Monday, December 31, 2007

The Capitol Steps

Is there a more annoying institution in American political life than The Capitol Steps? You know, the musical group in Washington that makes little songs about American political life? Really, who listens to this? I forced myself to on the way home from the store a bit ago. Oh it was great. There was a song about Larry Craig to a calypso beat. And a song about Mike Huckabee to the tune of "Help Me Make It Through The Night." And then a song about McCain that was a riff on the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle starts speaking proper English. And then I mercifully got home and turned off that crap.

Again, who in the world listens to this? Who actually finds this entertaining? I keep thinking of aging NPR listeners who decry partisanship and finds things "clever" and "amusing."

There really are two possibilities for worst band in America. And they both come around the holidays. The first is Trans Siberian Orchestra. And the second is The Capitol Steps.

Mister Trend's 2008 Death List

I was once again 2-10 last year (Vonnegut and Bergman), which is ok with me, because I didn't wish anybody any ill will last year. And unlike Erik, I like to mix it up a bit, instead of just totally rehashing the previous year's list and plugging in newbies where the holes are (though I do repeat Gabor, Harvey, Levi-Strauss, and Niemeyer - the latter two are 99 and 100, for crying out loud!). I don't wish anybody on my list any ill will this year (I kept Thatcher off, due to my "Emperor [of Star Wars] Theory of Evil"). That said, here is my death list for 2008 (in alphabetical order).

1. Elliot Carter
2. Arthur C. Clarke
3. Bo Diddley
4. Zsa-Zsa Gabor
5. Billy Graham
6. Paul Harvey
7. Claude Levi-Strauss
8. Oscar Niemeyer
9. Bettie Page
10. Studs Terkel

Death List 2008

Assuming no last second deaths, I had four people from my Death List pass away this year--Lady Bird Johnson, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Jane Wyman, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

The 2008 Death List is:

1. Al Haig
2. John Wooden
3. Margaret Thatcher
4. Floyd Dominy
5. Fidel Castro
6. Ariel Sharon
7. Albert Hoffmann
8. Studs Terkel
9. Clark Terry
10. Jesse Helms

The 4 new members are Haig, Thatcher, Hoffmann, and Terkel. Haig and Thatcher are hopefuls--it's more fun when you want them off the face of the Earth. Also, my friend Blair, now serving as a Death List correspondent, was at a conference this fall where Haig was supposed to speak and he couldn't because of health problems. Hoffmann (the inventor of LSD) is like 101 and Terkel is in his mid-90s. So they seem like good bets, but obviously I'll be sad when Terkel dies.

Torture and the Bush Administration

Yep.

Racist Statement of the Year?

My wife overheard the following conversation while at the pedicurist here in Rio the other day. The exchange happened with not an ounce of malicious tones in the voice of the customer - it was as if the two were old friends, save for the actual content of the conversation:

Black employee: You don't need to stand there! Why don't you sit?
White customer: No, it's Ok - I'd rather stand.
Black employee: No, please, have a seat!
White customer (with a warm, friendly smile): No, it's OK. It's good to keep my posture correct. If I sit, I'll end up all hunched like a monkey - like you.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Things I Learned from The Green Berets

I watched The Green Berets the other night. It is a special kind of bad. But I learned so much about Vietnam from watching it. In fact, I don't think I've learned as much from a movie since I first watched Red Dawn. Here is a list of what I learned.

1. The Viet Cong were the greatest savages ever known to humanity.
2. The Viet Cong really loved to rape women.
3. Vietnamese and Native American languages are remarkably similar. I believe they are both in the "Nonsense" language category.
4. The Viet Cong were the greatest savages ever known to humanity.
5. No one can speak about the war unless they've been to Vietnam and seen the unspeakable savagery of the Viet Cong. This especially goes to wussy liberal reporters.
6. When wussy liberal reporters witness the unspeakable savagery of the Viet Cong, they will understand that America must defeat these subhuman animals.
7. The Viet Cong were the greatest savages ever known to humanity.
8. Vietnam is forested by pine trees. Remarkably, it seems to look much like California. I really want to visit the noted pine forests of Vietnam.
9. Your helicopter pilot walking out of your crashed plane and burning to death is not worth comment.
10. The Viet Cong were the greatest savages ever known to humanity

Friday, December 28, 2007

Film Critic Lists

Andrew O'Hehir at Salon makes a lot of sense:

Maybe the term exists; maybe it's "herd mentality." Or brainwashing. Read enough of the top-10 lists that American movie critics put together, for one thing, and you might wonder whether a single damn film worth watching came out before the first of October. There are exceptions to this rule, naturally enough, but by and large the films that rack up the rave reviews and award nominations, and thereby begin to emanate "Oscar buzz" like some mutant horror-movie bumblebee, are films of a certain kind, released in a certain season.

It's not merely that these swooned-over movies are likely to be fall releases from the specialty divisions of the major studios (e.g., Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and so on) or from the shrinking roster of midsize independent distributors. It's not just that they tend to be mid-budget productions packaged around serious-minded intentions, name directors and a handful of well-liked actors. That's all true, and it applies to most of the critical-fave releases of the past few years, from "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men" to "The Queen" and "Babel" and "Little Children" and "Brokeback Mountain" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." Beyond that, these are movies that offer a specific kind of cinematic experience, and involve a specific understanding of what movies are supposed to be and how they should make you feel.
Yes, and this is the only thing I can think of to explain some of the critics' lists this year. In particular, every critic seems to have "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Into the Wild." This is insane, given that neither movie is actually good. As I discussed when it came out, "Into the Wild" at least has good acting, despite its overall mediocrity. "Assassination of Jesse James" is just boring.

It seems that if you make a really slow movie, claim to be "saying something," and put it in a iconic western backdrop, critics will love it, no matter of its actual quality.

The second thing that is bugging me about critics lists is the lack of comedy. Hello there!!! Are you people watching these movies? This is only the finest year of comedic movies in a very long time. Remember the 1990s, when David Spade and Rob Schneider films passed for watchable comedy? Yeah, great times. "Juno" and "Knocked Up" are first-rate pieces of work while "Superbad" only suffers from the extended cop scenes. Each of these movies are pitch perfect and all capture the difficulties of young people dealing with sex, relationships, and growing up. Most of all, they are all freaking hilarious. But, to riff on O'Hehir for a moment, none are VERY SERIOUS MOVIES that they must be to make the cut. Some critics are including some of these films, but many have none of them.

Another thing to mention is that "Sicko" is nowhere to be found on these lists, despite the fact that it is a truly powerful political documentary and far and away Michael Moore's best film. But again, it was released before October so I guess it doesn't count.

This is probably the best year for film since the early 90s. 1994 maybe. Maybe the 70s though. Really. There have been some fantastic films. I'm not prepared to do a top 10 list yet. It's pointless until I can see "There Will Be Blood." Even then, there are some foreign releases that are coming out on DVD in January and early February that I need to see. Before the Oscars, I will put out my list. The sheer quality of this year's films makes me even more furious at the selection of "Assassination of Jesse James" and "Into the Wild." It's not like there is a shortage of good choices.

Erik's Random 10

Like a few weeks ago when I had to talk about Mahler, today I am stuck talking about something that I know very little about: gospel music. A friend of mine sent me this Abyssinian Gospel Choir album a few years ago. I haven't listened to it much, though it has been coming up frequently on random recently. But I will say this: it is good. You know what is not good? Most current Christian music. You see, in African-American gospel music, you actually have to be good. In white Christian music, you just have to be an emoting Christian. Thus, black gospel music tends to be listenable while white gospel music tends to replicate what I see as Hell.

1. The Abyssinian Gospel Choir, I Can Call Him
2. Frank Zappa, Watermelon in Easter Hay
3. H.K. Silvey, Old Fort Smith
4. Tom Waits, Fish in the Jailhouse
5. Drive-By Truckers, Space City
6. Gary Lucas, Evangeline
7. Jason Isbell, Dress Blues
8. Modest Mouse, Truckers Atlas
9. 13th Floor Elevators, Roller Coaster
10. Arcade Fire, Ocean of Noise

Because Joseph Stalin Died, We Should Maintain Our Current Health Care System

Mike Huckabee is arguing that we need to close the border because of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

What do these things have in common? Oh yes, absolutely nothing at all.

Allow me to propose some other non-sequitur Huckabee-esque policy proposals:

Because Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, we should ban tobacco.

Because that tiger killed that kid in San Francisco, we should overturn the Endangered Species Act.

Because recent snow storms have delayed air traffic around the nation, we should ensure continued low mileage per gallon standards on vehicles

Because Adolf Hitler managed to survive World War I, we should engage in more wars in order to kill future, unknown dictators.

With policy positions like these, I could be a leading Republican presidential candidate!

