New music part 2.

My life is a series of music eras; I go through kicks. Throughout all four years of high school I was on a classical kick; in college it was rock. Post-college I devoured blues and soul; then I swerved to pop and neo-alternative in the 2010s. In my previous new music post in 2016 I heralded James Blake, Active Child, Banks, and Lo-Fang, all acts who are experimenting with the vanishing boundaries of their genres (and a couple who are simply creating their own). And now, after flirting with it on and off for a few years, I believe I have entered the folk era.

Though as with any genre there are various types of folk, the sound I'm most drawn to centers on simple harmonies, acoustic backing, and the kind of simmering melancholy that runs through even songs about real love. Please, keep your twang to a minimum and take your hoedowns elsewhere.

First Aid Kit. I'm leading off with my newest discovery and, I confess, my newest obsession. While giving Pandora literally one last shot to do what it's supposed to, the app brought forth two Swedish sisters singing (in English) robust Americana by way of the 60s. I caved after about three songs and jumped to my Prime music app to listen to the albums proper.

Ruins is Klara and Johanna Soderberg's most recent album, out just a few weeks ago, and it is stunning in its alternating moments of darkness and light, fragility and power, and in its despair. I believe some of the best art is born from loss, and the pain of younger sister Klara's broken engagement courses through the entire album; but wisely, and never wallowing. What I really like about the sisters, musical prodigies who write everything they sing, is how they join upbeat sounds with 'downbeat' lyrics, and how it is not in the least bit jarring. All the same, the tonal universe they craft never loses sight of the melancholy I seek. On "Rebel Heart" they sing "Nothing matters/all is futile" to a march tempo; "To Live a Life" is so delicately beautiful you don't notice at first when one of them nearly whispers "I'm alone now." "Fireworks," an instant crowd pleaser, sounds like an unreleased track from Neptune City-era Nicole Atkins, and the title track is so perfect I'd have to cease with words and use shades of color and light to try and describe what it evokes in me.

But why stop there? There is so much to enjoy on previous albums Stay Gold and The Lion's Roar. As an Amazon reviewer put it, the Soderberg sisters' music is melodic without being hooky, and I'd testify that the benefit to that is getting lost in an entire song, rather than just the chorus. In the lyrics you can already hear their agnostic stance about love, even as teenagers, and in good folk fashion they are able to write and sing about many of life's complexities, not just romance. The songs are compositionally dense, lyrically evocative and melodically effortless; I literally can't say enough good things about First Aid Kit. Even their 2010 proper debut album, The Big Black and the Blue, is worth repeated listenings, if only to be reminded that they were already well on their way to greatness.


American Idol Albums: Best of the alumni.

Disclaimer: no, I haven't heard every single album put out by a former AI contestant, for clear reasons.*

American Idol flipped the script on the hegemonic music industry by allowing potential superstars to bypass the well-established (unethical, sexist, pay-for-play) gauntlet while simultaneously cultivating a huge fanbase; naturally, this means that many voices over its lifespan strained to make sure we all knew the contestants were nothing but hacks, that 'literally' none of them could hold a tune in a bucket, that the show had never produced a viable music industry artist. You, dear reader, being of sound mind and good judgement, are at least dimly aware that can't really be true.

But discussions of the way people lost their mind over Idol are for other blog posts. I simply state this in order to segue to a list of the albums put out post-Idol that give the lie to the rabid naysayers.

A basic Google search will show that there have been more successful Idol albums, and contestants, than the establishment would want you to remember. For example, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson have all won Grammys (and all have won multiple save for Tasia) and the list of those who have been nominated is quite long. There are even more who have gone platinum - the industry standard of success, at least unless an Idol contestant achieves it - including the aforementioned plus Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, and Taylor Hicks. Hell, Daughtry's debut album sold 4 million copies. Carrie's Some Hearts sold 7 million. At this point, if you're naysaying, you're just a jerk.

Even so, you can factor in the rabidity of fan bases (especially when albums were forced out the same year to capitalize on a winner or contestant's popularity) or the naturally welcoming arms of genres like country. When it comes to overall quality - and not record sales or even runner-up status - which contestants can go to their grave saying that they put out music that they are damn proud of, no matter what? (IMO, of course) Herewith, that list.


