Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Christmas playlist

Running right now on my iPhone's Christmas playlist as we prepare the house for tonight's Christmas Eve festivities (alphabetically by artist):

Do They Know It's Christmas: Band Aid (1984)

Overly sentimental, but a classic. One criticism: I know it was 1984, but did Simon LeBon really deserve the longest solo? Also, Sting and Bono have great harmony.

• Sleigh Ride: Debbie Gibson (1992)

OK, so I never got over my teenaged crush on Debbie Gibson. But Gibson also shows a little soul on this sassy take on a classic.

Oiche Chiun (Silent Night): Enya (1997)

Enya has always been haunting, and she gives a little dignity back to the holiday here.

She Won't Be Home: Erasure (1988)

I am absolutely flummoxed that this isn't considered a Christmas pop classic. Vince and Andy were never in finer form than this tale of a lonely Christmas.

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Glee Cast (2010)

Darren Criss is about the only thing watchable on "Glee" these days, and his character Blaine's duet with boyfriend Kurt is sweet and smooth.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over): John (Lennon) & Yoko And The Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir (1971)

Hands down a classic. A very effective anti-war song wrapped up in a Christmas song. The kid's choir is sometimes overused in pop music, but has a great effect here.

Christmas Bells: Original Broadway Cast of "Rent" (1996)

Jonathan Larson's talent for writing overlapping harmonies and switching to multiple storylines within one song was never on better display than in this number. From the despair of Christmas among the poor in AIDS-ridden early '90s New York to Roger and Mimi's courtship to Angel and Benny's bonding, this is one of the most-critical songs in advancing the plot. Too bad the movie cut it.

Fairytale Of New York: The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl (1987)

Talk about an epic storyline. When a song starts off "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank" and contains the most-unexpected line of "You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse. I pray God it's our last" in an intentional attempt to make us loathe the characters, you know it's a good one.

Christmas In Hollis: Run-DMC (1987)

It seems 1987 was not only a good year for Christmas music, but it also taught us that hip-hop could cover the holidays as well as any other music genre with this diddy that was also featured in my all-time favorite Christmas movie: "Die Hard."

Merry Xmas Everybody: Slade (1973)

This hard-rocking, humorous song from the original creators of such hair-band classics as "Cum on Feel the Noise" has regained popularity in recent years from its inclusion in recent Doctor Who Christmas specials.

You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch: Thurl Ravenscroft (1966)

Written by Dr. Seuss with every bit of the verbosity for which he's famous, this is a classic.

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home): U2 (1987)

Mostly on this list because MTV played it constantly in 1987, but also because it's a very good version of a longtime favorite.

Linus & Lucy: Vince Guaraldi Trio (1965)

Seriously, what North American child's Christmas tradition didn't have a viewing of "A Charlie Brown Christmas?" This song is not only a great jazz instrumental, but brings back fond memories in almost all who hear it.

Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses (1981)

Talk about your "story songs." This one rivals "American Pie" in its proto-rapped narrative, about a busy young woman's missed connections with a certain gentleman from the previous Christmas. A happy climax at the A&P over a can of cranberry sauce is just one snippet from this tune I'm happy to hear any time of year.

Last Christmas: Wham (1984)

Stick it. This may be a guilty pleasure, but George Michael was never in truer vocal form than here, singing about the brevity of a holiday romance.

Monday, December 12, 2011

It takes more than five minutes to master social media

Infographics, by design, are supposed to make complicated matters appear simple. Sometimes, however, they oversimplify the topic.

One such over-simplifying graphic is at Mashable’s 5-Minute Guide to Getting a Job in Social Media. The infographic, originally published on Sept. 2, 2011, offers many good tips, but they might be either a little too vague or too generic to help those interested in getting paid for their social media use.

For example, while the first two tips (“establish an online presence” and “be proficient in all social channels”) might seem relevant to those interested in social media, the remaining topics (“be creative and relevant,” “be a professional,” “know the industry/company,” “network,” “know the lingo,” etc.) are good advice no matter the profession.

And how much demand is there for the profession? As a late-September article in the Los Angeles Times put it, “No one knows exactly how many social media jobs exist, but a quick scan of online recruitment sites shows a bounty of businesses looking to hire.”

So, in essence, no one can predict how long this social media hiring spree will last or how widespread it really is. Moreover, the tips given by Mashable are either common sense or rather vague.

