Beyond Star Trek Beyond

In case you haven’t heard by now, CBS will be airing a new Star Trek series on their Video On Demand (VOD) servies, All Access, in 2017. I have decidedly mixed feelings about this new series.

star-trek-logo

Now, let me say (and you should probably know if you’ve read anything on this blog before) that I am a huge Trekkie. I love the idea of the universe and all the hope it speaks of for the future of humanity. I am also super excited to get my Star Trek nerd on even more. I’ve been watching all of the old series’ online, I’ve started roleplaying in the universe, I got a series of the books as part of a Christmas present and I recently watched all of the films again. I’d forgotten just how bad some of those films were (and some of the episodes of all the various series’), but that’s not the point. The point is, I really like Star Trek and am excited about where this new show could potentially go.

My mixed feelings come from a few of the specifics known about the show. I’m wary of it being only available VOD. I understand that TNG started a new trend for the franchise when they syndicated the show originally. I understand that the new show wants to embrace this change in technology and culture — essentially living up to Star Trek‘s futuristic use of technology. What I’m hesitant is that the people who are interested won’t want to spend $6 a month on basically one show. They may watch the plethora of other shows available on All Access, they may not. But why spend $72 a year if you’re really only going to watch one show? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until it comes out on DVD and then buy that (probably for $40 if not less)? At least people who subscribe to Netflix or HBO or even Amazon Prime have lots of other shows and movies to watch. Potentially those are available on All Access, but will people take advantage of it?

Also, since it’s only available online, that leads to the very real (and likely) possibility of leaking and/or illegally downloading. Game of Thrones was the most pirated show of all time, with reportedly more than 30 million downloads last season alone. I don’t think there are that many Trekkies around the world, and fewer still who would illegally stream it even if there were, but piracy does concern me. Not enough that I think it would destroy a new series completely if piracy numbers were high, but it’s obviously something the producers and network should worry about since it’s only available on one platform. If enough people pirated the show, would they cancel it since it is potentially losing revenue? Who knows?

My third concern is who the producer is — Alex Kurtzman. As a co-writer of the JJ Abrams reboot films, he does deserve some credit in making Trek popular again. However, I’ve felt like the new movies are action flicks that happen to have a bit of science fiction and, oh yeah, it’s the Star Trek universe. To me they didn’t have the feel of Star Trek at all, really. Trek is supposed to have an emphasis on exploration and optimism. Yet with the movies, if you changed the character names it could be any generic sci-fi film. The previews I’ve seen for the newest film, Beyond, strike me that way, too. If I didn’t know it was supposedly a Star Trek film, it would actually hold no interest for me, that’s how little I care for straight-up action films. I’m worried that that same feeling will transfer over into the show. That is, that it will be an action show that happens to have some sci-fi elements in it. The shows that Kurtzman produces for TV already — Hawaii Five-O, Limitless, Scorpion, etc. — have a bit of that feel. They’re not necessarily bad shows, nor strictly procedurals, but there is certainly a lot of action in them.

Wired had an article when the show was first announced a few months ago about what it wants to see in the new show (based on a popular podcast series about sci-fi/fantasy stuff). I, like the people interviewed for that article, want to see numerous things for the show. Those include having science and exploration at the forefront again. It’s the future, set in space. Humanity (and the Federation) would experience all sorts of new things for the first time. It should show the wonder of that! Space is huge, and exciting. Hopefully the show could capture that!

It should also have a (social) message of some sort. After all, TOS had the first interracial kiss on television, had a Russian member of the crew though it aired during the height of Cold War tensions with Russia, had stories about the Vietnam War and ones about racism, just to name a few. With new issues in the 21st century that were never dreamed of 50 years ago, the show has an opportunity to address a modern culture in an intriguing way. Which isn’t to say it has to be social messages all the time, but they should play some part. As John Joseph Adams mentioned, having a diverse crew — especially an openly gay character — would always have that hint of social commentary, even if only in the background.

I would also like to see more explanation of the lack of money in the Federation. In today’s post-Wall Street bailout climate, where austerity seems to be a commonplace practice, showing how a society could function without the drive for monetary game speaks to me, and potentially others. There have been some recent blogs/articles by leading economists and financial groups about this issue. It’s not a major theme that would need tons of exploring, but some sort of full, rational explanation would be fun.

trek meme

The thing I most want to see in the new show, however, is at least 7 seasons. The world of Star Trek thrives on the small screen, where character arcs can be long and drawn out; where people have a chance to change and grow; where a universe can really be fleshed out. Three of the live-action spin-offs got a full 7 seasons, and I would argue Enterprise deserved renewal for at least one more, if not another three, just because it was really starting to get good there at the end during season four. Having a set amount of episodes/seasons in which to tell the story would benefit everyone, from the writers to the producers to the audience. Writers would know that if they put hints of a backstory in somewhere, they will have an opportunity to come back to it later, even if it’s not for three more seasons. Producers can plan for the long-term with budgets and stories and actors. The audience would know it could invest time and energy into the show, and that cliff-hangers would have an ending. New shows, especially Trek, take time to develop good writing and character depth. They deserve the opportunity to be able to get through the rough patches without fear of cancellation. Because if it does get cancelled early, there probably won’t be another official, licensed Trek series for a long, long time, if ever (there are numerous fan-fiction series’ that are not half-bad).