Mister Trend's Random 10

This week's Random 10 gives me the chance for meaningless, pointless complaining. There's not much I can say in favor of the Killers, actually. I like exactly two of their songs, and think the rest are pretty mediocre, with some being flat-out bad. The two songs I do like are on my iPod - no more, no less. Just two. Yet both of them popped up in the first 10 when set to "Shuffle" this week. This has happens almost every week. I tend to edit out songs from repeat artists for the next song that pops up when this happens, and it usually happens with artists who I own a lot of their stuff (John Coltrane, Sonic Youth, Miles Davis, etc.). Yet here I am, not just two songs with LCD Soundsystem (of whom I own all of 3 CDs), but somehow, with both Killers songs. It's not that I hate the music - I'm just beginning to grow weary of my machine's laziness in actually "shuffling" things up. Though I guess this apparent laziness means my iPod won't be part of the hordes of robots that rise up to overthrow their human masters someday. Or maybe it's just acting lazy, waiting for the right moment to strike.

1. "Nightswimming" - R.E.M.
2. "Thrills" - LCD Soundsystem
3. "Read My Mind" - The Killers
4. "Love In the Plaster" - The Hives
5. "A Day In the Life" - The Beatles
6. "Pacific Coast Highway" - Sonic Youth
7. "All These Things That I've Done" - The Killers
8. "Give It Up" - LCD Soundsystem
9. "Tranesonice" - John Coltrane
10. "Blues for Big Town" - John Lee Hooker

Thursday, December 27, 2007

RIP--Oscar Peterson

This is a little late now, but it saddens me to see that the great pianist Oscar Peterson died of kidney failure this past Monday. While he wasn’t the great jazz innovator that other pianists like Thelonious Monk or Herbie Hancock, he was a fantastic instrumentalist with a pounding fast style that often defied logic. Lauded in his native Canada, and well respected in this country, his skill behind the keys was an inspiration and a benchmark for many who came after him. A stroke fifteen years ago nearly ended his career, but he persevered and, while his hands (especially his left) was no longer at the same level it once was, his love of the music never died. With another legend down, and with nobody to take his place, it strikes me again how wrong the canonization of jazz music has been. Peterson once said, aptly, that jazz musicians were “instant composers,” and this is really the heart of what’s beautiful about the music. When particular recordings are placed in a pantheon, untouchable and unchangeable, we lose the aspect of instant composition and improvisation that makes the music great. For his 80th birthday celebration two years ago, Elvis Costello had written lyrics for a song that was performed by Diana Krall and Peterson on piano. This would prove to be one of Peterson’s last performances. Costello’s lyrics are below.

When Summer Comes

The land was white
While the winter moon as absent from the night
And the blackness only pierced by far off stars
But as every day still succeeds the darkest moments we have known
When season turn
Springtime colours will return
And the first pale flowers of the lengthening hours
Seem to brighten the twilight and that melancholy cloak
Then a fresh perfume just seems to burst from each bloom
Until the green shoots through each day
As it arrives in every shade of hope
When summer comes
There will be a dream of peace
And a breath that I’ve held so long that I can barely release
Then perhaps I may even find a room somewhere
Just a place I can still speak with you

NFL 2007 Week 16: NFC Edition

NFC EAST: With their division, their first round bye, and home field advantage all wrapped up, there isn’t a lot for the Cowboys to be playing for in the final week of the season, because you know they never play for pride. They’re lucky anyway to have it all wrapped up. With Romo hurt and TO out, they aren’t going to be playing at 100%, and they get the opportunity for a couple weeks of rest. The Redskins shouldn’t be a tough match under any other circumstances, but Washington is still fighting it out with Minnesota, who bungled their opportunity last week, for the last playoff spot. Dallas should win easily, but they don’t have a lot of heart, and Todd Collins has that secondary to throw at, so you never know. The Giants, all records aside, are the worst team in the playoffs, and will be whipping boys for whoever gets them in the first round (probably Tampa). The demoralizing loss (on three stations, no less) that they’ll suffer at the hands of the Patriots this Saturday will carry over into a demoralizing loss in the playoffs and the humiliating ousting of both Coughlin and Manning. Good times for the Giants are on the way. The Redskins, shockingly, still have a chance to make the playoffs, which is something I find utterly ridiculous. They’ve played terribly all year long and, once Todd “El Saviorrrrr” Collins comes in, they start doing well. It makes about as much sense as Derek Anderson’s rise to fame. They won’t make it, this is Minnesota’s year, and their team (especially Portis) isn’t getting any younger, so they’ll be back to their old crappy tricks soon enough. The Eagles have won two in a row, and can now say they aren’t part of the gutter of the NFC. With what should be a third win against the ailing Bills and the news that McNabb may still be an Eagle next year, they will actually have something of a respectable year. Now, if they’d only run a different play from a swing pass to Westbrook, they actually might be worth watching sometime.

NFC NORTH: Wow did Green Bay suck last week. The conditions may have played a part in it, but this didn’t stop the Bears from tearing them apart, so you can only blame the weather so much. This wasn’t the Steelers/Browns 3-0 game after all. This is the Packer team we’ll see in the playoffs: an overmatched and overrated team playing above their level until it actually counts. See the Bears of last year for reference. The Vikings, though, despite a poor performance last week against Washington, should make the playoffs. Much as I hate to say this, they’re playing the Broncos and if that’s not a recipe for another huge Adrian Peterson game, I don’t know what is. The Lions start to play halfway decent again right when it doesn’t matter for them anymore. Any thoughts that Detroit has turned the corner on the franchise should go out the window. Will Kitna be Detroit’s quarterback next year? Chances are he will be, since they aren’t going to be any worse with him than with any of the myriad of crappy quarterbacks waiting in the wings for a job, but that doesn’t make him any better than the rest. The Bears get their final loss at home next week, just to drive home how bad they are to the Chicago crowd. They’ve got to be mortified that the Eagles have come out in support of McNabb; their next season depended on getting a decent quarterback, but now they’re left with the Rex Grossmans of the world. Good luck guys, you all get to have another year with Cedric and Rex.

NFC SOUTH: It didn’t matter all that much, but it’s still disgraceful for a team like Tampa to lose to a team like San Francisco. Garcia, for as efficiently as he’s played this year, has a lot of trouble scoring touchdowns…not a good way to win playoff games. I’ll be able to support the Bucs a lot more when they finally realize that Gruden’s worthless but, for right now, I can enjoy his indignant stare after they finally lose. If they’re lucky enough to play the Giants in the first round, it’ll have to wait until round two; if they play either of the other possibilities, the gratification will be immediate. For as well as the Saints’ offense has done in the second half of the season, the defense needs a lot of work. The abysmal start has been almost entirely made up, both in record and in net points, but it doesn’t matter. Bush has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s not a starting running back in the NFL, so they have to hope that Deuce can come back in old form. Otherwise, between the backs and the receivers, they’re going to be relying on Brees alone once again, who is very good but needs people around him to succeed and won’t be able to carry it himself. If the defense could, additionally, not allow almost 24 points a game, they’ll be in a significantly better position. Their division just doesn’t warrant numbers like that. Nearly a hundred passes were thrown for almost 700 yards in the Falcons’ sixth loss in a row and, shockingly, over half of those throws, from both Redman and Warner, were actually completed. I guess that’s a good sign on both sides, except when you think about their running games, which are both very old and pretty bad.

NFC WEST: Statistically, the West is no longer the worst division in football, which makes me sad. Now, they seem to be third worst, but that’s still a boon for the Seahawks, who have been able to capitalize year after year, including this one, on their rivals’ ineptness. Seattle will either have Washington or Minnesota in the first round; the former should be an easy victory, the latter not so much. Seattle has played inconsistently all year long, so any game is a crapshoot for them, but they’re talented enough to win any of them. They’re lucky to have Atlanta this week, and should have some strong momentum going into the playoffs. Too bad it won’t be much of a test, but at least they’ll be in practice for scoring points. Arizona has had a year that’s generally better than the last few, but there are too many instances of the old ways to make me think that anything will change next year. They’re going to end the season on a really low note with a loss to St. Louis, and they’ll start next year in the same position as this one: worthless. In the final game of San Francisco’s significantly terrible season, they get the opportunity to prove, once again, how poor the Browns really are. I’m not laying any bets on a 49er victory, but the Browns are awfully susceptible to bad play, so you never know. Like the Cardinals, the Niners don’t have a lot of prospects for next season and, in spite of their overblown ranking at the start of this season, not much will be different. Last in points, last in yards, last in passing yards, and 27th in rushing yards, plus they’re still working with Ashley Lelie; yeah, I don’t think there’s much of a future for these guys. The future in this division, regardless of their performance this season, is the Rams. Injuries have demolished them, and their season has been over almost since before it began, but with their 2nd or 3rd pick in the draft, and not a lot of team changes, they should be able to challenge the Seahawks for NFC West supremacy, much to Erik’s chagrin.

