Sunday, February 28, 2010

Behind the Bar: The Herrington

For this edition of "Behind the Bar" we learn the story behind one of the world's signature cocktails. The Herrington debuted at the Drake Hotel (pictured) in Chicago in 1937, when a world-wide olive shortage caused by the Spanish Civil War forced the staff at the hotel bar, Ducks-n-Drakes, to improvise:
1 oz dry sherry
dash Pernod
1 medium herring

Chill sherry and Pernod over ice. Strain and serve up in cocktail glass. Drop herring in glass.
Visitors to Ducks-n-Drakes can still view a small plaque, featuring a mounted herring, that commemorates the day when the drink was invented.

Thanks go to my colleague Ehnbauhbe for bringing this drink to my attention.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Paradigm Shift Edition) - The Punch Line (The Minutemen)


OK, here's the picture: it's 1991. I'm graduating from college, and I'm musically...well...bored. This is before everyone smelled like teen spirit, and the events behind The Year Punk Broke. I'd been listening to what was then referred to as "alternative" music, or "college radio". Nothing too weird: Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Fugazi, Pavement, etc. I know there are other things going on in the music scene (hardcore, speed metal, goth), but I'm just not that interested in exploring those too deeply. Then, I hear about the Minutemen from a summer roommate who swears they're the real deal, and I quickly get my hands on the SST compilation of the first two albums (1981's The Punch Line and 1982's What Makes a Man Start Fires?). What happened next changed everything for me.

The experience of listening to their debut album for the first time is a little hard to describe and give it justice. The record has 18 songs, and it's a little less than 25 minutes long. It's a sonic assault - nay, a blitzkrieg! - of rhythmic punches, coming one after the other and delivered with brutal speed. I barely had time to start pondering what I had just heard that the next track would start and take me on another whirlwind of funky beats, thick melodic bass lines, and trebly guitar rhythms.

The Minutemen wore their politics on their musical sleeves, and their lyrics were a very clear middle-finger salute raised to the Reagan Revolution. The songs would often have politically-oriented messages, but they would also be very poetic, so you never felt like you were being lectured. It was a little like listening to a Bob Dylan record at 45 instead of 33 rpm, if Dylan wrote songs with only one verse, that is.

This was the most exciting music I had ever heard, and it also introduced me to the genius of mister Mike Watt, bassist-extraordinaire, and overall genuine punk-rock guy. The Minutemen did what they wanted, regardless of trends and fashion of the times, and everything they did had a political dimension to it, all the way down to making sure to have a sharp contrast between the thick low-end sounds of the bass lines and the crisp trebly tones of the guitar. Their music was in many ways a direct reaction to the over-indulgence of 70's prog rock, with its extravagantly-long songs, and ridiculous stage antics. The Minutemen considered guitar solos to be bourgeois, and for them, punk rock was about attitude, rather than a particular music sound, or fashion statement. As a result (and unlike many of their peers), they never painted themselves into a corner, stylistically, and they remained fresh-sounding and innovative until they stopped playing in 1985, after the tragic death of their guitarist and singer D. Boon in a car accident.

I can still put this record on, and it sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when I first heard it 20 years ago. The Punch Line is certainly not The Minutemen's best effort, but it was a revolutionary record for me, and the good news is that they only got better after that!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert A. Heinlein
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ – – – –


Ick. Ick. Ick.

I think possibly the worst part of this book is the way women are written. They are all perfect people who are calm and soothing and never get mad and are always gorgeous and often clad only in robes. They also totally adore the extremely irritating main character.

The main character, Valentine Michael Smith, is a human who was born during the first manned mission to Mars. He was raised by Martians after all the other humans in his mission died in an accident. He comes back to Earth when he is about twenty.

Because of his Martian upbringing, he has some telekinetic powers and he is dreamy and optimistic and believes in things like free love and individual freedom and self-actualization. He develops a cult of followers which eventually grows into a church and his influence spreads rapidly. He introduces humans to the concept of “groking” which, from what I understand, became quite a popular term after the book came out. “To grok” is to understand on a much, much deeper, sort of spiritual level than just plain old superficial understanding.

There is an implication in Heinlein’s writing that if you grok what Smith is about, and you believe in his creepy libertarian vision of what we can make the world become, then you are vastly superior to other people.

Of course, a la Jesus Christ, it is inevitable that established powers on Earth don’t like that Smith is saying these things and that he is gaining quite a lot of popular power. So they try to kill him. Eventually Smith does beat the evil establishment guys but only after his non-corporeal, form-of-energy Martian foster ancestors help out at the last minute by suddenly giving him even more amazing powers than he had before and transporting him to another plane of existence. Deus ex machina.

Not too easy to buy.

Or grok.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Now That's a Calendar

A while back I issued a bleg for a good old-style insurance-company calendar, the kind that used to hang in barber shops and gas stations. Sometimes they featured a painting of wildlife or maybe the American flag. I rarely see them anymore.

Well last month, a Peabody, Massachusetts high-school teacher came through with exactly what I had in mind:

A nice, big two-color calendar from an insurance company well into its second century. It features man-in-the-moon phases, red letter days, and at the bottom, a Farmer's-Almanac-style weather forecast for the month. At home in any 1947 office or place of business.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Monocle Hall of Fame: 2009 Inductees

Monocle Hall of Fame and Museum, Rochester, New York.

