Live from Sound City: on site at ground zero for Dave Grohl’s new film

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Deep in the most decrepit part of the valley, on a street that smells bad, in the shadow of a giant neon Budweiser sign, I find a building called Sound City Center. It looks like hell, so it must be the right place. Spend enough time in Los Angeles and you come to learn that the best music tends to be made in the worst looking buildings. The top concert venues all look like they’ve been burned in a fire, and the studios where your favorite albums were made tend to be located on the dark side streets of neighborhoods you’d have no reason to ever want to be in. That’s the premise behind the new Dave Grohl documentary entitled Sound City, which documents the low-rent music studio in which some of the most popular rock records of the 70s, 80s and 90s were recorded. As ugly as the place looked from the outside, the film reveals that it looked even worse on the inside as bands like Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana became who they were within those four unkempt walls. And while the true magic of Sound City was it one of a kind mixing board, which has since been relocated to Grohl’s house, I decide I have to go see the building for myself. It’s not far.

My drive takes me north on Sepulveda Boulevard seven miles into the valley, just after sunset, passing the strip clubs while narrowly avoiding an older gentleman who’s jaywalking while urgently clutching a coffee maker, then southwest onto a crummy backroad and finally northwest onto another even crummier backroad. I find myself wondering how many legendary musicians got lost over the years while trying to find this dump. I pull into the front gate, wide open even after dark, and into the parking lot in the center of it all. I spot the parking ramp from the film, which confirms without any doubt that this is in fact the place of legend. It takes me a moment to gather my faculties before get out of the car, not so much because this is the place where Nirvana recorded Nevermind, but because this is the kind of creepy after-dark locale from which people don’t emerge unscathed if they’re not paying attention to who might be coming up behind them. I imagine Rage Against The Machine having fun at the idea of recording at a landfill like this. It’s harder to reconcile the fact that Barry Manilow once pulled into this driveway as well.

soundcity1 300x139 Live from Sound City: on site at ground zero for Dave Grohls new film
The studio has changed hands, but the name of the facade hasn’t.

Stepping out of the car, I hear the sound of a kick drum. The old “Sound City” studio now has another name on the front door, even though they left original name out front. Wouldn’t it be fitting, I fancy to myself, if that’s Grohl in there jamming on the drums right now for the next Foo Fighters record. But it only takes seconds to recognize that it’s not his trademark stick work coming from inside. I find myself wanting to knock on the door, wanting to play journalist (or perhaps just play dumb) with whoever answers, wanting to find a way to finagle myself into the room where all that music of legend was made. Then I realize there’s only one car in the lot other than my own, which means the drummer is in there by himself. If I bang on the door, he’s going to have to stop his recording work to come deal with me. I remind myself that there are only really two rules to music journalism. The first, whose underlying stories will have to wait for another day, is that no matter how close you might get personally with the musicians you cover, your readers are still your real constituents, not the musicians. The second and most sacred, and the one which applies here, is that you never risk screwing with a musician’s recording process in the name of getting your story.

Finding disappointment in my own unwillingness to be selfish, but knowing I’m doing the right thing, I take a few external pictures and get back in my car without knocking on that door. After all, what if some idiot like me had banged on that same door in 1991 and forced Dave Grohl to get off his drums and stop the tape to come answer it? In such case, Smells Like Teen Spirit might have a different drum track than the one that went down in history. Besides, I don’t need to physically be in that room to feel closer to the music I love which was recorded there. All I really need to do is go home and fire up my favorite albums which emanated from it.

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Nirvana used to live down the street from me. Who knew?

But before leaving, it occurs to me that if I can find Sound City with such ease on a whim, just a few miles from where I live, then perhaps I can find the Oakwood Apartments that the film says the guys from Nirvana lived in while recording here. The map says there are several buildings named Oakwood in Los Angeles, but the only one that’s within twenty miles of the studio is located back down on… wait, that can’t be right. It’s on my street. Sure enough, I drive back home and learn that Nirvana used to reside down the street from where I live now.

Of course Sound City was less about the room and more about its legendary mixing board. If I ever feel like I need to get my hands on that board, I’ll just have to find a way to convince Dave Grohl to let me come over to his house and play with it. Stranger things have happened in this strange career – and after all, Dave and I are neighbors, twenty years removed. If his documentary drives home one pure truth, it’s that no matter how legendary they may be, your favorite musicians are just people – perhaps most clearly highlighted by the fact that Mr. Grohl and Mr. Novoselic and Mr. Cobain had to drive the same exact roads to get to the studio to record Nevermind each day that I’ve driven tonight. And who knows, perhaps they also had to swerve to avoid hitting the same man clutching his coffee maker.