Bhutto

I am far from an expert on Pakistan and I await to read real commentary on the blogosphere on the Bhutto assassination, I have one question.

At what point do we pull our support of Musharraf? If not now, when? I heard one interesting comparison a month ago or so of Musharraf to the Shah. Like Iran in the late 70s, the US is supporting an increasingly unstable and untenable dictatorship because it supports our ends in a global conflict. But such support builds huge anti-American sentiment while not actually helping to prop up the dictator in question.

This is pretty bad, regardless of Bhutto's qualities, or lack thereof.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

NFL 2007 Week 16: AFC Edition

AFC EAST: This was the last week I could have hoped for a loss for the Patriots. The Dolphins had nothing to lose, but had no answers for New England’s attacks. This week, the Pats will likely be playing to break all the records to be called the greatest team ever assembled. True or not, the playoffs are always a different picture than the regular season and, to state the obvious, they’ll be up against the best in the conference, not teams like the Jets and the Dolphins. They have a huge target on them and haven’t played at even close to the level that they did at the beginning of the season. If they don’t step their game up to where it was then, a team like the Jaguars has the potential to run roughshod over them. The rest of the division, with an 11-34 record (26-34 if you count New England’s record), is pathetic and the worst division in football, so there isn’t much to say about them. Any strides the Bills made this year will have to wait until next. Losing two straight and going 2-3 in their last five games is no way to stay in a playoff hunt. The Jets’ poor play has kept the unlikely and inconsistent Titans in the hunt and, unlike the Bills and the Dolphins, their future will look a lot like this for a few years still. One would have thought that Miami would have come off their only win fired up and ready to beat the Patriots, but that person would be wrong. They played like they simply didn’t care.

AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh may have clinched their division, but without Willie Parker, they’re in the worst position of any team on the AFC side of the playoffs. Davenport is not good or reliable enough to depend on and, when you combine that fact with the general inconsistency of their play, they will not go far into the playoffs. The Browns weren’t anywhere in the playoff picture at the beginning of the season, then they were by mid-season, and now they’re pretty much out for good. They’ve had a stunningly successful season; now they have to decide whether Derek Anderson is a real quarterback or a flash in the pan. Unfortunately for them, they will make the wrong choice and pay him a ton of money. He’ll be happy, too bad Browns fans won’t. Though they won, Carson Palmer gave a performance typical of himself and the Bengals this year. They’ve knocked the Browns from the playoffs, but no credit to them for the job. The Browns lost the game for themselves and Cincinnati was just there to reap the benefits, such as they are. The Ravens “contest” against the Seahawks was over before it began. With all the injuries on defense and utterly terrible offensive production, the Ravens have completely fallen apart. They’re playing as bad or worse than the Jets and, like New York, they won’t be in any better a position next year.

AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis put the final nail in the coffin of what has been a surprisingly good Texans’ season and roll into the playoffs as the easy #2 seed in the playoffs. The Colts played their typical game which, exceptional as those performances have been, has become unexceptional. There were a few weeks that they weren’t playing to their level, but they’ve remedied all of this and are playing at the same high level that the Patriots game. What I don’t want to see is another Colts/Pats matchup but, luckily, I don’t believe that will happen. The Jaguars have become the team to beat at the end of the season and, whether they come to Indy to play or New England, I feel like Jacksonville has the advantage. They are playing such strong smashmouth football, with an incredibly efficient quarterback to boot, that any team (and especially New England) should be quaking in their cleats to face them. They are my dark horse AFC champion, but they’re becoming less and less unlikely all the time. It’s between Tennessee and Cleveland for the last playoff spot and, no matter how badly they’ve played at times, it’s the Titans who’ll hold that last wildcard slot. It’s hard to believe that a team with a winning record has been outscored over the course of the season but, no matter how hard the defense hits, they haven’t been able to repeat what the old Ravens had done: win big in spite of an anemic offense. The Texans’ best season has been essentially over for a few weeks now, and they played like it against the Colts this week, but they’ve been very impressive at times. If they can shore up the holes that they’ve had for years: the quarterback, running back and, especially, offensive line issues, they could be a real force. Undoubtedly, it would have been easier for them in any other division, and may well have been a full-fledged playoff team this year, but they play in the toughest division in football so it’s going to continue to be difficult for them to gain handholds up the ranks in the South.

AFC WEST: I can accept that the Chargers have won the division by games and that the rest of the teams have played terribly, but I’m indignant that Norv Turner has brought the team out of the mire. Turner sucks, and is going to continue to suck, but the team is so damn talented that it masks his lack of it. Win or lose, it was always hilarious to see Tomlinson jawing at Rivers. I love strife in teams I hate but, once they got it together, not only is it all smiles, they even collectively jaw at their opponents. No AFC West division game will ever be civil, but Rivers sure deserved a punch in the face for his “bye bye wave” to Cutler, and Cutler is just the man to do it. The Broncos will remember this next season, and San Diego will have their comeuppance. Denver looks like they’ve essentially stopped playing, between the drubbing last week and the even worse one this week. I’m just searching for draft picks now; no team needs linebackers worse than Denver, but there really aren’t that many out there to choose from. It could be a sad couple of years for the Broncos, but Shanahan’s always done what it takes in the offseason to build a playoff ready franchise, though he faltered this year, and I have to think this will continue this year. I at least have to hope it. The Chiefs and the Raiders are equally crappy, but the Chiefs have the inside track to a fifth win. They play the Jets and the Raiders play the Chargers. One of these outcomes is 100% clear. The best thing is that neither team has taken any steps toward improvement, so we can expect more of this for years to come, which will give me great pleasure whether the Broncos are winning or not.

Historical Image of the Day



Advertisement for Deering Harvesting Company, 1899

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Erik's Random 10

John Hartford was one of the leaders of the bluegrass hippie movement of the 1970s. Unlike so many purveyors of this (David Grisman especially), Hartford avoided turning bluegrass into stoner jam music. Rather, he broad his weird sensibility to it, creating new sounds and very new lyrical topics. He was happy to sing a song about marijuana, something Bill Monroe never would have done. But he wasn't going to have a 4 minute mandolin solo in the middle of it. It might be a little banjo song. It might be a relatively traditional arrangement. He might sing it normally or he might sing it in a weird voice. However he did it, you knew it was a John Hartford song immediately.

"Way Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie" is originally off his fabulously strange Mark Twang album, but this is off a bootleg copy of a 1983 live show. It's classic Hartford. Odd topic, odd arrangement, but also in the universe of traditional bluegrass music.

Sadly, Hartford died well before his time from cancer. I was very sad when I heard the news. What a great artist.

1. John Hartford, Way Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie
2. Tom Waits, Long Way Home
3. Dodo Marmarosa, What is This Thing Called Love
4. Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon, Where Are We Gonna Work (When the Trees Are Gone)
5. Bob Wills, I Ain't Got Nobody
6. Eric Dolphy, Bee Vamp
7. Hacienda Brothers, No Time to Waste
8. LCD Soundsystem, Watch the Tapes
9. Billie Holliday, God Bless the Child
10. Drive-By Truckers, The Day John Henry Died

Charles Krauthammer: Crack Smoker of the Day

Why? Well, he must be on some kind of first-rate drug. In his analysis of Bush's "Axis of Evil" six years after its announcement, he declares Bush 1 for 3--having succeeded in Iraq!!!!!!!!

Well, I'd hate to see the failures.

Krauthammer is still seething about our inability to invade Iran, claiming "the intelligence bureaucracy, in a spectacularly successful coup, seized control of the policy with a National Intelligence Estimate that very misleadingly trumpeted the claim that Iran had halted its nuclear program."

He also compares George W. Bush to Abraham Lincoln and David Petraeus to Ulysses S. Grant. And he's serious!

The real question here is what do I gain from reading Charles Krauthammer? Nothing of value, for certain. It's a window into the crazy mind of the neoconservative though. And crazy indeed it is.

Environmental Sexism










Vanessa at Feministing links to this disgusting set of sexist ads from an environmental website. Sexism has long been a problem in the environmental movement. From Edward Abbey's stereotypical portrayal of women in works such as The Monkey-Wrench Gang to similar ads as above produced by PETA, environmentalism has never done a good job of dealing with sexism. I believe there are at least two identifiable reasons for this. First are the connections between masculinity and nature that so many environmentalists still imbibe in. This runs from Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir to Abbey and Dave Foreman. Also important is that makeup of the environmental activist. Environmentalism tends to attract a good number of committed white men who want to make a difference but are indifferent to hostile about confronting their own racism or sexism. They eschew movements that would make them do so. Environmentalism becomes a comfortable place for them. Since the trees are more important than people, we don't have to worry about the problems of people like sexism or racism (see Zero Population Growth).

