Monday, October 24, 2011

Album Review: The Rip Tide

The Rip Tide by Beirut (Pompeii Records, 2011. 33 minutes)

Originally the music project of New-Mexico-native Zach Condon, Beirut is an indie rock band which combines Eastern European music, Balkan folk, and Western pop music. While traveling through Europe in his youth, Condon fell in love with world music. This love prompted musical experimentation that resulted in the band. While attending the University of New Mexico, Condon recorded his first record, GulagOrkestar, in his bedroom. He shopped the record to labels and ultimately signed with Ba Da Bing! Records. Before releasing The Rip Tide, Condon founded Pompeii Records giving him full control over his music.

Evaluative Difficulty

I find it difficult to review music. Of all art forms, it is the easiest to passively consume. I can listen to the same album every day during work without learning the lyrics or grasping the artistic structures surrounding the composition.

Moreover, people appreciate music for different reasons and different ways. Some need catchy melodies; others need deep lyrics; some want emotive lyrics; and others desire technical musicianship. If an album possesses one of these facets, it is a success for some but a failure for others. In the wake of these revelations, how could anyone critically evaluate popular music?

A Good Record

Having explained my troubles, let’s move to Beirut’s new release, The Rip Tide. I enjoy this record but I find it difficult to explain why I feel this way. The album does not contain an overarching theme and its music is not overly complex; but I still interact positively with its songs. Zach Condon’s weaving melodies, clever use of horns, and pristine production make for an enjoyable record.

To the Songs

Although the album carries no large-scale theme, the songs are intriguing. First single, “Santa Fe” offers an upbeat tune with tremolo instrumentation. During the chorus, Condon wails,

“Sign me up Santa Fe / Call your son / Signe me up Santa Fe / On the Cross Santa Fe / And all I want.”

Interestingly, Santa Fe possesses dual meaning. Speaking plainly, it refers to a city in New Mexico. This interpretation emits feelings of fondness for an urban landscape. Yet, Santa Fe also means “holy faith.” Thus, the lyrics could also be interpreted as a plea of belief.

“East Harlem” is another highlight of the record. With acoustic instrumentation, beautiful horn melodies, and lyrics of longing, the song unveils impeccably when Condon croons,

“Another rose wilts in East Harlem / And uptown downtown a thousand miles between us / She’s waiting for the night to fall / Let it fall, I’ll never make it in time.”

Lastly, The Rip Tide’s closing song, “Port of Call,” bookends the album perfectly. With ukulele-driven instrumentation, Condon provides perhaps his best vocal performance. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the lyrics of the song are my favorite of the record.

“And I, I call through the air that night / My thoughts were still blurry inside / We were closer then, I’ve been alone some time / Filled your glass with gin / Filled your heart with pride / And you, you had hope for me now / I danced all around it somehow / Be fair to me, I may drift awhile.”

Also, as an aside, the title “Port of Call” is etymologically related to Portugal giving the tune a setting.

The Parts that Comprise the Whole

With intriguing parts, it is easy to conclude that the whole of the album is excellent. Of course, music offers different conclusions for different people and I have found it difficult to convey the way I feel about The Rip Tide. Bottom line, though, is that I love the album enough to recommend it. So give the record a spin!

Verdict: 4.5 of 5

Friday, October 21, 2011

Television Show Review: Doctor Who

Doctor Who created by Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, and Donald Wilson (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Currently starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, and Alex Kingston.

His Name Is the Doctor

Currently listed as the longest-running science fiction television show by the Guinness World Records, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a time-traveling alien named The Doctor. Traversing the universe with a time machine called the TARDIS which possesses an outward appearance of a blue police box, the Doctor typically travels with a female human companion and, together, they encounter numerous villains and work toward saving people groups, worlds, and righting injustices in the universe.

Although the series began in 1963, the current version of Doctor Who premiered in 2005. With a sharp and dry wit, the actors playing The Doctor carry the show through brilliant dialogue and colorful acting.

Connecting with the Innate Desire to Get Away

While I enjoy the humorous dialogue, what intrigues me about this series is the companion figure. Each character who travels with the Doctor finds the banal reality of everyday life in London to pale in comparison with traveling with this humanoid alien. For these people, escape leads to real life.

