the Richmond Times-Dispatch ends candidate endorsements … for now

Ending the endorsements of political candidates in every election cycle is an interesting move on the part of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Their endorsements have never meant much to me – after all, they always endorsed the Republican, I hate the two-party system, so why would it matter?  (here’s the column by Tom Silvestri, president/publisher of the RTD)

In 2016 the RTD endorsed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president. They didn’t do it for any high-minded ideals (pun intended!), but rather because they were never going to endorse Hillary Clinton and they couldn’t bear to endorse Donald Trump. They felt like they had to endorse somebody because that’s the way it had always been done.  They even said Johnson could be a viable candidate if only people would give him a chance – which they have refused to do for other Libertarian candidates in the last two years. Indeed, Libertarian candidates are consistently left out of debates and media coverage by outlets both major and minor, including the RTD.

What the Richmond Times-Dispatch should have done was endorse nobody, and explained why. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you MUST do something.

Now, to another of Silvestri’s points, that they’re ending endorsements because it’s too difficult to explain the difference between the Editorial department and the News department in a newspaper, and to create an understanding that the News department can (and does) run opinion pieces that aren’t straight news.

I agree with Silvestri that this can be difficult, and one of the commenters even quipped that the Johnson endorsement caused him to cancel his subscription. There is clearly a disconnect between opinion and news is this country, with people – including many on Facebook and other social media outlets – conflating opinion with news.

When you can have pure opinion, news-based opinion, opinion-based news and straight news all in one publication, it can indeed be confusing to the casual reader. This is one of the greatest problems our society faces in the 21st century – we have become casual consumers of everything and as a result, we stubbornly refuse to put much thought into what we’re reading, watching or saying. Parroting the party line or screaming “fake news!” at every opportunity does nothing to further the discourse that drives our political system.

People forget that democracy, for better or worse, is less than 300 years old. It is still a fledgling system, and a difficult one to maintain at that. There will be ups and downs, highs and lows, bonuses and deficits, all to the benefit or detriment of much of the population.

Refusing to engage – as the RTD is saying it’s going to do in the future here – is abdicating one’s moral responsibility to the republic. That’s on us, the citizenship of the United States of America – every last one of us.

Frankly, doing something just because it’s always been done is the #1 stupidest reason to do something. If you’re not doing something because that’s what needs to be done, stop doing it. Traditions are worthless, because all they do is tie you to a past that may not be worth repeating or frankly, even remembering.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” The RTD’s Johnson endorsement in 2016 cause an identity crisis on many sides. Internally, I’m sure they struggled with it. Externally, the readership that had come to expect de rigueur endorsements of Republicans found themselves stunned at the change they saw before them, perhaps unable to process what had just happened.

Our society’s greatest problem right now is its utter inflexibility, the refusal of so many to even consider an alternate idea, opinion, practice or process. Think about it – if Copernicus had simply gone along, we’d have never accepted the idea that the Sun – and not the Earth – is the center of our solar system.

Finally, should newspapers even be printing opinion pieces at all?  Is it their job – their responsibility – to tell me how they think I should be voting?  Or is it their job to gather the facts, express them in a clear, concise fashion, and let me come up with my own reasons for voting for this candidate or that one.

One of the reasons so many people trash reporters and cry about this or that being “fake news” is because of the high opinion-to-fact ratio present in much of modern mainstream journalism. The difference between news and opinion has largely become obscured to the point of pointlessness. When opinion is mistaken for news, the result is what kids today refer to as “butthurt” – that is, a great sense of offense at the words being printed or spoken.  When news is mistaken for opinion, facts cease to matter and there is no viable path to Truth.

I wish I could solve this last problem with the snap of my fingers or the wave of a magic wand.  I know that is unrealistic, and especially so as long as some among us steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that their opinions are not fact and continue to refuse to regard the opinions of others as having any validity at all.

Advertisements

review of Ghost’s new album, Prequelle

If you haven’t heard of Ghost until now, Prequelle is a good album to get started with. It’s not their best album to date – that honor goes to their 2015 offering, Meliora – but it is both excellent and highly accessible.

I’m not going to get into the theatrical aspects of Ghost, because they are irrelevant. Ghost is a band, that band put out an album, and this is a review of that album. You can look up any number of articles about Ghost’s stage show, legal problems and the alter egos of their leader and singer, Tobias Forge.

prequelleThe minute-plus album intro “Ashes” is, unfortunately, pointless. I’m not a fan of intros in general and have already deleted “Ashes” from my computer (through which I listen to most of my music). The only saving grace of “Ashes” is that it delivers the motif that returns at the end of “Rats” in a crushing riff.

