Monday, February 28, 2011


Lots of interesting stuff over at the HuffPo Education Page this morning. The lead article by Martin Blank concerns community schooling, an approach I've long favored:

Given our nation's fiscal challenges, we have no choice but to organize public, private, and community resources more effectively and collaboratively. A recent report from the Coalition for Community Schools shows that for every $1 that the school system invests in a community school, the community invests an additional $3. That's real leverage. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the return was even greater during his tenure organizing 150 community schools in Chicago.

And the research is clear: students in community schools learn better, attend school more, and are healthier.

Parents at my daughter's school are up in arms over a personnel change, organizing meetings and firing emails back and forth. We would have killed for that level of parental involvement at the school I taught at last year. Because parental involvement makes such a difference in kids' achievement, it stands to reason that anything that gets parents more invested in the school is worthwhile. The above statistics bear that out.

Moreover, while it's undeniable that teacher quality makes a huge difference, piling all the accountability on the backs of teachers makes no sense. So much of what affects educational outcomes is far beyond the teacher's control. Which brings us back to measures that increase community involvement; again, they pay for themselves. As Kevin Drum has pointed out, our schools do a pretty good job by international standards – it's just our high-poverty schools that are lagging.

So again, anything that helps the community surrounding the school is desirable. If we ever get to a place where we stop cutting budgets, this kind of thing will, everyone now: pay for itself.

Next up is a study that shows student hunger to be the third worst problem that teachers face.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

2006: Don Knotts and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Published in the Santa Cruz Comic News on the cusp of the 2006 midterm elections. As for my comments regarding potential prosecutions of Bushistas, well, hope springs eternal. But you never know....:

Image by Drew Freidman
What does the late Don Knotts have in common with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Spanish-language DJ El Piolin, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Give up? The answer is that they’re all symbolic of the Bush Administration’s willingness to put its own political survival ahead of the national interest.

Of course, that’s no surprise in itself. By now at least two out of every three Americans realizes that Bush and his cronies can’t be trusted with our national security, our national treasury, our national integrity or our national infrastructure (the rest of you can do Google searches on “Iraq + WMD,” “budget deficit,” “Abu Ghraib” and “Katrina”).

The thing is, the Bush Republicans are starting to get a little desperate these days. It reminds me of a recent news story involving Silvio Berlusconi. Even though Italians voted him out of office, he plans to keep on showing up every day at the Prime Minister’s office and going to work. In a sense, that’s what Bush has been doing since Day One: insisting he’s the President, no matter what the voters said.

But like Berlusconi, the Bushistas face the very real possibility of prosecution if the opposition party takes over. Flip fifteen House seats and/or six Senate seats this fall, and all of a sudden you have Democrats with subpoena power – with a fairly juicy set of scandals to investigate, all swept under the rug to date by Bushie’s rubber-stamp Congress.


Just ran into this while surfing. I love both these women, and so I will share it with you:

1991: Just Cause Mayhem

This is the third of three re-posted articles commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Gulf War. This one was published in the war's immediate aftermath. Of course, the events of that month continue to reverberate on the streets of Baghdad today. 

"War is as much a punishment to the punisher as it is to the sufferer."
 –Thomas Jefferson

Quotable fellow, old Tom. One of my favorites of his has always been, "I fear for my country when I reflect that God is just," and it has never been more resonant than it is today. While the rest of the US slaps each other on the back in an orgy of self congratulation, I feel nothing but rage and shame – and, yes, fear.

The words hubris and karma spring readily to mind these days. This country reminds me of nothing as much as the white South Africans, expending vast amounts of blood and treasure to stave off the inevitable, for as many years as possible. How long before we are force-fed a taste of our own medicine? How long before our years of wretched excess implode on us?