The ad of the woman around the tree that reads "Hot Chix Dig Dudes Who Hug a Tree" bears a strong similarity to the classic sexist anti-Vietnam War slogan, "Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No." The feminist movement came straight out of the sexism women faced in the New Left. With the decline of eco-feminism among young environmental activists, will a new form of feminism fight against the sexism so pervasive in the movement today? I sure hope so.

Historical Image of the Day



Toussaint L'Ouverture, Haitian Revolutionary hero.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Energy Bill: Worse than Nothing

There is little worse than a bad bill. The energy bill is a very bad bill. The reforms it makes are almost meaningless. Rather than passing a bill driven by environmentally-friendly ideas, local politics and national security concerns won the day. In many ways, this bill is actually worse for the environment than no bill at all. That General Motors would support it and George W. Bush would sign it says how little good it actually contains.

There are two big supposed environmental successes in the bill: increased fuel standards and a commitment to biofuels. By 2020, American vehicles must average 35 miles per gallon. That is a significant increase over today. So why isn't this good? It is good on a basic level, but the technologies to get our vehicles to 35 mpg exist today. That should be standard by 2010, not 2020. Detroit made a choice in the early 1990s. They could have implemented technologies to raise the mileage of their vehicles. Instead, they decided they could make more money by using those technologies to make bigger and more powerful vehicles. From a financial standpoint, they certainly succeeded. The SUV craze revitalized the Big Three after the malaise of the 1970s and 80s. But from an environmental perspective, it was a total disaster. Detroit opposed raising mileage standards so they would not have to move away from their giant vehicles. That this bill passed shows how easily Detroit believes it will be able to implement these technologies. By 2020, the technologies will likely exist to make the average vehicle get at least 45-50 mpg. That would be a valuable goal. The Big Three can now argue that they are environmentally friendly while still resisting the real changes necessary to lead us into a more sustainable future.

While I am disappointed by the low mile per gallon standard, I am outraged by the commitment to ethanol. Over the past couple of years, environmentalists have largely turned against corn-based ethanol. This has happened for a variety of reasons. For one, pollution emitted by ethanol is no better than gasoline. Second, it is already driving up food prices. With the expansion mandated in the bill, we are likely to see those prices skyrocket. Third, the technologies for turning corn into usable ethanol are not very advanced. It takes a lot of corn to produce ethanol, thus limiting how much we can really use it without a massive expansion in the amount of corn we plant. Fourth, large-scale corn production has serious environmental consequences. Intensive farming in the East has led to plummeting bird populations because of habitat depletion. Ironically, biofuels could help fulfill Rachel Carson's feared future with a Silent Spring. Also, the amount of fertilizer necessary to grow this much corn will flow down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, expanding the already sizable dead zone that comes from the algae blooms caused by nitrogen-based fertilizers.

But of course corn farmers love the energy bill. Farmers have a disproportionate amount of power in this country, both because of our national agrarian myths and because each state gets two senators, thus allowing Iowa and Nebraska to have an equal say as California and New York. So there is a large political constituency for increased corn production. And many politicians, desperate to end our reliance on foreign fuel, are willing to do anything to see that happen. They just don't care about the environmental impacts of corn production.

Perhaps the worst part about the energy bill is that it does nothing to promote alternative fuels. This includes wind energy, which has been a growing industry over the past decade. As Tom Carnahan, president of the Wind Capital Group, said on NPR last night, this bill is actually going to hurt wind production. Bush threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill that would have mandated more spending on wind, solar, and other alternative energies. This bill actually strips already existing tax incentives for renewable energy. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency has denied a 17 state effort to set standards on carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, killing efforts to force automakers to green faster than the Bush administration wants.

All and all then, the energy bill stinks. The Sierra Club and some other mainstream environmental organizations have said a few words in its support, particularly over the increased fuel standards. But these changes are moderate and are to be implemented at a snail's pace. The reality is that only through continued environmental activism, the election of a Democratic president in 2008, and the developing of a spine among the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, will be a real energy bill come into being.

Book Review: Van Gosse, Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History

What was the New Left? This is the question Van Gosse tries to answer is his 2005 book, Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History. Gosse opposes the traditional definition of the New Left as a bunch of college kids. He expands that definition to include movements of color, feminism, and the gay rights movement. He also spends a good deal of time exploring the roots of New Left movements, providing a continuum from the Old Left of the early 20th century to the present. While I disagree with some aspects of this definition, Gosse has provided a short, readable overview of the New Left that I recommend to anyone interested in the history of American radicalism and progressive politics.

First, allow me to get my quibble with Gosse out of the way. For me, a core feature of the New Left was a belief in some sort of international revolutionary movement. These movements didn't always start that way of course--the Civil Rights movement or the Free Speech student movement are examples. But I would argue that those earlier movements are precursors to the actual New Left. Civil Rights became Black Power. Members of SDS became Weatherman and a hundred other groups with revolutionary agendas. Many of these movements fractured over the commitment to international revolution. Feminism had its radical and less radical sides, for instance, but ideas of revolution had to be taken seriously by all involved, even their opponents because they were so powerful.

It is in the gay rights movement that the problem lies. Gay rights had very little of that international revolutionary fervor according to Gosse's account. Certainly the gay movement was revolutionary in its own way; its success has transformed the lives of GLBT people around the nation. It is vastly important for understanding U.S. history. But is it rightfully part of the New Left? I am unclear what Gosse's criteria is. In particular, why gay rights and not environmentalism? Both revolutionized America at the same time. Yet environmentalism gets one paragraph in the book. Environmentalism had a more international focus than gay rights, though like gay rights, most early environmentalists did not look to Third World movements as a major inspiration. If you are going to include gay rights, I think environmentalism must be in there as well. However, I would include neither because of their lack of a capital "R" revolutionary agenda.

That out of the way, Rethinking the New Left is a pretty interesting book. Gosse does two things very well. He centers the experiences of people of color, including the Puerto Rican and Asian-American movements at the core of his narrative. He also accurately shows the vast positive effects the New Left had on American society, even as the movement seemed completely defeated by the end of the 1970s.

Traditional narratives of the New Left have focused on the universities, SDS, and the antiwar movement. There is good reason for this, and in fact, Gosse gives those movements short shrift in a slight overcorrection. But those narratives have severely underplayed the importance of minority nationalist movements, particularly non-black minorities. In an excellent chapter on the Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements, Gosse presents the great difficulties these people had in mid-20th century America and how even many white liberals basically did not take their concerns seriously, even as they supported the African-American civil rights movement. I came away from this chapter wanting much more. At times, Gosse could have provided it. Certainly something on the ways Native Americans used sympathy from the white New Left to their benefit would be valuable. But most of these movements are still understudied and in fact, I knew relatively little about some of them.

Gosse's focus on the success of the New Left is really valuable. While all of the international revolutionary aspirations failed, the New Left still transformed American life. African-Americans went from having no outlet for political power to having Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, and dozens of members in Congress. Women underwent the same transition. Casual sexism and racism are still problems, but they are far less acceptable than they once were. Homosexuals went from outright persecution to increasing acceptance within American society. Even many young conservatives are fairly progressive on gay issues.

Perhaps the most remarkable success has occurred for Native Americans. In the 1950s, Native Americans were fighting against official termination of their tribal status. Today, they have reached unprecedented levels of political and economic power in the United States. How did this happen? Between Indian nationalism expressed through the American Indian Movement and other organizations, the fight for tribal sovereignty, liberal white sympathy for Native Americans, and gaming, many, though by no means all, tribal peoples have experienced significant gains in recent decades.

The Native American experience is also a useful mirror for understanding the limitations of the New Left as well. AIM and other nationalist movements made a lot of connections with the revolutionary nationalism of the developing world. In the U.S., this nationalism was violently suppressed by the U.S. government. Indians never could gain complete tribal sovereignty, the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or white exploitation of their land and people. Thus, on one level they failed. But, as Gosse points out so well, let us not mistake the inability to achieve ultimate goals with complete failure. Rather, both culturally and politically, for men and women, whites and people of color, gay and straight, the New Left radically transformed the United States, shaping the struggles we are still fighting today.

Sting

Everytime I hear someone defend Sting's early music, I want to say that he is unfortunately beleaguered. Then he has to go and say something like this.

"And Sting has published a book of his lyrics, complete with his more highbrow observations. Of the song "Synchronicity II," he writes: "I was trying to dramatize Jung's theory of meaningful coincidence."'

Christ.

Historical Image of the Day



View of Earth from Apollo 8, 1968

Mister Trend's Best of 2007

This year was an amazing year for music. There was so much great stuff that came out, as much from seasoned veterans (PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Thurston Moore) as relative newcomers (Arcade Fire, Liars, Burial, True Primes). Additionally, with so many albums coming out in the latter half of the year, this list looks radically different from the mid-year assessment. That said, here are my 15 best albums (plus a few other “bests”) of 2007.

1. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible – This one has it all – incredible, powerful, moving music and voices, lyrics deftly handling topics such as religious fundamentalism running rampant, loss of loved ones, culminating in the powerful “No Cars Go,” an anthem of youthful escape. There was none better than this in 2007.

2. PJ Harvey, White Chalk – 8 albums in, you know with PJ Harvey you’re going to get something you don’t expect, something new. Yet the ghostly sound of piano and Harvey’s voice reaching registers she almost never attempted before is stunning even by her standards (when I first heard the album, I seriously thought there must have been some mistake, because I was sure it wasn’t her voice on the album opener). Yet it is one of the most beautiful (and sometimes terrifying) things she’s ever done, and there hasn’t been an album this haunting in a long time.

3. Liars, Liars – When Drum’s Not Dead came out last year, I wondered if they could really push their sonic envelope further, as each album had gotten more and more abstract. Their response? An album of songs that, for the first time in Liars’ four albums, try to be catchy and hooky. They are extremely successful in this regard, yet their experimentalism and willingness to try new things from song to song (and even within the same song) remain. Four albums in, they have yet to release anything that is less than excellent.

4. Radiohead, In Rainbows – Most bands would kill to have 2 masterpieces in their lifetimes. But in the wake of The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and now In Rainbows, Radiohead have managed nothing less than their fourth masterpiece. Just an amazing album, perfectly incorporating their experimental side of their more recent stuff with the rocking nature of their earlier works.

5. Panda Bear, Person Pitch – While I enjoy Animal Collective a lot, I thought Strawberry Jam fell flat. Fortunately, Collective member Panda Bear released an album of stuff that’s wonderfully sunny, psychedelic, poppy, adventuresome, and just plain fun.

6. Akron/Family, Love Is Simple – I saw them in Albuquerque a few years ago, and wondered if they would ever be able to translate their exciting and daring live show to an album (not that their earlier stuff was bad at all – it just paled compared to how they carried it off live). Love Is Simple shows they can bring that energy to an album, incorporating rock, folk, eastern chant, bluegrass, country, all into a sound unlike anybody else out there. Their other two albums are very good, but Love Is Simple kicks them into the stratosphere.

7. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver – Their debut was cheeky, funky, and fun. This album loses none of that (particularly on North American Scum, one of the best songs I’ve heard that expresses the current shame and pride one can simultaneously feel in being from the U.S.), yet in songs like “Someone Great” and the Baba O’Reilly-esque “All My Friends,” James Murphy has added a new emotional level to LCD Soundsystem’s music that makes it even better.

8. Sigur Rós, Hauf/Heim – Hands down the most interesting re-make album this year. A two-disc set, the first disc features them completely re-tooling 5 songs (two of which were almost impossible to find), giving them a new form of expression (and in the case of “Von,” a new kind of beauty) without losing the quintessential Sigur Rós sound. The second disc is just as daring. As they were touring parts of Iceland where they had no access to electricity, they had to re-imagine their songs accousticly. Avoiding the simple “MTV Unplugged” accoustic-version-of-the-same-song approach, the second disc also features complete overhauls of their music. It has the ethereal beauty common to Sigur Rós albums, but hearing these familiar songs in a new way from the same band is a revelation.

9. Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare – Suffering from the U.S.-backlash over huge U.K. hype on last year’s Everything People Say I am, That’s What I Am Not didn’t deter the Monkeys. Favourite Worst Nightmare abandons the party-themed music of the debut for much more darker lyrics and a darker sound; if the first album was an ode to partying, Favourite Worst Nightmare is a physical and emotional hangover. The Monkeys have grown lyrically and musically by leaps and bounds in just one year, and there’s no telling where the limits are.

10. Thurston Moore, Trees Outside the Academy – I find most of Sonic Youth’s members’ solo stuff hit or miss, but Trees Outside the Academy may be the best of all their solo projects. It is clear that Moore just got together with some friends to make some great music. This is probably the best guitar album of the year. And the kicker? Moore plays accoustic guitar throughout. Far from being “Sonic Youth-lite,” this one is outstanding, and well worth checking out, even if you aren’t a Sonic Youth fan.

11. Burial, Untrue – Burial (an anonymous electronic music producer from England) offers this year’s most enigmatic album. Full of simple beats, ghostly voice samples fading in and out, and creepy atmospherics, he crafts the best electroninc album of the year. There is no one particular song that sticks out when you listen to it at first, yet by the end, you end up with a very deep and strong impression of the album that stays with you and keeps you coming back again and again.

12. The New Pornographers, Challengers – While I enjoy NP enough, I didn’t always understand the raves. They were really good pop songs, yes, but it wasn’t a second coming or anything, and over time, I found the albums starting to be a bit too same-y from one to the next. But Challengers changes that, adding much more melancholy, not being afraid to slow things down, and expanding the sound of the band. Far and away my favorite NP album (though I really just have never been able to get into the Bejar songs).

13. True Primes, We Have Won – Still the best avant-garde rock album not just of this year, but of the past several years.

14. Kings of Leon, Because the Times – Like the Arctic Monkeys, the Kings of Leon seemed to grow up radically in their subject matter between their last album (the exremely underrated Aha Shake Heartbrake) and this one. “Knocked Up” is probably the best opening track of any this year, and they rock hard throughout the album. Without question, the best straightforward rock album of 2007.

15. The Heliocentrics, Out There – Combining DJ-Shadow-style electronics and beats, jazz horns, and science fiction soundbites, Out There is definitely the “grooviest” (but not in the hippie sense) album of the year.

Best Re-issue
-There were a lot of really good re-issues of major artists (Robyn Hitchcock, Sly & The Family Stone) and albums (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, which is even more amazing with the digital remastery). However, I still stick to my mid-year pick this year of the three albums by Betty Davis. The music world hasn’t known somebody as raw, carnal, funky, filthy, and sexy as Davis since her third album came out in 1977. Although it’s often a cliché in the music world, in her case her music really is a true force of nature, and while “funky” has since become practically a byword for “kind of cheesy”, her albums show how rough, rockin’, and real “funky” could be.

Best Box Set
-Miles Davis, The Complete On the Corner Sessions - This year, Columbia finally released the last in its 6-set box-set anthology of Davis’s time on the label, and The Complete On the Corner Sessions is far and away my favorite. The original 52-minute album that divides many Davis fans (even many who love his fusion stuff hate On the Corner) gets a 6-disc treatment. This may sound like cash-in excess at its worst, but the album’s 52 minutes were a thrown-together (but not in the perjorative sense) mix of numerous studio sessions and songs. This new box-set gives listeners an opportunity to hear each of the pieces that made their way onto the album (sometimes in only a few-minute bits) in their entirety, and they are nothing short of amazing. Davis had hoped to emphasize melody less and rhythm more with this album, moving a bit away from the rock-influenced sound of Jack Johnson, and the sessions reveal that. Also, despite 6 discs, there is no noodling, no unnecessary production of 8 different takes of the same song (the problem that plagued The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions). Instead, it’s just a great collection of the last great period of production Davis had.

Best Single
“Foundations”, Kate Nash – Nash’s album is really good overall, but Foundations is the standout track. It expresses better than any song I’ve heard in a long time the kind of relationship that has nothing left to offer, yet you can’t let go of (the chorus: “my fingertips are holding on to the cracks in our foundation/and I know that I should let go but I can’t/and every time we fight I know it’s not right/everytime I grow upset and I smile/I know I should forget but I can’t”). It expresses the pain both humorously and painfully (“You say I must eat so many lemons/cause I am so bitter/I say I’d rather be with your friends, mate/’cause they are all much fitter,” delivered in Nash’s brilliantly sarcastic, thick English accent). I’m not usually a lyrics-oriented guy, but Nash succeeds at every level (in the same way that I think Lily Allen falls flat), and it’s just a great song.

Best Album Title
Electric Six, I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me from Being the Master – The sentiment is made even more awesome by the wordiness.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

NFL 2007 Week 15: NFC Edition

NFC EAST: Now those are the Cowboys I know and love. They tanked just like they’re supposed to against a division rival; just think what they’ll do when the pressure’s really on in the playoffs. Outside of Witten, the entire offense looked terrible, although their defense stayed solid against the Eagles. With Roy Williams on suspension, their coverage schemes will be a lot stronger, but their horse collaring schemes will be diminished. Bad as they are playing, it amazes me that the Giants haven’t screwed themselves out of a playoff spot. Now, with their best and most disgusting player, Shockey, out for the season, Eli has even fewer acceptable targets. The cards are all right for them to lose their spot and, if they do, they’ll be done with Coughlin and Manning at once. Todd Collins’ decade long interception-less streak continues, no matter how badly he and the rest of the Redskins played. Don’t tell him that, though. According to him, he celebrated his victory with Connie Chung, who did body shots off of him. Anyway, this Todd Collins is certainly more interesting than the real one, who is a pathetic excuse for a quarterback. If the Eagles are content to be spoilers, they did a great job against the Cowboys. Their season is over, and every win means a worse draft pick, but you have to hand it to them. They have a dedication to the swing pass that’s second to none. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of many plays they’ve run all season that isn’t a pass to Westbrook. They’ve turned into a one man team and, while they haven’t invested as much in him as the Falcons invested in Vick, they’ve put too much stock in his success and pay for it every time he’s out with injury.