Black Mirror: USS Callister.

I should have started blogging about various Black Mirror episodes back when I first started watching, so that's what I get for being lazy. I will start with the season four premiere, and then at some point this year go back and muse over the likes of "Fifteen Million Merits," "White Christmas," "Men Against Fire," etc. As always, there are spoilers.

Season four starts with "USS Callister," about a tech genius, Robert Daly, who created the code for a massive online multiplayer game platform called Infinity. The episode begins with Robert as captain of the Callister, guiding his small crew through an easy engagement with a known villain; we then see that it is his own personal version of the game, which he gets to go home and 'play' every evening. Aww, sweet.

In real life Robert is quite socially awkward, with none of the bravado he can display on the Callister (nor anyone fawning over his more mild accomplishments, as the ship's crew does). It's easy to see that he can be the confident hero in the game that he cannot be in life, something that we are perhaps too familiar with in this contemporary world. However, the true Black Mirror hitch comes to the fore soon enough: Captain Daly's crew are digital copies of people he knows from work at Infinity. Digital copies who are aware of their existence and retain memories of their life outside of the game.

Overall the episode is already one of my favorites, not just because of but due in part to its homage to the original Star Trek series, and it hits just the right notes without being hammy or heavy-handed. There's a Khan-like enemy, southern California-cum-alien planet locales, and a climax that includes every element necessary to be the average climax (trickery, a race against the clock, a closing wormhole, a dangerous shortcut). The switch to the new, J.J. Abrams style at the end, with the giant lens flares, high-key palette and swooping camera movements was absolutely spot-on.

By virtue of the, for all intents and purposes, sentience of the digital copies, "USS Callister" also features one of my favorite plot conventions, which is showing how characters behave in two vastly different situations (much like the before-and-after lives of Walking Dead characters). Most of the ship's crew come off as upbeat, carefree, shallow people at their jobs at Infinity, but placed inside of the game (due to crossing Robert in some truly minor way), the shallow become deep; the carefree, sacrificial; the meek, brave. They become versions of themselves they would otherwise never know, face fears they would never contemplate, the irony being that back in the real world, they are none the wiser.

The episode also deals with one of my favorite quandries, the 'dying to escape' option. It is an echo of the general idea that life is a prison we can only escape through death; for the digital copies, the Callister is that very real prison, and with Captain Daly ruling as an 'asshole god' their only hope to be free is to ultimately delete themselves. They know this is an action, like death, they cannot undo; furthermore, even if there were an afterlife, it does not exist in the realm of artificial intelligence. There is no hope, and yet the crew chooses to abide by the old Klingon maxim: "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."

But there is yet much more to this episode, much to ponder, so it's time to go down the rabbit hole.


Duality and symbolism in The Neverending Story.

Die unendliche Geschicte was written by Michael Ende and published in 1979. Movie rights were so quickly snatched up that the cinematic version was released in the summer of 1984, when my dad took me and my brother to see it as part of a double feature (I was three). Although I finally read the book years and years later, I find myself most devoted to the movie, and so it is the movie that I will be discussing here. Note: I'm assuming you're familiar with the story.

I'm pretty literal-minded, so symbolism can be difficult for me. You may have to forgive my being unable to see the broader picture or theme if I have missed the mark. For example, one layperson's review of TNES said that it is clearly about the fantasy world we have to give up in order to move into the world of adulthood. I have always interpreted it to be about humanity's loss of meaning and hope as a result of the broken promises of modernity - but that may be because that is how Ende framed it. Although children are the protagonists throughout, and it is allegedly a children's book, he does not say the Nothing is encroaching due to the end of innocence and childhood. He says it's because "people have begun to lose their hopes." So I have a hard time detaching from that.

Several years ago, after probably my twentieth viewing of the movie, I finally noticed the duality that springs up at several points, even though, in my final opinion, the movie's narrative does not hinge on it. This is likely due to the concessions made in the script in order to make the first third of the book filmable. I think that the instances are worth acknowledging.