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2007: Now With Wonky Linkiness

This depressing DailyKos diary by a veteran teacher, entitled "I Don't Want to be a Teacher Anymore," has generated a lot of attention. My experience during three years of teaching was pretty much as she describes – except that I don't have any Golden Age of Teaching to compare it to. It was like that the whole time. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying being a substitute, and I don't want to quit teaching. I'd be happy to take on another classroom fulltime, but it looks like further cutbacks and layoffs are coming. The nationwide war on greedy, lazy teachers is just beginning.

So I'm surfing the Net one night, and I stop off at the weblog of Matthew Yglesias, who I've previously mentioned as a writer annoyingly wise beyond his years. Yglesias linked to a discussion of education policy at another blog called Marginal Revolution. It involved the cliche of idealistic young teachers heroically rescuing inner-city school classes. Luckily that has nothing to do with me because of my lack of youth. But I clicked through anyway.

As I followed the discussion in the comments section, it concerned the controversies around Direct Instruction, in which the teacher follows a carefully designed and evaluated script. It occurred to me that what they were discussing sounded a lot like our new reading curriculum, Success for All (SFA). I follow a script every morning in my reading class, and as a rookie, I'm glad I do. As several of the commenters pointed out, If I weren't following a script, I'd have to write my own, and I have scant time in which to do so.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

1999: My Dinner with Frank Black

,Frank Black has since reunited with the Pixies, and continues his prolific solo career. Roy Zimmerman gigged here in Tucson last month, and his upcoming appearances are posted here. The two of them shared a stage again last August at the Great American Music Hall in SF.

Being in LA again reminded me of everything I love and hate about it. Flying in, you can take in the awful vastness of it, and look down on the morning overcast that's both smog and fog, and you're never sure how much of which. Down on the ground, when you're on the coast, you know it's mostly fog. Conversely, when you're in Pasadena or Pomona and you can barely make out the mountains a few miles away, you get that sickening certainty about what's going into your lungs. All the clean air regulations imposed since I last lived there, in 1978, haven't appreciably improved the atmosphere - there are just that many more cars to make up the difference.

But on that other hand is the great confluence of culture that comes from throwing millions of people together. The variety of options available to me on the radio dial, in the movie theaters, and in the music clubs was overwhelming. And driving through the gray vastness of it all, you could catch glimpses of truly delightful architecture, as well as more intriguing restaurants than you could sample in a year. Not to mention all the great museums I didn't have time for.

I'd placed myself back in LA for two reasons. One was to visit my grandmother, who, at 88, is somewhere in the slow-moving checkout line in the supermarket of life. And the other was to sample one of those many cultural options: my old high school buddy Roy Zimmerman was holding forth that evening at McCabe's Guitar Shop with one of my musical idols, Frank Black (AKA Black Francis of the Pixies, AKA Charles Thompson).

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

1991: Lessons of Vietnam

This is another article written in the lead-up to the first Gulf War, twenty years ago this week. I still remember the chilling extent to which the media began to march in lockstep with White House propaganda. That's when it was clear the jig was up. Two weeks before it began, the Santa Cruz Comic News published this, headlined, "Lessons of Vietnam... and Panama... and Nicaragua... and El Salvador... and Grenada... and Lebanon... and Angola... and Chile... and Cambodia... and Laos... and Dominican Republic..."

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The lessons to be learned from Vietnam, of course, vary widely depending on one's point of view. Our leaders seem to have gleaned the impression that quick, brutal, and unrestrained use of force is the most viable political option available to them in waging a post-Vietnam 'police action.' The President also noted recently that "the final lesson of Vietnam [is] that a great nation can not long afford to be sundered by a memory," that is, that he would prefer that we just forget all about that particular police action.

The primary lesson of Vietnam for those who opposed it was that we would never forget it - nor allow anything like it to happen again. Now that it has, the lessons of our 30+ years of involvement in Southeast Asia - and the panoply of comparable interventions in our recent history - are terrifyingly illuminated once again.

Ten Favorite Bassists

It turns out that Fifteen Favorite Guitarists is one of my most popular posts so far - so here's a sequel:

Like I said, the bass is the heart of any band.

