Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review: AC/DC - Black Ice

by Clarence Yu, also on, here

AC/DC is like comfort music to me. With their latest release, Black Ice, these seemingly unstoppable and stubborn rockers just refuse to quit. Why should they? The music they’ve created over the past 35 years seems timeless, and you can always be sure of satisfaction. And they know it.

Produced by Brendan O’ Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), Black Ice is also a return to the sound reminiscent of the band’s previous studio efforts, Highway To Hell (1979) and Back In Black (1980), with renowned producer Robert “Mutt” Lange (Def Leppard, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain).

Whether this is a conscious effort or not, the results are decidedly for the better. The various producers the band have chosen over their previous releases either gave this signature sound a slightly more commercial feel (the late Bruce Fairbairn with 1990's The Razor’s Edge), or a less radio friendly, harder edged twist (Rick Rubin, with 1995's Ballbreaker). Of course, the challenge with each producer is to try to capture the legendary bands' sound as they envision it, so credit is due to Brendan O’ Brien, who rises above the pack.

Black Ice is also a classic example of an album that doesn’t really need titles to make its point. The sequencing of the songs make the album sound seamless: each track segues into the other without much ado, and this is an album you can listen to over and over without having an epiphany of any kind.

The lead single off the album, "Rock And Roll Train," also demonstrates the band’s great songwriting skill. Take the intro of the Rolling Stones’ "Start Me Up," and add a bit of distortion to it, or take the verses from "Highway to Hell," and mix it in with the chorus from "You Shook Me All Night Long," and you’ve got a new, fresh sounding song.

The album contains all the elements of classic AC/DC themes: war ("War Machine" with its signature chants reminiscent of "TNT"), sex ("She Likes Rock and Roll") and rock (four songs on the album have the word "rock" in the title, so it's quite obvious). Outstanding cuts include the funky "Decibel," "Rocking All The Way" with some low-octave, bluesy singing from vocalist Brian Johnson, and the closest thing they’ve done to a ballad in a while, "Anything Goes," which sounds like a cross between Def Leppard’s "Hysteria" and their own "Touch Too Much" off Highway to Hell.

The band also teaches a thing a two about dynamics. Throughout the album, the only thing that constantly breaks the monotony of the basic 4/4 pounding by drummer Phil Rudd is the tempo, and whatever tempo changes that occur are always augmented by the intricate yet deceivingly simple guitar interplay between the Young brothers Angus and Malcolm. Bassist Cliff Williams knows when to play and more importantly, when not to.

AC/DC has, if anything, proven with Black Ice that there doesn’t need to be much thinking in rock n’ roll. It’s also enough to quiet all the “too old to rock” pundits who started criticizing bands of AC/DC’s stature long since grunge reigned for a time. Labels such as "metal" and "headbanging" have always been applied to describe the band's music, but much harder sounding bands have come since their inception in 1973. Basically, it’s just no fuss and no frills — a welcome respite from today’s contemporary rock. And surely, a message that rock is definitely here to stay for good.

Clint Eastwood and Gran Torino: Does He Still Feel Lucky?

by Clarence Yu, also on, here

When Clint Eastwood uttered the now famous lines, “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?” in the polarizing, landmark 1971 cop drama Dirty Harry, he might as well have been talking to himself, minus punk, as he enters another interesting phase of his storied career.

Gran Torino, which opens this December in limited release and wider in January, has been receiving mostly positive reviews as it makes its premiere rounds with the usual critics. The particular emphasis now is on Eastwood the actor, in his first starring role since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, and also rumored to be his last thespian effort.

Eastwood’s acclaim owes much to his directorial efforts: Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) won him two Oscar awards for Best Director and Best Picture, and Mystic River (2005) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) garnered Best Picture and Director nominations as well. He is reputed never to shout or disrupt his actors when directing, keeps his set relatively calm and focused, and delivers his films under budget and with great speed.