Morla the Ancient One - Morla (aka my spirit animal) is a giant turtle on whose back exists the Shell Mountain. Atreyu treks through the Swamps of Sadness (losing his horse in the process) to ask her if she knows of a cure for the Empress's illness. When she refers to herself as 'we' and Atreyu asks if there's anyone else there, she says "We haven't spoken to anyone for thousands of years, so we started talking to ourselves." She, perhaps due to her persistent loneliness, has become pretty nihilistic, repeating the line "Not that it matters, but yes" and also this timeless gem: "We don't even care whether or not we care." I realized it's probably no coincidence that her home base is a swamp where people and animals drown when they give in to its palpable sadness.


How to use a credit card: Part 3.

In the last post I went through the basics of credit. It was in no way comprehensive but I tried to touch on the things someone most needs to know in order to manage their credit score and understand how it's created and maintained. In this post, I'll get to the point of all this: how to use a credit card.

Let's start with three popular reasons someone might obtain a credit card.

1. To ease the cost of day-to-day living. This is, in my opinion, the most common reason people apply for cards. And with our mediocre dedication to the financial education of youth, it's also how we think of credit cards when we're just starting out on our own: supplementing the cash we have (or, in the case of many students, don't have). If it's true that fully half of Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency, then it's easy to see the void credit fills when there's so much uncertainty piled on top of bills, childcare expenses, student loans, groceries, transportation, and the tiny bit you might set aside to do something nice, just to to feel human.

2. To build good credit. This is popular too, and has become more so over the last decade as sites like CreditKarma allow people to see an approximation of their credit scores and track how their decisions affect them for good or ill. Read reviews of secured cards on any website and you'll hear the same story over and over: "I needed to rebuild my credit after bankruptcy/a divorce/an expensive hospital stay/defaulting on my student loans," etc. etc. etc. etc. Because credit card companies report to the credit bureaus each month, it is an incredible opportunity to increase your credit score as time goes on. When factors like number of open accounts, credit utilization, payment history, and average age of accounts are so important, even using just one card responsibly can really have an amazing impact.

3. To reap rewards. You may have seen articles every now and then about how one crazy guy has 98 credit cards and uses them to fly all over the world and stay in luxury hotels, all for free. I hate those articles. But they illustrate the fact that you can make rewards credit cards work for you. You don't have to be nuts, or have half a dozen of them. If you enjoy analyzing the impact of your spending on miles or points accrual, and especially if you enjoy planning vacations and compiling information to get the best rates, then rewards cards are a no-brainer. But it's not just about travel - cash back cards can be pretty great too, especially if you have better-than-average credit.

Credit cards are also useful when renting cars and booking hotel rooms, as the use of a debit card usually requires several extra steps like employment and housing verification. Rental car companies in particular will put a hold on the card for a certain amount (in the low hundreds of dollars) while you rent, and it's hard to have a good vacation if your debit card is missing a chunk of change.


How to use a credit card: Part 2.

In my previous post, I tried to spell out the basics of credit cards by hitting the most salient points I wished I had known before I ever signed up for one. Credit can be a minefield if you are unprepared, but there is good news: you can play the game well, and maybe even win sometimes. Read on to find out how.

What is a credit score?

Your credit score is a single three-digit number which tells lenders how creditworthy you are; or, simply, how likely you are to repay the debt. Scores range from 300 to 850. Within this range are categories, as follows:

  • below 600 - bad credit
  • 600-649 - poor credit
  • 650-699 - fair credit
  • 700-749 - good credit
  • 750+ - excellent credit

Personally I think the words used to describe each category ("poor," "fair," "good") are finely tuned to keep the average person from feeling too good about their score. Just a personal nitpick I have. Also, be aware that there are slightly different credit scales depending on the credit bureau.

Creditors will extend credit with certain terms based on your score. The better the score, obviously the better the terms.

Get to know your credit score.

Your credit score takes into account six main factors:

1. Credit Utilization Ratio: this is the percentage of credit you are using of the entire amount available to you. It only applies to revolving credit, not installment loans (like school, personal, or mortgage loans), so essentially, it applies to your credit cards.

2. Payment History: quite simply, have you paid all your debts on time? Even one missed payment can really drag your score down, because this is in some ways the most important factor to a lender - will they pay me back or not?

