1.31.2009

Capoeira: Brazil's Martial Art & Cultural Gift

by Z*

Charles Darwin would have been fond of my hobby.

Upon visiting Brazil, Darwin did not like what he saw there: “The state of the enormous slave population must interest everyone who enters the Brazils... I hope the day will come when they will assert their own rights & forget to avenge these wrongs." Perhaps it is true that this hope for equality inspired Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution. I cannot argue with the authors of Darwin’s Sacred Cause whether his “passion for racial unity is what drove him to touch this untouchable and treacherous subject.” Nonetheless, I’m sure that seeing me play capoeira would have made Darwin smile.

My knees are bruised up and my joints hurt, but every week after work or after classes I commute for about an hour to play capoeira.

Capoeira’s legendary evolution is the main reason to love this form of art. While no one can confidently tell the story of capoeira, the most popular version holds that African slaves in Brazil disguised the practice of martial arts as a form of dance and play. To this day capoeira looks innocent as the players get into a circle, play instruments and sing in Portuguese.

It was briefly outlawed in Brazil as the practice of criminals in 1890 but soon after it became legal again and spread across the world. Algeria, Cambodia, Russia, Japan, Greece, Lebanon, Zambia, the United States and many other countries have capoeira academies. There are relatively few countries that have not been exposed to capoeira yet.

What makes it so unique is the bonding spirit of liberty and mutual respect. Put a crowd of capoeiristas from different countries in one room and in minutes you’ll see such spirit in action. Music flows, the crowd chants in response to the lead singer, two fighters play inside the circle (called a roda) — there is no need to speak the same language, or share any common beliefs.

Capoeira fighters come in all shapes and sizes. The youngest can barely talk, the oldest see their grandchildren go to school. But every week we all get in a big circle, play, and sing about love and freedom.

Afro-Brazilian slaves practiced capoeira to escape the horrors of their daily lives; we do it to release stress and have fun. Yet we are grateful for this gift of art that brings together people of different backgrounds. Darwin would have clapped to this celebration of the dancing fight to freedom and racial unity.

*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.

(The photo of capoeiristas in Maryland is by Z and is used with permission. To see a video of capoeiristas from the D.C. area in action, please check below.)









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iVoryTowerz Radio: The Boss is Back!

Not that Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen ever left our attention, but it seems this week more than at any time recently Springsteen's cultural presence headlines the zeitgeist. From the backstreets to the badlands, The Boss seems to be everywhere. He's got a new album (well received or not) that's topping the charts. He'll be playing the halftime show for Super Bowl XLIII with the E Street Band before heading out on the road again later in 2009. Although the underground podcast has long included Springsteen as a favorite, the program's overdue for a special focus on The Boss. So this week, expect music from both Springsteen and members of the E Street Band, along with bands influenced by Springsteen. For those who want a bit more variety, there's also music beyond the Jersey Shore Sound this week. We also delve into about 50 years of rock 'n roll including: country rock, alt-country, folk, heavy metal and punk. If The Boss can't rock you, nobody will. We advise high volume. Please enjoy responsibly. But definitely: Rock On!



(To download or stream this podcast, please click here.)


Playlist

“The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
"Love Me Tonight" by Clarence Clemons and Temple of Soul
“Save the Last Dance for Me" by The Drifters
"Talk to Me" by Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes
"Lying in State" by Superchunk
"Old Time Tickin' Away" by Marah
“Sequestered in Memphis” by The Hold Steady
“Sister Lost Soul” by Alejandro Escovedo
“Only You Know and I Know” by Delaney & Bonnie
"It Makes Me Cry" by The Morning Pages
"Mostly Prove Me Wrong” by Fiction Family
"Everybody Pays as They Go" by Jakob Dylan
"Better Days" by Amos Lee
Cover Me: "Purple Haze" by Melanie
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Wicked Sensation” by Lynch Mob
Jeff’s New Wave: “EMI” by The Sex Pistols

(Mp3 Runs - 1:18:37; 72 MB.)

(The photo of Bruce Springsteen on tour with the E Street Band in 2008, including drummer Max Weinberg, is by Craig ONeal, and is used with a Creative Commons license.)


DISCLAIMER: The iVoryTowerz podcast is a non-commercial, non-profit program designed and used for educational purposes. Some of the material contained in this podcast is previously copyrighted but used with permission. Other copyrighted material is reused following fair use guidelines. Any copyright holders who do not wish to have their material used should contact the programmers directly at ivorytowerzradio@att.net and it will be removed. The programmers do not support filesharing and encourage listeners to buy music from the artists featured in this podcast.





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1.30.2009

Video Game Review: Fallout 3's Operation Anchorage Expansion

by Phil Kehres

Fallout 3 – Operation: Anchorage expansion (rated M for mature, available for download on Xbox Live Arcade, PC)
Release date: January 27, 2009.

