Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Hidden Figures

In my continuing series of trying to find movies Jean will like, we went to see Hidden Figures, the story of three African-American women whose mathematical and engineering skills contributed greatly to NASA’s space program, during a time of segregation.

While I have not seen all of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, based on those I have, I agree with the assessment that this was the most conventionally filmed. While its based on true stories, you can just feel how reality has been condensed and combined to make for a better narrative arc. Like, as Jean pointed out, the “convenient” fact that the three women whose achievements were most impressive in the end happened to all commute to work together in the beginning. And every moment of victory is signalled with a soundtrack of another inspiring, uplifting song.

But hey, if a formula works, it works, and we both really liked this movie. (It also did the best box office of all the Oscar-nominated films.) Most of us did not know this history before this movie was made, and it is pretty amazing one. NASA felt so much urgency to catch up with the Russians on space exploration, they didn’t have the time to waste the talents of brilliant women just because of their skin tone.

But that didn’t mean any of it was easy, and the movie shows the challenges of trying to succeed in a segregated world. Having to run three-quarters of a mile to use “your” restroom. Seeing your coworkers flinch when you touch “their” coffee pot. Having to steal the FORTRAN book from the white section of the library, because they won’t let you borrow it. Doing the work of a supervisor, without the pay or the title.

These women earned each of their inspiring, uplifting songs!

Hidden Figures is on DVD and on-demand now, as well as still on some art cinemas (where we saw it). Definitely worth a view.

 


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Roundup: Riverdale, Lala Land, Malcolm Gladwell, and more

I haven’t done anything major of late, but I’m still keeping busy with a number of minor items, such as…

Watching Riverdale

A very buzzy show right now, playing on CW in the US and on Netflix in Canada. Beforehand, I liked the idea of a dark, Twin Peaks-y take on Archie Comics, and I’ve been generally happy with the results. The tone is still somewhat uneven—sometimes exaggerated Gothic, sometimes gritty realism—and Jean does tend to roll his eyes at the drama, drama of some scenes. But we’re both pretty entertained by it, overall.

Doesn’t hurt that he took an instant shine to Betty, while I am seriously crushing on Jughead… On Jughead, yeah. This is not like the comics! Sure, Archie is handsome, but also a jock and a bit bland, and Kevin is cute, but not  in that Adam Lambert way. But Jughead is a writer, he’s sensitive, he’s moral, he’s troubled (poor and bullied; alcoholic father)—and also, so pretty!

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[SPOILERY] There’s been considerable Internet discussion about whether the Jughead character would be asexual / aromantic as in the comics, so I was curious how that would play out. I can’t say I’m personally disappointed with the decision, but it is certainly a missed opportunity to do something groundbreaking.

Finding a movie Jean likes

Back in December we went to see Office Christmas Party, an over-the-top, light comedy we both found kind of fun. But then we followed withe Loving and Moonlight. These are both quality films that I enjoyed. But they are also slow-paced, character-driven dramas, and Jean was somewhat bored by both. So I took a pass on going to Fences and Manchester by the Sea with him—I’ll catch up on those myself.

The Lego Batman Movie seemed like it should be a good bet, though, right? And while it was not quite as good as the original Lego Movie, I was still very entertained by it. But while Jean wasn’t exactly bored, he was just kind of meh on this one. He just didn’t catch all the digs at the Batman lore that made the movie so clever.

And Lala Land? (“Did you know this is a musical?” he asked, walking in. Umm…)

But hey Mikey, he liked it! (Me too. It’s fun, and beautifully filmed.)

Fretting about details of a party we’re hosting

Usually late at night, when I should be falling asleep.

“Huh,” said Jean, when I reported this. “I don’t think about that at all.”

But he definitely helps me work on whatever aspect I’m most recently fretting about.

I guess that makes us a good partnership. Though I do envy his ability to just assume that things will be fine and work out.

Learning from Malcolm Gladwell

Revisionist History is a podcast series, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Each week, over the course of 10 weeks, Revisionist History will go back and reinterpret something from the past. An event. A person. An idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.

I’ve listened to 8 out of 10 so far, and find them all fascinating. Like:

  • The Lady Vanishes, on how one woman (or African-American, or gay person) achieving breakthrough success doesn’t necessarily pave the way for more.
  • Thanks to The Big Man Can’t Shoot, I now understand that my very disinterest in looking athletic (a hopeless endeavour, anyway; I am simply not athletic) made me a basketball free-throw champion. (It was literally the only thing I was ever better than anyone else at in gym class.)
  • Hallelujah explains the creative process and unlikely series of fortunate events that turned Leonard Cohen’s original un-listenable song into the iconic tune it is today. (Though I think KD Lang should also have earned a shout-out in this piece.) And as a bonus, introduced me to a new Elvis Costello tune.