Next week I’ll present my ideas for how I think a new Trek show could work. The new show probably won’t use my ideas, but hey, maybe they’ll see the post and hire me as a writer. You never know…

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#KeepPounding into Super Bowl 50

I’m very much looking forward to Super Bowl 50 in almost two weeks, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, my favourite team, the Carolina Panthers, are playing in it. So I’ll be rooting for them the whole way! Second, a good friend’s favourite team, the Denver Broncos, are playing. So my friend and I can talk smack at each other for a little bit and then taunt the other person for a year should their team win. Third, I’ve never missed watching a Super Bowl, for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the US with a football-loving family, we would make snacks and have friends over for my family’s version of a party. Living abroad later, I would go to pubs or friend’s houses or stream the game. Seeing as how the game starts very, very late for my local time, this means my sleep schedule is messed up for a bit, but that’s okay. Currently, I don’t have plans on 8 February anyway, so I can have a bit of a lie in that day. Fourth, I love football. Specifically, NFL football, despite the hypocrisy of the organisation (more on that later).

This is only the second Super Bowl appearance for the Carolina Panthers. Which is actually pretty impressive, seeing as how they’ve only been in existence for 20 years. Indeed, it seems somehow appropriate that they are in the Super Bowl during their 20th anniversary in the league. It would have been a fun storyline if the other team that came into existence in 1995, the Jacksonville Jaguars, also made the Super Bowl, but obviously they didn’t.

Panthers SB

Anyway, I have a lot of hope for the Panthers this year. They’re the NFL’s top scoring team, they’ve got a dominant defence (defense, for the Americans), a good mix of rushing and passing, and, perhaps most importantly, have quarterback Cam Newton playing at a high level. He’s really blossomed this year into not only a great leader for the team, but a great quarterback in general. The knock on him in his previous seasons was that he was a rusher who could throw and he would often make mistakes at critical times (like throwing an interception in last year’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks that was returned for a touchdown). This year, though, he’s not only a great rusher, but really blossomed into a great ‘traditional’ QB playing out of the pocket. This year he’s shown he can beat a team in multiple ways — throwing, rushing or not doing much and relying on a great defence. He should win the league Most Valuable Player award this year, and deservedly so. I have to admit, when the Panthers selected him in the draft a few years ago I thought they made a mistake, but I’m glad I was proven wrong. He should be a great player for years to come and, hopefully, this will be just the first of many Super Bowl appearances (and wins).

On the other side of the field will be Denver Broncos QB Petyton Manning. This is probably his last chance to win a Super Bowl. He’s 39, didn’t play particularly well this year, is owed a lot of money next year and has been dealing with some pretty serious injuries during the regular season. It would be surprising if he didn’t retire during the off-season. It would be fitting if he could go out a Super Bowl winner, leaving on a high note like a few others have done, notably former Broncos QB and current Broncos executive John Elway, who retired after winning his second Super Bowl back in the late 90s. Manning has been a great player for years, holding almost every NFL record available to quarterbacks. He has such great knowledge and love for the game that it’s hard not to respect him as a player, even if you don’t support his team. Whilst I do respect Manning, I’ve never particularly liked him and definitely don’t want him to win the Super Bowl this year. He could win, but I don’t want him to. Though he hasn’t had a good year (by his standards), obviously the rest of the team has played well enough to be one of the last two teams standing. There are some great receivers on the team, and the defence is the top-ranked in the league. So the Broncos will have a shot to win. But my money and heart are with the Panthers.

That being said, the NFL is a horrible organisation. Commissioner Roger Goodell, in particular, seems to be a megalomaniac and hypocrite; in my opinion he’s just a thug in a tailored suit. His style of authoritarian rule and mishandling of several issues has really put me off him. When he was first appointed Commissioner and wanted to ‘clean up the game’ by eliminating certain hits and focus on player safety, I was all for it. Football is a violent sport, for sure, but there are definitely some things that shouldn’t be allowed, and he tried to fix those broken things. But in the last few years he’s shown just how out-of-touch with reality he is. Beginning with Ray Rice’s 2-game suspension for domestic abuse through to the ‘Deflategate’ debacle, he’s a reactionary person with no real plan. The NFL is a sad place when a man can beat a woman and receive a shorter suspension than someone who smokes marijuana or uses some dietary supplement that happens to have a banned ingredient. Granted, that policy of domestic abuse suspension did get changed, but only after a very loud, very public outcry. Even the marijuana rules got changed recently to allow for a higher threshold, but with it being legal for medicinal or recreational use in about half of the states in the US now, the whole policy outlawing its ban needs abolishing.  As for ‘Deflategate’, I think Tom Brady did probably know about deflated footballs, but the initial penalty outweighed the crime, and there was no actual ‘proof’ so far as I could see. It also seemed to be a fairly common practice around the league.  Goodell went way above and beyond any theoretical authority he had in issuing a Brady suspension. The fact that it has gone to a federal court and is now still pending over a year after the initial incident has done more to harm the ‘image’ of the game than any potential effects of an under-inflated football (just look at the results of the Colts-Patriots game last year where the Patriots dominated in the second half after ‘properly’ inflated footballs). But Goodell’s ego won’t let him back down with any sort of grace or apology.