Inductee Monocle Fact
Alfred, Lord Tennyson Could not see to eat without one
The Penguin Held in place by beak-like nose
Muhammad Ali Jinnah Sometimes popped out during fiery speeches to Muslim League
Wilkins Micawber Termed it a "quizzing glass"
Gen. Erich Ludendorff Employed to study map, plot retreat route after disastrous defeat at the second Battle of the Marne
Col. Klink Per Werner Klemperer, held in place with spirit gum
Col. Mustard Added to character's costume for 1972 U.S. edition of Clue board game
Mr. Peanut First recorded instance of corrective lens worn by a nut

Monday, February 22, 2010

Google Results League Table: "_______ is Theft"

FURTHER UPDATE (Mar 2, 2010 4:50 PM): In what has now become a world-class blogalicious cock-up, commenter Albert Esplugas reports that he cannot reproduce Hans's figures. And I couldn't either, at least I couldn't yesterday. But now I can again. Not sure what is going on. Anyway, be wary of any reference to the number of Google results that some phrase or other supposedly returns. I'm clearly out of my depth here.

RETRACTION (Feb 25, 2010 2:12 PM): Commenter Hans has found a serious fault in my Google phrase search methods. I tried a "* is theft" search and noted the top responses that came up in the auto-complete box. But Hans simply typed in some other phrases and found the following:
"sex is theft": 40,400
"love is theft": 57,000
"everything is theft": 111,000
"government is theft": 10,300,000 (!)
This will teach me to post after my bed-time. Although I do suppose the fact that the numbers seemed plausible to everyone but Hans (and others who were dubious but who didn't bother to comment) says something?

Original (and now basically useless) post appears below:

In recent days, while following the raging inflation debates, I've noticed the phrase "Inflation is theft" in blog comments a lot. I remember that Ron Paul had a hand in popularizing the concept during his 2008 presidential run, as he criticized the United States's fiat money and Federal Reserve systems, which he argued lead to too much savings-munching inflation (which he considers theft).

It got me to thinking, "What else do people think is theft?" I'd heard of both taxation and property being equated to theft, even though the partisans of those views occupy opposite extremes of the economic policy spectrum. I wondered if other interest groups had hit upon the idea of branding the thing they didn't like as "theft."

So I did a Google search on the wildcard phrase "* is theft" and was a bit surprised by what I found, though I probably shouldn't have been. The top Google result, by far, was for "Piracy is theft," with 2.4 million results. Not high-seas piracy (though there were probably a few of those in there), but piracy in the sense of illegal downloading and/or copying of digital media, especially movies, video, music, and software. All by itself, Piracy accounted for 79% of the total results for the top 12 phrases combined. But the digital publishers, represented by powerful trade groups such as the RIAA and the MPAA, don't stop there. The terms Copying, Downloading, and Sampling are also in top 12, and together these four supposed theft-equivalents account for almost 80% of the total results.

Another surprise was that the phrase "Theft is theft" came in second, probably owing more to its rhetorical use by the digital publishers than as a logician's example of the law of identity, but I decided to give the logicians credit anyway.

Compared to the RIAA-MPAA juggernaut, the economic and political ideologues are a rag-tag bunch when it comes to applying the "theft" label to things they don't care for. The Libertarians ("Taxation is theft") are the best of the rest, with the Pacifists ("War is theft"), and Anarchists ("Property is theft") not too far behind. The Communists ("Profit is theft") were a distant fifth, followed by the Academics (Plagiarism), the Squatters (Rent), and Ron Paul's Goldbugs (Inflation) coming in at number 11:

A graph of the distribution of the top 12 Thefts looks like this:

The blue bars show the actual counts, while the yellow line traces the function of the trend line specified in the equation. It's a classic power-law distribution of the type that Wired's Chris Anderson wrote about in his 2006 book The Long Tail, where a single market leader grabs the vast majority of market share and is trailed by a long list of lesser players:

Images from top: Nick Humphries via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license; the author; and Hay Kranen via Wikimedia Commons.

Oreilles Gauloises (Comfort Part II/Krautrock Edition) - Computer World (Kraftwerk)

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about bands and albums that provide me comfort when my mind is troubled or preoccupied, and I focused then on Stereolab's Mars Audiac Quintet album, and Laetitia Sadier's soothing voice. This week, I want to talk about another one of those "comfort" bands: Germany's Kraftwerk, and my favorite album of theirs, 1981's Computer World.

I think the first time I heard Kraftwerk's music was in the late 70's, when they actually got some radio airplay in Europe with "The Model", a track from their 1978 album The Man-Machine. Their music didn't really make much of an impact on me until 1983, when my high school friend Chris Duhamel played me their single "Tour de France", which I thought was fantastic. Since then, I've acquired all of their albums, which are all great in their own different way, but for me the one that really sums up the essence of the band and their music is Computer World; it is also in my opinion the best album with the "classic" line-up of Ralph Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür, and Karl Bartos.

I absolutely love everything about this album: the synthesizer melodies of songs like "Computer World", "Pocket Calculator" and "Computer Love" (which was used by the band Coldplay in their song "Talk" on the abum X&Z); the simple counting in the lyrics of numbers in different languages, and listing of various institutions and industries that were then highly dependent on computers, demonstrating in simple terms the growing use and dominance of computer technology at the beginning of the 1980's; the amazing cover artwork depicting what was then a state-of-the-art computer terminal, with that wonderful yellow background; and last but not least, the use of computer-generated voices throughout the songs. Also of great importance, but often overlooked, is the masterful percussion work that maintains the mechanical and repetitive rhythmic feel of the music.