Fallout 3 was undoubtedly one of the best games of 2008. It’s no surprise then, that the first downloadable expansion for the game was so highly anticipated. Unfortunately, Operation: Anchorage falls short of expectations. The episode plays just as well as the main game, but the experience is too short, linear and repetitive to justify the 800 Microsoft Point (MS points: 800 = $10) price tag.

I won’t spend too much time discussing the mechanics of the game — we know Fallout 3 is excellent on many levels. The expansion is disappointing in comparison to the core game because it lacks some of the game’s standout features, like the compelling narrative and difficult moral choices. The graphics remain excellent, but the environments are almost entirely unchanged — the dingy browns and beiges of the Capital Wasteland are swapped for dingy grays and whites. All-too-familiar cliffs and mountains are now snow-capped, and interior environments are largely unchanged and uninspired in design.

The storyline is there, but it’s paper thin. When you download the expansion and load up a saved game (you’ll have to load an old save because you can’t continue after you’ve beaten the game), you’ll get a distress signal and a new map marker will be added. Upon reaching the new destination, you’ll come across a band of Brotherhood of Steel Outcasts (soldiers disenfranchised by one of the game’s friendly military factions, the Brotherhood of Steel). After helping them defeat some Super Mutants, their leader will take you into an underground base. The Outcasts are trying to access a weapons cache, but lack the technology to engage in the virtual reality simulation that will unlock the secret armory. Of course, your character is the only person with the technology capable of accessing the simulation, so you’re asked to enter on the Outcast’s behalf.

The simulation takes you back to the Chinese invasion of Anchorage, where you’ll fight alongside American soldiers as they try to liberate the city. This simulation takes place before the nuclear war that turned the U.S. into a vast wasteland. The liberation of Anchorage is a significant event in Fallout canon, and the background given here doesn’t do it justice. As such, the expansion plays like a mediocre first-person shooter.

You have the option to play using stealth or guns blazing. I chose the latter option, and because my character level was maxed out (and the level cap won’t be increased until the third downloadable episode), the whole thing was surprisingly easy and disappointingly short. You move from area to area killing identical Chinese soldiers (except for the soldiers that look exactly like the cyborg Ninja from Metal Gear Solid) until you reach a strategic objective. Gone is the exploring from the main game — your path is straightforward and there’s little worth finding, save the ten briefcases of “intelligence,” which unlock a new character perk if you find them all. Since it is a simulation, bodies disappear and can’t be searched for ammo or loot. Health and ammo are restored at pre-designated spots. The weapons don’t degrade and thus don’t need to be repaired. In fact, the expansion detracts from the main game experience by placing the burden on Fallout’s combat system. With combat as the sole focus, the system’s flaws are exposed — Halo this is not.

The simulation is divided into two parts, but the whole thing can be completed in less than five hours. Upon completion of the simulation, you’re kicked back into the “real world” and given access to the weapons cache. There is a small plot twist, but it’s over before you can figure out what’s going on or why. The loot you earn — and there is some nifty stuff here — can be used in the main game, which is a nice touch that adds some minimal replay value. However, you can’t replay the simulation unless you load a save from prior to entering, which seems like a total waste.

Operation: Anchorage will leave you wanting more — not because it’s a shining example of downloadable content, but because you were expecting something much deeper for what you paid. In the end, you’ll feel like you plunked down $10 for a few extra weapons, a perk and some achievement points. Developers at Bethesda Softworks did just enough here to tide over the hardcore Fallout 3 fans, but for those on the fence, I’d recommend spending those MS points elsewhere.

Final verdict: 2.5/5

(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)

(Promotional screenshot of Operation: Anchorage provided by Bethesda Softworks. To see a trailer for Operation: Anchorage, please check below.)














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1.29.2009

Book Review: Alphabet Juice

by Hayden Alfano

Regular and astute readers of these pages will no doubt note that this is the second consecutive post in which I’ve written about a book. I promise not to make a habit of it. But I feel compelled to tell the world about Alphabet Juice, a book about words by former Sports Illustrated scribe Roy Blount Jr.

The need to recommend this text stems in part from the peculiar nature of books about language. Most such books are considered to be too dry to be palatable for a general audience, and appeal only to true logophiles, those of us who compulsively correct grammatical errors, religiously do crossword puzzles, and read the dictionary for fun. The odd thing is that these books don’t need to be especially entertaining for that audience to enjoy them. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, for example, is a wonderful book that entertainingly muses on punctuation. But it suffers from an odd paradox. A book on commas and semicolons will never be interesting to most people, no matter how hard the author tries to make the art of punctuation fun. Meanwhile, the group who will find the book interesting does not need it to be terribly creative; these peculiar little marks hold a fascination all their own.


Alphabet Juice, in contrast, is the rare book that appeals to both audiences. Writing in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style that is foreshadowed by its subtitle (“The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory”), Blount travels the length of the alphabet from A to Z, handpicking the best that language has to offer, exhaustively researching word roots and musing on usage.