Listening to women

I’ve always been a feminist, of course, but the US election has made it all feel more acute. My Twitter feed has been feeling gender unbalanced, so I’ve been seeking out more women’s voices:

  • @robyndoolittle, who’s been working on an important series for the Globe and Mail on how many sexual assault cases in Canada are labelled unfounded. (The first: Unfounded: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless)
  • @AKimCampbell, first woman Prime Minister of Canada, and also a really hilarious person. (And very active retweeter, but I’ve learned you can follow a person’s tweets but not their retweets.)
  • @kashanacauley, humorist and now writer at The Daily Show.
  • @tagaq, wherein singer Tanya Tagaq provides an interesting, First Nations perspective on the day’s issues.

I’ve also been listening to more music by women. This has led Spotify, who previously recommended me a whole lot of dance club music (thanks to following Adam Lambert, and perhaps enforced by a bout of listening to show tunes) to conclude, well, maybe I would enjoy some Indigo Girls and Melissa Ethridge as well.

I kind of do like their music, though, so it’s all good. And also, the songs by these strong women:


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Hope

I didn’t want to write about it at all, and I won’t be going on about it now. But did want to say that yesterday’s fairly pathetic turnout:

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Obama inauguration crowds on the left; Trump’s on the right

Contrasted with the astonishing crowd who turned out today for the #womensmarch protest:

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Along with the multitudes protesting in cities across the United States, from states both blue:

And red:

Boosted by protests around the world:

Is giving me hope.


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A most terrible year?

The year-end reviews certainly are gloomy this year. A sort of consensus that it’s hard to find anything good to say about 2016.

And for residents of some countries, that was certainly true. Poor Haiti had yet another earthquake. Syria! A daily dose of tragedy, made all the worse because our countries were involved in trying to stop it. And the Venezuelans—suffering under an incompetent President, their economic situation already bad and getting worse daily.

But as a global aggregate, the fact is that a lot of things are improving. (These charts don’t all include 2015—and can’t include 2016 yet, as it’s not done!—but the trends shown did not reverse themselves last year.)

Extreme poverty is down, and real incomes are up.

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This one is for Canada specficially

People are healthier.

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Life expectancy is also up, globally

Education rates are much higher.

literate-and-illiterate-world-populationHomicide (and other crime rates) are down, even in gun-happy US.

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I think the source of all this gloom is the US election and its highly unfortunate result. Had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College, Brexit would seem a weird mess the Brits got themselves into rather than part of an alarming global trend. We could celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and some actual action on the front (carbon pricing in Canada! Mon dieux!) instead of feeling it’s all a bit for naught now. The loss of beloved celebrities, some at alarmingly young ages (had not realized just how contemporaneous George Michael and I were), would be just a sad thing that eventually happens to us all, and not a pile-on when we don’t want more bad news (on Christmas Day? Really?).

However… while the mood is understandable, it’s still troubling. Because it’s pessimism, and a nostalgic belief that things were better before, and a denial of the inconvenient fact that things are actually pretty good right now—that the President-Elect ran on and got himself elected with.

It’s not a good place to settle in, mentally. It leads to hopelessness, and inactino. This one bad event didn’t make all of 2016 terrible. (And not to bring down the room, but won’t it be worse once he’s actually in office?)

But in 2016, the US had a great President.

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The 2016 Olympics were fun and kind of inspiring.

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The number of women of colour elected to the US Senate in 2016 has quadrupled.

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After a serious health scare last year, Roger Daltrey came back with a Who 2016 tour.

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In 2016 the Canadian federal government and its gender-balanced cabinet made significant progress on trade with Europe, climate change, safe injection sites, assisted dying legislation, pipeline approvals (and rejections), and improvements to the Election Act.

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The Hamilton Mixtape, released December 2016, was awesome.

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And Saturday Night Live (and other satirical programs) provided some catharsis.

“I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

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Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:

Introducing Alysha Brilla (Soundcloud)

 


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Amazonian Olympics

While not entirely glued to the coverage, I’m definitely watching some of it (like that Canada / France women’s soccer game) and trying to keep up with coverage. For all its flaws, one great thing about the Olympics is that women in sport get as much attention as the men.

This is particular acute for Canada this year as, at time writing, 12 of the medals awarded to this country have been won by women athletes.

It’s a great thing, but as the article Opportunity Costs: What the Olympics Show Us About the Economics of Women’s Sports describes, it’s also unfortunate that women athletes only get to shine once every four years. Other than in golf and tennis—where women still earn considerably less than men—few women benefit financially from their “once every four years” moment in the spotlight.

The numbers must be understood in terms of economics, not just discrimination. In general, attendance at women’s sports events is low, and only about four percent of sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s sports, making female athletes less profitable investments for sponsors.

I’m also reminded, every four years, of the bizarre way that NBC, the American channel, broadcasts the games: very often on time delay, and largely in the form of “human interest” packages. According to the Washington Post, they do that for the women folk:

As the network’s chief marketing officer John Miller explained:

“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” he told Philly.com recently. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

This is absurd, of course. For I am that women who normally doesn’t watch sports but will tune into the Olympics. All I need is a knowledgeable commentator to explain the fine points of sports I might not be familiar with, and I’m good. I want to see it live. The background on the athlete’s stories is nice, too, but you can put that in between events, ’kay?