“Rats,” then, is when the album kicks off – and does so with greatness, pomp, circumstance, joy and harmony. I may sound effusive here, but seriously – from the crisp drum intro to the crushing outro riff (bringing back the motif from “Ashes”), “Rats” is quite possibly the best mainstream metal song to come out so far in 2018.

Note I say MAINSTREAM metal – by this I mean accessible, widely popular, likely to be played on the radio, etc.

“Rats” has it all – a fantastic hook, a great chorus, beautiful vocal harmonies, a great guitar solo, a tight end, everything you’ve come to expect from Ghost’s best songs.

Following “Rats” is “Faith,” possibly Ghost’s heaviest song to date. It’s wonderful to hear them laying down a heavy groove with the typical soaring vocals over top. I read somewhere that “Faith” is a slap at the former Nameless Ghouls who were part of the band in past years and are now suing Forge for back wages, but in all honesty, I rarely pay attention to the meaning behind the lyrics of any band. I care about melody, not meaning.

Prequelle slows down after “Faith,” with an early power ballad, “See the Light.” It’s a good song, with nice piano playing and some little industrial flourishes before the guitars kick in, but ultimately it’s still a third-song ballad when I don’t really like to see a ballad on a metal album until track four. Yes, that’s a picky nit to jab at, but who’s writing the review, you or me?

“Miasma,” the next song, builds slowly and ominously into a slick tune fueled by riffs that would be at home on any of Ghost’s previous albums. The fact that it’s an instrumental gives me a little pause, wondering if Forge is trying to make a point that he’s more than just a singer, more than just what the television industry would deem a “shot caller.” Forge may be trying to remind people that he’s a musician first and foremost, and that whatever mask and hat he’s wearing is mere adornment for the show. What propels “Miasma” over the top, quality-wise, are the extended guitar, keyboard and saxophone solos that build in intensity to the end of the song. The sax solo in particular is brilliant – fantastically played, excellently recorded and precisely what the song needed. Having been in the position in my own career as a recording musician where I suddenly realized the reason a song wasn’t coming together was because it needed a saxophone solo, I commend Forge for indulging that particular need.

“Dance Macabre” comes next, and this is the song that’s going to separate Ghost’s previous fans from their future fans. “Dance Macabre” is not a metal song. It is a pure-D, full breed POP song, complete with thumping drums, romantic longing and a disco undertone that is absolutely undeniable. It evokes “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and “Calling Dr. Love” by KISS, which is obviously one of Ghost’s biggest influences as far as their image and stage show go. I can absolutely see “Dance Macabre” becoming a Top 10 radio hit. It’s got a fantastic guitar solo, by the way, even if it is too short.

Back in the old days of LPs and cassettes, “Pro Memoria” would be the first song on Side 2, and it definitely has that kind of “reset” feel that flipping a record over had when you were a kid. It starts with gentle keyboard pads and strings, then turns into a beautiful, piano-driven power ballad reminding us that we are all mortal (“Don’t you forget about your friend Death,” etc.). Slick harmony guitars take over several times during the song, reminding the listener that Ghost is still a hard rock (at the least) band. It’s another ballad, but it’s a good one.

“Witch Image” gets things back to the harder side of the equation, with an almost grunge-like song structure (jarring intro, mellow verse, heavy chorus). It’s three and a half minutes of what Ghost does best – plus another harmonized guitar solo. I love Ghost’s guitar solos; in the fashion of bands like Queen and Extreme, they are often compositions within the composition and add to the overall musicality of the songs.

Did you know Forge is Swedish? In case you forgot, he includes another – much lesser – instrumental track called “Helvetesfönster.” Google Translate tells me this means “Hell Window.”

I think they’re right, too. The German word for window is fenster, and that’s pretty close to fönster. Further, the German word for Hell is Hölle, so if Forge was German, the song would be called “Höllefenster,” which is damn close to “Helvetesfönster.” I wonder if Ghost had it printed as “Höllefenster” on the German copies of the album.

Anyway, even though this is a campy instrumental, it brings back the melody motif from “Dance Macabre,” which is a nice touch. This song wouldn’t be out of place as the entreacte in the middle of a Broadway show. Excellent piano playing, though, no doubt about that. Still, it is the second instrumental on one album, when I’m not sure Ghost has done two instrumentals on the totality of its three previous full-length albums.

The last song on the standard version of Prequelle is “Life Eternal,” yet another ballad. YET ANOTHER BALLAD, I SAID!!! Three ballads on one album from a hard rock or metal band is a sure sign that they are angling for a more mainstream presence – and a million units in sales, no doubt. More power to them, I guess. At least it’s a good song – for a ballad. It’s very Ghost as well, with the typical guitar-driven tensions and vocal melodies (and harmonies) we’ve come to expect from the band. The best part of the song is the last minute, which features a gospel feel to it in a question-and-answer vocal part that is (in my opinion) too short.