The book’s emphasis on origin will please the wordsmith (the word “hip,” we’re told, comes from “hipi” or hepi,” which means “to open one’s eyes, be aware” in the sub-Saharan African Wolof language). Others will get a kick out of Blount’s "quirky" (he states that the origin of this word is unknown, and speculates that it’s a marriage of “quick” and "jerk”) style and biting humor. (“Realtor,” he says, is pronounced “Real-tur,” not “Ree-luh-tur. Pronouncing it the latter way is like singing off-key on purpose.”) Throughout, the acclaimed writer gives his readers entertaining thoughts on his chosen art (“I have long staunchly agreed with prescriptivists that different from is to be preferred over . . . Hell, I’m just going to say it: Different from is better than different than.”)

But the true genius of this book is the emphasis Blount places on the significance and power of certain letters and combinations of letters. This is the “juice” referred to in the book’s title. Blount’s thesis is that, contrary to what many believe, the relationship between a word and its meaning is not arbitrary. As silly or as insignificant as that may sound, when he observes “I don’t see how other cultures can feel right without g’s in their eggs” by way of establishing the English word’s superiority over its French (“ouef”) and Greek (“ooion”) counterparts, it’s hard to disagree with him.

(Hayden Alfano is also the author of Rhymes With Hondo, a blog about the Boston Celtics, and 19'9", a college basketball blog.)

(The cover of Alphabet Juice is from publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux who use it for promotional purposes.)







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1.28.2009

NFL: Super Bowl XLIII, 2009

The Super Bowl Game Plan

by Rick Rockwell


First, let’s get this straight: this writer bears the Arizona Cardinals no ill will. Sure, they wrecked my prognosticating record in the post-season. But if you dare to predict games of the National Football League (NFL), you have that coming.

Sure, they also wrecked the chances of my Hero Team, the Philadelphia Eagles to get to the Super Bowl. But again, the Eagles let them do that. They had no answer for the Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald passing combo in the first half of the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship game.

I have no allegiance to the Cardinals’ opponent in Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hey, my prediction was the Indianapolis Colts would be here, not the Steelers.

This is all to say, take what follows with advisement. First, because my heart is with the Cardinals. This writer actually has a long sordid history with the Cardinals, which we won’t explore. But any team which hasn’t won a championship since 1947 should get your vote of support. Or at least a beer-induced cheer.

And what’s not to like about the Cardinals this year? They not only have my favorite down-trodden quarterback Kurt Warner, a quick release machine with a football who has been discarded by too many teams to count (he’s had so many comebacks, newspaper writers think they’re cliché to mention now) and the Cardinals are the favorites of my top sportswriter Norman Chad.

But my head tells me it’s the Steelers who will win.

This year’s prognostications aside, this column’s Super Bowl predictions are worth a read: last year the column provided a near-perfect preview of the game plan that beat the New England Patriots. (Steve Spagnuolo who drew up that plan is the newly installed head coach of the St. Louis Rams, after his time as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Does this mean we should ditch writing and go into coaching? Would Spagnuolo even take our calls? Not likely. We won’t quit the day job.)

So how can the Cardinals beat the indomitable Steelers?

Somehow, they will have to catch the Steelers sleeping.

The truth: the Steelers have the top defense in the league. The Steelers blitz from all angles. Even though Warner is tops against a blitzing defense, when the Eagles got serious about stopping him and started charging harder, they slowed the Cardinals’ offense to a crawl. Yes, Warner and Fitzgerald still beat the Eagles, but it was a tough match-up. And the Steelers’ defense is a notch better than the Eagles. If the Steelers use the Eagles’ second half blitzes as a blueprint, the Cardinals will be in a sorry state.

The only chance the Cardinals have to win is if they change the equation. That means they will have to do more to keep their rushing attack going. Somehow they managed to revive running back Edgerrin James and his career during these playoffs. They will have to do that and more. They will have to design some pitch-outs for James and running plays that force Warner to move, which will set up roll-out passes. Not known for his mobility, Warner will have to use a floating pocket to stay upright to throw against the Steelers' onslaught.

The real key will be the Cardinals defense. They will have to bother and blitz Steelers’ quarterback Ben “Big Ben” Roethlisberger. They will have to force him into a mistake (which is unlikely because he is strong under pressure). They will have to sell out on pounding Big Ben and hope they get some turnovers. Otherwise, it will be the pounding of running back Willie Parker all day up the middle and Big Ben heaving bombs. And it could get ugly.

The Steelers are likely to win by more than a touchdown unless the Cardinals somehow find some inner resolve to play beyond their talents. Of course, the Cardinals have found a way to do that at least twice already during the postseason. Three times would really make them charmed.

Super Bowl XLIII Office Pool Predictions


Steelers vs. Cardinals (Steelers)

Two Weeks Ago: .500
2008 Playoffs .400
2008 Season: .611

Playoff TV Schedule:

  • Skip the blather, kickoff is slated for 6:28 p.m. EST on NBC.
For other blogs calling NFL games, please see:
  • The D.C. Universe,
  • Gun Toting Liberal, and
  • The Liberal Journal.


