3. Derogatory Marks: this is the serious stuff like collections, foreclosures, defaults, and bankruptcies.


How to use a credit card: Part 1.

When I was in college all dorm rooms had landlines, which meant credit card companies would call us constantly, trying to sign us up for an account. Pretty shady, and addressed during our little economic meltdown later that decade. Unfortunately the lure of being able to spend more than c. fifty dollars a month was too great, and I gave in spring of freshman year to Citibank. Later that year, I also sold my soul to Discover.

As you can imagine, I was an idiot with both cards, which is a whole other story I'm too ashamed to tell, and it was a mighty struggle to become debt-free, after which I swore off debt for several years. Along the way, I learned a lot about the good, bad and ugly of credit and credit scoring. Today I have one credit card with a nice credit limit and I spend all my time obsessively not using it.

You can be like me. In fact, I want you to be. So now, for Part 1 of this series, I will launch into everything I wish I had known when Citi and Discover were unethically cold-calling me back in the day.

It's not free money. Period.

Credit cards are not the answer to your prayers. They are not for funding things you cannot afford. They are not for spontaneous splurges. They are not for paying other debts. They are not for when you feel like you want to "be bad." Credit cards are not fun. Credit cards do not make life easier. Credit cards do not give you freedom.

Now that that's been established.

The concept of credit is simple: borrow a sum of money to be paid back in installments over a period of time. It can be helpful in a number of situations, a few of which I'll enumerate at the end. But at no time in human history has credit ever been the same as a gift. If you open a credit card for the purposes of repaying it in installments, you will end up paying more than you borrowed. End of story.

Everyone knows that you have to pay back what you spend with a credit card, but a lot of people don't know how it works. When I got my first credit card I didn't know how to interpret the statement I received, so it was a few months before I understood that I was being charged money on top of what I had actually spent. This wasn't a problem for a long while - I was responsible enough, and they gently increased my credit limit as time went on so I was never in a bind...until I did start approaching that credit limit.

I would call (yes, call) the customer service number to hear my balance. Good enough, I'd think. I'd call back a few days later, having paid my bill but not used the card - yet suddenly I had fifteen or twenty available dollars less than what I thought I should.



What I'm Reading: Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
What I'm Watching: finally doing the last season of Mad Men
What I'm Listening To: greatest hits of the 80s!
Mood: cautiously optimistic
Smells: ...normal air?
Sounds: the ceiling fan and spring birds
Temperature: 70s
Thoughts: we never fear the past


How to write an IMDB review.

I admit it, I can be a little obsessed with reading reviews. Be they books on Amazon, albums on iTunes, movies on IMDB, tech reviews, furniture reviews, you name it, I'm reading all 146 reviews of it. In this way do I know the pattern that the average person tends to follow when writing what they assume is their totally unique perspective on a product. So herewith! How to write the most cliched of all things - the IMDB movie review.

1) Choose either a 1/10 or a 10/10 rating. No reason to waste any brain cells attaching the subtlety of a 4/10 or 7/10 to a movie based on an even basic list of pros and cons that you carefully weighed before logging in to the app/website. Either you hated it or you loved it. All or nothing. No shades of gray. Who has time for nuance in modern society anyway.

2) Make a bold statement. And by this I mean, if the movie isn't a part of your current favorite comic book universe, doesn't cater to your spoon-fed ideologies, or challenges you in any way, go ahead and boldly claim with absolute authority that it is in fact 'the worst movie ever made.' It doesn't matter that, technically, only one movie can hold that title (and we all know what that movie is); or that you've probably said that about fifteen different movies; or that making sweeping absolute statements on the subjective quality of an art form could be construed as lazy thinking at best in some circles. Go ahead! Declare it!

3) Critique the editing, screenwriting, special effects, etc. The cool thing about the internet is you can just say anything. You don't have to have any prior knowledge or experience in any field; you still can make definitive statements with comforting certainty. So if you loved a movie, make sure to point out that the technical aspects of it are award-winning; if you hated it (again, there's no in-between), it's important that people know that the movie failed technically in every way. This is especially true for CGI, as it's usually "terrible." Don't worry, you don't need to provide any evidence or comparison to back up your statement. People spend years, even decades honing their craft to bring the impossible to the big screen, but you know that they're really the worst at their jobs.