In this case, I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, to limit my list to masters of the electric bass. But either way, mad props to the great Ron Carter and Dave Holland and Glenn Moore, let alone Mstislav Rostropovich or this guy, no I mean, this guy.

(You are of course free to include any kind of bassist you like to your list.)

Meanwhile, while googling up links, I met up with this woman, who I should have known about but didn't.

I've had the pleasure of seeing most of the monster bass players on my list in concert. Jaco Pastorius, in particular, delivered one of the greatest bass solos I've ever witnessed, an extended, Hendrixian effort that grew louder and louder as the crowd roared its approval. Unfortunately, this seemed to annoy Jaco, so finally he cranked up his amp and threw his bass to the stage, where it lay there, reverberating, as he stalked off. Then, after about a minute of the bass playing itself, we saw the form of Jaco leaping from offstage, landing with his feet square on the neck of the bass, snapping it into instant silence.

I also recall one night in 1980 during the Grateful Dead's 14-night stand at the Warfield in San Francisco. Throughout the extended percussion break, voices kept calling out to "let Phil sing!" – as if he were somehow being prevented from doing so if he wished to. While Lesh hadn't sung a vocal onstage in many years, years later he chose to do so again, and of course he cheerfully leads his own band these days. But that night, I responded to the well-intentioned hecklers by shouting out, "Phil sings with his bass!" A look in his eye said, "Damn right I do!" and he proceeded to snort out one of the most righteous bass workouts of his career.

Anyway, here's my list. As before, this isn't in any particular order – the first three, in particular, are interchangeable. When you're that great, you're all equally great in different ways. These are the low, low voices that speak to me:

1. Paul McCartney
2. Phil Lesh
3. John Entwistle
4. Flea
5. James Jamerson
6. Jaco Pastorius
7. Stanley Clarke
8. Joey Spampinato
9. Kim Gordon
10. Jack Bruce

So speak up!! Who're your faves? The comment link is just below.

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1987: Bourgeois Tagg

Bourgeois Tagg is long gone – they broke up in 1989 – But the opening line of the review gives me the notion to do a "Favorite Bass Players" list, which I'll get to later today.

In my book, a band is only as hot as their bass player - which is why I was doubly impressed at last Saturday's Bourgeois Tagg show. Co-leader Larry Tagg treats his axe like a lead instrument, sputtering out coarse, melodic lines straight through each tune, mixed as prominent as possible. Tagg took several dynamic solos that made guitarist Lyle Workman's polished workouts seem rather unexeptional by comparison.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How Do You Spell "Ruthless, Demented Autocrat?"

By the way, somebody asked why I spelled Gadhafi's name as "Qadaffy." It turns out that reporters once asked him what the preferred spelling of his name should be in the Roman alphabet. He replied that he didn't give a damn, and people could spell it any way they pleased. So, as I explained in a Boomerang footnote, I made up my own spelling, Qadaffy, as in Daffy Duck.

ABC news has compiled some 112 different variations of the name, but mine is not among them, so that makes 113. But any way you spell it, he's got to go.

Koch and a Smile

If you haven't already, you'll want to listen in on Wisconson Governor Scott Walker's phone conversation with an imposter pretending to be one of the wealthiest men in America. Not only does it illustrate the undue influence the Koch brothers have on our political process, but both sides of the conversation open a window onto the ways power in this country is wielded behind the scenes.

The only surprising thing about this is how unsurprising it is.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2001: Interview with Robert Pollard

Robert Pollard has since broken up the band and pursued a solo career. His latest release is called Space City Kicks.

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Once upon a time, Robert Pollard was a schoolteacher in Dayton, Ohio, with a garage band he called Guided By Voices. Fast forward fifteen years and Pollard is on his way to the Guinness Book of World Records for Most Songs Ever Written By A Human Being. GbV has recorded something like, oh, 723 albums, not counting Pollard's solo projects, but their shimmering latest, Isolation Drills, is only the second for a "major" label. ZiaZine's Mark Zepezauer spoke with the man who is an inspiration to fortysomething wannabes the world over.

