After 20 years at the University of Oregon, I have retired. So, I will begin posting about my new experiences here and hope you find them interesting.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Hit Men in concert at Three Rivers in Florence, Oregon - Oh, What a Night!!

A music review by  © 2013

Last year my sisters and I had such a great time attending a performance of "Jersey Boys" at Keller Auditorium in Portland that when I saw some of the original "Four Seasons" had formed a new group called "The Hit Men" and were to perform at the Three Rivers Casino over on the coast in Florence, Oregon I couldn't resist booking some tickets.

I was certainly glad I did.  The show sold out and when the group started playing, everyone in the audience, including me, could hardly resist singing along with them and I think there was even dancing going on in the aisles!  They started out with a Four Seasons medley that included the Four Seasons classics "Dawn", "Rag Doll" and "Working My Way Back to You".  Then they kept knocking out hit after hit after hit.

Many of the songs were from the Four Seasons repertoire (some of my most favorite dance music from the 60s and 70s) but the group also includes members who have played with Tommy James and the Shondells, Elton John, Carly Simon and Jim Croce so we were treated to spirited renditions of "Mony, Mony", "Hanky Panky", "Crocodile Rock", "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" and "You're so Vain", too.

Apparently, the musicians were inspired to get together again because of the phenomenal success of "Jersey Boys", the Broadway play that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and includes many of their hit songs.  Lee Shapiro on the keyboard, who got the Hit Men together, and Gerry Polci, on the drums, were members of The Four Seasons until the 90s.

Gerry Polci was also the lead singer on one of the Four Seasons greatest hits, "Oh, What a Night!".  The song, written by Bob Gaudio and his wife Judy Parker, was originally about the repeal of Prohibition and entitled "December 5th, 1933but after a lyric rewrite at the urging of Franki Valli, the song became a nostalgic remembrance of a young man's first affair with a woman and the rest is music history.When the group performed that song during the concert, Polci once again sang the lead and it sounded as terrific as it did when The Four Seasons first recorded it all those years ago and released it as a single in December 1975.

Not only did the songs sound as good as I remembered but the musicians were all obviously having a great time, too.

“It's really amazing to be reliving my greatest moments in music with the the guys who were there.”
– Gerry Polci, Hit Men drummer and former Four Seasons.

I was also totally blown away by the energy exhibited by the band members as many were at least as old as I am. Russ Velazquez who has not only performed with Sting, Carol King, LL Cool J and Paula Abdul but is a four time Emmy-nominated composer and arranger for his work on TV's Sesame Street,was just all over the stage and had an amazing vocal range.

Larry Gates sang a particularly mean "Mony, Mony" and supplied the distinctive falsetto in many of The Four Seasons' songs. Jimmy Ryan, who has received gold and platinum records playing alongside Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Cat Stephens, Jim Croce and Carly Simon was in absolutely top form, too! Of course as a close friend of Carly Simon, he sang the lead in "You're so Vain." Ryan also frequently told little stories in between sets about the early days of rock-n-roll that were really interesting and certainly turned up the nostalgia factor!

One of Ryan's stories included a memory about a performance when the power went out and they had to sing without amplified instruments.  To show us what it was like, all of the men walked up to the front of the stage leaving their instruments behind, except for Ryan's unplugged guitar.  Then they sang "Silence is Golden", first released by The Four Seasons in 1964.  Their harmony is so sweet they didn't really need their instruments anyway.

I noticed that Don Ciccone, another member of the Four Seasons, is featured in some of the Hit Men videos on YouTube.  He has also appeared with them but did not come on this particular tour.  In addition to The Four Seasons, Ciccone sang with Tommy James and the Shondells and is probably the reason the Hit Men include songs from that group, like "I Think We're Alone, Now", "Hanky Panky" and "Mony, Mony" in their performances.

If you see an advertisement in your area for an appearance of "The Hit Men", by all means, don't pass it up! You, too, will be saying "Oh, What a Night!!"