4) Point out exposition. Exposition can simply be defined as "the act of explaining something." So you'll have one more weapon in your arsenal when cogently critiquing a movie if you can point out the abuse of exposition. Does a character tell someone her age? Too much exposition! We should be able to tell by her actions and behaviors her exact age of 33. Does a character quickly toss off the fact that the main character's son died? Abuse! The script should waste time showing us in vignettes instead of advancing the narrative. Remember, if any character at any time gives any information at all - you can ding the movie for providing "too much exposition."

5) Point out deus ex machina. This of course means "god in the machine" and refers to ancient Greek plays in which a god character would be lowered onto the stage to save another character from a hopeless situation. Basically it's cheating. What it isn't, is the series of on-screen events woven into the plot that lead to a climax, payoff, or narrative shift. But who cares? The point is to pile up the movie's transgressions, not be honest.

6) Make outsized comparisons. Everyone knows that your five-year-old nephew could write a better script than the seasoned writer who was paid $1 million by a studio whose job it is to make money. Though completely impossible, it is fortunately now a 100% acceptable way of getting your point across. Use it! Besides, how could The Godfather win an Oscar when I had more fun watching stick figures on three sheets of paper scroll across an open shoebox??

7) Bring home the fight against gender and racial equality. Guys. Literally. Guys. We all know there are just things women and minorities can't do, like be the best in a difficult field or own their own wealth. It's all of our job to make sure the average person understands this. Besides, how detrimental would it be to show marginalized or underprivileged people positive representations of themselves and give them the idea that anything could change? Nonsense. Put a stop to it. Using IMDB.


I realize this is more of a 'how to shit on a movie you don't like' tutorial, but then, that's what so many IMDBers do best. It keeps things interesting, I guess (I may have misspelled "infuriating") and besides, it takes much more effort to defend a movie you did like, and using those brain cells for good is half the battle.

Happy reviewing!


American Horror Story: Freak Show

After a three-year hiatus from watching American Horror Story, I finally really needed something to binge during the 2016 holidays so I picked up where I left off and began watching Freak Show, devoted to the lives, loves, and deaths of the performers in Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities and set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952. I actually had no idea it had been so long since I finished Coven, but my hesitation about the fourth season's premise is what kept me from catching up much sooner. For me, it ended up not being a waste of time - the show's high production values, at least, were instantly familiar and comforting - but ultimately Freak Show suffers from a variety of ills that I will, of course, now detail. (As this is a season retrospective, there will be spoilers)

I'll start with what I liked. The biggest pleasant surprise for me was Sarah Paulson. I'll be honest and say normally I can't stand anything else she does on AHS but she acted her ass off as conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, and when the writing didn't fail her the twins were the best part about Freak Show. She was truly believably conflicted and cautious as Dot, and simultaneously eager and naive as Bette. I thought the somewhat Hitchcockian angles used when presenting only one twin head or the other worked consistently, and co-producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk - the whole team, really - made genuine and sympathetic what could have been the most banally-conceived freaks in the camp.

Frances Conroy continues to be a national treasure; she was dry and knowing as the ghostly maid in Murder House, absolutely divine as fashion-loving Myrtle in Coven, and here as Gloria Mott she is perfectly polite, doting, and deeply conflicted as the mother of the season's most ambitious character. More about them later.

The best episodes of the season for me were "Edward Mordrake Pt. 2," in which we get the bleak backstory on Jupiter's resident psycho clown Twisty and watch a new, much sillier killer rise out of the ashes of his sojourn to the afterlife; the penultimate "Show Stoppers," the one episode that lives up to the promise of the darkness, horror, and very unpleasant but thrilling surprises which the series continues to struggle with delivering; and "Orphans," which deserves its own long-winded post on my blog for being the most beautiful and poignant episode of perhaps the entire anthology, during which Naomi Grossman as the ill-fated Pepper delivers award-winning scenes and makes me long for a much more expertly handled season on the whole.