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    Gaza's Crumbling Ceasefire: A Reaction

    (Editor's Note: This post was written before the recent attacks that threaten to resume the all-out battles that began in Gaza in December of 2008.)

    by Melissa Mahfouz

    Special to iVoryTowerz

    The past month watching Gaza has felt like an incessant chess game: out-strategize the opponent; utilize semantics; and the ends will ultimately justify the means. The so-called "conflict" in Gaza (which is a complete understatement to what has ensued over the course of a few weeks), has taken a devastatingly severe toll, although disproportionately. What is particularly disturbing about the course of events is how drastically the situation has evolved: from the ground Israeli military campaign staged against Palestine's extremists, to the speculation of Fatah agents spying against their Hamas counterparts.

    It is blatantly apparent to any individual mildly familiar with the situation that the Middle East is in complete and utter disarray. Gaza is serving as a microcosm of not only the disenfranchisement of the Arab world, but of the necessity for a coherent and definitive stance on what must be done. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has led the Arab diplomatic initiative, perhaps as a means of preventing the chaos from diffusing into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel. France's Nicolas Sarkozy has also been a catalyst behind the European Union's involvement. However, the EU is lacking any meaty substance in its initiatives. The newly installed Obama administration is already providing a glimmer of hope, with emphasis being placed on multilateral talks, however real action is needed as opposed to the sugar-coated, flimsy nature of past efforts to bring peace to the region.

    Over the course of a mere month, the death toll has totaled about 1,300, with a clear, majority being Palestinian casualties. Regardless of one's political and ideological orientation, it can be agreed upon that unnecessary violence continues to ensue, on what seems to be a never-ending cyclical basis. I recently attended a vigil held at American University for victims of the conflict, and doing so humanized the warring. Soundbites and footage from the BBC and other news syndicates can only portray so much, and never in a million years would I have believed that a mere silent reflection would provide more comfort than words of hatred and frustrated screams. What is gravely needed now is a re-assessment of the value of life. No human being ought to be evaluated as a mere statistic, and once such egalitarianism is established, perhaps today's global citizenry will realize the futility of unabated fighting. One can only hope.

    (The photo of a column of Israeli armor assembling on the border with Gaza in December of 2008 is by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi of Berlin, Germany via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)









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    1.27.2009

    Video Game Review: The Maw

    by Phil Kehres

    The Maw (rated E 10+ [everyone 10 and above], available for download on Xbox Live Arcade)
    Full game release date: January 21, 2009.

    If an ever-growing, anthropomorphic purple blob with an insatiable appetite is your vision of an ideal pet, then you’ll likely enjoy The Maw. It’s also a great game if you’re looking for a quirky little diversion while you’re waiting for the next blockbuster title.

    New on Xbox Live Arcade, The Maw is a simple but fun game that combines action-adventure, level-climbing (known to gamers as platforming) and puzzle-solving elements. You play as Frank, an alien imprisoned by some sort of cyber-alien people. There’s no story that really explains who and why you’re fighting, and it doesn’t really matter. The Maw is the star of the show. He’s essentially a big purple blob that eats everything in sight and grows proportionate to his intake. The Maw helps Frank escape, and throughout the course of the game, you lead him around on an electronic leash of sorts as you make your way through each of the eight levels.

    The objectives are simple. You basically need to eat the right stuff to grow big enough or gain the power you need to pass through a major obstacle and into the next level. The controls are simple as well. Frank can jump, attach his leash to or summon the Maw, or grab things in the environment to smash barriers or throw to the Maw for food. The mechanics of it all work fine. Frank roams on his own, or leads the Maw around with ease. The only issue is the camera. Rather than controlling the y-axis, up and down on the right stick zooms in and out. This can get a bit burdensome when trying to look for objectives or when the Maw gets really large in later levels. It’s not a huge issue, but a full 3-D camera would be preferred.

    Aside from the minor issues, The Maw is a great little game. Where it shines most is in the small details. The soundtrack is whimsical and addictive; the sci-fi inspired phrasings actually rise and fall depending on the action of the game. The alien environs are lush and detailed especially well for an Arcade title. There’s a diverse cast of alien creatures which the Maw can eat and absorb power from, including (but not limited to) peacock-like aliens that shoot lasers from their eyes and giant beetles that charge like rhinos. The Maw itself is a wonder to behold. From the silly grunts and panting to the dopey things it does when you leave it alone — picture a dumb puppy running into walls — the amount of emotion displayed by the one-eyed, razor-toothed, purple blob is an impressive testament to the work put into the game design. You can’t help but audibly giggle every time you turn the game on, and you’ll delight in eating everything in sight and watching the Maw grow to absurd proportions as you proceed through the game.