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Slitherine Games capitalizes on "Gravity" success with Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager

A gaming resource article by  © 2013

In my Slitherine Ltd newsletter today I see that the game developer is capitalizing on the wildly successful space drama "Gravity" starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney by preparing to release a new strategy game entitled "Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager".

"Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager (SPM) is the ultimate game of space exploration. It is the mid 1950s and the biggest nations in the world, in an effort to conquer outer space together, have established the Global Space Agency (GSA). You are in charge. It's your duty to carefully manage the agency's budget by opening programs, spending R&D funds on improving the hardware, recruiting personnel and astronauts and launching space missions in this realistic turn based strategy game. 
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, ScD 1963 (Cou...
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, ScD 1963 (Course XVI) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In sandbox mode manage your agency, recruit and train technicians, astronauts, flight controllers, scientists and engineers. Research and develop thousands of components for hundreds of missions, all the time balancing your budget. Then watch your missions launch with thousands of beautiful renders of these amazing spacecraft. In Campaign mode do all this while also dealing with politicians and their short term goals. 
Develop the X-15 Space plane, the Sputnik satellite, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned spacecrafts and in later episodes on to Mars! You are not limited to the missions that did launch - you can also try out many that were planned but that never left the drawing board. For example, instead of sending men to the Moon using the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) approach used by Project Apollo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you will be able to rewrite history and use either the alternative Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) or Direct Ascent schemes. The number of options ensures every game will be different and there is huge replay value. 
To ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the game it is being developed in consultation with Dr. Buzz Aldrin, former U.S. Air Force combat pilot (66 missions in Korea) and NASA astronaut, who took part in the first Moon landing mission and became the second human being to walk on the Moon." - Slitherine Games
When I was a school girl back in the 60s, inspired by Gene Roddenberry's original "Star Trek",  I dreamed of being the first female astronaut.  I ended up on a very different career trajectory! But maybe this game is my chance to experience the space program after all!
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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sears Shop Your Way Rewards a Joke!!

A consumer resource article by  © 2013

I don't usually rant online but today I have to vent about my frustration with Sears "Shop Your Way Rewards" program.  Like many retailers, Sears jumped on the rewards program marketing scheme last year.  I was encouraged to sign up for the program when my husband and I happened to be in Sears shopping for tool accessories.  I thought, "Why not?" so I filled out the application and signed up for email alerts.

One day I received an email from Sears Shop Your Way Rewards offering me a free piece of apparel if I bought one other piece as long as it wasn't outerwear or a leather item.  I had been into Sears earlier in the week and saw a blouse that I liked so I printed off the coupon and headed to the Sears store in town.  I found a couple of blouses I wanted and went to the checkout counter with my coupon.  The sales clerk scanned the coupon but it wouldn't register.  She called the department manager who also scanned the coupon and didn't have any better luck.  She then read the coupon fine print and said it was intended to be used at a Sears catalog outlet not a Sears retail outlet.  I told her that was ridiculous since it was not obvious to a customer they meant it was only good at a Sears catalog store and not a retail store.  I also pointed out that Sears catalog stores also have very little apparel if any in stock so essentially what good was it then!  She finally agreed to honor it but admonished me that I'd better not try to "pull" this again as if I was trying to swindle them or something.

I decided then and there that I would virtually ignore future mailings as they were essentially worthless.  But, today I noticed that my GE refrigerator filter warning light came on and commented to my husband that I guessed I would have to drive in to Sears (where we bought it) and pick up a new one.  Those filters are always very expensive - about $40 each.  I remembered seeing one of those emails from Sears Shop Your Way Rewards in my inbox so I checked it out and it was offering me $12 in points if I bought something from Sears before the end of the week.  So I logged into Sears.com and checked for the refrigerator water filter I needed.  I saw the regular GE brand filter I always bought at the store for the usual $40+.  But, I noticed a generic filter that was compatible with my refrigerator for only $22 so I put it in my shopping cart instead.