I think that the obvious "motorik" quality of Kraftwerk's music is probably what I find calming and soothing, and there was a period a couple of years ago when all I could listen to was this album. In a way, it may have provided me with some form of sonic order and serenity (with its repetitive and predictable beats) at a time in my life when I felt that things had become quite unpredictable, and were quickly getting out of my control.

Kraftwerk still continues to play today (with only one of its original members), and their sporadic concerts are historical events not to be missed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Did Trade Decline in the Interwar Period?

Paul Krugman theorizes that it had to do with electricity and the internal combustion engine replacing steam as the main motive powers in industry: steam was best suited for long-haul cargo transport, by rail and by ship, while electricity and the engine were most efficient in local contexts like factories and farms.

These technology explanations sound good, but I also wonder if the transition of hegemony from Great Britain to the U.S. in the the 1918 - 1945 period also played a role in retarding world trade. With no clear economic hegemon to write and enforce the rules of trade and encourage stable currencies, centrifugal forces took over and the international trade network disintegrated.

Related to this, I think, is the suddenness with which the U.S. found itself thrust into the leading position in the post-World-War-I power vacuum. It took a while, and another world war, for domestic U.S. politics to catch up with the new reality of the U.S. as a superpower. I wrote about this aspect of the story briefly here on Cheeze Blog a couple of years ago when I was doing some reading in economic history:
After 1918, the United States rather suddenly became the world’s most powerful nation. Unlike Britain, which achieved economic leadership gradually through the 17th and 18th centuries, the U.S. found international leadership thrust upon it by the devastating effects of the First World War on Great Britain and the other European powers. Having attained world leadership not so much by design as by default, the domestic economic and political characteristics that might have supported free trade in the U.S. were weak or underdeveloped compared to the characteristics supporting closure. As a result, over the course of the 1920s the U.S. turned inward, a move that cascaded throughout the international system.
Image: Modern shipping lanes. Global Map of Human Impacts to Marine Ecosystems, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 2008.

Book Review: Green Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –


This is the second installment in Robinson’s Mars trilogy. It is a sequel to Red Mars, the extremely realistic story of the original hundred colonists’ landing and their first few decades of settlement on the red planet.

In this book, the population of Mars is growing fast. Some of the growth comes from immigration from Earth, as it always has, but much of it now also comes from children born on Mars. The native children tend to be physically different from Earth people – taller and leaner, better at loping around in the lower gravity.

Martian political conflicts still abound and are even more complicated. Most importantly, since Mars is now run by transnational corporations, there are all kinds of resistance movements across the planet trying to organize a second revolution.

There is also still a basic tension between the “greens” (who want to terraform Mars) and the “reds” (who want to keep Mars in its original state). The greens are winning by default, having released some unauthorized lichens which have adapted to the atmosphere and have taken off. Since it would be next to impossible to bottle this up again, the reds are getting increasingly hostile and reactionary.

Robinson tells the story while switching among the points of view of several different people. Sometimes we follow Sax Russell, one of the first hundred colonists and a terraforming proponent. Sometimes we follow Ann Clayborne, another original colonist and one of the most ardent reds. Sometimes it’s Nadia Chernyshevski, a genius at construction who has built many of the power plants and major settlements and only reluctantly gets involved in politics. And sometimes it’s Nirgal, one of the native first-generation Martians.

This technique is great because after living in the shoes of all these different people, you find yourself being sympathetic to all sides of the political debates. You realize there is no clear-cut easy answer to any question about development. You see why they fight, and you also see how they can actually find common ground and work together sometimes.

I think my favorite characters are Nadia, who is very practical and realistic, and Sax, who was one of those who originally started the clandestine seeding of the planet but who learns a lot from Ann and goes through a lot of changes of heart over the next hundred years.

I found the politics less interesting than the biology, however. While all the conflicts are going on, the “greening” of Mars is relentlessly underway. The lichens that the first colonists distributed have started to produce oxygen and are mutating into new varieties. As the book goes on, we begin to see leafy plants and bushes and finally animals – insects, centipedes, and birds. Robinson is so good at this hard SF. I just loved the unpredictable and very, very slow transformation of Mars.

Toward the end of the book there is a catastrophe on Earth when a huge chunk of Antarctic ice breaks off and begins to melt. Sea levels rise, destroying many coastal cities. It was sad to see Earth descend into poverty and chaos while up on Mars people are able to make and re-make their own societies. It reminded me a little bit of the story in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles where the population of Earth is destroyed in a nuclear war and the only humans left are the lonely colonists on Mars.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What's It Like To Be a White Male? Nice and Quiet.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science highlights a new study about what happens when women feel like men are checking out their bodies:
As [researcher Tamar] Saguy explains, "When a woman believes that a man is focusing on her body, she narrows her presence... by spending less time talking." There are a few possible reasons for this. Saguy suspects that objectification prompts women to align their behaviour with what's expected of them - silent things devoid of other interesting traits. Treat someone like an object, and they'll behave like one. Alternatively, worries about their appearance might simply distract them from the task at hand.
At a recent dinner party an acquaintance of mine, an African-American woman, wondered aloud what it would be like to be a white man. I thought about it for a bit and suggested that with no one's eyes on her, no one following her around, noticing her, staring at her, talking to her uninvited, judging her appearance, it would probably feel like she was floating in a sensory deprivation tank: quiet, calm, easy to think.

