for different reasons.

1. What do we call this movie?

Ok, "Independence Day 2". Easy. The first movie, though, also went by the title, "ID4". If you talk to someone who was a teenager in 1996 and mention "ID4", they will know exactly what you're talking about, in much the same way you can say "T2" or the awesomeness of flannel. It's on movie posters, media, and even the video/DVD/Blu-Ray case. So, what will this movie be? ID4:2? ID4-2? Both of those look like robot names from a Star Wars movie. ID4^2? Wouldn't that just be ID16? I know people (apparently) have been waiting with bated breath for this sequel, but I don't think any but the most rabid fanpeople would want 15 sequels. Five, six tops.

2. Where are the rest of the aliens?

No, not the rest of the invading aliens, all the others. This honestly had never occurred to me until today, but it might be the single most glossed-over point in the entire movie, and this is a movie featuring a family surviving a flaming wall of death by hiding in an open maintenance closet, a bunch of untrained pilots suddenly being able to fly advance jets in formation, and the military allowing hundreds of RVs to enter one of the most secret bases in the country on the word of one guy in fatigues with no authorization other than a dead alien. There was a lot of other stuff going on, what with the world ending and all, but it doesn't even get mentioned when people discuss this film.

The big revelation is that we are not alone in the Universe. This is evident when the aliens show up, and there was much rejoicing until they started killing us. At that point, we've gained a little knowledge - there's another species out there. Later, we find out that they'd visited here before; possibly many times, but at least the once. Then, we learn that this attack wasn't just this race attacking Earth because we're the other species, but simply because we were next.

Think about that for a moment: we were next. There were others before us, there would, presumably be others after us. Holy crap. Not only are we not alone, but the Universe might just be downright crowded! There are other alien races out there! Some have been wiped out by these tentacled, biomechanical suit-wearing bastiches, but there are certainly more. No one ever brings this up. Not even when discussing a sequel. 

I would love to see that explored a little more. We have their tech, we have a bunch of their ships. It's been twenty years. Maybe we co-opted more of their tech and took to the stars? That would be cool to see in the sequel. Maybe we attack their home planet (if they have one). 

Or, maybe we'll just get "ID4 (with More Explosions)". Meh. 

(And yes, I will probably still see it in the theater.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Maybe he thought the Ray Rice video was just another Ice Bucket Challenge?

A couple of days ago, the NFL Players' Union filed an appeal of Ray Rice's indefinite suspension. AS much as it pains me to admit it, this is the right move.

I don't like Ray Rice. Well, let me backtrack. I don't know Ray Rice personally. When I still watched football, I disliked watching him play against The Patriots. Since I've made the decision to stop watching football, that is now a non-issue. As is well-established, Ray Rice knocked his wife (then girlfriend) unconscious this past spring, then dragged her limp body out of the hotel elevator. This is a despicable act. While I think could devote an entire post to issues concerning the phrase "never hit a woman", in this case, the expression holds true.

The girlfriend refused to press charges, and then married Rice. Everyone who wanted this swept under the rug used those facts - and the perfunctory two game suspension - as evidence that this was a non-issue. Janay even apologize for her "role" in the incident, and argued in Ray's defense that it was a one-time incident, and nothing like it had ever happened before.

Regardless of all of his defenders, Rice was indicted on aggravated assault, but allowed to avoid jail time by entering a Pretrial Intervention program that is almost exclusively for non-violent or victimless crimes. Per an Outside the Lines piece:
Atlantic County prosecutor James P. McClain has repeatedly declined comment to "Outside the Lines" about Rice's case, but a spokesperson for his office said: "Mr. Rice received the same treatment in the court system that any first-time offender in similar circumstances has received."
In an interview with the Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday, McClain defended referring Rice to pretrial intervention and allowing him to avoid trial. The decision was made "after careful consideration of the law, careful consideration of the facts, hearing the voice of the victim and considering all the parameters," McClain said.
My gut reaction to all of this was that he needed a good, long suspension. Maybe the entire time he is in the intervention program. It's twelve months long, so maybe twelve months of no football would be good for him. Maybe that's too extreme for a "first-time offender", but something more than two weeks was needed. However, the suspension is up to the discretion of the league, and ultimately the whim of Roger Goodell himself. Goodell heard the facts, he interviewed both Janay and Ray Rice, and ultimately, he decided that two games was plenty.