When I went to checkout I couldn't find anyplace to indicate I wanted to use my points on this purchase even though I was logged in with my Rewards ID.  So, I called customer support.  The service representative told me that on the last page of the checkout process there would be a choice to redeem points.  I told him that I saw they would accept Paypal and wanted to use it but I knew that once I clicked the Paypal option, I would be taken directly to Paypal to finish payment authorization and knew there would be no option to apply points there.  The service representative admitted I was right and said if I used Paypal I could not redeem points.

At that point the service representative offered to complete the order for me so I gave him the information he needed (shipping and billing address, payment information, etc) and we progressed to the final check out page.  When he attempted to redeem my points, he was told that points could not be used on that purchase because the item I had selected was shipped from a third party and not directly from Sears!!  At this point I was totally frustrated and sputtered "Each time I try to "Shop My Way" with your rewards program you [Sears] always have some reason why the points can't be used!  What good are they then, anyway!!!"

The service representative said he was sorry and offered me a 10% discount on my order ($2).

Maybe Sears designed their rewards program after an airlines rewards model.  Between black out dates and constantly increasing the number of points it takes for a ticket, airlines have perfected the "illusion" of value with their frequent flyer programs.  But Sears should keep in mind who their competitors are.  Amazon's rewards program works beautifully and I have used it so often and so successfully that I regularly reach for their rewards card each time I make a purchase.

I read on the web that Sears may go the same way as Montgomery Wards.  The article I read said the only thing that was keeping Sears viable was its tool sales.  Well, it certainly isn't their rewards program!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Are lewd gestures a legitimate update to West Side Story in the 21st century?

West Side Story
West Side Story (Photo credit: thejcgerm)
I loved the 1961 movie "West Side Story" and even learned the lyrics to all of the songs when my older sister Pam bought the LP album.  So I was excited when I found out that "Broadway Across America" was going to present "West Side Story" right here in Eugene at The Hult Center.  I bought my ticket months in advance and eagerly anticipated my chance to see the play.  I even got a ticket in the very front row!

So, when I arrived at the theater I was anxious for the performance to begin.  The theater company had their own orchestra and the music was as marvelous as I remembered.  As each scene unfolded the performances of the actors playing Anita, Maria, Riff, Bernardo and Action were very professional.  The actor playing Tony seemed a little hesitant but his singing, though, was quite strong.  His projection was a little uneven in the first song but he seemed to settle down after that.  I wondered if he would be able to pull off singing "Maria" as this song requires so much range but he absolutely nailed it!

I was surprised, however, by the bedroom scene with Tony and Maria and the simulated gang rape of Anita as neither was present in the movie (that I could remember).  But I figured that was considered updating the story for a 21st century audience more familiar with far more vicious gang behavior.  I willingly accepted these changes as well as much more Spanish in the song lyrics (obviously a nod to the much higher percentage of Hispanic peoples in our population now). But, I must admit I was appalled by the addition of lewd gestures during the performance of the song "Officer Krupke".  The gestures seem less obvious in the clip from "YouTube" or maybe it's because I was sitting just a few feet away from the actors in the front row.  I suppose the change in choreography could also be considered updating too, but I felt the crudeness was unnecessary and somehow cheapened the performance.  I also found the gangs' openly disrespectful behavior toward "Doc" who ran the drug store where the teens socialized to be very uncomfortable, too - definitely not the atmosphere portrayed in TV's "Happy Days" and definitely not the behavior I would like to see viewed as acceptable.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I realize members of 21st century gangs are far more brutal than the late 1950s era Sharks and Jets ever dreamed.  But I'm not sure this type of melding current social behaviors with a vintage musical is an improvement.  I remember watching the original movie in the contemporary setting of the early 1960s and I got the message of the story without having to squirm with discomfort over extremely unpleasant behaviors.