    Furthermore, The Maw is a fun family game, something there seems to be a dearth of on Xbox 360. You can’t “die,” there is a very minimal amount of cartoonish violence, and the controls are easy to grasp. Unless you feel like a game about an insatiable purple blob promotes child obesity, there’s no reason to feel bad about letting the kiddies get in on the fun.

    Unfortunately, the whole experience only lasts about four to five hours, and there’s really no reason to go back unless you’re an obsessive completionist. There’s no multiplayer mode either, so the replay value is virtually non-existent. However, there is the nice added touch of rewarding the gamer with gamer pictures as you complete certain levels and a dashboard theme when you complete the game. It’s a nice model — a game that gives you tangible rewards rather than meaningless Gamerscore. As such, there’s enough there to justify the price point (800 Microsoft points, or $10), but it’s cutting it a bit close. I wouldn’t call it a “must-have.”

    The bottom line, though, is The Maw does a good job being what it is — a quick, fun diversion. You won’t devote countless hours to this one, but the time you do spend on it will be worthwhile, enjoyable, and rarely frustrating. Xbox Live Arcade could stand to have a few more titles like The Maw in its archives. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the barrage of shoot-em-up games.

    Final verdict: 3.5/5

    (Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)

    (Promotional screenshot of The Maw provided by Twisted Pixel Games. To see a trailer for The Maw, please check below.)










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    The Millennial Benchmark

    This blog turns 1,000 today. Well, not in years. In posts.

    A thousand different thoughts by dozens of authors swirling about in the internet maelstrom and the amazing part is usually the result is a fairly cohesive on-line magazine in the form of a blog.

    The blog’s odometer clicked over on the millennial posting this afternoon. Symbolically, the piece that got the honors was “Music Review: Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream.” This was perfect in so many ways and not planned, actually, as the line-up of this week’s stories shifted unexpectedly during the past 24 hours. But this is symbolic because many of us live out our writing dreams on this blog. We write about what we like, the way we like it. Not many editors would let us do that, normally. So we live out our dreams by working on the blog.

    Another part of the symbolism: a significant number of the blog’s writers appreciate Springsteen.

    And although we are fans, Vincent Lee’s review tells you how this blog works. We don’t fawn. We hold art, media, sports, and politics to a high standard. Nobody gets a free pass. You gotta earn your way. Even one of our idols, Springsteen, gets the treatment.

    Now, if we can just get the Boss to write a song about the blog, maybe all would be forgiven....

    (For more millennial postings, please see: “A Thousand Comments, A Thousand Thanks;” and “A View from the Tower.” The blog’s centennial posting went up more than two years ago in December of 2006: more on that can be found in “Another View from the Tower.”)

    For the posts with the most readers on the blog please see:

    For the most provocative postings on the blog please see:
    (The graphic is from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)



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    Music Review: Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream

    by Vincent Lee

    At Bruce Springsteen's peak with the E Street Band, he wove complex and wonderful stories on top of touching melodies, aided by guitar and saxophone solos. In these so-called “twilight years” Springsteen and the E Street Band have maintained the musicianship, but gotten away from the stunning story telling that put them over the top. Although The Rising and Magic are both solid albums, they greatly lack in comparison to other work. A glimpse of the former lyrical genius is seen only briefly on his latest Working on a Dream. Instead, Working on a Dream is rather comparable to Magic, a very catchy and solid album, but rather lackluster by the high standards the Boss set for himself.

    The opening track, “Outlaw Pete,” an 8-minute tale of a criminal on top of stunning musicianship, is easily the best song on the album. Unfortunately, the rest consists of mostly average songs.

    “Queen of the Supermarket,” an odd romantic tale of an infatuation with a lady working at the supermarket, is the only other song with a story. “The Wrestler,” which feels oddly out of place on this album, seems like a companion song to Devil and Dust's “The Hitter” and is written with a similar tone. The rest is mostly a letdown or feels in many ways like Magic Part Two. This is not exactly a coincidence because several songs were written while Springsteen and the E street band were touring this past year to support the Magic album.

    Initially, Working on a Dream seems like a rather large disappointment. Though true in several ways, Springsteen shows a significant amount of energy on this record. Despite composing several songs with seemingly never ending choruses, he seems refreshed, which is good news should another tour be coming. Beyond his work in the studio, Springsteen has always been at his absolute best in concert. There is a strong possibility many of these lackluster studio songs could become much more on stage.

    However, long-time Springsteen fans will find little to rejoice about with Working on a Dream. In many ways it feels like a Magic continuation, that is weaker than its predecessor. “Outlaw Pete” and “The Wrestler” are both highlights, but are not enough to make the album special. Although it is a pleasant record, nothing about it is particularly special or sets it apart, something Springsteen has done particularly well on his releases throughout his musical career.
    In many ways, it's a letdown.