Bill Gates Connects via Reddit AMA to spread vaccine awareness

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Earlier today, Bill Gates reached out via reddit, a social news website popular in the tech community, by participating in an “Ask Me Anything”, or AMA. The format of such a thread allows reddit users to ask questions of notable personalities, who are verified when they post a photo of themselves holding a piece of paper bearing their username. Gates, who recently appeared on Colbert Report, seems to be aiming at raising awareness about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and away from Microsoft. On reddit, he explained, “The company remains very important to me and I’m still chairman. But today my full time work is with the foundation. Melinda and I believe that everyone deserves the chance for a healthy and productive life – and so with the help of our amazing partners, we are working to find innovative ways to help people in need all over the world.”

Throughout the AMA, Gates showed his humorous side, answering questions about his money, his favorite band, his feeling about the future of technology, and even a question about his relationship with Steve Jobs, stating “He and I respected each other. Our biggest joint project was the Mac where Microsoft had more people on the project than Apple did as we wrote a lot of applications. I saw Steve regularly over the years including spending an afternoon with him a few months before he tragically passed away…”

The heart of his message, and his truly passionate answers, regarded the importance of creating vaccines, and getting those to people in need. The use of reddit to raise awareness is a genius move on Gates’ part, and, unlike a certain movie star whose behavior during his own AMA made him the brunt of much ridicule, Gates handled his question answering with finesse.

Here is a short video Gates prepared before the AMA in which he pre-answers a few questions. Be sure to check out the rest of the thread here, and you can read more at Gate’s website, The Gates Notes.

Review: The Hobbit Movie Is An Unexpected Lemon

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I can remember back when everyone seemed to be excited for the movie adaptation of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Because Peter Jackson had done such a great job with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it felt as though his latest project, The Hobbit, would be even greater. When The Hobbit came out at the end of last year, many people raved about it. I was curious to know if it was at least as good as Jackson’s last trilogy or if it was all just hype. I asked my friends, my trusted friends, the very friends I know to be tolerant of only the finest of Hollywood’s productions, for their opinion of The Hobbit. These highly dependable comrades did not hesitate in declaring their most excitable endorsements for the movie. Shortly after the release, I checked the reviews of movie critics both online and in the newspaper. At the time, I found that none of them had anything negative to say about The Hobbit. Based on all my research, I concluded that the evidence was stacked in favor Jackson’s latest epic.

Fast forward to February of this year. The 85th Annual Academy Awards will air on February 24, 2013. The Hobbit is up for three awards: Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. No doubt, awards won in some of these categories would be well deserved. However, the movie is not up for some award categories in particular which, based on the fanfare, I am surprised by. Those categories would be Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay to name a few. All three installments of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were up for such awards, so why wasn’t The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey nominated? In short, the Hobbit did not earn a nomination for Best Picture because The Hobbit turned out to be a terrible movie. It was bad simply because Jackson chose to dumb down the story with lowbrow humor, implausible action scenes at every turn and substantial changes which detract from the original story. Instead of looking to the millions who have read and loved Tolkein’s fairy tale, Jackson peddled to the lowest common denominator with bad Hollywood standard clichés.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the original book, The Hobbit, as a fairy tale for children. It was short and simple, placing character development and morality at the core of the story. Tolkien drew from his experiences in the First World War, his personal philosophies of humanity, and his perspective of governments to give a realistic feel to the story. Of course, I understand that when a movie is adapted from a book, some sacrifices are required because of the change in media. However, one of the things that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so great was the time and effort taken by Peter Jackson in capturing the grandeur of the books in a visual form. Those adaptations felt true to the spirit of the books, which, at the time of their release was a huge concern. Yet, in The Hobbit, it seems Jackson fell victim to poor judgment. The shift from the first trilogy to this new one seems to echo the infamous shift seen in the most recent Star Wars movies.

In Jackson’s version of The Hobbit, he decided that it would be a good idea to incorporate characters that only existed in The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, he fabricated a nemesis for the troupe solely to provide an obvious and excessively violent tension. Perhaps his breaking the story into three parts made the first third of The Hobbit seem a little bland without violence. Regardless of the reasoning, it was unnecessary to make such changes. Some of these changes served only to make direct nods to Jackson’s own trilogy a decade ago. Examples of this would be Gandalf’s staff slamming while screaming something cool, the ring falling onto the hobbit’s finger, and wild fight scenes through a labyrinth of tunnels underground.

Of course, it could be argued that someone who is not familiar with Tolkien’s original works wouldn’t know that there is a difference from the books, so how could this movie be so terrible? Well, there are many instances independent of the original book that brings the quality of this movie down to gutter level. Instead of taking an expressive stance like a true artist, Jackson filled scenes involving the dwarves with crude jokes, fat-person insults, pratfalls, and inconsistent personality traits. Additionally, there was such a negative tone throughout the movie that I never felt happy while watching the film. Every character seemed to find something to dispute, object to, complain about, or disparage. I can understand some internal conflict within the party. However, Thorin’s bigotry and aggression toward Bilbo for simply being a Hobbit, another useless and confusing fabrication by Jackson, prevented me from liking the dwarven character. Even when Thorin initiated a Jackson-created battle at the end of the movie and suffered mortal wounds, I was unmoved. Of course, Jackson tries to mend this tension with a classic use of Deus Ex Machina seasoned with the flavor of a touching 80’s after-school special.