Being a lifelong fan of Eastwood, the actor, has been no easy task for me, personally. The stereotype he virtually created — laconic, lean, mean, mysterious, and anonymous — has been particularly hard to defend against nonsensical accusations (especially from vicious personal friends out to hurt my feelings) painting Eastwood as a lazy actor. I always argue that he acts in terms of gesture and economy of dialogue, but that is another story altogether.

I have mixed feelings about why critics get to see a movie like this before I do, but in large part due to Ben Stiller’s terrific Tropic Thunder, I can accept the logic easier now. The film is obviously up for the Academy’s consideration, and there is always this drawn out process of taking out ads and lobbying for votes. Releasing two pictures this year in the late fall has been the same strategy that Eastwood employed in 2006 (Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers), the other film being a directorial effort, The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.

Nonetheless, I am absolutely frantic in anticipation of seeing Gran Torino. I loved the trailer, and have heard the tear-jerking closing credits song (co-written and sung by Eastwood himself in a duet with English jazz singer Jamie Cullum). I’m reading all the reviews I can possibly find. I’m being sucked in slowly but surely, the same way I was during Million Dollar Baby’s pre-Oscar rituals. My crazy theory is that he lost out for Best Actor in Unforgiven and Million Dollar because of a stellar but overshadowing supporting cast (Torino's supporting cast are unknowns) that garnered both Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman their supporting actor trophies. One feels that, at 78, perhaps wanting to go out with the biggest bang possible, Eastwood the actor wants to make sure that all bases are checked and is relying less on luck to bring in his potential first acting Oscar.

Whatever the outcome will probably not diminish his status, but a win against Sean Penn (directed by Eastwood in Mystic) and Dustin Hoffman, amongst others, would surely be a fitting coda to Eastwood’s distinguished career.

Book Review: Crash Proof - How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse

(also featured on, here)

By Clarence Yu

I have to admit that I discovered author Peter D. Schiff the new-fashioned way: via YouTube. A friend of mine insistently kept sending me links to his televised appearances on Fox News and CNBC, so, one day, I finally relented and watched a clip. His words were enough to make me go out and buy the book Crash Proof, which he wrote with John Downes (also by Schiff: The Little Book of Bull Moves In Bear Markets: How to Keep Your Portfolio Up When the Market is Down).

Crash Proof is a book about economics, specifically sub-titled as How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse, and was published in 2007, way before the current worldwide economic crisis hit us. If you're thinking that this was a book that should have been bought and read in 2007, think again. This book has way too much information in it to be treated just as a "how to" guide, and offers plenty of invaluable advice, whether or not we are in a crisis situation.

In Crash Proof, Mr. Schiff gives the reader a back-to-basics lesson in fundamental economics, dispensing with technical economic jargon and instead using conventional day to day conversational language. Mr. Schiff doesn't pretend that you know everything, nor does he spoon feed you with perfect information, so the layperson reading the book is able to stop once in a while and think before continuing on.

Slowly but surely, the reader is treated to doses of common sensical insight and concepts about the mysterious world of economics---for example, carefully explaining what the trade deficit is about and why a capital surplus isn't always that good, among other things. Or what the gold standard was, and what the Fiat system currently is. I never learned that when I was taking up economics in college (perhaps I wasn't listening), but the point I'm making is that I wouldn't be able to explain this to you now had I not read this book. On that point alone, this book is worth its price, and more.

Building from this momentum, Schiff argues on several points on why and how the U.S. economy is in its current state, and offers specific strategies on how to protect yourself from the real estate debacle that already happened (again, the book was published in 2007), what to buy, what not to buy, but most importantly, he presents the logic on which he builds his strategies with a simplicity that is so understandable, until there is absolutely nothing left to explain. In my case, I had to check Wikipedia a few times to check out some definitions in the book, but not nearly as much as when I read the newspapers or when I inadvertently happen to find myself in the middle of a conversation on economics (not my favorite topic, now and forever).