Ghost then does another thing that drives me nuts on a CD – they insert 30 seconds of dead air before the bonus tracks start. I’m glad it’s only 30 seconds though, and not like what Tool has done on some of their CDs. Bands need to quit doing this. I dislike paying for dead air on an album.

At any rate – bonus tracks. I don’t know if I ordered the deluxe version or if this is just the typical CD that goes out to people who order the album from Amazon, but closing out my copy of the CD are two (bonus) cover tunes.

Before I tell you about these two covers, I have to say that Ghost may be doing cover tunes better than any other band out there today. I include Foo Fighters in that statement, and Foo Fighters do some excellent covers.

Ghost hasn’t put a cover on one of their full-length albums since their debut (Opus Eponymous), when they did an amazing, dark version of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” They did an EP of five covers (If You Have Ghost, led by the Rory Erickson song of nearly the same name), and when they release their hit song “Square Hammer” as a single in 2016, they made it the lead track on an EP called Popestar, filling the rest of that disc with fantastic covers – including Eurhythmics’ “Missionary Man.” What I’m telling you is this: Ghost has a history of doing great covers of songs both obscure and common.

Chances are if you weren’t into Pet Shop Boys, a dance-pop band stupendously popular in the 1980s and – in case you didn’t know – still making music as recently as 2016, you never heard “It’s a Sin.” It’s a catchy song, no doubt about that, but when it gets the Ghost treatment, it’s elevated from catchy to downright addictive. It evokes everything keyboard and electric drum-heavy 1980s synthpop music was about and is a brilliantly executed cover song.

The CD closes with Ghost’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” I admit I know nothing about Cohen’s music beyond that song “Hallelujah” that’s been in just about every movie and TV show since it came out and has been covered both well and poorly by just about everybody, all over the world and YouTube. You can’t throw a rock in 2018 without hitting somebody who has either covered that song themselves or has a favorite version of it somewhere they totally want you to listen to. “Hallelujah” is like the Crossfit of cover tunes, and not in a good way.

Ghost could have (should have?) left “Avalanche” off the CD. It’s not a bad version, but it’s a bad closer. Closing on the upbeat “It’s a Sin” would have been greatly preferable, if for no other reason than listening to Forge struggle with the low melody on “Avalanche” distracts from the song’s appeal.

All in all, this is a good Ghost album. It’s a good album, period, and better than a lot of other stuff that’s come out this year. It’s not Ghost’s best album from my perspective, partly because of the weak instrumental towards the end of the album and the proliferation of power ballads. There are way worse things to spend $12 on, though, and if you like any kind of hard rock or mainstream metal music, you’d be well advised to get this album as soon as you can.

I give Prequelle an A, four stars out of five, an 8 on the 1-to-10 scale, and a hearty “buy” recommendation.

the year in music – 2015

There’s two albums that have gotten more play from me – by far – than any other albums. It’s two of the three discs in a John Williams (the guitarist, not the film score composer) collection – “The Soloist” and “The Romantic.” These are the albums I listen to nearly every night as I’m trying to fall asleep. Yay tinnitus! I think we have to discount them as a result.

I bought 18 new albums (and two concert DVDs) in 2015, up from 2014’s eight, but for many of them, I waited until they were on sale for under $10 – and that includes the DVDs.

Now, on to the rest of the story. Here are this year’s top 10 most played albums. If you read my 2014 music missive, the top 10 hasn’t changed much. Whether or not this is unfortunate or not is another story.

10. AC/DC: For Those About To Rock, We Salute You (1981) (did not chart in 2013, #10 in 2014)

  • This ancient (2nd oldest in this list!) hard rock album exists in the shadow of its predecessor, “Back in Black,” but in many ways it’s a superior album. The BiB songs were largely written before Brian Johnson joined the band, and though the songs are good – it is, after all, AC/DC’s most-purchased album (the #2 album of all time with 36 million million copies sold worldwide – and a distant 2nd to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – which has sold over 68 million copies worldwide) – FTATR is a more cohesive effort. BiB’s frumpy songs are super frumpy, and FTATR is all killer/no filler from start to finish. You’re only likely to ever hear one song from this album on the radio – the title track – but what a song it is!

9. Sarah Jarosz: Song up in Her Head (2009) (#4 in 2013, did not chart in 2014)

  • Even though I’ve got both of Jarosz’s other two albums, this one still blows me away every time I spin it. The raw, guttural emotions present and just utterly fantastic musicianship keeps this album in regular rotation. Her other two albums are good, don’t get me wrong, but this one is transcendent. Enjoying this album’s resurgence after a year of not listening to it much.