Finally, there were the juvenile, lowbrow, sad, and gratuitous helpings of grossness. The Goblin King’s CG neck waddle, looking like a swinging, half-deflated goiter, looked better animated than some of the major action sequences throughout the movie. Unfortunately, the undulating mass was so distracting that I missed most of what the character had to say. The scene with the trolls certainly did not need to have explicit displays of mucus projected into food. I did not need to hear the sound of flatulence or belching coming from the dwarves. In addition, the obese dwarf named Bombur was so overweight that he broke the marble bench he was sitting on when he caught more food tossed to him. It was clear that Jackson was actually trying to elicit a laugh from the 12 year olds in the audience with crudeness.

Peter Jackson has had a great run with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is unfortunate to see that instead of trying to capture the essence of the story as he did with the original trilogy, he tried to recreate The Lord of the Rings and add more CG. His substantial reworking of a classic like The Hobbit, done without a nod to the millions of readers who loved Tolkein’s innocent moral and witty story, shows his utter disregard for the audience and for the original literature. I enjoy the work of Peter Jackson over all. I just hope he does not continue with this carelessness, or else he may end up like a certain Mr. Lucas.

Girls on Girls: four real-life women give insight on Lena Dunham’s controversial TV show

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If you haven’t heard people weighing in on Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls”, you haven’t been listening very hard. Everyone seems to have something to say about the show, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar who called it “like a checklist of being naughty”, and expressed distaste for the all-white cast of characters.

James Franco took a crack at it. Writer Sarah Ditum called the show a “hapless racist failure”. And Jill York over at Nerve was pretty upset when, after being compared to Dunham, she finally watched the show herself. However, her issue with the show was simply that Lena seemed to be making her look at her own selfish behaviors.

The show, touted as the voice of a generation, which has a larger male than female viewership, doesn’t seem to hit any middle ground. It’s loved or it’s hated. Not that 26-year-old Dunham cares either way. It’s already been picked up for a third season.

With all of the various people talking about “Girls”, which recently aired its season finale, we decided to ask some actual girls what they think of the show.

The Girls:

Laura, age 24
Community Manager at a major publication
Lives in New York

Jessica, age 30
Intern at Buzzfeed and grad student
Lives in New York

Evan, age 26
Works at Van’s store and a crème brulee food truck
Lives in Los Angeles

Nadine, age 23
Working artist
Lives in New York

On being the “voice of a generation” of young women:

Laura: I cringe through every episode, without fail. That’s not to say there aren’t moments where I can relate (you know, my limited experience w/ dating in nyc). But generally I find myself frustrated and repulsed by it — though I am still watching, so I guess that says something. . I don’t like being compared to her because I associate her characters as whiny and entitled and kind of desperate, and those aren’t ways I would describe myself.

Evan: I feel like it definitely speaks to what women in their 20′s have gone through recently and I also feel it is a fair representation for most people in their 20′s right now. 
I pretty much relate to the Lena Dunham’s character almost spot on, from parents cutting me off to jobs not lasting longer than a few weeks or months, having really strange and unhealthy relationships that I can’t seem to understand when I am in them and sort of get a grasp on once they are over.

Nadine: I don’t think that it is the sole voice of this generation. It might be the voice of a certain type of person, but it definitely doesn’t speak for the majority of people. Or at least I have hope that it does not!

On the frequency of nudity and sex in the show:

Laura: It definitely makes the episode/show feel more like a vanity project, but I’m not offended by seeing her naked.

Evan: The fact that she is so honest about her own inner turmoil and what she might actually be thinking in a realistic situation is bravery enough. To add being nude almost all the time, well she is in my top 5 heroines that’s for sure. There are boatloads of real shaped women in the world and I, being one of them, have most definitely been ashamed of almost all of my body in most lighting due to the nakedness I have seen before in media my entire life. Whether or not she has gotten over any image issues she may have had before by doing this show, she has at least proven to me that she has the courage to say ‘fuck it and fuck you if you don’t appreciate it’. I have been under the thumb of perfection my whole life and have severe emotional and mental damage from all of it. I wish she had been on tv in my formative years so I wasn’t so fucked up about my own self image. This is a big hardy Thank You to Lena Dunham; telling the world that she may not be completely happy with herself but she isn’t going to let that hold her back. 

Nadine: I don’t have a problem with the nudity and sex on the show. Her sexual behavior and choices makes sense because of her character flaws such as low self esteem and need for approval.