Furthermore, the talk of making the NFL safer for players seems to be just that, talk. Some recent changes involving concussions are a great first step, but that pales in comparison to things that haven’t been done. If the NFL really wanted to make it safer, it would require mouth guards to be worn, which has been theorised, and possibly proven, to reduce concussions and brain injuries. Even if they don’t, it’s possible they do, and so should be required equipment if there really was a desire to improve player safety. Furthermore, the NFL plays games on Thursdays (and Saturdays in late December and January), making for short recovery times during those weeks. Again, football is a violent sport, but having games so close together definitely increases potential damage to players and adversely affects their health. The same goes for a proposed 18-game regular season. Those two issues are more about making money than player safety. It’s also ridiculous that most NFL stadiums receive some sort of local subsidies and tax breaks, meaning normal taxpayers have to support a multi-billion dollar industry to make already-rich owners even richer. Until recently the NFL was a ‘not-for-profit’ entity, meaning it received federal tax breaks as well. How it could have ever qualified for such a status in the first place is unbelievable. In short, the NFL, and most sport leagues in general, is a horrible organisation bent only on increasing profits for its billionaire owners that pays lip service to player safety but isn’t actually concerned with it.

None of which will stop me from watching Super Bowl 50. Maybe it says something about me as a person. But the Super Bowl is also the highest-rated television event in the US — and therefore one of the highest around the world — making me just one small part of the issue. I’ll be cheering on my Panthers, encouraging them to #keeppounding (a mantra the team uses inspired by former player and coach Sam Mills, who died of cancer a few years ago). Even if they don’t win, I want them to play a good game. But I’d prefer for them to win.

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Farewell, Major Tom

I awoke yesterday to the stunning news of David Bowie’s death. Apparently many of his family and friends, including producer Tony Visconti, knew he was suffering from cancer for a while. Some have, in retrospect, realised that his recent communication with them was a way of saying goodbye. Others hadn’t been in contact in a while and merely offered tributes.

Like much of the wider world, though, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news. Oddly, I had a similar relationship to Bowie as I did to Leonard Nimoy — I obviously never knew him, but he was always just there. I don’t remember the first time I heard ‘Fame’ or ‘Man Who Sold the World’ or ‘Space Oddity’, I just know they were constants throughout my childhood and adult life. My biggest impression was of him in Labyrinth as the Goblin King, probably; at least growing up until I started appreciating music more.

Though I was never a huge fan, but I know plenty of people who were. I always respected his work, but he was not one of the artists that resonated with me. It’s odd, then, that I’m actually using him and his work in my dissertation.

In one of my chapters I discuss the impact of what I term ‘background players’ — including managers, producers, studio musicians and press agents — have on their musical charges. These ‘background players’ are people who are integral in creating and promoting music, but who don’t get their fair share of the credit (generally). There have been a few recent documentaries celebrating these people, like one of the Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, Who managers Lambert & Stamp and some other things I’ve seen on the BBC, but these pale in comparison to books, movies, articles, documentaries and general praise for the music these people and places helped make famous. So in one of my PhD chapters I investigate the role of people like members of the famed Wrecking Crew and of Tony Visconti. Bowie was always effusive in his praise of his producer, saying that for the Man Who Sold the World album, people should give ‘all credit to Tony Visconti, who produced it’ and who wrote the ‘maniacally sliding bass’. It’s awesome that he said that, and totally deserved, but people still ignore the background players. Still, I respect him for trying.

I spent much of yesterday listening to Bowie, in my own small tribute, as I imagine many people did. He may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. He inspired too many people, produced such great material and was such a presence in the world — whether people realised it or not, like me — that his spirit will never truly be gone.

I loved that he was willing to try new things, never settling for the same style or theme. He truly transformed the world, from the moment he fell to earth to final liftoff. Goodbye, Major Tom, you’ll be missed.

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The Doors of Perception

As we enter this new year, I thought it might be a good time to take back up the world of blogging after last year’s prolonged absence. Mostly I stopped as I was experiencing some hectic personal issues. But with a new year comes new opportunities. I’ll be shifting away from academic writing for the most part, but there might be allusions to academia on occasion. I am still a trained historian, after all. But mostly I’ll be writing about various forms of popular culture.

Since the new year often revolves around resolutions and reflecting back upon the previous year, I thought I would start with something similar. I recently saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens and watched Marvel’s Jessica Jones. In preparation for TFA I re-watched the original trilogy (prequels, what prequels?). Both Star Wars and Marvel are now owned by Disney, but I noticed another similarity between the original trilogy and Jessica Jones: perception and interpretation. In Jedi, Obi-Wan said most of the truths we hold are based on our own interpretation. This idea was true in almost everything we do.

Jessica Jones

There are spoilers below. You’ve been warned.

There was one episode of Jessica Jones where Jessica and Kilgrave were remembering 18 seconds when Jessica wasn’t under his mind control. Jessica stayed with him during those seconds, before being forced to again with a command. Kilgrave interpreted it as a possibility of love. Jessica interpreted it as finally being free of a horrible experience and trying to figure out what to do next; imagining a way of escape. Both characters were there for the event, experienced the same 18 seconds, but had a completely different viewpoint on what it meant.