No one doubts what happened inside the elevator. No one doubted it before the second video was released, showing exactly what happened inside. I'm not going to link to the video, instead, here's a recreation, with Kevan Miller (the Bruin) standing in for Ray Rice, and Travis Moen (the Canadien) standing in for Janay. (Interesting note: Both Miller and Moen are listed at 6'2", 210lbs, and Miller dropped Moen with a single punch. Now image Moen as about 100lbs lighter, and not a trained athlete.)

None of this is to say that Ray Rice is a good or a bad person. I honestly cannot make that broad a generalization of his character, because I don't know the guy. Maybe this was an isolated incident that will never happen again. Maybe he's done things like this before, they were just never reported (I'm surprised there's been no investigation into ex-girlfriends). Or, maybe this is just the first of what will be multiple incidents. I can't say.

What I can say is that he savagely attacked a person half his size who posed zero threat to him. We all lose our tempers occasionally, but the onus is on each of us to keep our actions reasonable. Rice did not, and he should be punished accordingly. What is accordingly? The NFL's two game suspension was a joke, a slap on the wrist. They later extended that to "indefinite", which, actually, is also kind of meaningless. It's not an outright ban (though the Ravens did cut him), but it has no term limit.

Less than a month ago, the NFL changed its rules such that a similar offense by a player in the future would merit them a 6-game suspension. A second offense would ban them for life. Finally, the league is cracking down on abusers! Finally, they are sending the message that violence off the field is not the answer, and that domestic abuse will not - and should not - be tolerated! Finally, they are doing something to save face!

Face-saving aside, the new rule is harsh, but good. I mean, how hard is it NOT to beat your wife? However, the new rule combined with the indefinite suspension that was handed down a week and half later puts the NFL, and Goodell in particular, in a very bad position, and essentially forced the Union to appeal.

Here's the timeline in a nutshell: Janay and Ray arrested. Video of Ray dragging Janay out of elevator. NFL investigation. 2-game suspension. Outrage. New domestic abuse penalties. 2nd video released. Indefinite suspension.

Goodell claims he didn't know what happened in the elevator. He claims he didn't know the extent of the one-sidedness of the fight until the second video was leaked. Sources say, though, that even if he hadn't seen the video, both Ray was honest about what happened. Meaning Goodell had a first-hand account from the people involved, painting a pretty clear picture of what happened. He weighed that information, and made his ruling. The outrage was enough to force through new rules, but not enough to change the suspension.

Why not? Because in the absence of evidence, all the public could do was speculate about what happened. We all had a hunch, but no one except for Ray and Janay (for the part she was conscious) could actually say. Thus, the NFL had an out. They slap his wrist and hope for business to go on as usual. When it doesn't they make a show of "taking a stand" with new rules (and we'll soon see how well they stick to their guns with those). That's where this would have ended, until the second video dropped.

Suddenly, the NFL had to cover its collective asses. The Ravens cut him, arguing that they didn't imagine the scene correctly, and the NFL essentially booted him from the league, not because of what he'd done, but because what he'd done was suddenly extremely public, and they had to make sure the world knew that this was the first time they'd even heard about the incident in this way, and not, as it had been portrayed throughout the summer, as a mutual fight that just ended badly for one party.

Any way you spin that, though, extending Rice's suspension is just wrong. I don't think he should be playing this year, but the NFL collected the information, considered it, and passed judgement. To suddenly reconsider that judgement is unheard of. Imagine if your boss decided to dock your pay for being late, only docking you half the late time. Then, a couple days later, he decides to dock you an entire day, because in between the two days, the company instituted a new policy that states the late employee should be docked the full amount of time missed. You'd be furious.

Or, imagine if the justice system worked like this. The charges on which Rice was indicted carry a punishment of 3-5 years in prison. Imagine if he'd been sentenced to 3 years in prison. Then, a few weeks later, the statute is changed to make the punishment 5-10 years, and Rice is informed that his sentence has been extended to LIFE, not because new evidence showed he was guilty of some greater crime, but new evidence that corroborated his own story was presented that proved his guilt to which he'd already admitted.

So, yes, while I think his initial punishment was far too weak (essentially a tacit condoning of domestic violence), it is what we're stuck with. While the punishment should have been more severe to begin with, going back and changing it just throws the rulebook out the window. Rice and the Players' Union is right to appeal the indefinite suspension.