I sometimes wonder why openly lewd behavior has become so commonplace that our society just seems to accept it or just laugh it off.  Several months ago I attended a presentation by Robin Williams, also at the Hult Center.  I realize standup comedy can get quite crude, having visited a comedy club down in San Francisco once. But Mr. Williams is such an amazing talent and I loved his performance in "Good Morning, Vietnam" so much that I jumped at the chance to see him in person.  It was quite funny in parts and I'm glad I attended but I couldn't help but wonder why Mr. Williams, who has received so many awards and accolades from our society, seemed to feel he needed to include so much "crotch grabbing" as he did in that performance.  Perhaps he felt it was necessary to win over an audience that included so many college students, as Eugene is the home of the University of Oregon.  If so, that's a sad commentary on the intellectual maturity of our "best and brightest".  Personally, I would have laughed far more at some good political zingers and I think most of the audience would have enjoyed them more too.

Oh well, maybe I'm just becoming an old fuddy duddy!
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Phony Reviews Prompt Amazon Purge

As many of you know, I have reviewed books for a number of years now.  I spend a lot of time on my reviews because I attempt to parallel the events in the novels with actual history of the period as evidenced by quotes from the ancient sources.  This much work, however, is seldom reflected by many other reviews I have read on Amazon.  I don't know how many reviews I have read that clearly appear to be a slight rewrite of the book's dust jacket.  Therefore, when I read that Amazon had purged thousands of reviews from their website, I actually applauded this move.

Amazon Book Reviews Deleted in a Purge Aimed at Manipulation - NYTimes.com:

I'm not sure what criteria were used to effect this purge and if I knew the particulars I might not be so approving but I hope Amazon has enough technology at its disposal that it based its purge on some aspect of the review that would indicate it was not a thoughtful analysis of the work.

The New York Times article I read pointed to a high percentage of positive reviews being a criteria Amazon may have used to determine which reviews to eliminate.  This particular criteria is not as foolproof as it may sound, however.  I find it really hard to be totally negative in a review.  I am more comfortable reviewing books the way I critique photographs when I am asked to be a judge at the Emerald Photographic Society where I am a member.

We usually begin a photo critique by pointing out the positive aspects of an image then we discuss what could have made an image better.  This method helps a photographer learn but does not totally discourage a potential photographer from trying to improve.

With a book, it is different, to be sure, but there are basic attributes that I look at to evaluate the book's potential for success.  Are the characters well drawn and 3-dimensional?  Is the story plotted well with pacing to keep the reader interested?  Has the author researched the setting to the extent that the environment is accurate and can immerse the reader in the time period?  For historical novels, are places or social practices described or items used accurate to the period?  How accurate are historical events?  If historical events are compressed or altered are they manipulated to advance the plot or simply inaccurate because of poor research?  It is a given, of course, that the book should not be filled with grammatical or spelling errors.

I have frequently been asked by self-published authors for reviews.  When I open a book and right away I find it is filled with errors and that the writer is not experienced enough to write what we used to call in the journalism trade a decent "hook" - an opening paragraph or scene compelling enough to make a reader want to continue to read, I prefer to simply not review the book (I must be honest and admit I prefer not to waste any more time on it) rather than write a scathing diatribe about the amateurish nature of it.  This is not to say that all self-published books are not worth reading.  I have found some real jewels among the ranks of self-published books.  Furthermore, I must also point out that I have, unfortunately, found books filled with errors being promoted by publishers who have sought to cut corners by minimalizing or even eliminating the editing process.  Ultimately, I view reading as an investment of my time and I expect a decent return on investment.

One other thing about the New York Times article caught my eye.  The reviews of a retired librarian named Mrs. Klausner have also been targeted by Amazon.  Apparently, this amazing woman cranks out seven reviews a day and speed reads stacks of books the rest of the time.  When the woman was asked about the validity of her reviews, she explained that she doesn't sleep much and people should "Get A Life, Read a Book!"  I'm sorry Mrs. Klausner but, although I find reading a good book to be an enriching experience, I prefer to balance my life with attending plays and concerts, watching a good movie, playing an interesting computer game, experiencing beautiful art and architecture, or tramping through the woods on a rainy day photographing mushrooms with my fellow photographer friends.  Spending too much time in imaginary worlds means you are spending too little time in our own and we have such a limited time allotted to us.