Q: Can I call you Uncle Bob?

A: You may call me Uncle Bob. How old are you, though?

Q: I'm 44.

A: Well then, you're older than me. I can call you Uncle Mark.

Q: Well, that'd be fine.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Libya Chapter

Once again, it looks like the beginning of the end for another Middle Eastern dictator, though nobody expected Muamar Qadaffy to go quietly. All honor to the people of Libya, and for a little background, here's another chapter from my 2003 book, Boomerang!, or How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America.

Over previous decades Libya has been one of Washington’s most hated adversaries, accused of everything from stalking President Reagan to blowing up passenger jets. Under its eccentric leader, Col. Muamar Qadaffy, Libya has been subject to US airstrikes and years of sanctions, and is still regarded as a pariah regime. But the actual nature of the US relationship with Libya is considerably more complex.

Prior to the coup that brought Qadaffy to power in 1969, Libya had been the playground of the US and major European powers. The Libyans had endured a particularly brutal occupation by Italy from 1912 through 1943. Thirty years of colonization by Italy killed approximately 250,000 (one quarter of the population), and turned another quarter million into refugees. The Libyan population was subject to concentration camps, poisonous gas attacks, aerial bombardment of civilian targets and widespread executions.

The Allies liberated the country from Italian occupation during World War II, but soon afterwards the US, working behind the scenes, advanced a plan to have Libya jointly controlled until 1959 by France, Britain… and Italy. This was necessary to scuttle a Soviet plan which called for immediate independence and no foreign military presence, because both the US and Britain wished to establish bases on Libyan territory. But the local reaction to any continued Italian presence was not favorable; riots and demonstrations broke out in the streets of Tripoli. The plan was narrowly defeated in the UN, with decisive votes coming from, as the Italian foreign minister sniffed, “delegations representing colored people and small nations.”

1998: Lilith and Lollapalooza

The 2010 Lilith Fair revival suffered from the general malaise of the tour biz during the Great Recession. No word on whether they'll try again, but maybe they should take a emulate the example of erstwhile rivals Lollapalooza and plunk down in one spot, a la Bonaroo/Coachella.

Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair–one of the summer’s biggest concert draws–owes its existence to the arrogance and hubris of the Lollapalooza organizers. When originally conceived by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell in the early 90s, Lollapalooza became the first big package tour, a travelling road show of musicians, artisans and activists. Its phenomenal success, coming on the heels of Nirvana’s surprise run up the charts, took the music industry by surprise, in much the same way that Easy Rider convinced film industry weasels in the early 70s that they didn’t really have a clue what the "youth generation" was into, and they’d better play catchup fast.

Farrell’s vision encompassed the maxim of variety being the spice of life, and while it featured the cream of alternative rock acts, there was always at least one hip-hop band along for the ride, and the scene was far from male-dominated. As alt-rock males questioned the trap of gender roles in their music, a powerful new generation of female performers came of age and began storming the charts, further confusing the clueless music industry types. Lollapalooza reached its finest hour in the 1996 tour, which Village Voice writer Robert Christgau said was one of the finest lineups he’d ever seen on one stage, "including both Woodstocks."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

1991: How This Started

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, which began February 23, 1991. A typo in the original print version of this article led to an ongoing flame war with a local crank regarding my conspiracy theory outlined below. I eventually offered a bet, to be settled 30 years after the war's anniversary - which means we have just ten years to go. Meanwhile, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the Gulf War - and Saddam may taken answers to some of them to his grave: 

The role of the United States in the events leading up to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait should be grounds for deep suspicion. Anyone capable of adding two and two together should keep these four points in mind:

• The London Observer reported October 21st that Iraq's policy of military intimidation of the Kuwaiti royal family to bring about higher oil prices was begun at the behest of the United States. Saddam, at that point the kind of guy we could do business with, was simply repaying a favor - the billions in arms, foodstuffs, and credits we had tossed his way during the '8Os. While higher oil prices might not be the healthiest thing for the US economy, they would certainly be in the interests of George Bush, a major Texaco shareholder.