On the claims that the show isn’t ethnically diverse enough to represent reality:

Evan: Well first off, the show isn’t called Diverse Girls. She dates a black guy and there are gay people and older people. That right there is already pretty diverse. Just because I’m not seeing every color or learning about every culture doesn’t mean anything. I think that is just people trying to make us all a weird beige blob and that just isn’t how things work. This is very clearly her representation of her life and if you think about it, who are in your circle of friends? Do you have one of every color? Didn’t think so. So shut up.
No my friends are very diverse. Just kidding.

Laura: I think it’s problematic, especially with all the talk of it being the voice of our generation. Really, it is the Lena Dunham show and I think she’s made that pretty clear.

Jessica: I listened to Dunham’s discussion of this on Fresh Air awhile back and I thought she came off as super intelligent and honest. I guess her inclusion of Donald Glover was a reaction to this criticism, but he was only in 2 episodes. While I think diversity is never a bad thing, I can’t honestly say I’m super bothered by the lack of it. I think she’s doing so much important stuff in this show, sometimes you can’t just do it all. 

Nadine: The show does lack diversity and is obviously written by a North American White girl. I think every artist has the right to create work from their own perspective, so I don’t necessarily criticize her for her perspective. However since it is from a limited perspective and not a universal one that encompasses diversity, it cant be regarded as the voice of this generation. Especially in this cross cultural influenced society.

On the men in the show:

Jessica: I do think the male characters are realistic, even if they’re a little exaggerated. Most men I know like the show.

Nadine: I think that those type of guys exist but that the show exaggerates their behaviors.

Laura: My favorite moments are with the guys in Girls. They’re all pretty fucked up, but honest about it, and seem to be trying to make peace with it.

Overall feelings on the show:

Laura: I don’t like being compared to her, (Dunham) because I associate her characters as whiny and entitled and kind of desperate, and those aren’t ways I would describe myself.

Jessica: I think Dunham has really created a space for women to be ok with who they are – ok with not knowing what they want, or if they do, ok with not totally knowing how to get it. Her characters are flawed and real and as selfish as they are endearing. 

Evan: I have really appreciated the ballsiness of the writing as well as the nonverbal emotions that come across. One scene has really stuck out to me, in the episode where she goes home. The scene in the party where it just shows her clearly uncomfortable in a room full of people felt so accurate to how I have felt before. How many times have I had that exact look on my face in the same situation? Also the part where she is in bed with that guy from her town, he isn’t pressuring her to have sex, but all of her previous experiences were telling her that maybe he was just saying that and not meaning it, maybe he wouldn’t talk to her again if he didn’t at least get off, maybe she was trying out her boundaries with someone she wouldn’t have to see ever again. It felt like I was watching me f___ up what could have been a good memory, because I’ve done that, a fair amount. And the underlying plot that she is following her dreams or her heart or some nonsense about being a writer, that that is what she feels she must do, I mean, that’s why I do anything I do, because I feel like it’s the right thing in that moment for me to be doing. Life lessons to come later.

Nadine: The best thing is that it shows the life of females in a different way than other shows do. The worst thing about the show is that it is about self-absorbed, terrible people.

Veronica Mars kickstarter movie shows why Hollywood sticks with sequels, reboots, and familiar safe bets

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After a few years of new tech products and music albums being “crowdfunded” by fans who get a piece of the action in return, the first high profile movie is set to launch based on that same principle. But rather than being an outsider indie project with the kind of script that can’t get made in Hollywood and starring newcomers who wouldn’t fit in there, the movie in question turns out to be a recycle of the old Veronica Mars television show.

With the movie industry establishment increasingly turns to sequels, prequels, reboots, and other movies centered around familiar plots and characters over the past decade, the popular complaint among viewing audiences has been that Hollywood must be out of ideas. Studios are playing it safe more than ever, assuming that a bad sequel with known characters is likely to be more profitable than a high quality movie based new characters. And those bets have more often than not turned out to be correct. Taken 2, a widely panned sequel with a mere 21% approval rating on movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes, nonetheless had a bigger box office take than its much more highly critically regarded predecessor. Even as opening weekend viewers took to Twitter to complain about just how bad the sequel was, others continued to go see it merely because it starred Liam Neeson playing the same character as the first Taken movie. And so Hollywood continues to serve up retreads because, for lack of any other consideration, they make money. If fewer inventive or original or even good movies get made as a result, then so be it.

The democratization of the internet now threatens to put that decision making power into the hands of fans directly, to the point that they now have the power to collectively fund a multimillion dollar movie by each throwing in a few bucks on a site like Kickstarter. Fans of Veronica Mars can donate as little as a dollar, but larger amounts will net them a series of tiered rewards. Ten dollars will get you a copy of the shooting script. Twenty-five nets you a T-shirt. Ten thousand dollars gets you a small speaking role in the movie itself. So far the project has netted more than $3.3 million from about fifty thousand people, with the average donation size being sixty-five dollars. With more money already in hand than needed for production, fans of the television show starring Kristen Bell will get their movie.