The accuracy of the salary charts listed in the infographic is also up for debate. A salary of $80,000 to $100,000 annually for a social media manager sounds good, but as the number of avid social media users grow, corporations will no doubt realize that they can hire some fresh-out-of-college kid to Tweet and post to Facebook, and pay accordingly. Moreover, until the analytics come in as to how successful social media is in acquiring and nurturing customers, salaries might come down unless an increase in sales due to social media is affirmed.

One tip that I personally might find hard following is the advice to “be proficient on all channels.” I am an avid Twitter user, and have made a number of LinkedIn connections. But I was an early avoider of Facebook, initially thinking it too much like MySpace. When I finally had to open an account for a SFSU journalism class, it was under a pseudonym. I have made only four friends there (and befriended one only because she wanted it for her birthday present and another — a teenage cousin — only after she practically cried when I initially ignored her friend request). So I am obviously a latecomer to Mark Zuckerberg’s world. Maybe it’s time for me to upgrade. I’ve personally always felt superior in having an underutilized Facebook account.

Sadly, my life is boring enough that I don’t have any pictures of me getting drunk at parties, so “being professional” is not a problem of mine.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dropsie Avenue — Eisner's Tenement Trilogy, part III

Note: This is a review of the third book in Will Eisner’s Tenement Trilogy. The first two books, A Contract with God, and A Life Force, were previously reviewed in October and November.

Anyone who’s spent time in an old part of a big city can tell you that neighborhoods have personalities of their own. San Francisco’s Mission District or North Beach, for example, or New York’s Hells Kitchen, have long, storied histories that developed as time moved on.

In Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, the third graphic novel in what I call Eisner’s “Tenement Trilogy” we learn the story of one fictional neighborhood in what is now the Bronx.

While A Contract with God was a series of short stories set in the Depression-era neighborhood and A Life Force essentially focused on an extended family through the 1930s, Dropsie Avenue focuses on the one character that is present through the series: the neighborhood itself.

The story begins in the 1870s on a farm owned by a Dutch family. A series of tragedies soon strikes the family and soon after, new folks, “The English” as they’re called in the story, move in.

In what will be a recurring motif, one of the characters laments the newcomers and feels the neighborhood (and property values) will suffer. Later, the Irish begin moving into the neighborhood and we see the same lament.

Then the same "they don't belong here" with the Germans.

The Italians.

The Jews.

The Puerto Ricans.

The “Negroes.”

In the 1910s, tenement housing goes up. Eisner shows us how corruption permeated every aspect of early 20th Century New York, down to the placement of subway stations and what organized crime would do to protect its investment.

Later on, as the story moves to the 1950s and 1960s, we see how the “old guard” in the neighborhood continues to be suspicious and hateful of newcomers — even when they once faced discrimination themselves.

By the era of the Vietnam War, the neighborhood becomes a run-down shell of what it once was. But we see that money is still to be made — if your morals are loose enough.

Of course, the building "mysteriously" burns down later.
Some say the "One Percent" are still doing stuff like this.

While the “Dropsie Avenue” neighborhood is fictional, the stories reflect some real-life history of New York. Obviously a composite neighborhood, Dropsie Avenue shows the struggles seen in many old cities as the United States grew.

Eisner’s storytelling in this book takes a little getting used too. Unlike the vignettes of A Contract with God or the clear, sometimes tense plotting of A Life Force, Dropsie Avenue reflects a continuing, ongoing history of the birth, life, death and rebirth of a neighborhood (with subtle hints that the cycle will continue). There’s 120 years of history to cover in a little more than 180 pages, so things seem condensed. We see couples meet, court, marry and have children in a few panels. Some characters last less than five pages before they move on – but we may see their children a decade or two later.

The pacing was hard to get used to, and somewhat confusing even for an experienced graphic novel reader such as myself. Eisner seems to eschew characterization and plotting at certain points because he was trying to say something important. Certainly Eisner has written one of the few graphic novels to tap into the controversial sociological theory of the neighborhood life cycle (joining last year’s ACT production of “Clybourne Park” as one of the few depictions of the phenomenon in the arts).

But Eisner also does something interesting in Dropsie Avenue. He makes a non-speaking, non-moving neighborhood into one of the most real characters ever seen in a graphic novel. You might not care much for the people walking on its streets, but by the end you care a lot about the neighborhood itself.