Thanks to Carrie Snell for the pointer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Air Travel, Recycling, and Deciding What's Worth Doing

Air travel is, of course, terrible for the environment, especially in terms of climate change. As a guy who loves to travel, it is faintly ridiculous for me to point the finger at coal-fired power plants and other polluters, given the number of airplane trips I make in a typical year. Certainly I am on board with the economists' preferred solution, placing a price on carbon emissions via a Pigovian tax, so that polluters like me will be forced to pay for the cost of the damage that I do to the atmosphere whenever I fly, and to make less-polluting alternatives, such as trains and buses, more competitive in the marketplace.

I try not to think about this stuff when I'm lugging my recyclables out to the curb, especially on those frosty mornings when I'm about to head to the airport. Recycling is after all a relatively symbolic action when it comes to dealing with our long-term environmental challenges. I suppose it's better than nothing. On the other hand, the role that recycling plays in making people feel like they're "doing something" when they are, in fact, hardly doing anything, may end up doing more harm than good to the environment.

Green America has just released a study showing that the airlines are really bad at recycling. This is something I had noticed, and wondered about, before. It would be kind of cool if this was because the airlines were just taking the attitude, "What, you, the airline passenger, care about recycling now that you've just dumped several hundred tons of CO2 into the atmosphere? Don't make me laugh!" But as much as I wish that were the case, I kind of doubt it.

There's a constant tension, when it comes to making the world a better place, between acting in small, achievable steps, on the margin, and pushing for a root-and-branch restructuring of an entire system. As I've gotten older, I've become more oriented toward the marginal improvements, because, well, my time is starting to run out, and the graveyards are filled with men and women whose grand plans never got off the ground. But it's also possible, in some instances, that taking "small steps toward a much better world," as the blog Marginal Revolution advocates, can make us take our eyes off the ball.

One possible solution would be to divide one's time and efforts along the lines of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's investment strategy: he recommends putting 90 percent of your assets in safe, fixed-income government bonds and 10 percent in high-risk long-shot ventures. That way, you are protected from the bad "black swans" like the mortgage meltdown, while still giving 10 percent of your assets a chance to hit a home run with a positive black swan – the next Microsoft or Google.

Moving from asset allocation to time-and-energy allocation, such a strategy would mean that I put 90 percent of my time and effort into working on the margin – voting, writing letters, conversing with friends and relatives about my views, educating myself and others, attending rallies, doing electoral work, joining a mainstream political party – and 10 percent working for revolutionary change, in the mold of Jefferson and Madison, Douglass and Garrison, Anthony and Stanton, Gandhi and King. That way, given the strong likelihood that my revolutionary goals* will not be met, I will still be able to look back on my life and see that I helped push the world a little bit in the right direction.

*So what are my "revolutionary goals?" Gulp. It's been a while since I've thought about them (I'm just now coming out of a five-year period of political inactivity) and my ideas about the "ideal society" are pretty unformed at the moment. But as a starting point, I would say that the Scandinavian countries are farthest along the path that I think we ought to be on in terms of organizing an economy and society that is sustainable, equitable, free, and safe.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Given the fears of the Tea Party and some prominent Republicans that Obama is a tyrant in waiting, I can't help but wonder what they would think of this scenario:
The Supreme Court rules that a state law, on the books for generations and a deep-seated feature of the local culture, is unconstitutional. The governor of the state in question, responding to the vocal demands of his constituents, announces that he will refuse to abide by this "legislating from the bench" by nine unelected judges. He calls out the state militia to enforce the now technically defunct, but still overwhelmingly popular, law.

The President of the United States, unmoved by either the governor's appeals or an impassioned outcry from the citizenry, deploys an elite brigade of U.S. Army soldiers to implement the Court's decision. He also takes command authority over the state militia away from the governor. The President uses his constitutional power as Commander in Chief of the armed forces to impose his will on the state and its citizens. He wins the confrontation and abolishes, at the barrel of a gun, the state's duly-enacted law.
Of course this scenario really happened, 53 years ago. The President was the noted tyrant Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1957, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had been handed down three years earlier, was finally implemented, "with all deliberate speed," in Little Rock, Arkansas. The New Yorker has a stirring collection of photographs of the surviving actors in the civil rights struggle in the February 15 issue, and there is a multimedia feature on the New Yorker website. The photo below is from that collection. It depicts, some five decades later, the "Little Rock Nine," the nine Black high-school students who were escorted into Little Rock High School by U.S. Army paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division in 1957.

Image: Platon / The New Yorker.

Homemade Graphs! Now with 25% more context!

This graph from Organizing for America showing monthly job-change since the beginning of the recession has been making its way around the Internet. I think the point is supposed to be that Obama is turning the country in the right direction. Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn't. After all the percentage of home mortgages at least 90 days delinquent was up 2.1% for the year ending Q3 2009. (And the mortgage delinquency problem is not one of those declining-rate-of-decline situations: the Q3 2009 rate was up 5.0% just for the quarter.)

In any event, I have the feeling that one of the lessons we're supposed to take from the OFA graph is something like: "If only Scott Brown voters had seen a graph like this before they went to the polls in January surely they'd never have made the choice they did." I don't know what bothers me more about this: that folks are (still) surprised that reason and fact-based thinking failed to carry the day in the MA special Senate election, or that they think this graph an instance of reason and fact-based thinking.