What remains to be seen is whether the sentimental monetary support for a movie based on a beloved television show with a large installed fan base will translate into other projects receiving significant crowdfunding based independent merit, or whether the public greenlight on this project will merely lead to similar sentimental cinematic resurrections such as Firefly. Veronica Mars is far from the first movie to be funded in such a manner, but it’s the first with a budget that rivals what Hollywood would have given it. Whether viewers begin collectively putting significant money behind original ideas will determine whether such films get made, or whether the traditional movie studios are correct in their assumption that sequels and retreads are what audiences truly want, despite their own claims to the contrary.

Interview: books to podcasts, “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty sets the English language straight

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She’s popularly known as Grammar Girl and she’s appeared on television shows ranging from Oprah to CNN in the name of setting the record straight on proper grammar and usage. Mignon Fogarty has managed to simultaneously get her message across through new media avenues such as podcasting and through traditional print books. She talks with Stabley Times about the career path which ultimately led her toward giving grammar tips for a living, how her television appearances have impacted her professional efforts, and whether or not you have to be afraid of incurring her wrath if you speak to her using less than perfect grammar.

“When I was a science writer,” she says, “I also did a lot of editing work for scientists, and I saw my clients making the same mistakes over and over again – little things, such as using ‘which’ when they should use ‘that’ or misusing a semicolon. I was already doing a long science podcast as a hobby, and I decided to also do a quick, simpler writing podcast because I saw that there were so many people who needed writing tips.”

That motivated her to launch a podcast in 2006, in the early days of the medium. “Much to my surprise, the Grammar Girl podcast took off right away and essentially took over my life. I worked like crazy for about six months trying to do both Grammar Girl and the science writing and editing, since that work paid my bills, and when I finally got my book deal, I was able to switch to Grammar Girl full time.”

That success caused her podcasting efforts to multiply. “I firmly believe in the power of a network and cross-promotion,” she says of her Quick and Dirty Tips podcasting network. “When Grammar Girl became such a huge hit, I realized I was on to something with the short, in-and-out format. I had tried to join some of the existing podcasting networks at the time, and it didn’t work out, so I decided the only way it was going to work is if I made my own network. (When I was a kid, my favorite book was “If I Ran the Zoo” by Dr. Seuss.) Adam Lowe, who had been my co-host for the science podcast started doing a manners podcast for the network, and I signed on a few other friends to do shows. When it got to five or six shows it was becoming too big for me to handle alone, and my publisher, Macmillan, was interested in partnering, so we did. At first it was a more limited partnership, but it’s grown over time and now we have 16 shows and they handle all the day-to-day operations. A few years ago, I had to decide whether I wanted to be a business executive or Grammar Girl, and it made more sense for me to be Grammar Girl.”

Before long, traditional media outlets from Oprah to CNN began using her as a grammar expert. “I saw big spikes in Web traffic from both of those media hits,” she says. “When I was profiled on CNN, I didn’t have any books out, but when I was on Oprah, I had a one-hour audiobook out. It did have a nice sales spike, but it wasn’t the kind of spectacular thing you might imagine because they didn’t mention the book at all. I was a guest on NPR’s ‘Talk of the Nation’ when 101 Misused Words came out, and I think that created the biggest sales spike I’ve seen for books. 

“Some of the Oprah traffic was interesting though. It caused a much bigger increase in Web traffic than in podcast traffic, but it was definitely a spike, not an immediate boost up to a new, higher level of daily traffic. The show airs in other countries later, so every once in a while we’d see an unexpected traffic spike, and then I’d get a bunch of e-mail messages from people in Indonesia or Australia or some other country and we’d know that it had aired there.  I was very lucky that the show aired in the US as a rerun the week after my first print book came out. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing had made the New York Times extended best-seller list on its own (that’s the list that only shows up on their website), but the next week, after the Oprah rerun aired, the book moved a few notches up to the printed best-seller list.”

Mignon says that her trademark name Grammar Girl was something that “just popped into my head and I knew it was perfect right away. I can’t say a lot of thought went into it at the time, but in retrospect, I believe it works because of the alliteration and because ‘girl’ is a nonthreatening word. People have a lot of anxiety about writing, and a lot of the grammar advice out there is delivered in a snarky or superior way. Being Grammar Girl sends the message that I’m friendly and approachable.”