What is really interesting about this, though, is the ramifications this will have on Goodell. If the suspension is reduced back to the original two games, isn't that an indication that Goodell had ALL of the information back then, even if he hadn't seen the full video? The only justification for lengthening the suspension is that the video presented new evidence. The evidence, however, is mounting against the commissioner, and it might be time for him to own up to the fact that he screwed up.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An addendum to my NYC post

This didn't really fit in anywhere in that post, but I wanted to try to put an end to a long-running joke whenever anyone talks about using a pay phone in New York City. They do exist. They might not be as prevalent, but they are there. The booths are gone, the phones are not.

Yes, I get all fired up about silly things sometimes.

Much like New York City, this post is big.

The September 11th terrorist attacks were shocking and tragic, and changed the world and the way in which we live in it. The subtler aspects of this are seen in the birthdays and other events that happened around them. I can't imagine what it is like for kids who were born on September 11th or 12th, 2001, or even for their parents, in 2001, trying to celebrate the new life they'd brought into this world while the rest of the country was mourning. I do, however, have a bit of knowledge about older folks who simply happened to be born around that date, in that my mother-in-law celebrates her birthday on September 12th.

As a result of this, I found myself thinking a lot about New York City on and around September 11th, as my wife and I were planning on visiting my in-laws in the City on the 13th and 14th. Had I known exactly where we'd been staying, I'd have thought about it a bit more.

It's time for a confession: I know almost nothing about New York City. It wasn't important to me as a child growing up in New Hampshire. When we went to a big city, we went to Boston. We never went to New York. It's far, it's hard to drive in, hard to park in, and expensive to stay in. Boston was an hour away, and, while it is also hard to drive and park in, we know tricks to get around that. Frankly, even after all these years and all this exposure, Boston's geography is still somewhat confusing to me, so New York is just a cosmic mystery.

For example, I didn't know Bowling Green
State University was a New York Subway stop.

I don't think I could even feasibly list all of my misconceptions here. Basically, I always thought that all the big buildings were right near each other, all the sports teams played in the city, all the burroughs were all the same place, and it was slightly larger than Boston.

Working backwards, that was the first misconception destroyed when I learned that Central Park was bigger than Boston. Over the years, I learned more truths, but I still know next to nothing about the city or its layout. Some of what I learned was a couple of years ago, when I made my first-ever trip into the city to celebrate my (then future) sister-in-law's graduation from her Masters program. The biggest thing I learned from that trip: I don't really like New York.

For clarity, we stayed near Times Square, possibly in Hell's Kitchen, and spent the weekend in that area. My father-in-law drove us into the city and found parking. That was terrifying. Driving in Boston sucks, but is doable. Driving in midtown Manhattan is one of the circles of Hell, from what I can tell. We then proceeded to walk pretty much the entire breadth of the island to get to my sister-in-law's apartment, a sixth-floor walk-up, and then walk what felt like half the length of the island to get back to the hotel (but was probably only like a mile). There was a fantastic street fair on 9th Avenue, though, so that was awesome.

That trip, we ate dinner at a Greek restaurant that was somewhere around the northern end of Central Park (we took the subway there and a cab back). The food was great, and I got to try octopus and sweet breads. Then, my wife and I wandered around the city seeing some of the sights (Madison Square Garden, a great little breakfast place) before hitting Grand Central Station and taking a train out of the city.

My impressions were that the city was crowded, dirty, crowded, and noisy. Also, crowded. I was both irritated by the near-constant honking of horns and impressed by the way New York drivers (particularly cabbies) had developed their own "horn language". A quick series of three short beeps meant something different than a quick honk and then a longer one, which meant something different than just laying on the horn. Pretty much all of it was lost on me, but it was kinda cool.

All in all, though, I didn't like the City. Times Square was pretty much the low-light. What a wretched place it has become. Yes, it's technically better than 20-30 years ago, when it was a seedy cesspool of strip clubs, prostitutes, and drug dealers, but that doesn't make it "good". It's basically become a giant outdoor mall, full of neon, noise, and commercialism. New York City has some of the best restaurants in the world, but all you'll find in one of the most well-known sections of the City are chain restaurants like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Applebee's, and yes, even McDonald's. Oh, and Gui Fieri's latest "Man Cave" themed assault on our senses and colons. It was interesting to see once. I never want to go back.