8. Dead Can Dance: A Passage in Time (1991) (did not chart in 2013 or 2014)

  • A greatest hits album of sorts for Dead Can Dance, a creative writing teacher introduced me to this album way back in college when it was only a year or two old. He used the song “The Host of Seraphim” to set an emotional state for a writing exercise. I don’t remember what I wrote or what his name was, but I went out immediately and bought this album.

7. Cake: Fashion Nugget (1996) (#8 in 2013, #6 in 2014)

  • From “Frank Sinatra” to “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” this is an album full of quirk. When it came out, it set the radio on fire with two singles – “The Distance” and “I Will Survive” – but few people then knew that three of the 14 tracks were cover tunes. Beyond the singles, the best track is probably “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” – one of the covers.

6. Kingdom Come: In Your Face (1989) (#7 in 2013, #8 in 2014)

  • What can I say? I still love this album after all these years. Good songwriting, fabulous playing, excellent guitar tone and Lenny Wolf’s great vocals! It’s like a time machine back to the days of big hair and concert pyrotechnics.

5. Joe Satriani: The Extremist (1997) (did not chart in 2013 or 2014)

  • While “Surfing With the Alien” brought Satriani to the forefront of rock/metal instrumental music a decade before this album came out, this one’s the top of his heap. Great, great album.

4. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats: Mind Control (2013) (#10 in 2013, #4 in 2014)

  • This was my top album of 2013 (& #10 most played) and got tons of rotation in 2014 (#4 on the list).

3. Black Label Society: Stronger Than Death (2000) (#9 in 2013, #2 in 2014)

  • I still enjoy this album quite a lot (obviously), but it’s become that album that I measure all of Zakk Wylde’s other efforts against.  He hasn’t put out anything this good since this album – and he just might not ever again.

2. Cutting Crew: Broadcast (1986) (#6 in 2013, #3 in 2014)

  • This is another throwback album that still makes me happy. A great album to put on and just listen as it flows from one song to the next. The song sequencing is near perfect.

1. Mastodon: Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014) (#1 in 2014)

  • As in 2014, I just cannot get enough of this album. It is still averaging two plays a week and I’m not getting tired of it. Could be the sign of a modern metal classic!

Albums noticeably absent from my top 20 dating back to 2013: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle; George Thorogood, Baddest Hits; Black Sabbath, 13; Volbeat, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies.

Honorable mentions for 2015:

11. Baroness: Yellow & Green (2012)

  • My friend Jon (whom I used to play with in metal powerhouse CRASHLANDER!) turned me on to both Baroness and Ghost in 2015. I can’t thank him enough. This double-album contribution from Baroness is equal parts inspiring, prog, metal and bizarre. Baroness is probably my favorite band of 2015, and this may be my top-rated not-new album of the year.

12. Various Artists: Maiden Heaven (2008)

  • I had to resort to eBay to track down a copy of this CD that was originally included with the August 2008 issue of Kerrang!, a UK music magazine. It features bands you’ve heard of like Metallica and Dream Theater, along with popular but lesser-known bands like Black Tide, Avenged Sevenfold and Coheed & Cambria, as well as bands you’ve never heard of like DevilDriver and Fightstar. The best song is probably “Wrathchild” by Gallows. Holy crap is it good.

13. Luka Bloom: The Acoustic Motorbike (1992)

  • A really fun, spunky and emotional album from the Irish king of open-tuned sorta-pop songs.

14. Pink Floyd: Animals (2011 Remaster) (1977) (#13 in 2013, #10 in 2014)

  • Still my favorite PF album by far, and getting regular – though somewhat less – rotation.

15. Enigma: MCMXC A.D. (1990)

  • I went through a big Enigma phase this year, just grooving on their beats and melodies. Fun stuff. Their other three albums rank in the top 35, but their debut holds a special place in my mind.

16. KXM: KXM (2014) (#9 in 2014)

  • dUg Pinnick of King’s X, George Lynch of Dokken/Lynch Mob and Ray Luzier of Korn came together for this one-off collection in 2014, and it still melts faces and shreds speakers. Whoa. A much better offering than the album Lynch did with Michael Sweet, though that album isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Also better than the Pinnick Gales Pridgen album, but I’m looking forward to their 2nd release.

17. Monte Montgomery: 1st & Repair (1998)

  • A singer/songwriter that many haven’t heard of, he plays the acoustic guitar like it owes him money. It’s a shame he’s not more popular than he is.

18. Cinderella: Long Cold Winter (1988)

  • More hair metal memories – way, way better than their debut album and with a lot more depth to the production and songwriting.

19. The Outfield: Voices of Babylon (1989)

  • Weird that this album got more attention than “Play Deep,” which is definitely my favorite Outfield album. I wonder why?

