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Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Let’s play a game.  What do the following phrases have in common?

It’s You Again
The Gospel According to Luke
I’m Your Man
Your Memory Wins Again
It Wasn’t His Child
Love, Me
Lighter Shade of Blue
Every Other Weekend
Matches
Rebecca Lynn
The Hole
If I Didn’t Have You
You Had Me From Hello
The Coast of Colorado
I Believe
Wish You Were Here
If a Man Could Live on Love Alone

If you don’t know, they’re all hit songs that reached the top (or close to the top) of the country music charts. And all of them were either written or co-written by Skip Ewing. Born in California on March 6, 1964, he began to develop his musical talents at an early age. An accomplished musician as a teenager, he set out to make music that meant something, to write songs that told a story. And based on the list above (only a partial list which includes numerous #1s and at least one “Song of the Year”), I’d say he did a pretty good job.

If you have any of his studio albums (I think I have them all, including his Christmas album), you’re awfully fortunate. If you don’t, go out and just read the lyrics to some of his songs, and you’ll quickly discover his remarkable talent as a writer. It’s an ability that other great talents have taken advantage of, from Sawyer Brown to Reba McEntire, from Randy Travis to Kenny Rogers.

I don’t listen to much country music anymore, but when I do, it’s usually Skip Ewing. If you can find any of his music, you owe it to yourself to buy it.  You won’t be sorry, because he’s one of the very best at his craft.

Happy Birthday, Skip Ewing!!

Recommended Viewing: Matches – Sung by Sammy Kershaw, but written by Skip Ewing. The video just makes a great song that much greater.

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During the first decade the United States lived under the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton (on the left) was a political force.  In fact, one could go so far as to say he was the second-most powerful man in the country, a rung or two below President Washington.  A good number of men loved and respected him (including the first President), and a good number loathed and reviled him (including the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents) .  But no one could argue with the presence and influence the country’s first Treasury Secretary enjoyed.  If you’ve spent any time on the pages of Today’s History Lesson, you know that to be true.  His legacy, now nearly two-and-a-half centuries in length, still lives with us.

During the second decade, Hamilton’s power began to dwindle.  Some of that was his own fault, some not.  Clearly, the Federalist party (to which Hamilton belonged) was falling out of favor, wilting under the pressure of an Anti-Federalist party led by Jefferson and Madison.  Federalists were under constant attack and in those days, before the “gentleman’s press” had come into being, those attacks were vicious and in numerous cases, untrue.

But Hamilton’s own indiscretions hadn’t helped his situation.  His affair with Maria Reynolds had been made public in the late 1790s, causing him to offer up a well-intentioned, but ill-advised public apology.  Then there was the even more ill-advised attack on President Adams (a fellow Federalist), published in the newspapers shortly before the 1800 election.  At this point, he was still hated by Anti-Federalists, but a good number of Federalists were keeping their distance as well.

By 1804, Hamilton was doing very well in his law practice, but struggling mightily for political significance.  The upcoming governor’s race in New York provided Hamilton with chance to gain some ground.  Aaron Burr (on the right above), the current Vice President, had decided to run for the position.  Of course, the feud between Hamilton and Burr needs no introduction around here.  Hamilton was incredibly worried that Burr would win, so he drafted a letter to his close friend Rufus King, currently the ambassador to England, asking him to run.  Hamilton knew that King might not be able to win the election outright against the firmly entrenched Clinton machine, but maybe he would siphon off enough “Burr” votes to prevent his arch-enemy’s victory.

On the day he wrote the letter, February 23, 1804, Hamilton became the center of attention again, and again, for all the wrong reasons.  The “Clinton machine”, led my New York governor George Clinton (another bitter rival of Hamilton’s), began circulating the report that, way back in 1787 (during the time of the Constitutional Convention), Hamilton and John Adams (then the ambassador to England) had negotiated with King George III to create an American monarchy with one of George’s sons as king.  In return, England would give up Canada, Nova Scotia, and other land holdings.

The story was utterly false.  Yes, both Hamilton and Adams had made statements in the past that, taken on their own, could be seen to favor a monarchical government.  But each man’s overall body of work clearly showed that neither, under any circumstance, wanted to return to that form of rule.  And having England in control of America in any way, shape, or form, was anathema to both men.  But the timing of the story was perfect, as Hamilton was beginning to gain a bit of political traction via his law practice.

Without letting go of his current work, Hamilton began tracing threads to determine the story’s originator.  He was a man that, above all else, treasured his own honor.  People began to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air and pistols at ten paces.