The Times Square subway stop is way more
enjoyable than the actual Times Square.
 Apparently word had gotten around to the family, because at the conclusion of this last trip, both my father-in-law and my sister-in-law hoped that I had a better experience in The City this time.

Let's start with getting in. We decided to eschew driving in for taking the train early Saturday morning. We got to the train station plenty early, bought tickets, and listened closely to the announcement that the train we wanted to take was coming in on Track 1. A few minutes later, a train arrived on Track 1, so we hopped on, and were off.

In the wrong direction.

Ten minutes later, at the next stop, we hopped off this train, and waited for the correct train to roll in. Fortunately for us, trains were using Track 1 to go both directions, so the New York-bound train was running late, and was due to arrive any minute. Had the trains been running on time, we'd have had to wait an hour. Hooray for being behind schedule!

Finally on the right train, we pulled into Grand Central Station and went in search of breakfast, finding bagels, croissants, and coffee so strong that I could feel the new chest hairs as they grew in.

We looked up where we were going - the Financial Distrtict, on the southern tip of Manhattan - and set off to take the subway, getting on the wrong train (though going in the right direction), finding out the train we needed to take wasn't going where we needed to go, and finding our way on a different train to Battery Park, around the corner from the hotel, and from where you can glimpse both the Statue of Liberty as well as the new World Trade Center tower.

Ok, so another preconception set on its head. I'm sure people explained it 13 years ago, but it never sank into my head that the World Trade Center, isn't really near the Empire State Building, or Times Square, or Central Park. Again, it's a big city. Lower Manhattan on the weekend is pretty nice - it's practically empty. No traffic, few people.

Not pictured: most of what I picture when I think of New York City.

We met up with the rest of the family, dropped of our suitcase, and set out for our first destination: Governor's Island. Ok, this is pretty cool. It's an island that was first used to defend New York City. As such, there is a large, walled fort with a bevy of canon mounts on the points of the walls. Eventually, it was transformed into a military post, at which my mother-in-law's father was stationed at the time of her birth. She's been back at least once, but neither my wife or I had ever been, so it was cool to see where her mom had been born and grew up.

Those concrete platforms at the base of the wall are canon mounts.
 It also gave a slightly different perspective on the city, as we took the short ferry ride across the bay, and could see the entire financial district, as well as the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn itself. The city is at once both smaller and larger than you think. From this perspective, all you can see is Lower Manhattan, a handful of buildings making up the Financial District, a space probably smaller than Boston. You have to keep in mind, though, that most of the city is actually hidden from view by this relatively small chunk. And then you note that those 30+ story buildings are built right up to the edge of the water. In most cities, you have an almost Gaussian distribution of building heights from the city limits on in to the downtown area. Not New York.
We also played mini-golf on an art-project course that made
fun of Chris Christie (the giant ape) and Mayor Bloomberg (not pictured).
One thing I've learned about vacations with my in-laws is that it involves lots of walking. As noted, the previous trip to New York felt like we covered the entire width of the island. On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I'm pretty sure we walked about 5 miles each day we were there. The family talks about a trip they took to Arizona years back, and I'm pretty sure they walked there from Pennsylvania. They refer to their trip to Nevis as the "worst vacation ever", and I'm guessing it's because walking through the Caribbean Sea probably sucks.

This trip, I was prepared. At least, I think I was. I forgot to check the pedometer app on my phone, but I would guess we walked somewhere between 3 and 5 miles on Governor's Island. When we got back to our hotel, I needed a rest, but I wasn't exhausted, as I had been on earlier trips (most notably, the Washington DC trip). I did, however, take advantage of the comfy bed to catch a few minutes of shut eye before showering and getting ready for dinner.

For dinner, we were heading to Little Italy. Being of Italian heritage on my father's side, I was excited. Also, as a fat kid who loves Italian food, I was doubly excited. When I found that we'd be walking the entire way, I was less excited, but not much, and I didn't want to let it bother me. So we walked. And walked. And...actually, it wasn't that bad. As we moved further up the island, the crowds did increase, which did bug me, as our little group continued to get stretched out, and the pod in front had to periodically wait for those in the back to catch up. As frequently happens, I ended up in between the two groups, eavesdropping on both conversations, but involved in neither.

After a short time, we arrived at The Feast of San Gennaro. Sadly, we missed the parade. Not that I'm a huge fan of parades, but this particular parade is featured in "The Godfather, Part II" as Vito Corleone scampers across the rooftops in order to take out Don Fanucci and take over his territory. The rest of the weekend, the feast is a large street fair, reminiscent of the Hell's Kitchen fair in which we partook a couple of years ago.