But what is most admirable and noteworthy about Mr. Schiff's approach is his apparent ideology: he advocates a shift in American economic policy back to manufacturing goods (production), living beneath your means, saving your hard earned money, and emphasizes, in so many words, the value of hard work, as opposed to borrowing to fund your needs. Work and use common sense, Schiff seems to be saying, and you will reap. Followers and worshippers of the Federal Reserve, Allan Greenspan, and Ben Bernanke may have trouble reading this book, but nonetheless, it can’t be denied that the advice Schiff dispenses is invaluable and logical.

The title Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse doesn’t really do the book enough justice, for the content is more than just about that. And though most of the scenarios painted within the book aren't exactly all about sunshine and rainbows, the context in which Mr. Schiff writes --- the worldwide economic crisis --- allows for him to explain economic concepts which are much more understandable to the reader, because of the immediate urgency of this context.

For anyone who has always wanted a solid, easy to read and practical book about economics, but has always been put off by the usual difficult economic terminology, have no fear. Crash Proof will not exactly show you the way out of the tunnel, but it will enlighten you, amuse you and inform you along the way.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Manny Pacquiao should fight everyday

Manny Pacquiao, now the undisputed wonder of the boxing world, should start fighting everyday. According to this report from USA Today, the crime rate during his fight versus Oscar De La Hoya was virtually nil.

What do you say, Manny? If you really want to make a change, instead of running for Congress or public office, just fight everyday. But I'm not sure you'll do that. You'll probably come home to a ticker tape parade, bestowed with more accolades, record more "Pacman" audio CD's, and enter into more advertising, licensing and franchising deals, which will no doubt plaster your mug around Manila's crowded city highways on giant, monstrous billboards (by the way, do those painkillers really work?) Which is fine. After all, you deserve it. You won the fight. You made the Filipino nation proud. What's the problem with making a few bucks while uplifting the dignity of one of the poorest third world nations?

I just hope one day when you wake up years from now, after all the champagne is sipped, after all the giant, sprawling advertising billboards in the Philippine metropolis bearing your name and a product long gone, your CD and DVD sales all spent and your youthful energy exhausted, that you will realize the potential you had in effecting real change. The Filipino nation, tired of hearing bad news of corruption and governmental scandals, is literally at your command. The irony here is not wasted on some like me: with good news of your continuous wins, the newspapers choose to flash you on their front pages instead of what real news is about. Why don't you start speaking about the real truth?

You, of all people, the people's champion, have the mandate to do this: borne into a world of poverty: the poor boy, who thru hard work, discipline and divine providence, captures a world boxing championship crown and wins more respect than any "elected" official of the Filipino nation. The people who afford you this respect are the very people suffering today from the unfair and corrupt practices (of which, I'm sure you suffered from during your difficult rise to the top) of the Filipino government and commerce --- who, oops, also happen to be, by the way, your prime sponsors and backers.

To say that your victory is a victory for the Philippines is a fallacy, borne of flawed logic, allowing government officials to effectively sweep more corruption related problems and scandals under an already overcroweded and dirty carpet.

This victory is yours, and yours alone. You can offer the victory to the Philippines, but it is not theirs. Cherish it, do not abuse it. Honor your fallen fellow boxer and countryman Rolando Navarette. And while there is still time, use your power wisely. If you are not afraid to step into the ring with deadly prizefighters, at the risk of shedding blood and feeling enormous physical pain, surely, then you should not be afraid in using your celebrity as a starting point in taking on other deadly fighters (of the economic and political kind). After all, we've heard more outrageous stories: A housewife with minimal knowledge of her nation's politics, whose husband was once murdered by a tyrannical President, led a revolution and became it's first woman President. Her name was Corazon Aquino.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Do Video Games Make The Music Now?

You can also read the article at

Apparently, gaming company Activision’s collaboration with rock legends Aerosmith has paid off handsomely for both parties. As reported on the Gamasutra website, the sales to date of the game Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, has netted the band more revenue than any one of its album releases.

In my opinion, the success of the Guitar Hero franchise is dependent on two things: artist name association and the technology employed to make the game highly entertaining to gamers. I am a big Aerosmith fan, but not into gaming myself — thus, I was never attracted that much to consider buying the game.