Henry Holmes died in a horse race

Henry W.V. Holmes' tombstone in Adelaide's West Terrace Cemetery
Open picture in new window to enlarge.
Occasionally, I have the macabre hobby of walking through cemeteries (developed when I had to take shortcuts through Colma). I look to look at the tombstones and wonder a bit about peoples' lives. I think it's nice to be remembered long after you're gone.

When I was in Australia a while back, I disembarked from the train at Adelaide's Keswick Station for a brief tour about town. Next to the train station is the opulent West Terrace Cemetery.

While there, I saw this particular tombstone, and I don't know what struck me more: That Henry Holmes died at about the same age as I am, that he died riding in a local horse race (a hurdle race, at that), that his tombstone was in danger of falling over, or that his wife's name appears to be misspelled.

(On the side of the tombstone is even something more somber: the birth and death dates of two Holmes children who died in infancy. What a tragic family.)

But Henry's ghost can take solace in the fact that he's remembered a century later -- his marker is at the front of the cemetery and can be seen easily from the nearby sidewalk.

No word on Kanmantoo's fate.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Go ahead, put your bananas in the refrigerator

The United Fruit Company, may have overthrown Latin American governments, hired Columbian death squads and exacerbated economic and social divisions throughout the Americas. But, damn, could its adwriters write a good jingle.

Even the youngest among us have heard the Chiquita Banana song:

For those who missed it, here are the lyrics:

I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way
When they are fleck'd with brown and have a golden hue
Bananas taste the best and are best for you
You can put them in a salad
You can put them in a pie-aye
Any way you want to eat them
It's impossible to beat them
But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator
So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator

Don’t refrigerate the banana? Why not? What are the consequences?

I’m not the first to ask this question, nor will I be the last. Opinions suggest that refrigeration is fine, but ripening is slowed. But I needed to find out for myself.

Only one way to sort this out — experiment time!

Our experimental bunch of bananas. Click on photos to embiggen.

Day 1:
Step 1 — Got a pledge from my wife that she would make banana bread out of any rotten bananas.
Step 2 — Bought a small bunch of four barely-ripened bananas (above) from Safeway.
Step 3 — Lettered them from A to D, then left them to ripen in the four most-common fruit storage methods that I could think of:

• Banana A (the control) was simply put in my fruit basket with the other fruit;

• Banana B was put into the refrigerator to test the assessment in the song;

• Banana C was put on top of the refrigerator because that’s where my mom thought fruit best ripened;

• Banana D was kept in a paper bag, based on folk wisdom that keeping fruit in paper bags helps it ripen faster.

I then let nature take its course. The first few days, all the bananas looked the same, with the first brown splotches showing up on all four on day 3.

Sadly, tragedy struck on Day 6 when Banana C (on the top of the refrigerator) was eaten prematurely by an absent-minded housemate. The best I can say was that it looked little different on Day 5 from any of the other bananas.

Day 7: After one week, I compare my three remaining bananas (right).

Banana A is a bright yellow, with several round brown spots. Would still pick up and eat based on physical appearance.

Banana B is greener than its counterparts. Browning is more diffuse than other bananas (in blotches more than spots). Would eat this one last based on physical appearance.

Banana C: Missing.

Banana D: What do you know? It appears the paper bag method works. Appears to have gotten more ripe than other bananas. Even spotting. Would eat based on physical appearance.

Day 14: After two weeks, the experiment was over. I put all three bananas (below) on the counter, examined their appearance and resolved to take a couple bites from each.

Banana A: The best looking of the bunch and the only one I would pick to eat based on how it looks. Still fairly yellow, with high-contrast spots. After peeling, severe mushy spots apparent on top end. Bottom is still edible and appetizing, but upper half is a waste.

Banana B: This banana has a fairly even brown skin at this point. Based on appearance alone, would not choose to eat. But upon peeling, I am very surprised. The actual fruit is still firm and good-looking. Without a peel, this banana still looks fresh! Tastes good. Actually finish.

Banana C: Missing.

Banana D: Almost completely covered with splotches. Not very appetizing in appearance. Peeled skin. Interior was almost completely brown and mushy. Did not eat.

So the moral? If you need your bananas to ripen quickly, try a paper bag but don’t leave them in too long. If you want your bananas to last, refrigerate them, Chiquita Banana Song be damned. Just don't expect them to look good.

* Footnote: My wife notes that this was a bad experiment, as the third banana went missing. “It’s like Jonas Salk was about to cure polio and someone ate the moldy bread,” she said.