Later in the series Jessica doesn’t believe that she’s a hero whilst at the same time people are calling her, saying she’s the only one who can save them — the traditional definition of hero. Jessica thought that since she had to kill someone, she was not heroic. The rest of the world seemed to think that because she killed someone she was heroic. It’s a subtle difference, but obviously the implications are huge.

In TFA, someone asks if Han is the Han Solo, the hero of the Rebellion. He replies ‘I used to be’. To both the character asking him and to the audience, he’s still the stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder who shot first. To the mature Han of TFA, he’s an ordinary smuggler with no dreams of getting (re)involved in intergalactic affairs.

Which interpretation of Jessica Jones or Han Solo is correct? Can they both be heroes and not be heroes at the same time? Can they live up to both their own expectations of themselves and other people’s expectations?

Perhaps this meme can illustrate the point (I’m a cat person, as you may have noticed).

cat perception

Is the cat really on its side? Or is that just one perception of it?

On a personal level, perceptions are huge. I think of myself as hard-working, dedicated, a good (ish) writer and loads of other positive attributes. Those are the things I put on my CV when applying for jobs, for which I (obviously) think I’m the best candidate. Yet since I don’t have every job for which I’ve ever applied, there’s a somewhat different perception from employers. Maybe they see I haven’t quite finished my PhD yet (arg!) and aren’t willing to take a chance. Or that my writing examples aren’t as good as they would like. Maybe I really am the best candidate for the job, but I don’t have the personal connection with the hiring manager that someone else does, so I don’t get invited for an interview. Whatever the reason, our perceptions of who we are and other people’s perceptions of us are different.

That’s not always a bad thing, per se. In secondary school and university I never thought I was particularly attractive. My partner has a different perception, which she makes known on a regular basis (thankfully!). Should people stop looking to Jessica Jones as a hero just because she doesn’t see herself like that? Should I continue to see myself as unattractive? Should Han still be considered scruffy-looking?

Our individual truths are not the only truths in the world. We just need to be aware of that and be willing (possibly) to change our perceptions when given a different interpretation.

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Scotty, Beam Him Up

Growing up I was a Star Wars fan. If you were a kid in the late-80s/early-90s and liked sci-fi/fantasy, you were either a Star Wars adherent or a Star Trek fan; there was none of this modern nerdy ‘coexist’ stuff.

coexist

I knew of Trek, of course. I had caught the occasional episode of The Next Generation (TNG) or Deep Space Nine (DS9), but never made it a point to tune in on a regular basis. At least not until Voyager (I know, I know… hey, it was the show that was on when I was finally old enough to appreciate Trek). It was during this time in secondary school when I really drifted away from the fantasy of the Force to the slightly more science-based fiction of the Federation (George Lucas had a lot to do with that, as well, of course. So far as I’m concerned, there are currently only three Star Wars films, with a fourth being released soon-ish. And Han Shot first!) Anyway, by the time I entered university as an undergraduate, I was starting down the Trekkie path.

I had caught some of the original-cast films either in reruns or in the theatre — I distinctly remember going to see Generations on the big screen and think it was probably my first Trek film at the cinema. I had seen any of The Original Series (TOS) or, honestly, liked the cast much when I was younger. I knew who Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones were, of course, but I had no real connection with them. It wasn’t until the past year or so that I even watched TOS at all, so I was struck by my emotional resonance at the death of Leonard Nimoy last week.

Now, I’ve never met him. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s met him. He’s had no real direct impact on my life. Yet somehow he was always just there. Whether it was the idea of Spock that permeated all the sci-fi that I later read, or his other acting, voice-acting or directing work, or his writings that I almost invariably saw during my time working at a book store, somehow Leonard Nimoy was always around. Or maybe it was the influence that Star Trek as a whole had on society, from inspiring people to get into space exploration and the sciences in general (see this NASA picture from the launch of Enterprise) to helping us humans believe a better future was possible. Indeed, in my final year of secondary school I used the Klingon idea of Sto-vo-kor in a talk about the afterlife, and at uni I was arguing the idea of the Federation as the ideal Communist society, living together in peace and harmony working for the greater good. Somehow, without me ever realising it, Spock — and Nimoy — gave me comfort. Now that he’s gone, I’m truly saddened.

My life was enhanced just by him being in the world. I guess that’s the mark of a true icon. He did truly live long and proper. I can only hope to do him the honour of trying to follow a similar life. Perhaps Kirk actually said it best in Wrath of Khan, ‘Of my friend I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels his was the most human’. In the meantime, I found this JoBlo tribute video a touching summary. Leonard Nimoy, you will certainly be missed.

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Top Albums 2014 Edition

Apologies for the long delay in writing. There has been a lot of pop culture news that I considered writing about — new seasons of TV shows, film releases (though, honestly, I haven’t seen anything in a while), lots of new music. But I wasn’t feeling inspired. Part of that is because my academic plans this year fell through. I’m not teaching as I expected and, since I submitted my dissertation, haven’t done much academic work, leading to my lack of inspiration.