I don’t claim to know the underlying themes that define humanity, but it certainly seems like we all share an innate sense of discovery. When my wife and I travel, we find joy in wandering the streets of a new city exploring nooks and crannies.

In Doctor Who, the viewer lives vicariously through the companion. If you were offered free travel anywhere in time and space, wouldn’t you say yes with no questions asked?

As an example, with the obviously caveat that it could be pre-ordained, I think of the times that Conan O’Brien grabs a random fan during a show and tells him or her that the show is paying him or her to travel for a week. Each time, the audience member jumps on the airplane with no questions asked.

Of course, Doctor Who is an entertaining show that combines action adventure, science fiction, and humor. Yet, I am drawn to these deeper themes beneath the surface plot. If you realize the human condition for discovery and you like science fiction with a good dose of British humor, I recommend watching Doctor Who from its current inception in 2005.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds directed by Quentin Tarantino (Universal Pictures, Weinstein Company, A Band Apart, R, 153 minutes)

Starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Mélanie Laurent, and Christoph Waltz.

Dual Duels

Set in France during World War II, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds tells the story of two separately planned attempts to assassinate the leaders of the Nazi party.

In one storyline, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) – nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” for his ability to locate Jews in hiding – interrogates a dairy farmer learning that he is harboring a Jewish family under the floorboards. While Landa’s men shoot through the floor, teenage daughter Shosanna Dreyfus escapes the carnage.

Three years later, Shosanna hides in plain sight as a cinema owner in Paris under the identity, Emmanuelle Mimieux. While changing the marquee, she meets Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a decorated German sniper and star in an upcoming German propaganda film. Smitten, Zoller convinces Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to move the premier of the film to Shosanna’s cinema.

Understanding that this premiere will provide an occasion for all of Germany’s high ranking officers to be in the same room, Shosanna realizes that she has an opportunity for revenge.

Killing Nazis

In the second storyline, 1st Special Service Force First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) assembles a team of Jewish-American servicemen to go undercover in France with the sole mission of inflicting terror on the Nazis.

A sadistic killer, Raine insists that his soldiers kill Nazis and scalp them as proof. In fact, he requires each soldier to personally give him 100 scalps. Through the information provided from a double agent, the Allied Forces learn that the Nazi leaders will all attend the premier of a propaganda film in Paris. With the help of the informant, Raine and some of his men gain entry to the event with the sole intention of wreaking havoc. Of course, none of this actually happened in real life. But Inglourious Basterds is a film that ponders the “what-if”.

In the Midst of Bloody Carnage, We See Compelling Characters

At its core, Inglourious Basterds is about the characters.

Waltz, playing Colonel Landa, is brilliant and deserving of every award bestowed on him for the performance. Landa is complex; ruthless on one hand, he possesses a sinister intelligence with no loyalties on the other. In every scene, he hovers over the rest of the characters as if he knows the whole plot and is only playfully toying with the other characters.

Pitt, playing Lieutenant Raine, represents the opposite of Landa. His sense of retribution trumps all other human emotions. For Raine, if a person wears the Nazi uniform, he deserves death and/or public humiliation. Although the Allied Forces are the film’s protagonists, their actions are more violent and less forgiving.

If Everyone Dies, Who Is the Protagonist?

Ultimately, the bloodshed in the film portrays the senselessness of war on both sides. As with every Tarantino film, everyone dies. But in this instance, death shows us how retribution can be, in itself, deadly. The Nazis killed millions of Jews and Inglourious Basterds allows us to watch them suffer for their crimes once more.

Yet, our desire for retribution can create psychopaths no different than the Nazis. Inglourious Basterds reminds us to be careful what we wish for.

The film represents another signpost in the Quentin Tarantino canon. Stylistically, it is everything one comes to expect from Tarantino films. However, the acting of Christoph Waltz and the juxtaposition of Nazis and retributive psychopaths makes for an excellent movie.

Verdict:  4 of 5.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: Moneyball

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 320 pp)

Michael Lewis is the author of Panic!, Liar's Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Home Game, among other works. He lives in Berkley, California with his wife, Tabitha Soren, and their three children.

Baseball Cards: Collectible and Informative

As an avid baseball fan, statistics have augmented my appreciation of the sport since my youth. My favorite part of collecting baseball cards surrounded studying the statistics on the back of the trading card; my enjoyment of baseball video games was partly due to accumulating statistics myself.