NFC NORTH: The Packers smashed the Rams and pulled back into a tie with the Cowboys for the division. Dallas is clearly the better team, but Green Bay’s running game has come around and has compensated for some less-than-stellar play from Favre. Chicago and Detroit are their last two challengers. Both are bad teams, but both could easily take the Packers down a notch. Minnesota has completely turned their season around and, between their rushing offense and defense, has started to become legitimate powerhouses in the conference. Of all the teams except for the top two, all records aside, the Vikings are the team that I’d be most scared to play. If Tavarius Jackson can continue to keep his play positive, this team could go deep into the playoffs. The Lions can only blame themselves and the man upstairs for the destruction of their season. They play like they don’t care anymore, evidenced by allowing the Chargers to score 51 points on them while Philip Rivers had a mere 142 yards passing. I’m really not sure how this is possible. It’s not official yet, but it’ll be funny to see last year’s NFC champion come in last in the division. The Vikings may not have looked great but compared to how the Bears played, especially in the second half, they’re the kings of the world. Chicago is a terrible team that is too old and too riddled with holes at every position that it’ll be a while before they’re good again.

NFC SOUTH: I’m not one to care about the Pro Bowl and how players are voted in, but it’s ridiculous that not a single player from the NFC South made the team. Given that some of the players from Dallas in the game are backups, it seems like one or two from this division would have been worthy. The Buccaneers don’t have to play very hard to prove their dominance over the rest of their division, but they stomped the Falcons all over the place, destroying them on every level of the game. Jeff Garcia threw his fourth pick of the year. I’d say that he deserves a Pro Bowl vote, but TO says he’s gay, so I guess that disqualifies him. I guess it’s good for them, for what it’ll mean about the post season, but I’m very surprised that the Saints have built themselves up to an even record. Plus, they may have found an actual running back in Aaron Stecker to go along with Brees’ excellent play instead of the overblown punt returner they’ve been going with. Carolina, bad as they often play, has been able to find ways to win against opponents who really should beat them. This week, it was the Seahawks, who’d already clinched, but the Panthers really diminished their status. If they can do the same against Dallas, they might become my favorite NFC team all of a sudden. I can only wait and hope. In their first week under the Emmitt Thomas regime, the Falcons played terribly. This, of course, is not the coach’s fault; they have had one of the most troubling seasons in recent memory. There’s no end in sight, either, since they don’t have any receivers, a running back, a quarterback, or a coach worth a damn. That’s a lot to get in one off-season.

NFC WEST: Seattle certainly did not look like a division winner in their loss to the Panthers. They’ve come into a tie with the Bucs for the playoffs, but have lost any intimidation factors they started the season with. If Carolina can beat them, anyone can. Seattle should definitely win their final two games against the hapless Ravens and the pathetic Falcons, but again, they lost to the Panthers, so we may be looking at 9-7 division winners. The Cardinals, for all the positive steps they’ve taken this year, have had a terrible time winning. They’ve scored a lot of points and gained a lot of yards, but their opponents just do that much better. Seems to me that they’re being punished for naming their stadium as they did; either that, or it’s their crappy defense. It seems so unlikely to me whenever the Niners win, but they beat the Bengals, who just can’t catch a break, with a strong all-around game. They should be happy looking at their young defense for the coming years but they, like so many other teams, have a group of quarterbacks that’s simply unwatchable. Though both Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson are playing more like they should be, they haven’t been able to win consistently. I’d understand if they were in a better division, but they’re in, arguably, the worst in football. It just doesn’t make any sense, and I wonder if this is going to continue into the coming seasons.

Mister Trend's Best of 2006

That's no mistake in the title - this is, indeed, my best of 2006. My best of 2007 will come tomorrow. However, while I did such a list last year, some albums that seem great for a few months lose a bit of their lustre, while others only get better and better and better. Additionally, last year's number 2 only came out one month before my list, and it only grew on me further after that, and some of the new entries here I hadn't had a chance to hear yet. So, with a full year-plus worth of reflection, here is my best of 2006.

1. Joanna Newsom, Ys - had this come out before November of last year, it probably would have been at the top. I continuously go back to it, and it's just top notch. The variaroiu between songs isn't enormous, but it's there and it's noticeable on repeated listenings (particularly the harp-and-voice only "Sawdust & Diamonds" followed by the lush "Only Skin"). It almost made number one last year when I only had a month to digest it, and now with a year in the bank, no questions - last year's best album.

2. Liars, Drum's Not Dead - It also just got better, between the obtuse metaphors for creativity vs. writers' block, and the creepy atmospherics. MOst unique concept album in a very long time.
3. CSS, Cansei de Ser Sexy - I hadn't heard it until this year. It's simply the catchiest and most delightful thing out of last year. Tongue-in-cheek yet simultaneously earnest makes it even more endearing. The lyrics don't always make sense ("Fuckoff is not the only thing you have to show", and their few Portuguese lyrics aren't always clear in either Portuguese or translated English), but they're super-fun and have great grooves. And "Let's Make Love And Listen Death from Above" may be the best song that references another band.

4. Beck, The Information - The more I listened, the more it revealed its nuances. A quasi-concept album dealing with the pleasures and pains of living in this age of technological wonders, it has so much richness and variety, I think it really may be Beck's best album (closely rivaling Sea Change).

5. TV on the Radio - It's still great, and there's still nobody who sounds like them. It hasn't lost anything over time - the previous 4 have just improved more over time.

6. Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55 - Lyrics by Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, music by Air, and the heartbreaking, delicate voice of Serge Gainsbourg's daughter. What's not to love?

7. Cat Power - It's still so powerful, and still misunderstood (yes, she's cleaned up, and yes, it's not as much a downer as You Are Free, but that doesn't make it lighthearted and uplifting).

8. Neko Case - You know where Erik stands on her (I paraphrase: "Mix up the tempo, for crying out loud"). And you know where I stand (no voice like hers, nobody makes albums that are as perfect for nighttime as she does, and nobody has lyrics that hit me quite like hers).

9. ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, So Divided - I don't know if it's their best album, but the diversity in sound they showed ion it was still great and hopefully is the sign of things to come.

10. Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped - It's not my cultish love of SY. It's simply the best guitar-pop record of last year, with killer hooks that remained both catchy and intricate.

Overpopulation

At the core of most of the Earth's environmental problem is overpopulation. Without such a huge explosion in the world's population in the last 200 years, most of the thorny issues we are dealing with would have never happened--climate change, species collapse, much of our pollution, etc. Simply put, there are far too many people on the planet. Until we get population growth under control, we have little chance to battle climate change.

JMG pines that it is almost impossible to have a serious discussion of overpopulation
. He also provides a series of thoughts on the issue from various writers.

China, western Europe, and Japan are on the right track toward controlling population, even if China's is compulsory and resented by large sections of the population. Soon some of these places may see negative population growth, a very good thing. But until the rest of the world gets on board, including the United States, we can do only a limited amount of solving environmental problems.

Of course, there are many factors that go into deciding whether one has children. I'm not going to make an argument here that it is immoral to have children. Not only would most of my friends denounce me, but it is too complex of a problem to make such an easy denunciation. However, I will go so far as to say that having more than 2 children is immoral. Replace your population if you want to. But adding more people to the Earth is both unnecessary and will contribute to the environmental collapse of the planet.

However, if we can reach overall world population sustainability, we have the potential to stablize the world's environments. Lots of people will bemoan population sustainability. People are already freaking out in Japan and Europe over their flat or negative growth rates--many business and government leaders cannot fathom a growing economy without a growing population. This could be a problem. I don't really know. But it is increasingly necessary to come up with a population solution, not nation by nation, but at the global level.

Zebra Mussels and the Columbian Exchange

Steve LeVine has a good piece on the invasion of zebra mussels into North American waterways. This invasive species from central Asia is ripping through our river systems, clogging pipes, eating phytoplankton, and starving out other organisms.