Hamilton was in the thick of it again.  Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I’m going to try put together a proper conclusion to this story on the proper day.

Recommended Reading:  Duel:  Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America – A good composite read on the feud between these two powerful men.  It starts a bit slowly for my tastes, but finishes with a flourish.

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We get our television programming from DirecTV, and our channel lineup doesn’t contain any of the standard movie channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.), but it does have two channels wholly devoted to food – the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  The Food Network used to show primarily cooking shows, where people demonstrated how to actually make something.  Nowadays, it’s slipped into more of a “lifestyles” channel, which means a little bit of cooking, and a bunch of advertising of local one-off restaurants.  The Cooking Channel seems to be more the place to go if you actually want to learn how to cook.  At least that’s the way it appears to me.

I’m sure some will argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is probably true.  But outside of Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver, there’s not a ton of cooking shows I really enjoy, so I’m basing my opinions on a rather small sample size.  Anyways, arguing over channel content wasn’t the point of my typing.  Both channels, regardless of what they show you, owe a world of thanks to Julia Child.

It was her culinary skills, her humor, and her bravery that gave rise to the popularity of cooking shows in the first place, and made “channels specializing in food” possible.

In case you didn’t know, one of the first cooking demonstration shows ever was Child’s The French Chef.  It was filmed in black and white in a rather modest kitchen.  And from my perspective, the editing floor was remarkably clean, because it doesn’t appear that anything was cut from the show.  It resulted in what was truly a “reality” show, not the trash we pass off as reality today.

The French Chef, which was first broadcast on February 11, 1963, was full of real-life kitchen goof-ups.  Julia would sometimes forget her place in the recipe she was demonstrating.  She would sometimes mix ingredients in the wrong sequence.  Pans and utensils would, on occasion, be so elusive as to be invisible.  The end product would sometimes look a little strange and, on rare occasions, wound up being tossed in the trash.

And that’s what made the show so incredibly popular.  Through all the real-life “drama” in Julia’s kitchen, viewers learned the basic (and the not-so-basic) techniques to cooking food once thought only achievable by a master chef.  Of course, Julia herself was classically trained in the art of French cooking, but she worked hard to make difficult processes accessible to cooks of all levels.  And we learned that even great chefs get it wrong sometimes, which made us more likely to give it a go ourselves.

Julia herself became a celebrity.  Her lilting voice, that touch of comedian in her, and her adaptability to the changing conditions of the kitchen and a show that was filmed live without editing brought forth a charm that was addicting.  She brandished a cleaver and a mallet, and she talked about “courage of your convictions” as she flipped half a potato pancake on to the stove.  I don’t have a clue what she was like when the camera wasn’t rolling, but she was lovable when it was.

There have been hundred of cooks on television since, some of them really good.  I think of Justin Wilson (the cajun cook that I always thought was hilarious).  That guy Yan who did the show Yan Can Cook.  Of course, Emeril Lagasse.  The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Ann Esposito.  The list goes on and on.  Julia stands alone.

Recently, our local Public Television station dug into the archives and, for a few weeks at least, showed some of those original episodes.  My wife and I watched them, fascinated by how much television cooking has changed.  Yes, there are far fewer gaffes now.  The stars of the shows don’t make very many mistakes because those are edited out.  They don’t look off-set and they don’t drop their dishes.  But they’re not The French Chef, either.

A while back, when I talked about the movie Die Hard, I said that movie sequels aren’t usually as good as the original.  All those cooking shows we watch now?…they’re the sequels to Julia’s masterful original.

Bon Appetit!!

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Well, that’s over.  Of course, I’m referring to the 2012 election.  As you may know, my wife and I live in Iowa, which in recent times has been one of the swing states.  That means our TV, radio, mail, and phones were inundated with reasons to vote for a candidate and reminders to vote.  At 6:30pm on Tuesday night, the last political ad aired on one of the local TV stations.  It was cause for celebration.

Other than the election, the airwaves have been dominated by talk of Hurricane Sandy.  The havoc it caused on the East Coast and the destruction it left in its wake are sobering reminders of weather’s power.  In the Midwest, we are accustomed to tornadoes and the awesome force they possess.  But hurricanes are on a different level, particularly with the rainfall and storm surges they bring in tow.

With these thoughts of foul weather, I am reminded of the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.  On November 9, 1913, a pair of powerful low pressure systems collided over the Great Lakes, creating a monster blizzard-storm with hurricane-style attributes.