With the rise of the internet, the way I consumed baseball changed. Where my understanding of the sport used to develop through the words of a beat writer from the local newspaper, blogs and discussion boards gave me the opportunity to perceive baseball through a different lens.

For this reason, gone were the days of home runs, stolen bases, R.B.I.s, and worn-down clichés. In their place, reasoned arguments and statistics like WAR, OPS, and FIP took root.

As such, I feel like I already knew Moneyball. This bestselling work penned by Michael Lewis has long been considered the introduction to advanced baseball statistics.

A Real-Life David-Versus-Goliath Story

For those unaware of the premise, Moneyball tells the real-life story of the Oakland A’s, an impoverished – in relation to the rest of baseball – team competing against teams with four times the payroll. Simply speaking, money buys talent in baseball. The best teams usually spend the most money – thus, New York Yankees.

Oakland, on the other hand, possessed an owner unwilling to spend money to keep up with the Jones’. With a clear monetary disadvantage, general manager, Billy Beane, and assistant Paul DePodesta, lean on advanced statistics and economic principles to outwit the giants of Major League Baseball (MLB).

In other words, the duo understood that every MLB franchise drafted, signed, and started players under the same flawed process. Scouts projected players based on dreams and the way a player looked, not on what they actually did. Lewis writes,

“There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly – but not lastly – there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn’t see when you watched a baseball game” (18).

For this reason, Beane and DePodesta created metrics in order to understand market inefficiencies. While big market clubs spent money on stolen bases and runs batted in, Beane and DePodesta found that on-base percentage correlated more closely to wins.

The Market of Human Beings

Although Moneyball inspires the reader to creatively consider ways in which to exploit market inefficiencies, the business of baseball differs from other markets in that the product sold is a human being. Discussing the difficulty of firing a baseball player, Lewis pens,

“’Someone’s got to talk to him,’ says Billy. Now, suddenly, there is a difference between trading stocks and bonds and trading human beings. There’s a discomfort. Billy never lets it affect what he does. He is able to think of players as pieces in a board game. That’s why he trades them so well” (213).

The “him” the previous quote discusses is Mike Magnante, a veteran reliever four days away from earning ten years of service time and a lucrative pension. His release conveys the dark side of efficiency. Lewis writes,

“At that moment Mike Magnante was removing his Oakland uniform and Ricardo Rincon was removing his Cleveland one. Mags quickly left the Oakland clubhouse; he’d come back for his things later when no one was around. His wife had brought their kids to the game so he couldn’t just leave. Magnante watched the game with his family until the sixth inning and then left so he wouldn’t have to answer questions from the media. He has no desire to call further attention to his situation. In his youth he might have mouthed off. He would certainly have borne a grudge. But he was no longer young; the numbness had long since set in. He thought of himself the way the market thought of him, as an asset to be bought and sold. He’d long ago forgotten whatever it was he was meant to feel” (216).

Even though Lewis writes this portion of the story in an intentional grim tone, the underlying principle remains: a human being understood himself as an object. While Moneyball inspires managers to rethink the ways they evaluate employees, the second the evaluative metrics force undesired personal decisions, an employee’s humanity must be considered alongside the evaluative metric.

Does Michael Lewis Strike Out or Work a Walk?

Moneyball brilliantly renders a way business can seek unique methods of evaluation. But such metrics must never trump natural human relationship. For Oakland, the incessant drive for success led to a decision that hurt a human being dearly. Would the slight upgrade in talent over the course of four days made much of a difference over the course of the season? It’s too hard to tell, but we must remember that human element. The drive behind my obsession over statistics as a child remains with me to this day as I consume baseball content. But, one must never use this obsession to run over an employee.

Moneyball is a well written book that explores unique evaluative frameworks. This book is a must read for baseball fanatics and business leaders alike.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 528 pp)

Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. The Art of Fielding is Harbach’s first book.

Failure: The Sad Story of Rick Ankiel

As the playoffs dawned in 2000, I was at the height of my baseball fandom. The Seattle Mariners – my hometown team – were in a period of sustained success, my joy for playing the game had yet to dwindle, and I held an acute awareness of Major League players.