And fortunately, that’s exactly the type of coverage I get from our national broadcaster, CBC, and its partner sports channels.

But if you care about improving women’s prospects in sports in general, NBC’s coverage matters to Canadians as well. Because it’s doubtful any women’s sports league can make it in Canada alone; it will need to be a North America-wide affair. And per Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post:

This is where NBC’s real offense lies. It’s not so much that it insults the audience — but it sure does insult Olympic athletes, especially female athletes. The Olympics is the most prominent competition in the world and 53 percent of Team USA is female, which means American women likely will bring in more medals than American men. Yet they will be presented in packaging aimed at a Ladies’ Home Journal crowd. Exactly how does that grow a hardcore audience for women’s sports, or a year-in, year-out base for other Olympic sports, for that matter?


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On the songs in our heads

Do you ever get songs stuck in your head?

So opened a blog post by Deidra Alexander, fiction writer. (I have not read her fiction. I just follow her blog.)

Yes, I do, Deidra. So I expected an amusing accounting of a phenomena I’m quite familiar with.

But then she went to say, “I have a few that I cycle through.” And went on to list exactly… three songs.

Three? Your whole life, just three?

And her main one was “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Franki Valli. Two lines of it, to be exact. “I don’t even know the rest of the words,” she writes.

Uh, you’ve had this song stuck in your head off and on for years and you’ve never bothered to hear and learn the rest of it? What? (Tip: Listening to a “stuck” song can actually be a way to get it out of your head.)

Then the other two are:

  • A folk song
  • A children’s show theme song.

I mean… Having such a limited and unappealing internal playlist sounds like a freakin’ nightmare.

Yet, Deidra seems perfectly content with this situation, not describing it at all negatively but just as an amusing little fact of her life.

I have to stop being surprised that people aren’t like me.

Thing is, I know there are people who basically never get songs stuck in their head—I’m married to one of those. But I had just assumed that those who did experienced much as I do: That while it was fairly common to have some song stuck in one’s head, the song in question changed frequently over a life time. Three songs? I’ve surely experienced this phenomenon with hundreds.

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Photo courtesy of www.m3ga.net

Most of these occurrences come and go without making it into my long-term memory. But some I recall because they’re associated with an unusual place or event. When I was in Berlin, U2’s “Zoo Station” rattled around after we visited that very train stop (the U2). On our Napa trip, I kept hearing “California Dreamin’”. When we adopted our cat Mocha, I inherited “Livin’ La Vida Loca” on internal repeat longer than was really pleasant (no matter how cute Ricky Martin is).

“And her skin’s the color mocha…”

Getting a Koodo phone spawned some days of Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank U” becoming my internal soundtrack, though it took me a while to figure out the association. Can you get it? It was this line:

“How’ bout that ever elusive kudo”…

And after 9/11, I was rather haunted by “American Tune”. (And I dreamed I was dying / I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly / And looking back down at me / Smiled reassuringly / And I dreamed I was flying / And high up above my eyes could clearly see / The statue of liberty…)

Sorry to bring down the room.

On a lighter note, spring 2013 was all “Blurred Lines” on repeat, which was so annoying! But that one didn’t relate to any particular event or place. It’s just a super-sticky song. (As is that horrid “We Built This City” song. Ugh!)

Often I don’t know what inspires the song stickiness, though. This week’s song in my head is Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment”, a fave kitchen karaoke (complete with dance steps). Of course, that it’s Lambert is certainly no surprise; but why not a Queen song, since that’s mainly what I’m listening to him sing these days? (Queen + Adam Lambert being back on tour.)

(Speaking of karaoke, now I’m reminded of someone who insisted the only songs she possibly knew well enough to karaoke where ones by Wham! Apart from the very weirdness of only being melodically familiar of a single 80s band (what, no Beatles? No We Will Rock You?), now I wonder: Does this poor person have “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” as their one and only earworm?)

So many questions.

Fortunately, science is on it! You can follow along with the Earworm Project to learn:

  1. What features do typical earworm music tunes have in common?
  2. What do people who frequently experience earworms have in common?
  3. What causes earworms?
  4. What cures earworms?

One intriguing finding:

We’re working with the hypothesis that people are getting earworms to either match or change their current state of arousal—or a combination of the two.” She adds, “Maybe you’re feeling sluggish but need to take your child to a dance class, so it could be that an earworm pops into your hear that’s very upbeat, to help you along. Or working in reverse, can earworms act to calm you down?” It would explain why we sometimes get earworms even when we haven’t been listening to music at all, or why people who spend a great deal of time in nature often report beginning to hear every sound—wind blowing, leaves rustling, water rippling—as music, which their brain spontaneously plays over and over. Just as important, it would help explain why our brains often seem to linger on music that we don’t particularly care for.

From Anatomy of an ear worm

Playlist of ear worms referenced in this post (including Deidra’s big opportunity to hear the rest of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” but excluding “We Built This City”, because I’m not a sadist).