    (The photo of Bruce Springsteen is from 2005 by Sister72 of Monmouth County, NJ via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. Springsteen & The E Street Band will perform their next live set this week at halftime of Super Bowl XLIII. To see the video for "Life Itself" from Springsteen's Working on a Dream, please check below.)









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    Steroids Don't Buzz the Book World for Baseball

    by Suzie Raven

    It takes some gall to sell out your older brother to make a quick buck, even if you aren’t close. This doesn’t bother Jay McGwire, younger brother of baseball slugger Mark McGwire, who broke Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record by hitting 70 in 1998. (Barry Bonds later broke McGwire’s record). Jay submitted a 58-page manuscript to publishers last week, in which he claims that he gave his brother his first steroid injection in 1994. It also includes details on Mark’s ‘roid rage and pleading the fifth at congressional hearings.

    Several New York publishers have already passed on the manuscript. I’m sure the publisher’s decision to pass is financial. Too much time has elapsed since McGwire’s 2001 retirement from the St. Louis Cardinals and his 2005 congressional hearing, making the book less appealing.


    It’s also not like the market lacks books on steroid confessions. In Jose Canseco’s 2005 memoir Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big, Canseco claimed he introduced McGwire to steroids in 1988, when they played for the Oakland A’s. Jay disputes this in his manuscript.

    We also have Bases Loaded, a memoir by steroids dealer Kirk Radomski coming to bookstores today (Jan. 27) and Game of Shadows, a 2006 book about steroids in sports written by two journalists.

    “The whole steroid thing has been done,” said Frank Sanchez, the head buyer at Kepler’s Books and Magazines.

    It’s not just that the whole steroid confession thing has been done before — it’s also that someone beat Jay to capitalizing on McGwire’s alleged use.

    Just like a player should not be inducted to the Hall of Fame if he needed steroids to break records, Jay McGwire should find a way to make money that does not involve taking advantage of his brother’s name. I hope no one picks up the book.

    (The cover of Bases Loaded is from publishers Hudson Street Press who use it for promotional purposes.)











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    1.26.2009

    Nashville Dodges the English Only Label

    by Emily Norton
    Special to iVoryTowerz

    At a time of celebration for diversity in America, the proposal for an English-only amendment in Nashville came as a shock. Introduced by Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, The Nashville Tennessean noted "the measure would have forced all Metro Nashville government business to be done in English, with the council allowed to vote on exceptions." While Crafton labeled his intentions as unifying and cost cutting, the message in between the lines reads racism and intolerance. It seems unbelievable that this be suggested in a progressive arts city like Nashville. If English-only were to be assumed, the Music City that welcomes tourists from far and wide would become an exclusive metropolis defying America's merry melting pot title. I cannot be convinced the narrow-minded "One Country, One Language" sentiment accurately portrays this nation. Are we not one country, many people, many cultures, many languages, and nonetheless united?

    Fortunately, the greater portion of Nashville erupted in protest. Signs of "Speak up Nashville" incited outrage and debate against the controversial amendment. Late last week, the votes were in, and the measure was overruled. Crafton handled the loss well, and Mayor Karl Dean says Nashville is ready to move forward from this blip on its screen. But my issue is with the final tally. The results show that there were many, 32,144 to be exact, who were in favor of English-only, beaten by a mere 9,608 votes. What does that mean for the future of immigrants in Nashville, or other southern cities? It almost appears that Nashville's leaders are manipulating the defeat of the legislation to their advantage, making weighty claims, such as Dean's statement that this outcome "[reaffirms] Nashville's identity as a welcoming and friendly city and our ability to come together as a community — from all walks of life and perspectives." In my opinion, the petite nineteen percent margin indicates that perhaps the Athens of the South is less accepting than such a triumphant call indicates. Majority rules, but the minority of voters in this English-only special election was too large for comfort.

    (The promotional graphic is from the Speak Up Nashville campaign, which offered its materials for free.)









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    Bolivia: New Constitution Spells Significant Change

    by Dan Aspan
    Special to iVoryTowerz

    On Sunday, Jan. 25, Bolivians lined up at the polls to vote on a new constitution, which passed easily.

    While the events at the polls went peacefully, there was no denying the tension formulating between leftist President Evo Morales and his opposition. The new constitution gives Morales a chance to stay in power until 2014. Under the old constitution, Morales would not have been able to immediately run for re-election, because the old constitution's term limits said a president cannot exceed two, five-year, non-consecutive terms. The new constitution also grants more congressional seats for indigenous (Indian) political groups.

    Bolivia has an Indian majority population, but the group has faced oppression from white and mestizo minorities. Some of the Indians in Bolivia are old enough to remember a time when they were unable to vote. However, the indigenous have been gradually gaining political power and support.

    In 2005, Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. He continued to reverse the trend of inequality and racial oppression, reaching out to the poor and raising the literacy rate. He is an ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but does not enjoy the same economic prosperity that Chavez does; Bolivia is South America’s poorest country.