My son called me this morning and we were discussing the latest movies we had seen and books we had read and I told him I had so many books to read, movies and performances to see and games to play I was afraid I wouldn't get to them all before I checked out of this world and he said "Well, look at it this way Mom, it's better than just sitting around waiting for the inevitable!"

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Alien" erupts from "Prometheus" shell

I'm a big fan of Ridley Scott so with some level of anticipation, I trotted off to the mall to see his latest, "Prometheus", yesterday.

 What a let down! (Spoilers ahead)

I found "Prometheus" to be little more than a remake of the original "Alien" with only a slight twist that the "creatures" were being transported to earth by our original "creators" to wipe out the inhabitants for some unspecified failure or shortcoming on our part or perhaps we had sufficiently "terraformed" the earth to a point that our "creators" decided they wanted it or something. The reason was never explained and screamed SEQUEL so loud you could hardly concentrate on the action. Of course, if you've seen "Alien" you didn't need to worry about following the plot anyway. It even had the same artificial life form with the same milky fluid for blood (not Henrickson, though, but a handsome Peter O'Toole type, Michael Fassbender) and the same strong female survivor (Noomi Rapace but not as riveting as Sigourney Weaver. Even the life cycle of the alien was the same and Ridley Scott surely must have paid H.R. Giger some kind of royalty for the "inspiration" for the fully rendered appearance of the mature creature complete with inner mouth parts!
Michael Fassbender as A.I. "David"
in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus"

Maybe somewhere Scott admitted it was an Alien remake but I had not seen anything mentioned to that effect in the usual promo articles I had read. I have gone to a few remakes but I prefer to know that before deciding to see a film. For the most part I also do not understand the purpose of doing a remake of a film considered a classic and I doubt such efforts yield the profits that an original story would. The original "Alien" has had so many sequels and spinoffs that it's not like audiences haven't been exposed to the "Alien" universe many times since its original conception in 1979.

I see that the L.A. Times film critic has weighed in and says Scott admits to "sharing some DNA" with "Alien" but I think they were being overly tactful because of Scott's reputation. I felt the same disappointment with the less than spectacular TV series helmed by Steven Spielberg - "Falling Skies" and "Terra Nova". It's as if Spielberg let the Nielsen ratings folks write the scripts to meet some demographic target. I guess "Falling Skies" supposedly survived the network axes (Terra Nova did not) and so we will be "treated" to another season. But if the entire season revolves around freeing captured kids from the aliens without a more significant overarching storyline, it won't hold my interest for very long.

Anyway, as far as Ridley Scott's work is concerned, I guess he's entitled to a do-over.  The film did have a visually spectacular opening scene and, as someone who is fascinated by archaeology, I really liked the visuals connected with the civilization of the "creators".  I also felt the artificial being played by Michael Fassbender was mesmerizing and wished his role had been exploited more. 

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading between the lines of The Hunger Games

A science fiction review by  © 2012

 Several days ago I watched a brief interview with Donald Sutherland who played the subtly sinister President Snow in "The Hunger Games". Apparently, Sutherland agreed to be cast in the role despite the fact that he would have relatively little screen time in the film. Sutherland said he felt "The Hunger Games" was a film that could be a catalyst for the younger generation who he feels have been dormant for far too long and should take a cue from the young people in the Middle East engaged in the Arab Spring.  He emphasizes this film needs to be seen not just by young people but by all of the 99% who are suffering from the oppression we have experienced in recent years - ostensibly at the hands of a government corrupted by greed and increasingly oblivious to the needs of the citizens it is sworn to represent.