During this time, I vividly remember game one of the NLDS featuring the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. On the mound for the Cardinals was a young and promising pitcher named Rick Ankiel. With a lively arm and impressive control, many thought Ankiel was the next Randy Johnson. While the first two innings of game one supported this theory, the third inning unraveled in historically disastrous fashion. He allowed 4 runs on 2 hits walking 4 batters and throwing 5 wild pitches finally being pulled for a relief pitcher. Although he laughed it off after the game, Ankiel never regained the promising form he held before the playoffs began.

This psychological condition that forces a player to choke in game situations is heartbreaking. Ankiel’s brain refused to compute a simple action he had performed countless times before.

To make matters worse, failure is a singular principle in baseball. To find success at a professional level, baseball players encounter failure more often than the average profession. Think of it this way: a successful baseball player typically fails to reach base 60% of the time. In what other job could you ensure constant raises by failing 60% of the time? Yet a baseball player with a .400 on-base percentage is an elite contributor.

Thus, a player like Rick Ankiel knows failure like the back of his hand. To emotionally and psychologically fall apart is to completely forget the way one must shrug off failure in a game like baseball.

Baseball as a Metaphor for the Failures of Life

Ultimately, dealing with failure is the core principle in Chard Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. The book follows the baseball team at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in the Midwest. The team is led by Mike Schwartz, a senior catcher with a body built for home runs and a mind pointed toward law school.

The team’s best player is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop and prospect for the Major Leagues whose actions in life surround baseball and his pursuit of improvement at the game.

Henry rooms with Owen Dunne, an openly gay scholarship-awarded student who is a benchwarmer more likely to be reading the classics on the bench than aware of the score.

Finally, the book focuses on Guert Affenlight, president of Westish and his daughter, Pella, both of which are intimately affiliated with the baseball program.

Throughout the book, Harbach utilizes the metaphor of baseball to tease out bigger lessons in life. While Schwartz longingly hopes for law school, his peers consider him the obvious successor as a coach at Westish. 
Harbach writes,

“He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic:  the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer” (149).

Obviously, when one suffers in training, dividends are noticed in games. Likewise, Harbach expands this theme in the novel to declare that suffering begets growth.

Baseball Makes Alcoholics and Christians

Additionally, Henry Skrimshander falls victim to the precise mental blocks Rick Ankiel encountered in the big leagues. After committing his first error in 54 games, Henry becomes incapable of throwing to first base; he double- and triple-pumps just willing the ball to magically appear in the first baseman’s glove. While watching Henry’s play deteriorate, Dwight Rogner, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals proclaims,

“I played in the minors for nine years, batted twice in the majors. And I’ll tell you something – pretty much every guy I ever shared a locker room with wound up becoming either an alcoholic or a born-again Christian. Booze or God. That’s what this game does to you. The name of the game is failure, and if you can’t handle failure you won’t last long. Nobody’s perfect” (172).

Baseball Defines Life

As the story unfolds, Harbach links gorgeous descriptions of baseball gameplay with impressive connections to the way it relates to the meaning of life. He argues,

“For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not” (256-257).

Not only does baseball provide a metaphor for life, and creativity, it illustrates our beliefs. In one section 
Harbach writes,

“Henry too, as he sat two steps behind his antsy teammates, inches from Owen’s elbow, tried to find a pose that would help. Deep down, he thought, we all believe we’re God. We secretly believe that the outcome of the game depends on us, even when we’re only watching – on the way we breathe in, the way we breathe out, the T-shirt we wear, whether we close our eyes as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand and heads toward Schwartz” (467).

More than Baseball

Despite using baseball as a central theme, The Art of Fielding is not a book targeting the sports market; it speaks, instead, to the bigger themes of life. Truthfully, we all fail constantly. While baseball provides an easy metaphor with its history of failure, Harbach makes it a springboard to questions of purpose, vocation, and desire. Every good story carries an element of conflict. What makes The Art of Fielding an excellent book is the ways in which the characters encounter and resolve the conflicts and failures in their lives.

There’s always another at bat! Look at Rick Ankiel. After he lost control of his pitches, he was demoted to the minor leagues where he converted to a center fielder, learned to hit, and has become a contributing player in the Major Leagues currently employed by the Washington Nationals.

The Art of Fielding tears at your heartstrings and builds you back up again. Highly recommended.

Verdict: 4.5 of 5

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