    Although the vote went peacefully, the new constitution will only exacerbate racial tension in Bolivia and could result in a major violent uproar in the near future. Morales believes the new constitution will re-incorporate indigenous values into Bolivian society, something which was lost at the time of Spanish invasion. The document also eliminates the mention of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, it invokes the name of the Andean earth deity Pachamama.

    While Morales views the constitution as an empowerment to the weak and deprived, his opponents view it as discriminatory. Many of Morales’ political enemies are taking it as a sign that they are being left in the dust. It is unclear what this new constitution will bring to a country that has faced great political turmoil and violent clashes. Some ask if civil war lurks in the background. For now, the people of Bolivia are in for an immediate future filled with extreme tension and uncertainty.

    (For more background on Bolivian politics, please see: "Bolivia: Evo Morales & the Recall.")

    (The photo of President Evo Morales of Bolivia is by Antônio Cruz of Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons license.)








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    1.25.2009

    Obama: Executive Orders & the Oops Factor

    by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

    Media around the world reported for several days last week an anticipated executive order by President Barack Obama, expected on Jan. 22, to lift what’s commonly known as the Global Gag Rule, more formally, as the Mexico City Policy. First imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the policy bans the use of U.S. international aid funds by organizations that even let the word “abortion” pass their workers’ lips. The policy was rescinded by President Bill Clinton on January 22, 1993, in honor of the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and reinstated by President George W. Bush on January 22, 2001, presumably to dishonor the decision. So, it is understandable that media — and feminists — around the world anticipated some comparable action from Obama last Thursday.

    Instead, an “exclusive” news release from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) announced that the network “has learned” that the president would not overturn the policy on that day. CBN’s announcement was released Thursday morning amidst other media outlets’ continued projections that Obama’s executive order lifting the ban was due any moment.

    By the end of the day, the moment had not come, CBN’s exclusive proved accurate, and pro-choice pundits turned silent or scrambled to suggest the delay was Obama’s effort to make nice with the anti-abortion folks by avoiding taking action on what is for them a day of mourning.

    Oh, we did receive a statement from Obama, reiterating his commitment to women’s reproductive rights, but no action.

    So, one of Obama’s core support groups was offered a placating statement, while he postponed action anticipated by the world so he could concurrently placate another group (one, by the way, it’s unlikely he will ever woo to his name on the ballot). Is this pandering or graciousness?

    Now, he did sign the order Friday, Jan. 23, lifting the ban, as even the CBN release admitted was likely, with “Obama is still expected to overturn the Mexico City Policy early in his administration.” By Friday afternoon the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Planned Parenthood Federation had sent e-mail to constituents asking us to thank the president for doing what we expected him to do.

    But I have to note the significance of the January 22 date; it is not lost on any of us involved in this issue — and, I suspect, neither is the significance of Obama’s decision to postpone the expected. I suppose catering to either faction on the Roe v. Wade anniversary de facto dismisses the other, and, ultimately, we are both disappointed to varying degrees.

    So, okay, I’m a big girl, I can give up on the specific date, albeit begrudgingly, and I am grateful for the president’s order and its lifesaving ramifications for women throughout the world. What I cannot get my big girl arms around, however, is how is it that the Christian Broadcasting Network learned of the postponement while the rest of the world's media were left prognosticating like a bunch of two-buck carny palm-readers?

    That really frosts my ass, as the Colonel Father, Sir used to say. It frosts my derriere because the apparent leak to only CBN of the decision to postpone Obama’s executive order demonstrates a degree of exclusivity and fractional politics that decries Obama’s call for unity, a common vision, and open and ethical government. And, for a little added frosting, consider these additional blunders: moving forward with the nomination for treasury secretary of Timothy Geithner, who paid years-past-due taxes only days before he was nominated, and waiving elements of Obama’s brand-spanking new anti-lobbying executive order for William Lynn, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, who has been nominated as deputy defense secretary.

    Not a stellar beginning.

    Nonetheless, all but the most dedicated curmudgeons are feeling hopeful about Obama, while those who continue to oppose him will delight in his errors. Seasoned pro-choice activists will hold their tongues and send Obama a thank you note, while a good tongue-lashing is surely on the way from those I love for criticizing our neophyte president. And, anyone who anguished over Bush’s secretive abuses of power is likely to be delighted with the new user-friendly and information-laden White House website. But, less than a week into this administration, it’s a shame Obama’s pooch has already been screwed.

    (Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

    (For more on the political battle over abortion please see: "The Abortion War: On the Frontlines." For more on Obama's executive orders please see: "Obama & the Destruction of the Bush Torture Regime." For more on disappointment among progressives and Democrats with Obama, please see: "Obamamania: Expectations Meet Reality.")

    (Political graphic © copyright The Heretik, and used with permission.)