2009: Armchair Music Critic

These were the comments submitted with my ballot for the Pazz & Jop music critics' poll for 2008:

Ironically, I finished my ballot the same day the lame-duck congress authorized the massive music industry bailout. There was a great deal of wrangling on both sides, but in the end it was agreed that without any action, the music biz as we know it would cease to exist. Record company weasels did their cause some damage when they were caught snorting coke in a Capitol Hill restroom, and so had to agree to some painful concessions. Among them:

• No more three-, four-, five-word (or more) band names. Panic at the Disco would have to be renamed Disco Panic, TV on the Radio would be Radio/TV, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead would be Dead Trail, and so on.

2008: 39 Days Off

Another old post from my teaching blog; the links are still useful....

The traditional perception is that teachers work nine months, then get three months off (to which teachers always reply that they work plenty of long hours during the school year, so it pretty much evens out). Now, if I hadn't volunteered to teach summer school and if I hadn't agreed to some additional training, I'd have gotten a sweet ten-week vacation, positively European. But then the extra paychecks are helping quite a bit, so no regrets.

None at all; summer school was great. A frictionless fifteen days with relatively sharp kids, few discipline problems, light supervision, and familiar curriculum. The wife and I celebrated the denouement on the back porch with frou-frou drinks in plastic coconuts with little umbrellas.

Prior to the summer session, I took a four-day training on how to teach a science unit I'd just finished teaching a few weeks earlier - that would be the "familiar curriculum" referred to above. I think the summer students and I would have all preferred some new material, but we spent most of our time exploring the math, writing, and social studies lessons related to the science. And a few of them really needed some review, too. But as I mentioned, the ones who needed it most were nowhere to be found.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

1995: REM in Phoenix

REM are back with a new album in 2011, though not with a new tour to support it. Still, it looks like they have miles to go before they sleep. This is the view from 16 years ago: 

"Kenneth." Of course they'd open with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth." The opening lick sounds every bit as fresh as the first time I heard it, over a year ago. And damn! they sound fine. This is a much more powerful band than the one I saw six years ago. Really nice to see these guys again. 

 Bassist Mike Mills, who also contributes high harmony vocals, has transformed himself from a nerdy-looking nebbish to a flamboyant longhair, in Nudie's of Texas jackets, no less. He's also done lead vocals for a couple of songs, though neither of them will surface tonight.

Drummer Bill Berry looks a bit haggard for a man his age. Not surprising, since he almost died of a brain anyeurism early in the tour. Ironically, it was he who insisted on the tour. After I saw them in 1989, the word from the REM camp was that they were burned out from a decade of constant touring. They would settle in for a couple of studio albums, then release a real rocker and tour behind that one. Berry held them to it.

Overthinking Disneyland

When I took my kids to Disneyland last month, I hadn't been there in 35 years, and I was confronted with a formidable array of entertainment technologies. The Magic Kingdom had changed a lot in the intervening decades, and of course, so had I. While I got off on a number of the newer rides, I was just as stoked about soaking up the architectural details of the place.

Maybe I was an architect in a past life; sometimes I imagine spectacular structures and streetscapes in my dreams. But having read a few architectural critiques of Disney's Xanadu over the years, I was primed to see it with a new eye.

I know I'm not the first to think of Disneyland as an idealized urban landscape,  (perhaps Walt himself was) but it's still striking the extent to which mostly suburban people are paying for the experience of a walkable community. The vast parking lots outside surround a nearly car-free environment. Moreover, people are willing to pay for a relatively high level of public services, though the high municipal taxes reflected in the ticket price remain somewhat obscured.