Anyway, here are a couple graphs that I made myself. (Click on them for full-size versions.) One uses the same BLS data as the OFA graph but gives it some annoying historical context: it goes back to 1946. Each color is a different presidential administration. Looks like Nixon and Reagan had themselves some pretty good years by this measure. Hell, just go back to 2003 and you'll see that Dubya presided over the addition of better than 8 million jobs for a spell. A version of the OFA graph created in January 2008 would have had Bush 43 looking like the King Midas of employment.

And here's one that's about as helpful as the OFA graph in understanding a president's influence over short-term changes in employment conditions. It shows that inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings have gone down since Obama took office (the gold bars) -- after rocketing up in Bush's last half-year.

Maybe this is the one Brown voters saw?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Is There So Much Falling in Top-Level Figure Skating?

I am tired of watching all this figure-skating where someone falls down. (So far it seems to be the woman who usually falls down in the pairs competitions, but that may be a mistaken impression.) It ruins the sport for me; the beauty and artistry of a particular routine is just too irredeemably marred by the awkwardness of a fall. Plus, I just feel bad for the skaters as I watch them finish their routines while knowing that they have most likely stumbled their way out of contention. A professional ballet dancer who fell as often as these figure skaters do would not be dancing at the highest levels. It ought to be the same for amateur figure skaters.

It seems we have settled at a bad equilibrium: where the payoff to landing a difficult maneuver more than offsets the penalty for not landing it, so that we get too many flub-ups (for my liking). Therefore, I would like to see the incentive structure of figure skating altered, in order to discourage this excessive risk-taking. One proposal would be to possibly assign a penalty to a fall that would carry through an entire competition, thereby hurting that skater's chances in other events and in the all-around. Or perhaps a skater should be banned from competition, or relegated to a lower division, if he or she falls, say, three times in any one-year period.

Would this lead to blander, safer, skating? Yes, and that is the point. Cleaner, less-ambitious routines, filled with maneuvers that are clearly within the skaters' abilities, will make for a better sport.

It probably goes without saying that I think that this type of remedy should also be applied in the realm of financial regulation.


All this ice skating is making me nostalgic for Torvill & Dean. This is for you, Lord John.

Live, Bubbling Yogurt with Whey

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book Review: The Wanderer

The WandererFritz Leiber
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ - -


The first half of this book was great.

One night, a new moon suddenly appears in the sky. It is right next to our original moon, but four times bigger and covered with purple and yellow designs. At first the new moon appears to be benign but then it puts out tendrils towards our moon and begins ingesting the moon’s material, as if it was grinding it into dust and sucking it through several straws. At the same time, the pull of this gigantic new mass in our orbit begins to cause all kinds of disasters including earthquakes and super-duper high tides which destroy most of the world’s coastal cities.

A group of humans and one cat all coincidentally happen to be on the same Los Angeles beach on the first night that the new moon appears in the sky. They realize that LA has been reduced to rubble by tidal waves and they band together to survive and find higher ground.

One of the guys in the group happens to be holding the cat when he and the cat both get sucked up by some kind of ray into the new moon. And of course the moon turns out not to be a moon at all but a spaceship, powered by moon-matter and crewed by aliens that look like human-sized cats, and they sucked him up because they were really just trying to suck up the cat, thinking that the cat was the more intelligent species.

From here, unfortunately, the book goes rapidly downhill. After some initial confusion and hostility on both sides, the human reaches a sort of accord with the aliens and finds out that they are a renegade space-faring group trying to escape from a fascistic federation of worlds that wants to make them conform to a rigid code of behavior, and they are running away from the federation's enforcers. I thought there was potential for plenty of action as the humans and the cat-aliens figure out how to work together and resolve what to do about the enforcer-aliens who are chasing them and what they’re going to do about not us having a moon anymore. But the resolution was disappointing - simplistic and chummy, like a stereotypical 1960s-era space movie. And the cat-alien was irritating and, well, catty.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Ísland Edition...kinda) - Killing Joke (Killing Joke)

I know, I know, Killing Joke is NOT a band from Iceland, but they lived least for a little while. Jaz Coleman, founding member of the band, and its lead vocalist and keyboardist, evidently thought shortly after finishing their third album Revelations that the end of the world was nigh, and decided that the best place to be for that event was Iceland. He quickly moved there with the band's guitarist, soon to be followed by the rest of the band. Interestingly, they never recorded there, but worked with various local bands, and one in particular which would later become The Sugarcubes. Jaz, upon realizing that maybe the Apocalypse was not that close, returned to England and continued recording with Killing Joke.

This album (Killing Joke) is their debut. I can't remember when I first heard it, but I do remember the son of one of my mom's distant cousins telling me the story in the 80's about how his band had opened for Killing Joke once when they played his local town.  He told me that there was a lot of drug paraphernalia backstage, including spoons and cotton balls. That really sealed the deal for me, and I somehow got my hands on some of their albums, and though I didn't initially like their music, I developed an appreciation for their work over the years that culminated a few years ago when I realized how brilliant their music really was (at least to me!).

If Jaz Coleman was running away from the Apocalypse, his band's first album sure as hell sounds like the Apocalypse! It's loud, with a brutal rhythm section, and really thrashing guitar licks. Listen to songs like "Requiem", "Wardance", or "The Wait", and you'll probably hear what I mean. Though I wanted desperately to "get it", I really didn't start appreciating this kind of music until much later in my life when I got into bands like The Swans, The Birthday Party, and even Nine Inch Nails. Killing Joke's first three albums are a strange and intoxicating mix of metal, punk, and industrial sounds. The result is unique, and though many bands have tried hard to copy their style, they remain the indisputable source of that sound.