All that changed when I read this ridiculous Rolling Stone article, at which point I felt my thoughts on the best albums of the year became important. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but no way was High Hopes the second best album of the year. Hell, it’s not even Springsteen’s second best album in the past five years. Don’t even get me started on their top choice…

As much as I’d like to listen to every new album released, I just don’t have the time, so this list is culled from what I’ve actually heard. There’s probably some albums I should have listened to but never got around to doing, and some that I like more than other critics. I am a product of my own musical preferences, that’s for sure. There was quite a bit of good music this year (particularly country), so narrowing down to ten was actually a bit tough. I don’t have a clear favourite this year, so these are presented in no particular order.

jenny lewis voyager

Jenny Lewis — The Voyager

The indie-rock maven and former lead singer of Rilo Kiley returns with her first solo album in six years. Fueled by a two-year bout of insomnia, the album tells tales both personal, ‘Just One of the Guys’, about aging and being a childless woman, and metaphorical, ‘Aloha & the Three Johns’. With contributions from First Aid Kit and Beck, as well as production from Ryan Adams (who also released an album of strong material this year after his own long hiatus), the album ranges from surf-inspired jams to New Wave sounds. An excellent addition to Lewis’ already stellar records.

ocms remedy

Old Crow Medicine Show — Remedy

The Virginia-based old-timey band turns in their strongest album since 2006’s Big Iron World. The songs are catchy, soulful, exuberant and vibrant. The album sounds like it could trace its way through the sounds of American history. Due to the band’s superb musicianship and boundless enthusiasm, the raunchy ‘Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ and breakneck pace of ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’ somehow manage to sound at home next to the to lamentations for dead soldiers and friends (both ‘Dearly Departed Friend’ and ‘Brave Boys’). A decade after the band turned a Bob Dylan sketch, ‘Wagon Wheel’, into a hit, they again collaborated with him on the new tune ‘Sweet Amarillo’. It sounds just as in place as their previous pairing.

eric church outsiders

Eric Church — The Outsiders

Like most country artists, this new country outlaw draws inspiration from every day life and the music around him. But unlike traditionalists, his influences range from the rock power-chords of Nirvana and the Clash to rap, which all show through in the Chief’s fourth full-length album. Church is by turns both melancholy and menacing, but also soulful and pop friendly. The contrasts of the album wouldn’t fit on almost any other country-rocker, but Church plays the hometown outlaw card so well it all adds to the mystique. You can tell Church loves his wife, NASCAR, beer, rock ‘n’ roll and his hometown. He’s not quite the outsider he pretends to be; just another good ol’ boy.

george ezra wanted on voyageGeorge Ezra — Wanted On Voyage

If you didn’t know this deep-voiced bluesy belter was a 21-year-old Bristol-based kid, you would swear he were a wizened old Southern soul, because, as the common phrase says, he has a ‘voice beyond his years’. Catchy tunes mix with weary-eyed wanderings to make this one of the best albums of the year. He’s a new musician to watch, with his debut album having already reached number 1 in the UK charts. His infectious wailing on songs like ‘Blame It On Me’ and ‘Cassy O’ belies a darker tone; ‘Lucifer’s inside’, he warns in ‘Did You Hear the Rain?’.

matthew ryan boxersMatthew Ryan — Boxers

The Pennsylvania-born raspy-voiced rocker delivers another soulful blend of brooding and hope in his latest outing. As the official bio for the record reads, it is an album that is a ‘growling missive in the modern wilderness, a defiant howl against complacency, despair and greed’. Furthermore, all the proceeds from the first single, ‘An Anthem For the Broken’, went to help his friend John Anderson fight ALS. The live recording, with minimal overdubs, can be felt in the energy and passion involved. With contributions from, among others, Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon on guitars, the album is drenched with a sonic ambiance that demands playing loud.

gaslight anthem get hurtGaslight Anthem — Get Hurt

In addition to helping his friend (and tour partner) Matthew Ryan record an album, Brian Fallon was busy with his own stellar collection of material. The new work reflected a career-shift of sorts for the band, in part inspired by Fallon’s divorce. The New Jersey-based rockers turned to Nashville for its new sound, with a few country touches mutely included in the overall sound. Though it doesn’t quite have quite the anthemic songs like ’59 Sound’ or ‘Handwritten’, it still delivers passion and a solid bunch of music.

dierks bentley riserDierks Bentley — Riser

Fun, loss, drinking, introspection; just some of the words that describe songs from Bentley’s seventh album. A mishmash of themes fill the collection, from wondering why all the ‘Bourbon in Kentucky’ can’t make him forget, so he takes a solo honeymoon and gets ‘Drunk On A Plane’ to remembrances of the trips he and his dad took in an old beat up truck. He also has fun in back porch parties with ‘good ol’ boys pickin’ six strings’. It’s not quite the ‘bro-country’ that tended to dominate the genre this year, though there are touches of the style tinged throughout. Bentley has grown as a musician since his early records, and this album shows his maturity and growth.