But those who might be afraid to open their mouth around Grammar Girl for fear of having their grammar corrected need not worry. “I never correct people’s grammar unless they ask me to,” she explains. “I think it’s rude. However, I know a lot of people want to correct other people, so my advice is if you can’t stop yourself from doing it, at least be kind and polite. And for heaven’s sake be sure you’re right before you correct someone! You wouldn’t believe the number of people who try to correct me, and all they’d have to do is look in a dictionary or style guide to see that they are wrong. In fact, the reason I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show is that someone rudely corrected Oprah, when Oprah wasn’t wrong. They had me on the show to tell that poor woman she was wrong on international TV.

Her participation in multiple forms of media is about to expand again, this time into the world of the App Store. “I’m working on an iPad word-matching game called Grammar Pop,” she reveals. “I’m hoping it will be on sale by April or May, and I’m dying for it to be released! I adore it. We did a big round of beta testing and people in general really liked it, and grade school and middle school teachers seemed to love it. It’s a fun word game on its own, but it can also be a great tool to help kids to learn the parts of speech. I’m not committed to any one platform like podcasting or the Web or social media. Not to say that I’m going to stop those things, but I’m always looking for new ways to make learning fun. If Grammar Pop does well, I’m sure I’ll make more games, and this one will be out quickly for more devices. Learn more about Grammar Girl. photo credit: Dana Nollsch

Album review: David Bowie shocks, awes, messes with your head on punchy The Next Day

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David Bowie shocked the world in January when he released the lead single from a new album that no one knew even existed. A decade into a self declared retirement from making new music, he’d sworn his band to secrecy about The Next Day, the album he managed to put together completely on the sly. No journalist broke the story. No Twitter leaks. No accidental stray mentions. In this all information all the time era, that alone qualifies as an achievement. But the release of the full album today may be even more of a shock. The single, Where Are We Now?, was a beautifully tragic portrait of a broken Bowie crying his eyes out for all to see – and seemed to signal that the rest of the album would follow the theme. Try again.

From the first riff of the opening title track, it becomes clear that this album is anything but a series of self pitying moments. The Next Day, the song, punches at you defiantly with a driving percussion track behind a Bowie who sounds almost gleeful as he sings “Here I am not quite dying” while seeming to write off the rest of humanity who “can’t get enough of that doomsday song” as a high pitched guitar line swirls above him just to raise the stakes. Three minutes into the album, and whatever expectations the lead single might have given you for this record are out the window.

The next three minutes manage to do the same again. The microseconds of empty space between punctuated notes on the mid tempo Dirty Boys might leave the listener tempted to feel as if Bowie has come under the spell of Queens of the Stone Age, until one recalls of course that the influence has always flowed in the other direction. This is, in some sense, the Bowie song that QOTSA has always been trying to make.

The defiant and slightly paranoid nature of the album continues with The Stars (Are Out Tonight). But that theme turns a bit ominous with Love Is Lost, which as it turns out is the setup for Where Are We Now? The single, we learn, is also the album’s big left turn. It’s not so much an atypical outlier as it is the contrasting centerpiece of the album. That of course leaves you with no idea what to expect from the nine songs that come after it – and you come to understand that the reason why Bowie has been playing games with the secrecy and release of this record is because the record itself plays games with your expectations throughout.

Case in point: after the title track finishes sprawling its grand tears, the album shifts to a gently uptempo are borderline cheerily sentimental song called Valentine’s Day – which might be the best song on the record and arguably should have been the single. “Valentine sees it all,” he whimsies with just enough of a wink that you wonder if he’s referring to himself. “He’s got something to say. It’s Valentine’s Day.” Yeah he’s definitely rubbing it in. “Valentine told me how it feels.” No, nevermind, he’s not the Valentine character after all.

Your expectations get played with so much and so often that by the time you get to a song titled Dancing Out In Space, whose title begs you to expect it to be influenced by some combination of Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Space Oddity eras, you’re not all that surprised when you realize that it musically bears little in common with either one. And in the final track when he repeatedly refers to his father having run a prison, you instinctively hit Google search and aren’t surprised to learn that Bowie’s father was instead an employee of a charity. So what’s he really talking about in the song? As with the rest of the album, who the hell knows. But it’s a fun ride, with enough recurring vocal, sonic, and lyrical themes that you’re left with the gut feeling these fourteen songs are meant to fit together, even if he’s never going to quite spell out for you precisely how they do – except to offer the occasional non-hint which twists the knife even further. After all, the album cover is literally just his old Heroes album cover with a black line drawn through the word “Heroes” and a white square placed over his face. Come on, who does that? And why? Is this album meant to be a continuation of the Heroes storyline, the tale of what happened the day after? Or is he saying he’s going back to the past with this record, or is he saying screw the past? After listening to The Next Day a few times, you’ll still be asking yourself the same questions. And that’s the beauty of it all.