Storms on the Great Lakes in November are not all that uncommon.  “November Gales” (as they are often called) happen rather frequently.  We’ve actually talked about it before.  If we quickly fast-forward sixty-two years and one day, we’ll be at November 10, 1975, the day the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost in a very similar (though somewhat less powerful) storm.

The November 1913 storm, however, is considered the grand-daddy of Great Lakes storms.  Most storms blow in, knock things around for a couple of hours, and depart.  This particular storm did its worst damage over the course of sixteen hours.  Snowfall around the Lakes was measured in feet, paralyzing numerous communities.  Ice and wind took down power lines, leaving many of those folks in the dark and cold.

But the greatest disaster was on the Lakes themselves.  Hurricane-force winds of 80 miles per hour created 35-foot waves that battered ships and crews without respite.   Nineteen ships were sunk or destroyed with another nineteen stranded.  More than 250 lives were lost.

Recommended Reading: Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald – The most famous of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

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This is one that I remember pretty well…

In May of 1991, Gang Lu received his Ph. D. from the University of Iowa.  On November 1, 1991, this young man was dead, along with five others.  Gang Lu, who studied physics and astronomy, was a pretty smart guy, but he was apparently pretty angry as well.

When Mr. Lu was awarded his doctorate, it did not come with special recognition.  The D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize was much coveted by Lu and, while the monetary prize it offered was modest, he believed it would smooth the path to a professor’s position at the University.  Instead, the prize went to Linhua Shan, at one time Lu’s college roommate, and Lu was not offered a job at Iowa, mostly due to the economics of the day.

His frustration and rage at his supposed rejection grew until it exploded.  On this morning in 1991, Gang Lu attended a physics department meeting and, shortly after it began, Lu took out a gun and shot four people dead.  Three of them were members of his dissertation committee (the ones that evaluated his doctoral thesis).  The fourth was Linhau Shan, the winner of the prize.  He left the building, walked to another, and killed Anne Cleary, an academic affairs officer.  Gang Lu had talked with her on numerous occasions about his failure to win an award for his work.  She died the next day.  He also shot a temp student in the office for good measure (who lived, but was left paralyzed), then shot himself.

I was in my final semester at Iowa State University, working (kind of) feverishly to finish my degree in Computer Science, and I was a member of the Computer Science Club.  We happened to be meeting that afternoon and I still can remember sitting with them and discussing the incident, trying to grasp what would make someone act in such a heinous manner.  As a club, we sent a card of condolence to Iowa City, and I seem to recall that we were sorry for the tragedy.

But looking back, it wasn’t a “tragedy” at all.  Yes, it was terribly sad, and a bunch of families were forever changed.  But Gang Lu’s actions were despicable…a horrific crime committed solely out of selfishness, greed, and envy.  The dissertation committee had to make a choice, and it didn’t go one man’s way.  So rather than accept the decision, that one man let his fury control his life…and his death…and the unwarranted deaths of others.

I still shake my head over this, 20-some years later.

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Tonight, the country is focused on the East Coast.  And that’s as it should be.  The storm that hit (and continues to pummel) has devastated parts of that region and left an incredible mess for lots of people to try and clean up.  Some of the images bring to mind the tsunami that struck Japan not quite two years ago.  So tonight, we’ll do a little bit of homage to the Big Apple.

Let’s talk about Ben Bailey and Cash Cab, since its home is New York City.

Now when you first think of game shows, your mind’s eye might conjure up images of a fancy set with a pretty hostess.    Maybe there’s a wheel that gets spun by some contestants, or maybe there are prizes on which people bid.  We might hear Johnny yell, “Come on down!!”  Or maybe it’s doors and deals that flash before you.  You can name that tune in just seven notes.  You want big bucks and no whammies.  You can be a millionaire.  What you see is a high-dollar production.

Cash Cab takes place in a taxi.  It’s a minivan taxi and its high-dollar production is limited to a series of small cameras placed throughout the taxi’s interior, a “video bonus” monitor, and a cool light panel mounted in the roof.

And game shows always have a host.  It’s usually a guy with a coat and tie.

Cash Cab has Ben Bailey.  Bailey, who was born on October 30, 1970, is a stand-up comedian turned game-show host extraordinaire.  He wears a shirt and jeans and looks to be the farthest thing from a traditional host.

Unsuspecting people climb into his cab, which then explodes with lights and music and Ben saying, “Welcome to the Cash Cab…it’s a game show that takes place right here in my taxi.”  The show is really just a very up-to-date (and very entertaining) version of Trivial Pursuit.  As contestants are driven to their destination, Ben asks trivia questions.  Every correct answer wins the group money.  Incorrect answers earn a strike.  If a question or two is particularly challenging, contestants can either phone a friend for help or use a “street shout-out”, where a person on the street has the ability to help.  But be careful!…three strikes and Ben pulls the cab over and kicks everybody to the curb.