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    1.24.2009

    Film Review: Burma VJ at Sundance

    (Editor's Note: Our roving correspondent R.J. Forman sends this review from Utah's Sundance Film Festival, which concludes tonight, Jan. 24.)

    by R.J. Forman

    The message about what is going on in Burma (the country is also known as Myanmar) is incredibly important. The news in 2008 sampled bits of the Burma story with a headline here and there about the demonstrations by Burmese monks, the destruction brought to the country by a cyclone and the Burmese government’s refusal of foreign aid. Then Burma dropped right back off the map.

    That is, until Burma VJ hit the Sundance Film Festival.

    The erudite, well-to-do and overwhelmingly white audience received the film with applause and sighs of content. After the film, the question and answer session with director Anders Ostergaard was lukewarm at best. These were the questions of people who knew nothing about what was actually going on in Burma, aside from what they’d just seen in Ostergaard's less than satisfactory documentary…if you can call it that.

    Ostergaard’s film was compiled mostly of the footage gathered by the reporters working for the non-profit network Democratic Voice of Burma. The harried footage was strung loosely together with the voiceover of one of the reporters, who goes by the name “Joshua.” And to further the lack of cohesiveness in this film, Joshua appeared in silhouette with the backdrop of a desk at a window overlooking a garden. This could have been more effective had Joshua been part of the real story in Burma or had these sections not been shot on a camera with such stark quality contrast to the Burmese footage.

    One of the very compelling stories of Burma recently was one about monks who went against thousands of years of traditions and got political.

    Burma VJ hardly touches upon this important story. All we really learned from this film about the monks is that they marched, were beaten and one monk was killed. The film shows about 20 seconds of footage of the monk’s body floating in a river.

    In addition to Ostergaard seeming to just ride the coattails of the journalists who’d actually done the work, we hardly learned anything of those whom this film was supposed to be about. There was little to no back-story aside from a brief overview of a similar demonstration that happened in Burma in the 1988. We learned that three of the journalists had been arrested and by the end of the movie Joshua was in the jungle or countryside somewhere (the film never makes this clear) but the last date sited in the film was in 2007.

    For this film to debut on such a topical subject at such a know-it-all festival in 2009 an update would surely have been nice to know what has become of these journalists since 2007. Or what about those standing trial? Or the 200 plus monks arrested? Or Burma as a whole? Ostergaard could have at least provided a footnote in the credits.

    Look, I get it that Sundance is where the celebrities go to play and the white grown-up AV club comes to rub elbows with them to discuss cinematography over ridiculously priced soy chai lattés, but Burma provides a real story, with real people and a real problem. Burma deserved better than this.

    (For more background on Burma, please see "The Burmese Crackdown & the Chinese Connection.")

    (The photo is a production still from
    Burma VJ. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)













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    iVoryTowerz Radio: Barack 'n Roll Edition

    The inauguration of President Barack Obama this week brings historic moments even to the underground podcast. This program is our musical tip of the hat to the new president. And also in the spirit of the change the new president has already brought to Washington, the podcast makes major technological breakthroughs. Long-time listeners will notice this week's podcast is a bit clearer through the magic of VOIP (voice-over internet protocol). But what hasn't changed is the underground eclectic mix. Not only does the program feature the stirring anthem of the week delivered by the Queen of Soul, but there's plenty of Motown and soul on this week's program too. There's also classic rock, psychedelia, alt-country, new wave, post-punk and heavy metal. This program covers 45 years of music, but still includes a hefty slice of new rock. So join us in our salute, and, of course, rock on!




    (To download or stream this podcast, please click here.)



    Playlist

    “A Change is Gonna Come” by Otis Redding
    Cover Me: "War" by The Temptations
    "It's Too Late" by Carole King
    “Why Don't You Visit?" by Marykate O'Neil
    "A Woman in Love" by Joan Armatrading
    "Pretty As You Feel" by Jefferson Airplane
    "Well All Right" by Blind Faith
    “Sweet Inspiration” by the Derek Trucks Band
    “Monday” by Wilco
    Jeff’s New Wave: “I Want You Back (Alive)” by Graham Parker & The Rumour
    “Timorous Me” by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
    "Minimum Wage is a Gateway Drug" by Dillinger 4
    "Diamond Hoo Ha Man” by Supergrass
    "Aggro" by The Enemy UK
    "Batcat" by Mogwai
    Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Godzilla” by Blue Öyster Cult
    "My Country 'Tis of Thee" by Aretha Franklin

    (Mp3 Runs - 1:26:20; 79 MB.)

    The program includes songs with explicit language.

    (Graphic by AZRainman. To see more of AZRainman's work, please check out his blog.)

    DISCLAIMER: The iVoryTowerz podcast is a non-commercial, non-profit program designed and used for educational purposes. Some of the material contained in this podcast is previously copyrighted but used with permission. Other copyrighted material is reused following fair use guidelines. Any copyright holders who do not wish to have their material used should contact the programmers directly at ivorytowerzradio@att.net and it will be removed. The programmers do not support filesharing and encourage listeners to buy music from the artists featured in this podcast.





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