To date David Bowie has done no interviews for this album, booked no television appearances, offered no hint of a tour or any live performances which might help offer any additional insight into what was going through his head as he spent his retirement secretly working on this record that officially never existed (note to non-famous musicians: don’t try this at home. Such a strategy only works if you’re David Bowie). But if he did serve up any enlightenment, it might make it too easy and take the fun out of the ride. For a musician who once famously told a reporter that he had “nothing to say” about a new album and equated writing about music with dancing about architecture, Bowie has shown this time around that he wasn’t kidding: he’s decided that The Next Day either stands on its own or it doesn’t. And the verdict is that it very clearly does.

Editing Benghazi: After-the-Fact Attacks are the Wrong Story

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Last week witnesses testified before a House panel about the events that occurred on September 11, 2012. “Events” meaning the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four people dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. There has been a lot of talk: about the 12 versions of the talking points, cover-ups, conspiracies and political motivations. There has been finger pointing: the CIA at the State Department, the House at the White House, the press at the politicians and pundits. The left is particularly loud, theorizing that this is all a ploy by Republicans to hamstring Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State during the incident, and may be thinking of running for office in 2016.

The right is convinced that there was a large-scale cover up and that the American people have a right to know the truth, the real story.

Like any story, when it’s edited by a committee and impassioned but ignorant readers, the true story has been lost.

The story is the lede in this article: four people died, including an Ambassador, and nothing that happened on September 11, 2012, nor in the months following, could have prevented that. There was, bluntly, not enough security in place—not on the Ambassador and not in the region.

The Consulate itself had Libyan guards and the detail on the Ambassador was State Department security.

There were no Marines.

From the official website of the U.S. Marine Corps:

“The primary mission of the Marine Security Guard (MSG) is to provide internal security at designated U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in order to prevent the compromise of classified material vital to the national security of the United States.”

But, some argue, the CIA was there. Yes, they were, and a six-person rescue squad broke cover and got to the Consulate less than one hour after the initial reports of the attack.

According to the Washington Post, they tried to muster support from local militia — and three Libyan soldiers joined them.

Three.

Another security team, also CIA, departed Tripoli and was in Benghazi four hours after the initial attack.

They had to charter an airplane.

The first team had already secured the rescued Americans at the CIA annex, and had defended against an attack on the facility.

The second team arrived in Benghazi and was then delayed at the airport for an additional four hours negotiating with Libyan officials, obtaining vehicles, and forming an effective mission plan.

This second team arrived at the CIA facility, where the first team had brought the Americans from the Consulate, as attacks began again.

Half an hour later, two Americans, from the security teams, are dead. It is approximately 5:30 a.m., in Benghazi.

Libyan military arrives, escorts 18 Americans to the airport. Later that morning another 12, plus the four dead, are also taken to the airport.

These are the names of the people who died:

J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya

Sean Smith, U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer

Glen Doherty, Security/CIA, former Navy Seal

Tyrone S. Woods, Security/CIA, former Navy Seal

Why did they die? That is the story — that is the question that needs to be asked for Americans to know the truth.

There are two indisputable answers: lack of funding for security at our embassies and consulates, and the lack of an elite, trained, rapid response force that can respond quickly to events in North Africa.

Dana Milbank wrote, in the Washington Post, October 2012: “House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012….Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.”

The nearest U.S. military forces, capable of responding to attacks, were Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FAST) in Rota, Spain and a EUCOM special forces team that was training in Central Europe.

The FAST forces were given authorization to prepare to deploy at approximately 2:40 a.m., Benghazi time, according to the official timeline released by the Pentagon.

Stevens was already dead at that time. The CIA annex, with the Americans from the Consulate, had defended against an attack. The team from Tripoli was in Benghazi, but not yet on site.

In short, the money was too little to fund necessary security, and the troops couldn’t arrive until it was too late.

Too little, too late: an old story. Mundane, worn, hackneyed even, but one that is going to be told over and again unless Congress and Washington start to focus on the facts and stop the futile finger pointing.

Erased from history: Martin Luther King’s forgotten economic rights campaign

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Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the more revered American figures of the twentieth century, as today’s national holiday bearing his name demonstrates. And his fight for racial equality is documented imn perhaps no better way than the fact that a half-black man is the President of the United States, a feat which would not have been possible in King’s era. But amongst the tidal wave of remembrance today for King’s racial efforts, you’ll hear not a peep about his other civil rights crusade. Late in his life, after King had already become the face of black civil rights, he started something called the Poor People’s Campaign. The idea was to unify low income Americans of all races so they could collectively fight for economic civil rights by using the same principles of nonviolent protest which had worked for him in his civil rights campaigns. Despite the high profile he gave the Poor People’s Campaign, the high stakes demands he made of the government on the campaign’s behalf, and the striking similarities between it and today’s Occupy movement, it’s a chapter of the Martin Luther King story which has simply been erased from most history books. Various theories have been floated as to how, and why, this vanishing act occurred…