lydia loveless somewhere elseLydia Loveless — Somewhere Else

No one expects a 23 year-old to name-check, let alone write a song about, French symbolic poet Paul Verlaine (oddly, Eric Church also invoked him in a poem he recites on his album), but Lydia Loveless does so twice on her third album. With its songs inspired by feelings of love (‘Chris Isaak’), lust (‘Head’), anger and pain (‘Verlaine Shot Rimbaud’), Loveless shows her writing chops have only improved with each passing record. The depth and complexity of alt-country continues to show the genre has not yet reached its heights, with Loveless helping to lead the charge.

angaleena presley american middle classAngaleena Presley — American Middle Class

The final member of the critically acclaimed country group Pistol Annies to release an album, Angaleena Presley shows that the trio (whose members also include Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe) is indeed a supergroup in the best sense. In her debut, Presley paints tales of truth of the American Middle Class. It deals with everyday problems in a new way, detailing the dangers of prescription drug abuse (in both ‘Pain Pills’ and ‘Dry County Blues’) as well as longing and regret (‘Grocery Store’, ‘Better Off Red’). Whilst the themes are well tread in country, Presley’s honest take removes the clichés.

laura cantrell no where there from hereLaura Cantrell — No Way There From Here

Her first album of original material in nine years, Cantrell delivers a beautiful one. The New York-based sometimes DJ sings songs that are deceptively deep, not just pretty. It’s a personal album but not-quite autobiographical, deep and textured but filled with lovely sounds. Indeed, as the opening track suggests ‘All the Girls Are Complicated’, a sentiment that rings true throughout the album. With songs that mix tempo, from hymnal to country ballad to almost flat-out rock, the music is interesting enough to keep the listener satisfied and coming back for more; perhaps enough to catch many of the deeper truths casual listeners won’t notice at first glance.


Honourable Mentions

tweedy sukieraeTweedy — Sukierae

I’m a huge Wilco fan. Their lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, released a ‘solo’ album, created along with his drummer son, Spencer, entitled Sukierae. Its twenty tracks, spread over two discs, is laconic, menacing, jazzy, avant-garde, precious and precocious. Rolling Stone described the album as ‘psychedelic folk’, as apt as any title. It takes a different path than would a ‘normal’ Wilco record (whatever that means from a band that constantly reinvents its sound), further proving that Tweedy is one of the best (and most under-appreciated) writers of his era.

wilco ahfWilco — Alpha Mike Foxtrot

Speaking of Wilco, they’ve now been around for an amazing twenty years. Though there were numerous personnel changes over the first ten years, for the past decade the band has had a solid lineup. In response to two decades together, they released both a ‘greatest hits’ double album, What’s Your 20, (though many tracks that weren’t included would be contested amongst Wilco enthusiasts) as well as a four-disc ‘alternative history’ of the band, as seen through demos, alternate versions, B-sides and live tracks, this Alpha Mike Foxtrot. Though almost everything on the compilation has been released on something (and I actually have almost all of it on various discs), this one collection is a boon nonetheless. It includes a rich 64-page set of liner notes detailing every song by Tweedy, with notes from band members and extended professional family. Since it’s not, strictly speaking, new material, I didn’t include it in my ‘best of’ list, though I will certainly enjoy it nonetheless.

gotg awesome mixGuardians of the Galaxy — Awesome Mix, Vol. 1

Also not technically a new album, this infectious soundtrack is still part of the honourable mentions because it’s so darn good. As great as the movie was, it would have suffered without the fantastic mix of songs presented here. I’m very much looking forward to what will be included in the Awesome Mix, Vol. 2 in the next installment of the movie.

 

Walk the Moon — ‘Shut Up + Dance’

It’s not an album, but this song has got to be one of the catchiest tunes of the year. I just can’t seem to get it out of my head. The video is a lot of fun, too. Enjoy.

 

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At the Dark End of the Street

I’m done!  Mostly.  I think…

I’ve completed a full revised draft of the entire thesis.  It’s even under the maximum word limit.  Mostly it’s good, with some very strong sections.  I have sent it off to my advisor for last comments.

light

This will be the second time my advisor has seen the complete draft.  He gave me some excellent feedback last week, which I incorporated into this latest revision.  I hope he doesn’t come back with anything more, as I would really like to submit soon.  Ideally Friday.

I’m mostly happy with everything.  Part of me wants to re-write a chapter completely, but that would take another few days or weeks (possibly months since term starts soon).  It’s not that it’s a bad chapter, as I do make the argument fairly well.  It’s just that it was the first chapter I wrote, back in year one.  It’s of course been revised, since my writing has improved since then, as has the specific focus of the dissertation.  It’s not out of place, it could just use some polishing.  The good news is I think that’s the worst thing that can really be said about the chapter.

I’m sure once the viva comes around there will be plenty of other issues that my particular writing style.  I can start worrying about that soon enough, though.  In the meantime I have classes to start teaching.

Next Monday is the start of term.    My first class is Tuesday.  It’s the introductory lecture so I don’t necessarily need the full hour-long content, but I want more than just a five-minute overview.  I’ll work up something between now and then (right?).  I’ve found the first term to be the hardest in terms of teaching.  Part of that is because everyone is readjusting from the summer break, getting used to new people and (for first years) living away from parental security and making the most of the university experience.  I’m sure there are other things, too; the point being, teaching in term one seems harder than the rest of the year.