20. King Giant: Black Ocean Waves (2015)

  • One of my friends is a guitarist in KG, and this album is fan-fucking-tastic. If you dig Black Sabbath, you *will* like this album. Get it. Now!! http://kinggiant.bandcamp.com

Albums Released in 2015:

  • Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats: The Night Creeper (ok, but not as good as “Mind Control”)
  • Sweet & Lynch: Only To Rise (OK, but not amazing)
  • King Giant: Black Ocean Waves
  • Ghost B.C.: Meliora (HOLY SHIT THIS ALBUM IS FANTASTIC!)
  • Foo Fighters: Saint Cecelia (EP) (Good. Solid. As expected.)
  • Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color (Good 2nd album from a quirky, female-fronted retro-rock band.)

Other Albums Purchased This Year:

  • Baroness: Purple (2015; arrives 18 Dec.)
  • Baroness: Red (2007)
  • Baroness: Blue (2009)
  • Ghost: If You Have Ghost (EP) (2013)
  • Ghost: Infestissumam (2013)
  • Ghost: Opus Eponymous (2011)
  • Sarah Jarosz: Build Me up From Bones (2013)
  • Al Di Meola: Splendido Hotel (1980)
  • Al Di Meola: Elegant Gypsy (1977)
  • Black Sabbath: Live Gathered in Their Masses DVD (2013)
  • DIO: Live in London, Hammersmith Apollo 1993 DVD (2014)
  • Lenny Kravitz: Strut (2014)
  • Poison: Native Tongue (1993)
  • Triumph: Live at Sweden Rock Festival (2002)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun

you can’t kill free speech

As some folks know, I’m a member of the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington, or BMWBMW. I’m also a volunteer Board of Directors member, and in addition to my role as the Media Chair for the club, I also put together the club’s monthly newsmagazine, Between the Spokes. When I first started my editorship of BtS, I decided to run a periodic editorial column called “Between the Gutters” – a play on both the title of the club’s publication and magazine design, where the “gutter” is the space between columns or the space between the right side of one page’s content and the left side of the facing page’s content.  These columns have run the gamut from ethanol to tinnitus, and in the February 2015 issue, I addressed the issue of free speech. Most of the correspondence I have received so far has been positive, but this column did draw my first ever negative response. While it was well written and not at all aggressive, it did suggest that such a politicized issue as free speech had no place being discussed in a regional club’s monthly newsmagazine.  While I disagree, it’s certainly that person’s right to say so!

Now – on with the “offending” column!

In December and January, the attacks on free speech escalated. This is not a good trend, no doubt about that, but it’s not a new trend, either. We may think quashing free speech is a political, economic or religious issue, but it permeates many layers of our society, including the many thousands of words written by and about motorcyclists as well as the machines and products on which they rely.

While part of me still thinks it was a hoax, the cyber attack on Sony Pictures surrounding its release of the buddy comedy The Interview drew our attention in a small way to the issue of free speech. The film is a satire that bases its plot on an American TV personality, played by James Franco, and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, being granted an interview with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and then being asked by the CIA to assassinate him.

The assault on free speech related to this movie came from the attackers threatening more attacks and the release of private information if Sony went ahead with the film’s release as scheduled. Sony initially pulled the film, blaming major movie theater chains for refusing to show the film due to threats of violence against any of them that did. Under pressure from a wide swath of Americans, including President Barack Obama, Sony reversed course, releasing the film in a limited number of theaters and online through various websites in late December, more or less as previously scheduled. After earning more money than any previous digital release in Sony’s history, Netflix is — as of this writing — in negotiations to secure exclusive streaming rights for The Interview.

The incident that precipitated this column was the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper published in Paris, France. On 7 January, three masked men armed with assault rifles killed two policemen, including one who was serving as the editor-in-chief’s bodyguard, along with ten employees of the paper, including four cartoonists, two columnists and the editor in chief, himself a cartoonist and columnist.

Charlie Hebdo is well known for its anti-religion stance; they regularly publish full-color, front-page caricatures of Mohammed, Jesus, the pope, other religious figures including generic Muslims, Christians and Jews, and a wide variety of French and European political and social figures. Many of these covers depict these people in humiliating or sexual situations and are patently offensive to many.

The paper’s offices were firebombed in 2011, without loss of life, but this time, the frontal assault resulted in a bloodbath. One of the policemen killed was lying wounded on the ground with his hands up when one of the Kalashnikov-toting terrorists shot him in the face. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar,” a common Islamic invocation usually translated as “God is great.” These shouts were caught on video by onlookers, as well as a comment from one of the terrorists that they had exacted revenge for the newspaper’s portrayals of Mohammed. The outrage and sympathy at this horrific event focused on the perceived intention of the terrorists: punishing Charlie Hebdo’s writers, cartoonists and editors for their words and images, and by doing so, frightening other writers, cartoonists and editors into silence.