We are still dealing with the Columbian Exchange. As named by the great historian Alfred Crosby, the Columbian Exchange is the exchange of biota and diseases between the Old World and New World. This is one of the most important events in world history. I argue that in the past 500 years, only the Industrial Revolution is more important. The Americas have always had the worst of this exchange. Time after time over the past 515 years, Old World invaders have ravaged American environments--smallpox, chestnut blight, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, rats, cockroaches, pigeons, zebra mussels. True, some Old World foods came over that we like--wheat, wine, etc. So did domesticated animals such as horses, cows, and sheep. But the Old World received many more benefits--corn, tomatoes, chile, chocolate, etc. Moreover, to my knowledge, the only destructive organism to ravage the Old World was syphilis. I highly recommend Crosby's chapter on this.

Like many invasive species, the zebra mussel first came to the United States from shipping. They were first discovered in the U.S. in 1988 and have spread to 23 states since. Even if you don't care about the environment, they are bad because they clog up power plants and other industrial operations on waterfronts, potentially endangering those companies and costing millions of dollars to eliminate, only to know they will come back at the blink of an eye.

Even today, the American environment suffers from continued invasions. Zebra mussels are only one of the latest examples. AIDS, kudzu, various pathogens attacking eastern trees--all are serious threats to our environment and even to our health. This is a major impact of globalization, a process that really began well before 1492. We continue to struggle against the Columbian Exchange today. Biodiversity is plummeting, particularly on islands and in the Americas. Our increasingly homogenized environment is one of the most depressing things about the modern world.

Andrew Jackson

I am amused by the search for the body of Charles Henry Dickinson, the man Andrew Jackson killed in a duel in 1806. I love talking about Andrew Jackson the murderer in my survey courses. I particularly like the story of him shooting at the guy on the boat before he ran for president. The guy just wanted to meet him but he was getting in the way and slowing the boat down. So Jackson started shooting. I don't think he hit anything and he certainly didn't kill the guy. But the students like the story anyway.

Theo Emery does pose some interesting questions about what might have happened had Jackson died in the duel: "would the United States have won the Battle of New Orleans? Would executive power have evolved without President Jackson? Would the Trail of Tears have taken place?

Questions like these get at the issue of top-down versus bottom-up history. How much do generals and presidents matter? I tend to fall in the middle of this debate. For example, there is no question that Martin Luther King helped shape the civil rights movement, but had he not been in Montgomery in 1955, the civil rights movement still would have happened and the ultimate successes and failures of the movement would likely have been little different.

Let me try to answer Emery's three questions. Would the United States have won the Battle of New Orleans? Hard to say. But it doesn't really matter. The Battle of New Orleans was a great boost to the morale of the United States. But it didn't actually accomplish anything. Not only had the Treaty of Ghent been signed before the battle, ending the War of 1812, but the main issue leading to the war--the impressment of U.S. sailors by the British navy--was rendered irrelevant by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. A devastating loss at New Orleans might have made the British press their advantage harder on the American continent, but ultimately I think little would have changed. We would however have been spared Johnny Horton's 1959 hit song, "Battle of New Orleans," which can only be seen as positive.

Would executive power have expanded without Jackson? This is the toughest of the three questions. I have to think the answer is yes. One thing about Jackson is that he was so dominant over the political life of his time. This is quite unusual in American history--probably only Franklin Roosevelt is comparable. The main thing tying the Whigs together was a collective dislike for Jackson. So the second party system would have fallen on somewhat different lines if Jackson had died in 1806. However, it is fairly likely that Henry Clay would have been president had Jackson not been around. Clay almost certainly would have expanded executive power on some level to promote the American System. Still, the expansion of executive power is ultimately pretty small under Jackson. Most of the presidents after him for the rest of the century did not push executive power (Polk and Lincoln being the strongest exceptions). Thus, in 1896, we had several consecutive presidents that actively believed the promotion of all legislation and national agendas should come from Congress. Nearly all the expansion of executive power we see today began with Theodore Roosevelt and blew up from there. So if Jackson is never president, we are pretty much in the same situation in 1900 and today. Ultimately, Jackson's expansion of executive authority made little difference in the big picture of American history.

Finally, the Trail of Tears. Jackson may have been right when he argued that removing the Cherokees was actually the best thing for their survival. That doesn't make him any less the racist. But the other option was war started by local whites. The U.S. military was not going to stop white settlers from invading Indian lands--they never had before and didn't after. Regardless of the Supreme Court decision that affirmed Cherokee rights, no U.S. president was going to use the army to keep whites out. So the Trail of Tears might not have happened, but other unspeakable atrocities would have.

Interesting questions though.

Historical Image of the Day



Meeting between Henry Kissinger and Augusto Pinochet, 1974. I believe they are also talking about bunnies and flowers.

Henry is telling Pinochet about how much Nixon loves to send poisoned chocolate to America's kids around Easter. Pinochet looks on with interest, thinking how he can place time bombs inside of stuffed rabbits as a way to eliminate the children of lefties.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Those Damned Lefty Professors!!!

Kate Sheppard reports on the new Family Security Matters list of the top 10 most dangerous classes in American colleges.

This list is absurd on so many levels. First, it clearly reflects the bias of Jason Rantz, the wingnut who put it together. Thus, there are two courses from Occidental College, including "Movements in Social Justice," which seems to have made the list because Rantz didn't like the professor when he took it. Leave it to the right to make only the most theoretically rigorous decisions.

Other courses on there include "Islam in Global Context," "Introduction to Labor Studies," and "Imperialism in American History." Sounds like a pretty awesome semester to me.

What disappoints me is that I am not on the list. I know I'm new and everything, but I hate America as much as these other professors (which is to say not at all). Certainly my "Hurricane Katrina in Historical Perspective" course this spring should be competitive. After all, I'm assigning a chapter from Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water, entitled "Does George W. Bush Care About Black People." Of course, the answer is no. But hey, telling the truth means you hate America.

So come on Rantz--include me on your next list! I'll even pay you for the honor!!!!

NFL 2007 Week 15: AFC Edition

AFC EAST: Sadly, the Patriots look to be set for their undefeated season. All they have left are the crippled Giants and the “surging” Dolphins, and both would be an absurd upset. I’m still holding out hope, but the Pats won’t be resting any of their starters. It would be the greatest game ever, though, if Miami could come up with a way to win. That hope is a reason to watch the game next week, at least. Buffalo looked lost in their own elements against Cleveland, playing one of their worst games in years. There’s no doubt that the “blizzard-like” conditions (I’m no meteorologist, but I don’t understand how weather can be blizzard-like without actually being a blizzard) messed both teams up badly, but at least the Browns managed eight points. 8-0? What kind of score is that? For the number two team in the division, the Bills sure can play worse than anyone in the league. In losing their quarterback and being four touchdown underdogs, the Jets put up a good fight against the Patriots. They slowed down the offense (with a lot of help from the wind) and played stronger offense than I’m used to seeing from them, but none of that was close to enough for New York to claim revenge. In the only decent news to come out of Week 15, the Dolphins finally won. Granted, it was against the demolished Ravens, but it was good to see them celebrating like it was the Super Bowl. It’s a positive change from the dour Patriots after each of their consecutive wins.

AFC NORTH: It’s hard enough for me to believe that the Browns actually have a winning record, let alone leading a division. They may only be tied, but the Steelers are playing badly and Cleveland’s been the far more consistent team of the two. Whatever happens now, this is definitely the most successful season since their return and, really, a lot longer. Pittsburgh, however, has completely fallen apart. The breakdown isn’t on the Ravens’ level, but they’ve completely lost their stranglehold on the division. With the Browns’ excellent draft and a certain Bengals recovery, picking the North next year will be really tough. While I do think the Bengals will come back strong next year, they are an abysmal team this year. 1-6 on the road, including their smoking by the Niners on Saturday, they look simply terrible. Even when Palmer’s having a good day, which he did this week, the defense is so bad that they allow twenty points to the worst offense in the league and to Mr. Nobody Shaun Hill, who was allowed, in his second start in six years, one of the most efficient passing days of the week. I wasn’t afraid that Brian Billick would lose his job after this season but, after losing to Miami and especially after some dubious play calling in the game, now I’m not so sure. He’s looked very bad this season. I think he’ll be given one more shot, but there’s so much work that needs to be done on that offense; it’ll take at least a few more years before they’re worth anything again and, by that time, Billick will be doing stupid coach segments on ESPN.