The amount of architectural detail crammed into Main Street was a joy, but one of my favorite areas in that regard was Adventureland, with its blend of global styles from Africa, Oceania, South Asia and the Middle East.

It was startling to see the reworking of some of my favorite Golden State landmarks in the new California Adventure section. The cartoon version of the Golden Gate Bridge was a hoot. I recognized the Santa Cruz town clock, the dome from the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Yosemite Lodge, and a melange of a dozen different downtowns in the West Coast version of Main Street, USA. Meanwhile, the entire Santa Cruz Boardwalk seemed to have been sanitized and shipped south, right down to the choices of paint colors.

Toontown did not exist in 1975, and the sheer joy the designers took in its creation was evident at every turn.  It was an idealized urban landscape on acid: the pay phones, the diner, the gas station, the talking manhole covers. As far as I'm concerned, the more talking stuff, the better.

One notion I'm left with is that Tomorrowland needs a complete rethinking. The architecture in that section seems drab compared to the rest of it. Despite a few new sculptural touches, it's still a 1950s version of the twenty-first century, with nary a solar panel in sight, and it's really showing its age. The Autopia section still spews out smelly exhaust fumes, and what used to be "Monsanto's World of the Future" now imagines a world in which flat-panel displays are cheap and ubiquitous.

Moreover, in contrast to the cramped familiarity of New Orleans Square or the Teutonic village of Fantasyland, Tomorrowland lacks density – and if there's one thing our future is going to require more of, that would be it. There's plenty of room for, say, a Tomorowland Hotel, with mixed-use urban design, and a showcase for clean energy technologies.

Given Walt's own interest in urban design and new technology, Tomorrowland could be showcase for a new utopian version of our uncertain future. Like the author of the first link above, I'm of two minds over what Walt wrought. I'm not immune to the comforts of nostalgia, nor unmindful of the totalitarian impulse behind visions like Celebration, Florida. But with all the sheer creativity employed by Mouse, inc., you'd think they could imagineer the future with a bit more panache.

UPDATE: A Facebook friend provides a helpful link to a higher level of overthinking....

1997: Perils of the Auto

One reader responded to my recent post on high speed rail  by passing along a column from Robert Samuelson decrying the potential boondogglability of it all. Samuelson's views have been adequately debunked elsewhere, but one nagging point in the original is the laughable claim that automobile transit receives "no net subsidy" (of course, the weasel word in that sentence is "federal"). I'm guessing that the study Samuelson cites may have omitted some of the subsidies discussed below:

I just got back from the SF Bay Area, which really puts my previous complaints about Tucson's traffic and air quality into perspective. Before I really start ranting, let me just say this: the automobile is a wonderful invention. Like any technology, it has its pros and cons. And within another ten or fifteen years, fuel cell technology will make the automobile virtually non-polluting.* That's a good thing, though it won't solve our traffic problems. But just remember that an automobile wastes over 90% of its energy just moving its own fat self, not to mention idling. For the most energy efficient vehicle ever invented, look to the bicycle.

Transaction Denied

You know, it's a bit ironic.

There probably isn't another band in the world right now whose album I would absolutely have to have the day it's released.

And yet, for two days now,  Radiohead's website repeatedly refuses to take my money.

And if they were using the "name your price" system, I'd even be willing to pay more than they're asking. And yet?

Just got an email from them stating:
This is an error with your bank unfortunately, please contact them direct
 Kind regards 
But there's no error with my bank; my card will buy me all the breakfast burritos I want. And besides, it's Saturday. Anybody else having this problem?