DSC02426

Not even 24 hours after this terrorist attack, the Chinese government arrested and imprisoned the three brothers of a Chinese-born US citizen. Shohret Hoshur is a Uighur, and the Uighur are a long-oppressed ethnic minority under Chinese control. The implication here is clearly that if Hoshur continues to report on anti-Uighur events taking place in Xinjiang, his brothers will be subjected to unspecified punishments extending beyond the five-year sentence one of them has already received for discussing his arrest on the telephone with Hoshur.

In 2014, a dustup called “Gamergate” shook the video gaming world; while it spreads through a variety of issues, one of the core concepts is the active suppression of the opinions, ideas and efforts of female game designers, programmers and reviewers. Several women were threatened with rape, assault and death in an ugly, misogynistic attack on a perceived minority in the gaming world. In reality, females make up 52% of those playing video games according to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s study published on 17 September 2014.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist writer who writes for the website Feminist Frequency and regularly discusses tropes that denigrate and marginalize women; one repercussion of Gamergate was the cancellation of Anita Sarkeesian’s talk at Utah State University after an unknown person emailed the university promising to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the talk proceeded. Sarkeesian, as well as game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, later fled their homes in the wake of numerous death threats.

All of these events above are ways in which somebody attempted to infringe on free speech in ways that evoked or threatened violence. They don’t have anything to do with motorcycles, though, so I’ll give you an example that does relate to our sport.

Most of us are familiar with Motorcyclist magazine. I have a subscription and read it cover-to-cover when it arrives. It’s a good magazine, but its administrative staff once fired a writer over a negative article he wrote for a completely different publication.

Dexter Ford contributed articles to Motorcyclist for three decades, but was summarily fired in September 2009 for an article he wrote for The New York Times. In “Sorting out differences in helmet standards,” Ford examines US and European helmet certification standards, which can often be confusing as they overlap and contradict each other. He criticizes the Snell Foundation for its 2005 and 2010 standards and reports that some helmet manufacturers have stopped submitting helmets for Snell certification in favor of US Department of Transportation (DOT) and United Nations ECE certifications.

Ford’s article is clearly critical of Snell, but does not mention any helmet manufacturer by name; the closest he comes is a passing mention of a “$400 Snell-certified helmet.” In 2009 in the US, that meant only a small number of helmets.

It wasn’t long before emails got leaked showing exactly why Ford was let go. Brian Catterson, then the Editor-in-Chief of Motorcyclist, said, “I’m getting serious heat over [Ford’s article],” because, as Catterson writes, Ford “greatly downplayed” the Snell 2010 standards.

“Sorting out differences in helmet standards” wasn’t Ford’s first blast at Snell’s standards. He wrote an exposé of just how bad the Snell 2005 standards were for Motorcyclist called “Blowing the lid off.” He researched extensively for the article, even backing his assertions with data from scientific tests, proving to himself and many others that Snell standards were inferior to DOT and ECE standards. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available on Motorcyclist’s website, but you can find it with a quick Google search.

The heat felt by Catterson came from helmet manufacturers Arai and Shoei; in 2005 and perhaps even 2009, these two manufacturers dominated the motorcycle helmet media, if not the market, enjoying their heyday before the proliferation of Korean- and Chinese-made helmets. It’s reasonable to think they were also major contributors to the Snell Foundation, which is a not-for-profit group that operates with funding from helmet manufacturers.

To boil the issue down to its component parts, Arai and Shoei threatened to pull their advertising from Motorcyclist because Ford wrote an article denigrating Snell standards for The New York Times. By doing this, both helmet manufacturers engaged in an attempt to quash free speech. They threw their weight around like the industry giants they were and cost a man his job. (Disclaimer: I currently own two Shoei helmets and have owned two Arai helmets in the past. All are/were excellent helmets and a Shoei RF800 and an Arai Quantum/f protected my head during two separate crashes. The RF800 most definitely saved my life in 1999.)

According to the termination letter sent by Catterson to Ford in October 2009, Ford wasn’t being fired for the hit piece he wrote for the Times; rather, his termination came from what Catterson characterized as Ford’s inability to prevent personal vendettas from infusing his work. Catterson mentioned specifically a press conference — not even a written article! — Ford participated in after the publication of the article. Of course, the leaked email chain refuted Catterson’s assertions, exposing the real reason why Ford was fired – because he crossed two of the magazine’s biggest advertisers, who complained to management. It’s also clear from the emails that Catterson shares Ford’s opinion of Snell, yet Catterson throws Ford under the GS, blaming him directly for costing Motorcyclist about $100,000 in advertising money.