I can, if necessarily, take up to another whole year to submit my PhD.  Apparently I’m actually registered through 2015, and my current visa lets me stay until some time in 2016.  My fellowship doesn’t require me to submit by the start of term, nor do I have to pay more tuition fees if I take a bit of extra time.  It’s more a personal issue.  I want to be done with this so I can focus on the next task.  Yes, I know I won’t be done with it completely until there’s a book published (heck, maybe not even then!) from it, but I’m ready for this aspect to be done.  There are a lot of offshoots from the thesis that I want to start exploring.  There are a bunch of new, unrelated topics that I would love to start researching.  I’m ready to move on.

I see the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter every day.  I know there’s plenty of other work to do to keep me busy, but those are other tunnels.  I’m getting to the end of this one.  I think.  Hopefully my advisor thinks everything is all right and ready to submit.  That would be great.  I might even dance.

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Reflections On Me

As you may remember from my last post a few weeks ago (sorry for the long wait) I had a few interviews last week.  After I wrote that post I got invited to another interview, as well, so I had three interviews in a three-day period.  I have to admit, I was a little nervous and excited at the same time.  I was also rather chuffed to even be getting these interviews without having submitted my PhD yet.

interview

The good news is one of them turned into a job for next year! It’s only a part-time, one year (well, nine months) post, but it’s better than just running seminars for another year.  This helps improve the CV, gives me experience running my own course, giving lectures and actually writing/marking exams.  It’s also based at my current home institution, so I already know most of the staff and how things work should I run into any difficulties.  I also really like the subject area, which makes everything even better.  Of the three positions for which I interviewed it probably was the best suited to my current situation.

Which isn’t to say the other two posts wouldn’t have been good had I been offered them, but they would have entailed entirely different sorts of challenges.  My second interview was for a different, full-time position at my home university.  It would have been lecturing on two first-year core modules, one that will be going into its third year and is still working out all of the kinks.  Seeing as how I haven’t taught on either of the modules previously I would have had a lot of catching up to do.  They’re also large survey courses, covering concepts from early modern to contemporary history.  That’s a rather broad range to have a good grasp on.  The third interview was for a full-time lectureship at a university in Scotland, also based around my historical speciality in terms of time frame.  Had I been offered the position it would have, of course, entailed moving up to Scotland, only a year removed from moving to my current home.  It would have been a big adjustment.

Looking back on the entire process, though, I’m glad I had a chance to go through it.  Each interview was slightly different and asked different things of me.  They all asked about my teaching philosophy and style, whilst the first focused on how to deal with problematic students in class and what I could add to an existing course.  The second entailed defining a few key terms (which I don’t think I did very well) and how I would handle researching along with a full teaching load.

The third was perhaps the most informative, though.  As it was for a permanent post, not just a one-year fellowship, it was the most intensive.  I had to give a presentation about my current and future research and about courses I would bring to the institution.  That was in front of the departmental staff, so about eight to ten people.  After a few hours break where I got to walk around campus I then interviewed in front of a panel of six people, two of whom were from outside of the department and one who was the ‘moderator’.  They asked many of the ‘standard’ academic questions — why is my research important? what does it add to the field? what sort of impact can my research have? how would I fit into the university?, etc.  Some I answered well (I think), others I didn’t.  As I didn’t get the post I obviously didn’t answer enough of them well, which is fine.  I’m sure whoever did get the post will do a great job.  The feedback the department head gave me afterwards was quite useful, too.  He said that I didn’t do anything ‘wrong’, but at the interview stage it’s more about finding who is ‘most right’ for the university.  And he gave me some tips on how I can make the next interview even better.  I thought that was very nice.

I went into that interview not really knowing what to expect.  I hadn’t had an academic interview for a permanent post before, I didn’t know much about the school or the people and I wasn’t sure what I would get asked.  Having now gone through the experience, I can prepare for the next interview (hopefully for next year).  I’m guessing I shouldn’t say things like this comic.

dilbert-interview

 

In the meantime, I have a PhD to write and then lectures to prepare.  As such, I probably won’t be blogging much in the next few weeks.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll hopefully see you all again once term starts and I’ve submitted!

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We Have A Few Questions For You

I’ve been lucky enough (skilled enough? able to sell myself enough?) to be called in to interview for a few fellowships next week.  One is a full-time position teaching a few core first-year modules, the other is a half-time teaching an optional second-year module.  Both require giving lectures and running seminars, writing and marking exam scripts and other administrative duties.  Both would obviously be a good first step towards achieving a permanent position somewhere as they would help boost the CV.  They would also be good experiences in general, as I’ve run seminars and gave one guest lecture, but not run a course on my own.

I think my chances for either are good — I’m already in the department, I know a lot of the material in all the modules being offered and I have teaching experience.  My expertise lies more with the second-year optional module, but I’d like to think I know enough about the core modules that I could still take that position (should it be offered) with no problems. It’s just a matter of making it through the interview.