The band is still around, putting out really excellent and hard-sounding albums after a period of leaning on more dance-music sounds (check out their most recent record), and they are currently touring with all the original members after the tragic death of long-time bassist Raven.

Quote of the Day

"There are a lot of people in this world who [are] deserving of some come-uppance. But you almost never get to administer it. And if you want things out of life, that's kind of as it should be."
Image: Page from The Littlest Rabbit by Robert Kraus by Sharyn Morrow via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

The Robin Hood Tax

The fact that it features Bill Nighy (definitely Netflix the original UK miniseries "State of Play"-- forget the pale US theatrical release) is just one of dozens of reasons why this video is awesome.

For an economic analysis of how a 0.5% financial transaction tax in the U.S. could raise $100 billion per year, (even assuming reductions in trading activity due to the tax) while also curbing speculation, check out this briefing paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
PDF pdf_small | Flash flash_small

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hot Stove League in the 8th Dimension

Hi everyone,

This is my first "web log" posting, so I thought I would start with something easy. Since I have some free time here in the 8th Dimension, my thoughts have recently turned to baseball history.

My goal was to decide the greatest practitioner for each of baseball's pitches. I have two lists: personally seen in my life-time (1969 onwards) and prior to that.

My Era

Fastball - Nolan Ryan
Curve – Bert Blyleven
Sinker – Tommy John
Screwball – Fernando Valenzuela
Change – Frank Viola
Slider – Steve Carlton
Splitter – Mike Scott
Knuckleball – Phil Niekro
Cut fastball – Mariano Rivera
Spitter – Gaylord Perry
Beanball -- Pedro Martinez
Eephus Pitch -- Dave LaRoche
Submariner -- Dan Quisenberry


Fastball - Walter Johnson
Curve – Sandy Koufax
Screwball – Carl Hubbell
Change – Eddie Lopat
Slider (Nickel Change) – Chief Bender
Splitter (Forkball) – Elroy Face
Knuckleball – Hoyt Wilhelm
Spitter – Burleigh Grimes
Beanball -- Bob Gibson
Eephus Pitch -- Rip Sewell
Submariner -- Eddie Feigner

Not sure if anyone in the "old days" threw a sinker or cutter. I'm sure I'm overlooking lots of good choices for all categories.


West Newton Street

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Ta-Nehisi Coates Is, for Me, the Ideal Blogger

Because of posts like this: "There are No Desperadoes. There Will Be No Rosewood." It begins:
It's been twenty years since Nelson Mandela got out. This was like the defining political event of my youth. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, can't remember which. What I think is pretty cliche: Whatever South Africa's problems, the fact that the country (and its leaders) did not descend into mass revenge mode is an enduring tribute to compassion and empathy.

It's a great object lesson on how to handle being wronged. It's one of the things I've struggled to accept as an African-American. There is no Rosewood. Often you are wronged, and by your hand, or even in your lifetime, your persecutors will never be brought to account. There are limits to our justice. It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice (South Africa did no such thing) but that you recognize that it's not really in your power to even the odds.
Read the whole thing.

Coates, or "TNC" to his growing legion of fans, is the guy who turned me on to the fascinations of 19th-century American history, and the almost-too-good-to-be-true Oxford History of the United States series, with his updates last summer as he made his way through James McPherson's definitive one-volume Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom. Since then I've also devoured What Hath God Wrought. The Glorious Cause is already on my bookshelf, waiting for me to finish The Bauhaus Group.

Also, as usual, his commenters are off-the-charts outstanding on this post. This is all due to TNC's assiduous policing of his comments section: he warns, and then bans, the trolls and the topic hijackers. It makes all the difference, and it takes no small amount of effort on his part. If I could read only one blog (probably should read only one blog), it would be Coates's, no contest.

West Canton Street

Freedom is not Zero-Sum

Today is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. 
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." – Mandela
So true. When others are more free, we are less fearful, less covetous, less envious, less defensive, less deceitful, less grudging. Freedom is not zero-sum! More freedom for you doesn't mean less freedom for me, it means more freedom for everyone. This is at the heart of the same-sex marriage issue, among others.

As much as I disagree with much of the libertarian worldview, I do respect their reverence for individual human freedom and self-determination. (Talking about the sincere, consistent libertarians here like Barry Goldwater, Tyler Cowen, even Ron Paul, not the glibertarians.)

Thanks to Elizabeth Wambui for the pointer.

Image: National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who is Organizing the Unemployed?

Does anyone know if there is any organizing going on among the unemployed anywhere? I admittedly don't see all the news, but I haven't heard of anything. My hunch is that the Tea Party is grabbing most of them. Time for us progressives to wake up and start offering an alternative to Tancredo and Palin!

A couple of options off the top of my head:

(1) Check out your local Jobs with Justice chapter. If it seems like they have it on the ball, join up and encourage them to start organizing among the unemployed, if they aren't already.

(2) Check out your local MoveOn chapter. The MoveOn health care rally I attended a couple weeks ago was impressive in terms of its demographic diversity. I was out of town for the local organizing meeting this past weekend, but I've heard good things about it so far.

Any other ideas?