AFC SOUTH: The South now appears to be the toughest division in football. It’s very strange to see an entire division without a losing record, but even Houston is at 7-7. The Colts are still the clear best of the group, but looked to be going down early against the horrid Raiders. That defense really isn’t what you’d call stingy, but they still kept Manning from putting together a decent drive the entire first half. They keep winning, but are looking as beatable as anybody. The Jaguars are really the team to be afraid of at this point, though. In spite of Pittsburgh’s attempts to come back, the Jaguars trounced their opponents in a stadium where teams just don’t win. Their running game is working so well right now, it’s hard to think that a defense will be able to effectively stop them throughout the playoffs. If the Pats are unlucky enough to have to face them, the Jags will run straight down their throats. The Titans have played inconsistently, but have kept themselves ahead of the Texans for another week. When their offense clicks, it’s very good. Young had a good game on the ground and through the air and White finally got back on track. Granted, they played the Chiefs, but the offense was very balanced and their defense was as good as they needed it to be to stop Brody Croyle. They won’t make the playoffs, but they have remained surprisingly strong all season. The Texans played what was probably the best game in their history against the Broncos on Thursday. They did everything right. From Sage Rosenfels’ strong play to Mario Williams’ dominance over the Denver offensive line, they smashed the Broncos all over Houston. Kubiak, along with Shanahan’s son Kyle, knew what Denver was going to do at every step and exploited it to the fullest. I guess if any team has to beat Denver, let it be Denver’s southern clone team.

AFC WEST: After all their bad play and bad coaching, the Chargers still clinch the division. If any of the other three teams here had played anywhere close to good football over the course of this season, there’s a damn good chance that San Diego would never have gotten of the ground, but since their divisional rivals played like such garbage, they were given an open door to the playoffs. The Texans effectively ended Denver’s season on Thursday but, given how they’ve played, it’s inevitable. This has been the worst Bronco season in a decade, and it’s hard for me to understand. At times, they’ve been brilliant then, just as easily, they slip into their crap mode and stop scoring. I think there’ll be some serious changes in the off-season but, for now, it’s just going to be a race to keep their heads above .500. After seven straight losses, I’d have to say that, records aside, the Chiefs are the worst in the division. They had fifteen decent minutes in their game against Tennessee, which is about half of the total decent minutes they’ve had all season. Whereas the Raiders have things going on that may help them be better in the coming years, the Chiefs look lost and ready to spend the next decade moribund. The Raiders looked like a fairly decent team in their loss to the Colts. By the end, Manning & Co took over completely, but Oakland kept it close for most of the time. As they’ve only lost three of their last five instead of seven straight, they are definitely better than the Chiefs right now, which should be a huge slap in the face to any Chiefs fan, if any of those still exist.

Pentecostelism's Growth in the Favelas

While it's no major news that Pentecostelism has grown in Brazil in the last 25 years in both urban and rural areas (at least in the rural areas, I've heard accounts of how it helped people climb out of alcoholism and spousal abuse and rescue their family lives), the Christian Science Monitor has a piece up about the growth of Pentecostelism in the favelas. It isn't nearly as detailed or researched as it should be, but it offers a decent generalized account of the growth rates and (extremely) generalized explanations of Pentecostelism's growth in the favelas.

I would add several things, though. It isn't just in the favelas - it's everywhere in Rio. There are at least 3 Pentecostal churches within 2 blocks of my house, yet only 2 Catholic churches near it, both at least 5 blocks away. Also, the article barely (and very generically) touches upon one of the reasons Pentecostelism is growing in popularity: social conditions. Unlike Catholicism, which has traditionally said "if you're poor/miserable, your reward awaits you in heaven", Pentecostelism (and Protestantism in general) allows for a little more social and individual agency and encourages you to do what you can to improve your situation (though it's also idealized and sugar-coated in the face of the reality of poverty and inequality in Brazil). And, its message of moderation can and has helped families whose members struggle with alcoholism (a common problem in Brazil, both in urban and rural areas) overcome their demons (no pun intended) in ways that Catholicism often hasn't. Pentecostelism has been so increasingly popular in many areas due largely to these facts, to the point that some of Brazil's most popular priests (such as the painfully inane and pious Padre Marcelo de Rossi) have adopted many of Pentecostelism's practices and messages (including the "7-11 song" - a song with 7 words that you repeat 11 times) in order to try to stem the flow of converts to Pentecostelism and regain some Catholics (much to the disdain of Benedict XVI on his visit to Brazil earlier this year).

Obviously, Pentecostelism can't address some of the social issues it claims (the play of the dealer about to be executed by his bosses is just that - fiction. In real life, he ends up dead. The faith is just supposed to help him and his family and friends cope with that - conversion to Pentecostelism and its beliefs won't do anything to alter that reality). Plus, the article is a little too superficial for my tastes. Still, it touches on an oft-ignored cultural part of life not just in the favelas, but in Brazil, and it still points to a very valuable and important social and cultural change in Brazil, and thus is worth checking out.

Mister Trend's Random 10

Yes, I know it's only Tuesday. However, I travel to Brasília on Thursday to spend a week with my wife's family for Christmas, and will be internet free. Plus, tomorrow is a re-evaluation of my "Best of 2006", and Thursday is my "Best of 2007", so here is my random 10 for this week

This week's 7th song is by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and reveals one of the little-known secrets about me. By and large, I'm not a huge hip-hop fan, yet I love a lot of the stuff by the Wu-Tang and its members. The Clan's albums are phenomenal, but the solo albums are hit or miss, based largely on whether Clan-member and producer RZA is producing it (the one exception to this being Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance). The first round of Wu-Tang members' solo albums (Raekwon, Ghostface Killa, Method Man, and GZA) are top notch, with RZA behind the production of them all, but GZA's Liquid Swords is far and away the best of the batch. His rhyme and rap-skills are unrivaled, and the RZA's tight production (often putting a 2-bar drum-beat on loop and adding creepy atmospherics and kung-fu movie samples) is at its peak on this album. Also, to me at least, a lot of hip-hop delivery depends on the tone of the performer's voice, and there's nobody's delivery and voice I enjoy more than Genius/GZA's.

1. "Mr. Syms" - John Coltrane
2. "Me & My Head" - Quasi
3. "Listen, the Snow Is Falling" - Galaxie 500
4. "Vette" - Django Reinhardt
5. "I'm Nuts About That Gal" - Lonnie Johnson
6. "The Time of Times" - Badly Drawn Boy
7. "Liquid Swords" - Genius/GZA
8. "Low Down Loving Gal" - Blind Blake
9. "Cochinando" - Abel Ferreira
10. "Skoodle Do Do" - Big Bill Broonzy

Santa Shot At in Rio

I still haven't made up my mind over whether this is kind of amusing or really sad (though I do take issue with the story's description of Rio as "the violent Brazilian city of Rio" - Rio has neither a monopoly on violence, nor is violence the first thing that characterizes the city as a whole). Apparently, a helicopter flying an actor dressed up as Santa to a favela in the North Zone was shot at by people in another favela, who mistook the helicopter for a police chopper. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and Santa still made it to the children's party by car. Still, it's a rather bizarre story that says a lot about how police and favelas interact.

Lady in the Red Chador

Iran may be allowing the first western singer to perform in the country since 1979. The singer: Chris De Burgh, singer of "Lady in Red." Why De Burgh? Well, according to this story, bootlegged copies of De Burgh's music were smuggled into Iran during the 1980s. He and his music were seen as somewhat "revolutionary."

Of course, for young Iranians in the 1980s, any western culture had a seriously subversive element to it. But De Burgh? Really? Fascinating how important contact with the outside world is for isolated people, even when the outside world might see those particular contacts as really crappy.

Craft vs. Industrial Unionism

The impending return to the air of Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien without their writers demonstrates the inherent problem with craft unionism. Although there has been good solidarity among Hollywood workers, there are also a ton of working people without a stake in this strike who are suffering. Not the big actors or celebrities of course, but the middle-class people who work hard for a living and can't handle several months without a paycheck. The late-night hosts have done a good job of keeping their employees on salary, but you can't do that for months on end without receiving some kind of salary of your own. Even millionaries feel it when they pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars a week.

Hollywood is still on the old craft-union system. Rather than an entertainment-wide union fighting for the rights of all workers, it is made up of a maze of individual organizations. When one goes on strike, everyone suffers. But not everyone gains when the strike is won.

This reminds me of the decades before the CIO's founding in 1935 when the American Federation of Labor ruled the national labor movement. Not only did the AFL refuse to organize blacks, women, children, immigrants, or most industrial laborers, they split everyone up into crafts rather organizing them around industry. Thus the pipefitters in a steel mill might go out on strike. But the rest of the steel mill would either continue to work or be unemployed for no reason. This was such an ineffective organizing method that the CIO formed to revolutionize labor, which it did during the next two decades. Unfortunately, the CIO could never break the AFL's back and the two organizations combined in 1955. More relevant to the topic of this post, the CIO's failure meant that a lot of industries remained organized on craft lines, thus helping to set the stage for the writers' exploitation by entertainment executives and the situation where shows are returning to work, even without their writers.

On the other hand, there is some talk of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert making temporary agreements with the Writers' Guild to allow those writers to return to work. If they gave the writers a good deal, they might force the industry to crack. That would be good. Maybe they could help create a positive end to the strike.