Not pictured: Robert DeNiro.
Pictured: a bunch of guys who think they sound like DeNiro.
 Right away, we were presented with rows of food carts lining either side of Mulberry St with the space between filled with people. Normally, I would shy away from this. During fair season (the few months around the Hopkinton and Deerfield fairs), I am better able to deal with crowds. I still don't like them, but they don't make me want to walk in the other direction. The biggest issue was that we hadn't eaten since breakfast. I'd tried to have a cup of coffee in the hotel room, but spilled most of it (sorry Hampton Inn!).

This is when my wife showed why I married her. She sensed my growing frustration - not to mention my sensory overload - and knew exactly what I needed: food. I know how that sounds, the fat kid needing food to keep himself happy, and while that is something that I certainly do sometimes, this was more a situation of not having eaten in almost ten hours, and just needing something to recharge. Those candy bar commercials are not just shameless attempts to get you to eat junk food - sometimes hunger makes us cranky, and a little food can help us re-energize. In this case, it was an order of Zeppoles.

Zeppoles are a uniquely Italian delicacy, and by "uniquely Italian", I mean "something that shows up in nearly every culture in some form". They are basically small balls of fried dough. Some call them doughnuts, others call them munchkins (though zeppoles are usually a little larger than that). When made right, they are best called delicious. These came in a paper bag, with powdered sugar sprinkled in. A quick shake, and they were well-coated, and yes, delicious.

Top: the remains of a stuffed artichoke.
Bottom: the remains of some calamari.
Below the frame: my nearly-full stomach.
From there, we met up with the rest of the family towards the far end of Little Italy, and got an outdoor table at a little restaurant called Puglia. We started the meal with some Chianti, some bread, and three stuffed artichokes. For the six of us. Someone (father-in-law) was a little excited about them being on the menu. After destroying that, we had some calimari, and then dinner. By this point, I'd gone from "need food to recharge" to "need sleep to digest". We truly celebrated the Feast by feasting. Instead of napping at a popular restaurant's table, we decided to walk the length of the festival, ignoring street hawkers and taking in the sights and smells of the different food stands.

After one final stop at Ferrara to pick up some cannoli for later, we headed back to the subway, which reminded me of some things I don't like about New York. It is noisy. All cities have some noise, but like so much else, New York does it on another level. The festival was noisy, with people talking, music blaring, vendors yelling. We left Little Italy and walked through part of Chinatown, where the music was replaced by the near-constant honking of traffic, and the street hawkers were out in full force, chattering away at all volumes, trying to entice us into their tiny little storefronts to buy various items of questionable quality. We finally got to the subway, and descended into the relative peace.

Which was quickly disrupted by a train pulling in, and another pulling out.

And this is the problem: you are constantly assaulted by this noise. You can't maintain a conversation, because you can only get a few words in before the next barrage of noise hits you. It's wave after wave, and just when you think it's going to settle down, another wave of noise crashes over you. It, even more than the walking, is exhausting.

Fortunately, our hotel was fairly quiet, and we slept quite soundly.

The next morning, we walked up to my sister-in-law's apartment and had a quick breakfast on the roof of her building. The sun shone down on us as we took in the sweeping views of the city. You can see a lot from 33 stories up. From one corner of the building, we could see the Brooklyn Bridge, the new World Trade Center tower, and all the way up to midtown, including the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. The view was, in a word, majestic.
Top: World Trade Center not far from the apartment building.
Bottom: Empire State Building in the distance. Not really anywhere near each other.
Not pictured: My preconceptions shattering like the T-1000.
Ho-hum, just the Brooklyn Bridge. No, seriously, the view from up here was amazing.

In the end, this was a better trip to the City than my first one, and I can see myself willingly going back to see more. There is a lot to see and do in the city, and it is awesome to behold some of the landmarks that we see in movies and on TV in person. I do think we made the right decision not to spend our honeymoon there, but I wouldn't mind spending more time there, and I can understand why people love living there. Personally, I will stick with Boston.

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Google Drive for Old People

Am I old? I sometimes joke that I am, but I'm only 35.917 years old. To the high school kids I pass at the bus stop on my way in to work, I might be old, but in general? Not so much. That said, am I out of touch?