Although King began planning the Poor People’s Campaign internally among his allies in 1967, it didn’t become a high profile public movement until early 1968. In fact he was in the midst of organizing a march on Washington, DC at the time of his assassination in April of that year. His planned march had reportedly been feared not only by conservatives like the then-Presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, but also by some of King’s own civil rights allies including then-President Lyndon Johnson. After King’s death, his group pushed onward with the movement but it ultimately lost steam without his leadership…

The close proximity of the Poor People’s Campaign to King’s assassination has led some to conclude that the planned march was simply overshadowed by his shocking death and therefore forgotten. Others have suggested that the campaign was lost to history simply because it failed to achieve any of its goals, in contrast to King’s racial equality efforts which ultimately led to fundamental societal change. But there’s another, darker view which says that any record of the fight for economic equality went away because the wealthy and powerful wanted it to. After all, granting civil rights to minorities such as voting and the right to sit in the front of the bus didn’t cost wealthy white people any of their money (see South Africa, whose white population granted the black majority civil rights out of fear that the worldwide boycott might cost them too much of their precious money). But economic equality makes it more difficult for the rich to get even richer. And so while every history book accurately celebrates Martin Luther King for the progress he made on civil rights, those same books seem to go out of their way to avoid educating anyone about his fight for economic rights, as if to try to keep future generations from getting any funny ideas about wanting economic rights of their own. And if the idea that the rich and powerful would erase a vital chapter of a celebrated historical figure’s life just to protect their money, take a look at the extent to which modern day media have gone to try to pretend that millions of Americans haven’t been participating in the economic rights based Occupy movement over the past two years. If King were still alive he’d be 84 years old. And he wouldn’t merely be supporting the Occupy movement; he’d be leading it. After all, he started the Occupy movement while he was still alive.

Somewhere in Houston: rocker Sheila Swift teases new song Daisy, preps new album

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In the corner booth of a trendy gastropub somewhere in Houston, Sheila Swift draws an impromptu illustration on a drink coaster for the benefit of an enthusiastic waiter. She may be the most promising rock singer to emerge out of Texas this decade, but at the moment she’s musing about a side career. “I want to start a food truck with gourmet grilled cheese on one side,” she says with a straight face, “and a cereal bar on the other.”

Such ambitions may have to wait until her new album is complete. The creative process has spanned well past a year, but the finish line is in sight. She threatens to tell the tale of why the album doesn’t yet have a name. First, though, she insists I try something called bacon-jelly. The topic will turn back to music eventually. But for now her lunch companion, photographer and artist Erik Xydis, affectionately known to Sheila and friends as Rico, whips out his iPad to offer visual evidence as to how the Wizard of Oz could have been a much shorter movie if Dorothy had simply been packing a super soaker water pistol from the outset.

Sheila’s album includes a number called Daisy, which began as a musical sketch which wasn’t originally supposed to go anywhere. But as is so often the case with these things, it evolved into a a song which turns out to be the catchy lead single. The gentle rock tune drips with vocal harmonies which, despite while not really leaning country, sound distinctly like Texas. As I order something called a Ditzy Chicken, we’re joined by a growing entourage. A fellow musician named Jake Shaffer arrives and tells tales of his Camaro before he heads to band practice, while his friend Bentley keeps the jokes coming.

As the gang leaves the BRC Gastropub and moves down the street to a Starbucks which is improbably across the street from two other visible Starbucks, Sheila steps away for a moment to pick up her kids. She returns with female twins, four years old, each named after a Bob. The one named Marley spots a cage of pug dogs in the shopping center and decides she wants one. The one named Dylan begins performing ballet moves for the benefit of the patrons as the group finds its way to the newly opened hotspot Macaron by Patisse, owned and operated by Sheila’s friend Sukanina Rajani.

The gentle balancing act between mom and rock star plays out in real time as Sheila makes sure the kids are properly entertained (or is it proper entertainers?) while making sure the journalist in the room has what he needs. She reveals a half finished song stashed on her phone called Stay which shows off what she does best: a vocal journey which manages to be powerful, vulnerable, sweet, and colorful all at once.

The unlikely mix of artistic attributes may owe its underpinnings to the brain tumor she was diagnosed with when she was a teenager, which is still with her and is causing no problems other than the lingering tiny chance that it could still turn malignant at any time. But that’s shown no signs of happening over the years, and she’s perhaps now living out the childhood on a bigger stage that the tumor never quite allowed her to have the first time around. When she speaks, she has no filter. “The truth will set you free,” she says with a smile while out of earshot of the kids, “but it’ll jack you up.” Coming from her, it sounds more like a gleeful mantra than a resignation.

Sheila Swift nabs me some pastries for the road, which I set down next to her illustration depicting me as a cosmonaut with a tiny giraffe for a sidekick, making clear that the whimsy within her never does quite fade. The album arrives perhaps this spring. No word on the food truck.