There is also the fun “red-light challenge”.  If the Cash Cab reaches its destination, the contestants can either take their winnings or risk it all on a single double-or-nothing video bonus question.

The premise is simple, but it’s incredibly entertaining to watch.  Ben Bailey is charming, witty, and really gracious with the folks that get in his cab, expecting nothing more than a ride.

Cash Cab is a great trivia show built on a totally unsuspecting premise (a cab ride), and Ben Bailey is the perfect host.  Kudos to the Discovery Channel for running with the idea.

Happy Birthday, Ben Bailey!!

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I think I’ve been gone long enough.

My surgery (way back on the 2nd) seems to have been successful and, though I’m still a bit stiff and sore, I’m getting better every day.  The surgeon removed a thumb-sized chunk of disk (ok seriously…is it “disk” or “disc”?) that was sitting on the nerves.  As soon as I woke up in the recovery room, I could tell the pain in my left leg was gone.

That’s a great feeling, even though I hurt from being cut open.  And I was home by 2pm the next afternoon…though not very functional.

My wife was extremely helpful and patient throughout the recovery.  It’s somewhat humbling to say that I don’t think I was nearly as good with her when she had surgery.  In my defense, I had no idea what surgery does to a body, and I blame TV for giving me a really distorted view of the whole surgical process, though that excuse is pretty flimsy in its own right.  I will do better with her next time.

Oh, and morphine is lousy…I learned that, too.

I’ve talked about authors once or twice in this forum.  Right off hand, I can remember Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.  Let’s do it again.

I met Michael Crichton’s work in the exact same fashion as I did books by Robert Ludlum.  A lady with whom I worked at my first job out of college knew I liked to read, and loaned me a book.  I recall that it had a white cover and a dinosaur skeleton on the front.  The title, Jurassic Park, meant nothing to me, but I figured I’d give it a go.

When I returned the book to her the next morning, her initial thought was probably that I had read a few pages (maybe even a chapter or two), and then given up on it.  Or maybe she noticed my general state of lethargy, the bags under my eyes, and my dragging feet.  I don’t know, but that tells the true story.  I had found another “glue” book (once it gets in your hands, it’s stuck there until it’s finished).

Of course, the premise of Jurassic Park is completely implausible.  Most of you have probably seen the movie (which does a respectable job of honoring the book), so you know the plot.  A rich guy builds a prehistoric park with real dinosaurs created from DNA taken from ancient mosquitoes.  Then the whole thing collapses in spectacular fashion.

What captured me was the realism with which Crichton wove his tale.  Premise?…like I said, completely implausible.  Delivery?…totally believable.  The book was written with an authenticity that sucked me in.  There was almost a nonchalance with this intricate scientific…stuff…that lent credibility to the story.  I simply couldn’t put it down and had spent the entire night reading.

And while Jurassic Park may be Crichton’s best-known work, it certainly wasn’t the only one.  I was suddenly interested in what else this guy had written.  I purchased a copy of Jurassic Park for my own, then followed it with copies of The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, The Lost World, Timeline, Airframe, and Prey.

And while I thought some of them were less good than others (I really had to work to get through Congo), each was really interesting.  Prey was a sort of nano-technology/artificial intelligence story that I found fascinating.  The Andromeda Strain (one of Crichton’s earlier books) was completely engrossing until the final ten pages.  At that point (in my opinion), it simply fell apart.

But Michael Crichton, who was born October 23, 1942, did more than write books.  If I recall, he was actually a Harvard-educated medical doctor, though I don’t know that he ever practiced medicine (the books and the movie rights probably made him a healthy living)…maybe he did.  This fact alone makes his success even more remarkable because, as you know (if you’ve visited the doctor’s office), most doctors can’t even write their names in a legible format.  Anyways, he came up with the screenplay for the movie Twister (which is familiar to many of you), and of course, was the executive producer of the very popular TV series ER.

Crichton passed away in 2008, a victim of cancer.  But like Ludlum, his writings survive, and continue to entertain readers the world over.  If you’ve never read anything by Michael Crichton, you should.

Happy Birthday, Michael Crichton!!

Recommended Reading:  Jurassic Park – If you haven’t seen the movie, this is a great place to start.  Otherwise, I really liked Airframe and Prey.

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