I ask because I refuse to use "the cloud" in general, and Google Drive in particular, at least not in any substantial way. I have a Google account, and use Drive to transfer files occasionally. It was crucial in our wedding planning, as we could share spreadsheets and other files among ourselves without using disks or USB drives or even e-mail. We wrote our entire ceremony from scratch, and Drive allowed easy collaboration between me, my wife, and my sister (who was performing the ceremony, and thus reading the whole thing).

So, for those things, I'll use it. However, the push to use Drive, Box, iCloud, or other such services as a replacement for internal storage makes me cringe.Both my phone and my tablet have micro-SD card slots that is compatible up to 128GB. 128 gigabytes! I don't want to get technical here, but that's A LOT (sorry for the tech-speak). Okay, so that's not actually all that much in terms of modern desktop/laptop computers, but it's nothing to shake a stick at, either (it's also just a bit more than the 15GB I have available through Drive). That tablet has 16GB of internal storage, the phone has twice that, or 32GB. Neither is tiny, but 128GB makes them so much bigger, and really, means I should never have to save anything to the cloud.

The problem is that Google, in its infinite wisdom has decided that it doesn't want people directly manipulating the SD Card in the expansion slot. This means that you can insert a card and view things on it, but you can't transfer data from internal storage to the SD card, even if the device wants you to. My tablet keeps telling me that the internal storage is 75% full, and that I should transfer some stuff, but when I click the button to start the transfer, it tells me I can't do it.

It's like telling someone they need to eat healthier, and then telling them they're not allowed to eat vegetables.

When I asked around about this recently, one response I got was "What's an SD card? Is that like Google Drive for old people?"

I get it. There is a push to use cloud storage for everything. If hard drives can be smaller, solid state devices, the overall computer can be smaller, lighter, and more energy-efficient (though I do wonder about the trade-off between having a larger hard drive and having to access a remote server). They don't need to have storage for all of your games and save data, photos and videos, music and other assorted files. All of that can be on the cloud. The hard drive just needs enough space for the operating system and whatever programs you're running. 

And that's great. My laptop is a beast, and it is smaller than my old one. I would love for it to be lighter, and have longer battery life. It's why I like the tablet. Super light, but can still function as a computer. I am reticent, though, to store my files "elsewhere". I like having the data in my possession. I like having off-line access to it.

That's my first issue with the cloud: it's not 100% reliable. If I have power, I can turn my computer on and access the hard drive, an external hard drive, a USB drive, or a variety of other storage options. If I can connect to the internet, I can access Drive. If I can't connect to the internet...too bad. I can hear the response: how often are you not connected? but that misses the point. It's not that I have periods of no connectivity right now, it's the idea that I might. There are times when wifi doesn't work. There are places you can't get a 3g/4g signal. Sometimes, the server goes down. It happens.

My second issue is one of security. Sure, everything's mine, and secure, and encrypted (for some services), and when I delete it, the files are gone. I think we've seen in the past couple of weeks what a load of crap that is. On top of the recent celebrity photo leak, it's been well-publicized over the last year or so that Google has no problem "reading" your e-mail. They view data sent through their service as fair game, arguing that there's no expectation of privacy when you turn your data over to a third party, which it claims is what you're doing when you use Gmail. Is Drive any different? I've not read the terms of service, but is uploading a picture to Drive any different than sending that same photo via e-mail? If they're twisting the word of law to justify scanning your e-mail, it's not a stretch to imagine they'd do the same thing to peek at your photos. 

I will never understand how people who are so serious about protecting things like their credit card numbers or other personal data can just throw stuff into the cloud with no regard for privacy. Even if we were to argue that the service in use respected their clients' privacy above all else, there's still the worry of hackers. How many SECURE sites have been hacked over the past few years? Web security software might as well be called "Maginot Line". The notion that nothing is truly deleted from a computer, while not entirely true, is true enough to give anyone pause before uploading that picture of yourself chugging eight beers at once.

Do you know what is far more secure? An SD card that I can physically remove. A USB drive I can put in my desk drawer. 

I don't know. Maybe this makes me old. I have no lawn to yell at kids to get off, so maybe this is the signifier. Maybe, I'm that old guy shaking his fist-clenched cane up at the sky and railing against this new-fangled technology. If so, then so be it. Personally, I see it more as an unwillingness to sacrifice my privacy for the sake of a modicum of convenience. If that's what being young is, I'll gladly be called old.