UPDATE: Fer Gawd's sake, there are already remixes being issued. I still can't get my hands on the thing - not if I want to pay for it. OTOH, grabbing a free bootleg is still absurdly easy. What's wrong with this picture?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

2001: Em versus Em

When I reposted my General Theory of the Crap Cycle, concerning the rise and fall of rock messiahs (Elvis, Beatles, Pistols, Nirvana), I mused that the theory seemed to be falling apart, since there hadn't been a new messiah since Cobain. I've been ruminating about a few possible contenders, and after Sunday night's Grammy show, I wonder if the messiah wasn't Eminem, circa 2000. There's nothing in my theory that says I have to like the new messiah, after all. And if you look at his sales figures, he's one of the few saviors for the record industry over the past decade. His influence may not be as far-reaching as previous messiahs - though he may have contributed to the more introspective nature of rappers in this century. And no less a self-promoter than Kanye has said that there may never be a better rapper than Marshall Mathers.

I have warmed up to him in the decade since I wrote this. I do carry a few Eminem songs on my iPod, and I thoroughly enjoyed his anti-Bush video back in '08. But I generally don't carry that level of rage inside me, so I sometimes have trouble relating. Props to his creativity and mad flow (and for getting sober); frownie faces for his continued Em-phasis on violence. It's quintessesntially American, though - so maybe he was the fifth coming of Elvis, after all (or maybe not - I have a couple other contenders in mind).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

1991: TILT!

This was my yawp of indignation at the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. I believe the intervening decades have tended to validate my concerns for the future course of civil liberties and the nature of Justice Thomas' brand of jurisprudence. The judge has been in the news of late, beginning with his wife Ginny demanding, in vain, an apology from Anita Hill (apparently Ginny never read Jane Meyer's book). Then there was the dustup over his meetings with the odious Koch brothers. Next came the scandal over the unreported income from Ginny's gig at the (Koch-financed) Heritage Foundation. Now the latest is that Clarence himself failed to disclose in-kind contributions he received during his confirmation battle - contributions which came from a little outfit called Citizens United.

It takes a lot to get kicked off the Supreme Court (especially given GOP control of the House). And maybe it should. But that's all the more reason we should be a lot more careful about who is seated there in the first place.

The elevation of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court could mean the beginning of the end of the Bill of Rights - ironically enough, in its bicentennial  year. By any reasonable standards of jurisprudence, the man should never have been nominated in the first place, given his undistinguished judicial record. Adding insult to injury, the gutless wonders who sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee should never have allowed him to get away with the arrogant prevarication he displayed in the first round of hearings. Thomas should have been rejected on the basis of his record and his judicial philosophy - long before there were any sexual harassment charges to sweep under the rug. 

The real tragedy of the Thomas affair is that the Supreme Court is already dangerously out of balance, dominated by rigid ideologues and political hacks who have shown no reluctance do violence to the Bill of Rights - particularly since William Brennan was replaced by David Souter. It is truly frightening to think of Thomas, a man who was willing to disavow previously stated positions in order to win confirmation, sitting on the same bench as intellectual bullies like William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia.

Monday, February 14, 2011

RIP George Shearing 1919-2011

2001: The Heart of the Beef

Certainly it was gratifying to see the face of Captain Beefheart on my TV last night, if only for a fleeting second or two. He shared a screen with Malcolm McLaren during the annual Grammy tribute to those who have passed. Don Van Vliet's dust blew back whence it came just a few weeks before I started this blog, and I never wrote a proper obituary for him.

And frankly, others have done it better than I could have. The LA Weekly, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork all posted eloquent tributes. Tristero, the resident composer at the Hullabaloo blog, shared his memories. And WFMU posted the not-to-be missed "Captain Beefheart's 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing."

Van Vliet's passing was a sad day for me. Alas, I was riding in a car with my sister, when a Captain Beefheart song came on the radio. OOOh, I love Captain Beefheart, I sang out, twisting up the volume. We listen to his faraway voice singing about emerging from a triangle, and then the DJ comes on to say, "That was Captain Beefheart, may he rest in peace." OH!