 If you read between the lines of "The Hunger Games" you must conclude that the social conditions in the outlying "districts" where most of the people live, is the result of a society ruled by the wealthy 1% who reside in "The Capital".  These "few" apparently have no compassion for "the many" less fortunate and no social conscience about the wealthy's ostentatious consumption of both food and other resources while the working poor scrape by on burned crusts of bread or a deer or rabbit snagged under the watchful eyes of surveillance aircraft. All social programs have apparently been eliminated, surely under the pretense of providing more "freedom" from government interference in their daily lives and as a "necessary" strategy to reduce the deficit created by military spending in the recent rebellion. (Sound familiar?)   Katniss, a member of a poor family of a now-deceased coal miner killed in a mine explosion, helps feed her mother and sister by clandestinely hunting in the surrounding forest. There was apparently no workmen's compensation survivor benefits or food stamp programs to help the family with basic needs after the primary breadwinner was killed and Katniss' mother is obviously suffering from severe clinical depression.  She doesn't even show much emotion when her daughter is selected in the annual lottery to compete in "The Hunger Games" even though it represents a virtual death sentence since only one of 24 contestants will emerge alive.  But apparently, there is no health care either let alone mental health care to restore her as a loving parent to her two daughters or bring her back into society as a functional individual who can successfully take up her responsibilities as head of household.

In a flashback we see Katniss shivering against a tree in the pouring rain watching Peta, the baker's son, tossing burned loaves to a handful of pigs, hoping she will be able to snatch some of the bread out of the mud after Peta leaves before the hogs wolf it down.   Peta sees her there and surreptitiously tosses part of a blackened loaf into the mud at her feet, looking around apprehensively as if  he would be scolded if he was seen.  So apparently charitable giving to others is also frowned upon or even the working class needs every scrap to survive.  The society has truly devolved into an "every man/woman for himself" existence.

Meanwhile the 1% in the capital are a garish, supercilious lot who paint themselves up and don ridiculous (but I'm sure outrageously expensive) costumes while they consume vast quantities of elaborate dishes apparently without a thought as to the near starvation being suffered by the subordinate peoples around them.  People might compare them to the ancient Romans but even the Romans provided daily bread, public latrines, entertainment and public bathhouses for even the lowliest citizen in their midst.  Wealthy Romans built aqueducts to bring fresh water to the masses and constructed roads, temples, theaters and amphitheaters.  But the wealthy of "The Hunger Games" seem consumed only with self-interest and maintaining power - much like many members of Congress in our own capital today.

The day before I saw the Donald Sutherland interview, Good Morning America had a piece on over-the-top baby showers by the rich and famous that included the gifting of Gucci shoes and $6,000 rhinestone-studded infant bath tubs for the new arrivals.  What was most disturbing, though, was that the piece was presented as if it was something we could all aspired to!  I found it revolting.

Of course the main focus of the film is the struggle of the competitors in "The Hunger Games" itself.  According to President Snow, the games were devised to give the masses a little hope.  He patiently explains to a subordinate that "A little hope is effective...a lot of hope is dangerous."  Therefore, he points out, hope must be contained.  The Hunger Games, although it results in the deaths of two young people from each of 11 districts plus one from the 12th district every year, provides the opportunity for someone to escape the confines of a miserable existence and find out what it is like to truly live as a member of the privileged few - much like our own state-run lotteries only without the penalty of death for the losers.

I thought this lesson about hope was amply illustrated this past weekend when news of thousands of people lining up for a particularly large lottery jackpot was broadcast on television - so many people, probably thousands who have been out of work for such a long time, looking to the lottery as a last resort, pinning what little hope they have left on random chance and that small piece of paper.  It's really quite tragic if you stop to think about it.  Why do so many people hunger for a lifestyle enjoyed by so few?

I hope Donald Sutherland is right about "The Hunger Games".  We need the young to become inspired and lend their energy to the struggle to preserve human rights, dignity and opportunity for all, not just the privileged few.  Some people blame President Obama for not being able to reverse the financial damage caused by the "Great Recession" fast enough, claiming he promised them hope and didn't deliver.  I say he didn't promise us fixing the mess we were in was going to be quick or easy.  He asked us to hope so we could foster the momentum that was needed to overcome the years of fear mongering and division that had characterized American politics for far too long.  We should not abandon that hope now with the work only part done.  After all, like President Snow said, hope IS the only thing more powerful than fear.
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