Keith's Word of Warning: Dental Floss

To avoid exasperating slippage, it is best to refrain from applying Jergen's or some other moisturizer on hands – even severely chapped hands – before attempting to floss teeth.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Few Thoughts on the Problem with Haiti

I just finished reading John Lee Anderson's letter from Haiti in the February 8 issue of The New Yorker, which features a Haitian woman named Nadia and her struggles to find food for her neighbors. It's a little weird that Anderson chooses to focus his piece on a Haitian who grew up in the States (and was deported back to Haiti a few times, following fairly serious run-ins with the law); it's sad that she talks so disparagingly about her neighbors and fellow Haitians (who she says are too lazy to help themselves); and it's shocking that people don't seem shocked by the depths of depravity to which the city has fallen (bodies bulldozed into mass graves, petty thieves summarily executed or left to die, shot and bleeding, as examples to other would-be looters).

When I visited Haiti several years ago for about ten days (while I was working for an international development organization with partners in Haiti) I was shocked at how smoothly things worked given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, how humanely most people treated one another even under the most inhuman conditions, and how creative, hardworking, and hopeful people were even in the most hopeless situations. (Compare this to folks around these parts who from time to time shoot each other over disagreements in traffic jams or who riot when their favorite sports team wins.)

A friend of mine, a Haitian doctor, is in Haiti now, working for Partners in Health. In the first days after the quake, he and his colleagues were driving back and forth between their family homes in Port au Prince and the PIH hospitals where they worked. Wherever they went they saw Haitians helping one another – digging buried neighbors out of the rubble, providing makeshift medical care, finding food and water. He and his colleagues were distressed to hear that the news was focusing on stories of looters and brewing violence. Driving around in a truck with gringos at all hours of the day and night they saw very few incidents of violence here and there, but the vast majority of people they saw were helping their neighbors, not hurting one another.

It's almost like we need to distance ourselves from Haiti and from Haitians, to say they've failed because they're different from us in some crucial way, or are operating outside of the system we've set up to create prosperity and happiness and success. The reality is that they ARE a part of us and a crucial part of the system we've set up.

Haitians aren't poor because they live outside the system of international trade and international development. They're poor because they've been stuck on the wrong side of international development and international trade since the Haitian slaves had the temerity to rise up and demand their freedom 200+ years ago (with a lot of help from local elites who wanted to duplicate the worst aspects of the French slave society once the French were gone). They're poor because they've been ruled by despots and dictators and demagogues. They're poor because of a long history of U.S. and international occupations – including the ongoing occupation of Haiti by NGOs and aid organizations that have only succeeded in making matters worse for Haitians.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue

Small barbecue restaurant on the grounds of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Texas. Probably the best BBQ I've ever had. Open irregular hours; currently Thursday, Friday, Saturday 11:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Book Review: The Terminal Experiment

The Terminal ExperimentRobert J. Sawyer
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ - -

This book has a fantastic premise. It is also a real page-turner. It moves right along and is fun to read, like a Stephen King novel. In the end, though, the plot doesn’t quite stand up to either the promise of the initial idea or the exciting writing.

The story begins when a medical researcher builds some experimental equipment that accidentally scientifically proves the existence of the human soul. This, of course, changes the way everyone looks at everything. It gets especially interesting when other scientists using his equipment are able to discover that (a) cows don't have a soul but chimpanzees do, and (b) the soul enters a fetus sometime between the 9th and 10th weeks of pregnancy (which makes both sides of the choice debate unhappy). This is all plenty good as a plot line.

It starts to get unwieldy about halfway through the book when the researcher does another experiment with his new equipment where he creates three artificial intelligences that are copies of his own brain. One copy is the control, which has both his temporal-brain and soul-brain patterns and is supposed to be identical to him. Another copy has just his temporal-brain patterns and is supposed to be a version of his living self that knows it is immortal. And the third copy has only his soul-brain pattern and is supposed to emulate his brain after death.

Once he’s created them, the three AIs discover that his wife has been cheating on him and one of them uses the net to arrange to have his wife's lover killed. The book turns into sort of a detective story from then on – to discover which one of the AIs did it – and veers away from the soul experimentation story.

Both the murder mystery and the soul-existence stories are fun to read, but combined together it made the novel disjointed. I would have also liked to explore more of the soul science rather than the murder mystery, because that part was so much more original.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rocky Raccoon Trail 100 Endurance Run

Helen and I are in Huntsville, Texas crewing my brother Greg in this 100-mile trail run. Five laps round a 20- mile course in Huntsville State Park.

I will be uploading photos along the way to this Flickr photoset.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Comfort Sounds Edition): Mars Audiac Quintet (Stereolab)


You know those days when you wake up, and you feel that it's all wrong? You can't make sense of anything, and your spirit feels totally broken. I get those once in a while, in my neurotic, cynicism-riddled Gen-Xer's mind. There are a few things that help me in those instances; some of these remedies are healthy (cuddling with the kittehs, cuddling with the missus, a nice, warm shower, talking to a good friend, etc.), others not so healthy (ranting on FaceBook, eating junk food, watching MSNBC). Music also plays a definite role for me in recovering from these moments of deep funk, and there are two bands in particular that I find work well for me: Kraftwerk and Stereolab. I will talk about Kraftwerk later, but for now I'd like to focus on Stereolab, and their 1994 album Mars Audiac Quintet.

Stereolab is primarily the efforts of the Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier music team. He's English. She's French. This album (their fourth) is where they started perfecting their wonderful synth-driven melodies and combining them with Sadier's soothing vocals. Some of the songs are sung in English, some in French, but it makes little difference in the end: all are amazing and mesmerizing sonic experiments that can at times sound like 60's pop, or Krautrock noise, or even lounge music.