Of course, there are many exceptions to my theory. I’m pretty sure that a lot of gamers who weren’t familiar with Aerosmith bought the game: some were probably intrigued, some had nothing better to do with their money, and most were probably challenged by the game. Good for them. They get to enjoy themselves, while learning the music of one of the best rock bands of all time.

How does this bode for the music industry in general? For one thing, I’m pretty sure that most big name bands will start to fall in line for their share of the revenue pie. Van Halen and Metallica are examples of the next bands to be featured on the franchise. Big money is in store for both the bands and Activision. But to boast of Guitar Hero's "music selling power" is a bit of a stretch; by reversing the logic, you can say that Aerosmith enabled Activision's "video game selling power."

While it can be argued that the artists involved may not need the money and just want to pass on their musical legacy to a new generation of potential fans, CD/music sales are also a big factor. Reportedly, Aerosmith’s CD/music sales had a “several folds boost.” Now is that just a coincidence, or a result of a lot of focus group discussions?

For the struggling garage band out there, I don’t think it will make any difference — perhaps marginally, in terms of inspiration. But inspiration is a totally different animal from business. Many bands out there with talent have never made it, and many more will never. It’s just a fact in the recording industry. You still have to make it the old fashioned way — through gigging, recording, and touring — before you can be featured on a game like Guitar Hero. And with games exactly like Guitar Hero in the market taking away the attention span of potential new fans of these struggling artists, what will become of them? It just gets harder and harder.

So, while Activision may be on to something here for quite a long and profitable run, dare I say that without the big name artists, the Guitar Hero franchise is worthless? Imagine Guitar Hero: Anonymous, and see if the product sells.

Book Review: President Lincoln - The Duty Of A Statesman

You can also read this review at
Book Review: President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman by William Lee Miller
The author uses Lincoln as an example that statesmen are not born but made. Future young leaders can find inspiration

Any new book on President Lincoln will almost always beg the question, "Why?" In this follow up to Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, author William Lee Miller answers the question with an eloquent, yet easy to read 512-page analysis of Lincoln’s term in the White House and his actions as the Civil War president.

I’m not a scholar of Lincoln by any measure, but I have a small collection of books about him; half I consider garbage and the other half essential reading. Of course, it takes reading the essentials to find out which ones are really meant to be in the trash can, and Miller’s book is one of the essentials.

In President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, Miller reminds us of a time when the young nation was faced with a crisis, and how an inexperienced man by conventional standards was able to withstand and eventually exert his will in seeing the country through the Civil War. In this sense, he asserts that (using President James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, as one of his examples) experienced men do not necessarily qualify for the nation’s highest office. Instead, morals, kindness of heart, and raw intelligence are also qualifiers in the mix. There is a basic truth to this, and young leaders should take this to heart (President-elect Obama, are you listening?).

The book also tackles the art of statesmanship, that ever-ambiguous field in politics that so many try to inhabit. In the context of Lincoln’s time, Miller writes, statesmen were of noble blood, but Lincoln changed all that, having been a prairie lawyer and of poor family background but rising to the challenge by defeating all his critics, winning the Civil War and preserving the Union of the States. In this sense, you can argue that Lincoln invented the blueprints for the modern politician today.

President isn’t new on factual details, but delivers great insight on the shaping of Lincoln as a politician as he assumes office. The long-standing arguments and debates on whether the Civil War was over slavery, preserving the Union, or whether Lincoln was a dictator or not, shouldn't influence the way the reader interprets the author's intent. The book is supposed to be about Statesmanship, and thus should be treated as such.

Mr. Miller writes with fluidity and a passion, and you are surely convinced by the first few pages that he is clearly pro-Lincoln. The President seems almost infallible in every decision he makes, and the skill of Miller’s writing almost convinces you that Lincoln might be more than mortal. If the reader can be discerning enough to steer clear of this bias, then President is required reading for Lincoln and Civil War buffs, and for those who seek to find meaning in what our everyday politician says.