Dexter Ford only lost his job. He wasn’t gunned down like the Charlie Hebdo staffers, he wasn’t threatened with rape and murder like the women of Gamergate, and he wasn’t even arrested like Shohret Hoshur’s brothers. From the day that Ford was fired, though, nobody writing for Motorcyclist would be able to continue to do so without taking into account the magazine’s advertisers — no matter what outlet they were writing for. Arai and Shoei are heavy hitters, but once manufacturers of their size and strength were able to force Motorcyclist to punish a writer for what he wrote, it’s not hard to believe that larger advertisers — say, motorcycle manufacturers — or even smaller ones wouldn’t be able to do the same. Once the seal is broken, as they say, it’s all downhill.

I’m not in any way trying to equate the firing of one motorcycle journalist to the brutal murders of ten political/cultural/societal satirists and two policemen, but both situations show the extent to which people will go to prevent the publication or dissemination of information with which they disagree or find offense.

There’s a reason that the freedom of speech is one of the very first things codified in our Bill of Rights. Free speech and a free press are fundamental concepts of social contract theory, a body of sociopolitical philosophy that has come to govern much of the world since its emergence in the 18th century. The American and French Revolutions, and the Constitutions that came after them to guide each country, were built upon the bricks of social contract theory. The citizens of the free world should never allow the actions of radicals and malcontents to curtail this fundamental freedom and must endeavor to protect these freedoms at all costs.

Without the freedom of speech and of the press, there is no freedom at all.

The article that got Dexter Ford fired is available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/automobiles/27SNELL.html.

book suggestions

A former student emailed me asking for suggestions on some history books to read, so I thought I’d share with you what I shared with her.  If you end up reading any of these books, please comment here, email me, or send me a Facebook messages with your thoughts on the book(s).

The best – hands down best, no kidding – history-related book I have EVER read came out not too long ago.  It’s called Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.  It happens that one of my favorite movies (ever) is “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the author deconstructs the movie as well as the reality of TE Lawrence.  Just a fantastic book, no kidding, plus it really opens the mind to why the Middle East is the way it is now.

Another really good book is Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion & the Armies of Rome, by Stephen Dando-Collins.  He’s written a bunch of books in this series and they’re all OK, but this one is the best of the bunch.  The cool thing is that they read more like novels/stories than history books – maybe I appreciate them because that’s the way I like to teach!

Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, is a cool book that takes a serious world-spanning look at how the effort to acquire just one of life’s minor luxuries helped shape the world as we know it.  Fascinating.  This book was recommended to me (along with another book that wasn’t quite as good) by a 17-year-old home-schooled girl, and I’m glad I listened to her on this one.

If you’re interested in Cold War-era stuff, look at The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, by Lewis Siegelbaum.  You wouldn’t think a book about crappy cars made in Bulgaria or Hungary would be that interesting, but when you look at them in their geopolitical context, pretty cool stuff.  Another good CW book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik & the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski.  It’s a little more … dense & academic … than most of the other stuff I’ve listed here, but I’m obsessed with sci-fi, so I always liked this book because it combines history and space.

OK last suggestion, and this one might be a little off the wall: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman. It’s a graphic novel filled with mice, cats & pigs, but it’s a really powerful book about how an American man learns to cope with his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.  My copy is 2 volumes, but I think it’s available as one complete book now.

3e8154f3d0164fb9c74d9212c54db126

best (or most listened to) music of 2014

I’m in a pretty downward phase with music. Ever since I retired from playing in bands (the current upcoming show notwithstanding), I just don’t have the interest in music I used to.

To wit: in all of 2014, I only bought 8 new cds, and one of those sucked so bad (The Art of McCartney) that I returned it unopened.  (I heard all the tracks on a streaming preview after I ordered it, but before I received it.)

Here’s what I bought (and kept) in 2014:

  • Various, Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life
  • Prince & 3rd Eye Girl, Plectrum Electrum
  • DIO, Best of Dio (import from Germany)
  • Steve Hackett, Spectral Mornings
  • KXM, KXM
  • Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun
  • Queen, Queen Forever

That’s it, folks, and to be perfectly honest, I haven’t even listened to the Queen cds yet – I only got it to be sure I had the previously unreleased songs.  The rest of the 2 discs is material I’ve been listening to since I was 13 years old.

Out of that bunch, it’s hands-down easy to pick the best: Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round the Sun.  This album also tops my most-listened to, with an average of two listens per week since it came out in June.