When I have a bad day, I know with complete certainty that I can put this record on, and my worries will dissipate. I don't know why exactly. I think that Sadier's voice has an effect on me, and that somehow, a sense of serenity comes over me whenever I hear her sing.....well, and I guess the fact that I have a major crush on her might have something to do with it as well.

This is a synth album. It's all over this record, and when mixed with beautiful pop melodies sung by Princess Laetitia, the result is very often quite magical. Not many bands have been able to do this successfully (I can only think of one: Brooklyn's Au Revoir Simone), and I am quite grateful that Stereolab has so many records to explore and listen to whenever those dark clouds appear on the horizon.

Les villes vues d’avion sont semblables
Les villes vues d’avion sont semblables
À des étoiles éléctroniques
Qui sont écrasés au sol pour prendre racine
Et vivre ainsi étalés.

I feel better already.

1-2-3-4 Cupcake with Sour Cream Frosting

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Songs of Bakersfield

Jake directs me to this simply wonderful old clip of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos appearing on the Jimmy Dean Show in 1966:

Among the many delights of this video:
  1. The names of the various Buckaroos affixed to their various instruments
  2. The oil-derrick stagecraft
  3. Buck Owens, obviously, and the way his rhinestones cause black flares in the TV camera
  4. Don Rich's Fender Telecaster (I have a Telecaster, ergo, I am Don Rich!)
Buck Owens, the Buckaroos, and the Bakersfield Sound is all I would need on a desert island.

And the Dwight Yoakam - Buck Owens duet "Streets of Bakersfield" is a must for any collection (sorry about the poor audio quality but the video is just too good):

Monday, February 01, 2010

Are Two Poles Better than One?

Over the period from 1898 to 1945, from the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War to the final Allied triumph in World War II, Great Britain slowly but steadily ceded its role as world hegemon to the United States. The U.K. now serves as kind of an affable "hegemon emeritus," providing the rest of the English-speaking world with pretty good pop music, great TV comedies and dramas, and absolutely awesome clothes. Of course, that five-decade cession process also featured the slaughter of two World Wars.

Will the U.S. ever cede its world hegemony to China? And if it does, how could it possibly do so peacefully? It is hard to imagine that the U.S. would give up world leadership without a fight. Yet, China continues to grow. Before long, the size of its economy will surpass our own. Once China's domestic market is wealthy enough to purchase all the flat-screen TVs, iPhones, and laptop computers that it currently exports to the United States, what use will they have for us? It seems unlikely that they'll continue to finance our consumption like they have for the last 20 years or so. Then what?

It's part of why I'm starting to muse about some sort of international authority administering a single global economy, with minimal trade barriers between countries, sort of like a European Union for the whole world. There's a lot that would be troubling about such an arrangement, especially given the outsize role that multinational corporations would likely have in such a regime. Despite their professed love of open borders, we probably can't count on them to really go to the mat for reduced barriers to labor mobility, since labor arbitrage is a key source of profit for multinationals.

Another possible path would be a return to a bi-polar world, with China and the U.S. serving as the two big powers. Such a standoff would be scary but might also simplify domestic politics to good effect; a lot of social progress was made in the U.S. during the first part of the Cold War, primarily the period from 1945 to 1965.

During those two decades, the U.S. saw reduced economic inequality and rapidly-advancing incomes for middle- and working-class families, fueled in part by a massive federal subsidy of home mortgages and college and vocational education through the G.I. Bill, along with enormous investment in public education from kindergarten right on through graduate school. These spending programs, all of which added to the nation's physical and human capital stock and paved the way for future productivity gains, were funded by a steeply progressive income tax with top marginal rates above 90%.

In addition, de jure racial equality made serious strides forward with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, though the promise of racial economic parity has yet to be realized (in fact the economic gap [PDF] between whites and African-Americans and Latinos has barely budged in over 40 years).

Lastly, the arrival of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 added a key measure of security for Americans in their later years, allowing them to live independently longer, which in turn meant that fewer working- and middle-class families had that extra mouth to feed when Grandma or Grandpa – too old to work and too poor to afford to see the doctor – had to move in with the kids.

I conjecture that one of the reasons that the 20 years following World War II was a period of unprecedented broadening of prosperity is that American elites, who otherwise might have opposed the high taxes and generous social spending of the time, were keen to demonstrate that a mixed economy — state-directed at the macroeconomic level but mostly left to the free market in the microeconomic sphere — could generate both prosperity and equal opportunity at a time when central planning was in the ascendancy in the First as well as the Third Worlds.

Compare this period with the years from 1990 to 2010, when the U.S. straddled the world like the Colossus of Rhodes. Despite what neoconservative (at the time) Francis Fukuyama called "The End of History," America saw widening economic inequality, declining middle- and working-class economic security, and soaring personal indebtedness, all culminating in the economic meltdown of 2008. Meanwhile, the lack of a unifying national purpose in foreign affairs has contributed to the creation of a polity incapable of agreeing even on a common set of facts about the world. Against that backdrop, it's starting to be true that it's not only the paleoconservatives who long for the days of the Cold War.

Of course, the Cold War also imposed serious costs on the American people in the form of an overly conformist politics, not to mention the excesses of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO. And the U.S. and U.S.S.R also sponsored countless proxy wars around the globe, not to mention the first-person wars and invasions in places like Korea, Hungary, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Grenada, all of which need to go in the minus column when assessing the benefits and costs of a dual-power equilibrium.
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