 

how-to-ace-a-job-interview

I’ve had interviews before; I’ve even given interviews as a manager at an old company.   But it’s been a while since I’ve been interviewed.  I technically had one for a part-time holiday position, but that was very informal and it felt more like a conversation than ‘interview’.  The store manager wasn’t even the one interviewing me, just two of the assistant managers.  The last proper interview I had was about four years ago when I got promoted to that manager position.  That’s a long time to go without practising those skills.  And yes, interviewing is a skill that needs practice.  Also, I’ve never had an academic interview, so I don’t know how different it is (or will be) to the corporate world.  I suppose the upgrade process was kind of an interview, though I don’t think it’s quite the same process.

In my first two years of my PhD my department hired new staff for permanent positions, and they all had to give 30 minute presentations about their past and future teaching/research goals.  I went to some of those, and they were very informative in terms of what to do (and not to do) in highlighting certain achievements.  After the presentation there was a brief Q&A session where the applicants fielded questions from the audience —  I suppose that’s a bit similar to conference questions.  But then they also had closed-door interviews, which I think made the biggest impression on the Head of Department (and anyone else in the interview).  I don’t have to give the 30 minute presentation, as the fellowships are one year contracts, but I do have to be in the interview.

I do know I have to talk about my teaching style and philosophy, but other than that I’m not sure what to expect.  I’m not even sure how many people will be conducting the interview, to be honest.  I don’t think I’ll be asked about my research goals over the next few years (hello, finish my PhD and try to get it published, maybe an article or two out of it!) as these are strictly teaching positions, but you never know.  Even if I am asked, I do have a few research goals in mind so I won’t be left completely stuck.

It’s exciting to get to this stage.  It’s also a bit terrifying, as so much is unknown.  I know there are lots of interview tips out there, and I’ll be sure to read many of them.  I might even ask my partner to help with a mock interview so I get used to answering questions again.  I’m looking forward to the opportunity and hope I can get one of the positions.  It’d be nice to be offered both then have to decide, but I don’t want to get my hopes/expectations up too much.

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Write like the wind (of conference papers)

Well, I’m off to another conference later this week.  I’ve written before about things to do and avoid at conferences but realised those were mostly about attending.  Now comes the post about writing and presenting a paper.

There are plenty of tips available online about writing conference papers.  My advice parallels with what has already been said, but hopefully adds something new, though it is mostly from my point of view.

I spent most of last week writing this paper.  It doesn’t normally take me more than a day or two to actually write and edit a paper, but for some reason I was struggling with this one.  Maybe it was because I have been more focused on finishing this PhD and finding something for next year that I just couldn’t focus.  Maybe it’s been the fantastic weather, and all I really wanted to do was go outside and enjoy the sunshine.  Maybe I subconsciously just don’t want to go to this conference.  I don’t know, all I do know is that I was struggling.  But that can be okay, actually.  A paper written in a day may not actually be as well thought or coherent as one that took a week.  It may have the rushed or lazy feel to it (almost as if it were an undergraduate essay written the day before it’s due whilst hung over).

I think the reason I was struggling with this paper was that I was having trouble finding the proper narrative story for it.  Sure, I had my abstract to go from, and I’ve done work on similar work in PhD chapters and other conference papers, but I was working on a new idea.  I just couldn’t figure out what that new idea actually was.  I like to picture conference papers as little stories.  They’re basically self-contained units that don’t require further referencing or any previous knowledge.  That doesn’t mean they can’t be well researched and have a good theoretical and methodological framework, it just means your audience doesn’t necessarily have to be well-versed in the intricacies of Kantian philosophy (for example) to understand the paper.  I was struggling with how to fit all the requisite theories and research into a coherent narrative that was interesting.  I think I finally managed it, but it was tougher than it normally is.

After my first draft I wanted to make sure it actually made sense from a different perspective.  Having someone else read it, therefore, is essential.  Ideally someone who either isn’t that familiar with your work (and therefore your assumptions) or your advisor; or both.  My partner read this draft.  She has read some previous papers/chapters, but is not an academic.  Nor does she have the in-depth musical knowledge that I have at my fingertips (stored in my synapses?), so if she understood all the references then I knew I was in good shape.  Thankfully it required very little editing in that sense.  But having her read it was important because I’m not completely sure it would have made sense to outsiders otherwise.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

I created a PowerPoint for this paper, which I don’t always do.  Don’t feel obliged to make one if it doesn’t really add to the paper.  The main reason I did was because I can play some of those music clips that are probably familiar but add just a bit more depth.  I do have to be wary about this, though, as I don’t want to go over my allotted time.

Which means I need to practice it.  Not only reading the paper checking for errors and whatnot, but reading it out loud to get the cadence and pronunciation right.  Also using the PowerPoint so that I’m not fumbling around going back and forth through different slides. I’ve found it useful to write SLIDE or SONG into the paper, knowing I won’t say it but to switch to the next slide.  You could also use numbers or extra paragraph breaks or some other form of reference.  This practising will also help with keeping to time.  Something I have found I do is use my hands a lot.  Not necessarily for emphasis or anything so useful as that, more that I swing them around.  Knowing this can help me keep track of them. Some people know they speak faster or slower, mumble or have their hands shake.  All of that comes from practising, too.

Now, hopefully this conference will be as fun as the others I’ve been to, and as informative. I guess I’ll find out this week, won’t I?

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