The rest of my most listened top 10 is as follows, in order from 2 to 10:

  • Black Label Society, Stronger Than Death
  • Cutting Crew, Broadcast
  • Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Mind Control
  • John Williams, The Soloist
  • Cake, Fashion Nugget
  • AC/DC, For Those About To Rock, We Salute You
  • Kingdom Come, In Your Face
  • KXM, KXM
  • Pink Floyd, Animals

The new Prince/3rd Eye Girl album is excellent, but I’ve only had it for a few days – it came out months ago, but I watched the price & bought it at $5.99 last week. Best of Dio is getting regular rotation in the car, but I don’t spend much time in the car.

I picked up the Steve Hackett album because I remembered liking that album a lot in my younger days. After listening to it a few times over the weekend, I’m 99% sure I liked a different album and have forgotten which one it was.  Oof.

I think it’s a little telling that in my top 10 listened-to albums, 5 of them are decades old.  DECADES.  I’m just not connecting with new music much in the last few years.  The upside is that I haven’t bought (and kept) any albums that I really hate.  The McCartney tribute was just terrible, I’m really glad I got my $21 back on that deal.  Thanks, record label, for streaming it in its entirety!

3e8154f3d0164fb9c74d9212c54db126

best movies of 2014

It’s the end of another year … after going to see Big Hero 6 yesterday, I doubt I’ll get out to the movies again, so I’m here with my year-end “best movies of 2014” pronouncements.  Plus also the worst, because I’m that kind of guy.

WORST FIRST

Anchorman 2 – I even saw the “raunchier” unrated version – is probably the worst movie I’ve paid to see since Ishtar.  This movie sucked in so many ways I can’t even count them. It’s a shame, too, because I enjoyed the first one. This movie goes to prove my theory about Will Ferrell’s hit-and-miss career.  I’m looking forward to the day he stops doing comedies regularly and becomes a dramatic actor, like Tom Hanks did. Tom Hanks’ comedies are hit-and-miss, but generally OK. His dramatic movies, though, are nearly all excellent.

Under the Skin – this is the kind of artsy film I’m glad I skipped at the theater and rented from iTunes.  While it certainly has some positives to it, it should have been about 30 minutes long.  At 30 minutes, the self-discovery/coming-of-age film warped into the alien-lands-on-Earth ouvre would have really worked.

The Machine – another one I’m glad I saw on Netflix instead of paying $12 to watch. Great concept, just poorly executed.

NOW THE BEST

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel – funny, manic and touching.  Worth every penny.

4.  TIE: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes/Godzilla – I’m a total sucker for reboots, and I think the Planet of the Apes reboot series is doing well.  I missed the presence of James Franco, who was absolutely stellar in the first movie in this rebooted series (he’s another comedic actor that is ofter better in dramatic roles), but the story was good, the effects were excellent, and the apes were STELLAR.  Caesar is a subtle, nuanced character that rivals any live human in any movie this year.  Godzilla suffered from a bit of bloat – I’m going to say about 15 minutes too much – but man, what a good movie!

3.  Interstellar – if they’d trimmed 30 minutes off this movie, it’d probably have been my #2, if not #1.

2.  Big Hero 6 – maybe it’s just because I saw this yesterday & it’s still fresh in my mind, but this was a fun movie.  The animation was top notch and the story was compelling (it was, however, a little predictable).  Only the identity of the villain surprised me, but I enjoyed the story of the plucky underachiever and his puffy robot sidekick teaming up to save the world.

1.  Earth to Echo – I know, I know, you know I dislike “found footage” films, but you also know I’m a total sucker for sci-fi (see 2 of the 3 worst films, above).  This is a fantastic story about innocence and the loss thereof.  Imagine Super 8 without the scary space monster and you’ve got this movie I think was the best of the year.

Here’s all the 2014-release movies I saw:

  • The Lego Movie
  • The Monuments Men
  • RoboCop (remake)
  • Anchorman 2
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Muppets: Most Wanted
  • Under the Skin (rental)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Godzilla
  • The Machine (Netflix)
  • Earth to Echo
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (video)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Ghostbusters (30th anniv. release)
  • Big Hero 6
  • Interstellar

Here’s the movies I seriously thought about going to see, but didn’t:

  • Shoot Me (Elaine Stritch documentary)
  • Particle Fever
  • Chef
  • A Night in Old Mexico
  • A Million Ways To Die in the West
  • Age of Uprising
  • Night Moves
  • The Signal
  • A Fantastic Fear of Everything
  • A Letter to Momo
  • Hercules (starring Dwayne Johnson)
  • Lucy
  • A Most Wanted Man
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Get On Up
  • The Congress
  • Frontera
  • The Zero Theorem
  • This Is Where I Leave You
  • The Box Trolls
  • The Equalizer
  • The Judge
  • Automata
  • Fury
  • The Book of Life
  • Birdman
  • John Wick

3e8154f3d0164fb9c74d9212c54db126