My wife and kids more or less bemusedly endured my mourning, as I listened disconsolately to what I usually spare them. Describing his appeal, even accounting for my genetic mutation that renders dissonance soothing to my ears, is elusive. But I dug up this correspondence in reply to friend who had a beef with my Hall of Lame rant, and had asked for an explanation of why Captain Beefheart, of all people, belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:

1995: GATT & the Ecology of Commerce

"Free" trade agreements continue to be controversial, and provoke splits in both parties' coalitions. Meanwhile, the long run is getting shorter every day, and sustainability continues to be our only option.
Just as the December issue went to press, the lame-duck 103rd Congress ratified the odious GATT treaty. Sold under the comforting rubric of "free trade," the GATT treaty is anything but. Like NAFTA before it, the agreement is more like an interlocking set of protectionist measures, mostly forced on the poorer nations by the richer ones on a take-it or-leave it basis.
With profound contempt for the democratic process, the GATT agreement was negotiated behind closed doors by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, then rammed through Congress on a "fast-track" basis, with a minimum of debate and no amendments allowed.

The real tragedy of GATT and NAFTA is that with input from labor and environmental groups and indigenous populations, they could have been genuine free trade agreements, and formed a basis for global cooperation and economic justice. The agreements between the richer and poorer nations in the European Community provide a useful model for what might have been. Opponents of our bogus free trade pacts are not opposed to the principle of free trade, just to the shameless corporate giveaways we've seen in the last year.

Combined with the serious attitude problem to be found in the 104th Congress (about to take power as this issue goes to press), the GATT agreement presents major impediments to any attempt to save the planet. Both developments promise a further concentration of economic power, even further removed from any sort of popular control.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"What the Hell?"

That was almost the entire acceptance speech from Win Butler after Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year - an award he was clearly not expecting. He thanked the city of Montreal, and his wife mumbled something in French. Then he said, "We're gonna play another song, 'cause we love music," - and then drove the broadcast over the finish line with a rousing performance of "Ready to Start."

And with that, The Suburbs did what no indie rock album has ever done; not Odelay, not OK Computer,  not Nevermind. I was all set to write another grumpy post about how unhip Grammy is, how it's mainly a celebration of sales figures, and then - what the hell? Congratulations to the band, and may this bring them the wider audience they deserve.

My kids were mostly stoked by their beloved Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but got a kick out of watching Dylan wheeze his way through their favorite Bob Dylan song, "Maggie's Farm." Excellent choice, dude - thanks for that!

1993: Statement of Principles

This manifesto appeared in the second issue of the Tucson Comic News, and I still pretty much agree with my 36-year-old self on this stuff. Fortuitously, the seventh paragraph led to a publisher calling me up and asking if I'd like to expand it into a book....

It's something of a tradition for the first issue of a new publication to carry a “Statement of Principles” from the publisher, a la Charles Foster Kane. Of course, now that I'm a capitalist, my principles have to take a back seat to the imperatives of business. Therefore I spent a good chunk of this space in the first issue begging people to support my advertisers (look for further begging elsewhere in this issue).

Having got that out of the way, though, I think it's only fair to be upfront about my biases. I don't think there is any such thing as objective journalism, so I feel that's the least I can do. Most of you already have a sense of where I'm coming from based on the cartoons I pick, but since I'm paying for this space, here are a few of the political axioms I live by.

2007: Testing, Testing

I had a blog before this one, where I posted anonymously about my experiences as a grade school teacher. I'm going to have to take it down, since it's been infected with robot spam, and it's no longer anonymous. But a few of the posts have some linky goodness and larger relevance, as, for instance, to the looming rewrite/renewal of NCLB.

So then, with the bizarre music of Hermeto Pascoal tinkling in the background, let me try to get you caught up, with an emphasis on recent events my quintagenarian brain can still recall. (Or would that be quintogenarian? Logophiles?) Last week, I can still remember. The week before, and the week before that, might as well have been last year. I believe that was the point of keeping a journal: to help me remember and reflect upon my teaching experiences. If I can remember and reflect upon the correct email address, I may be able to do that more often.

Last week was a roller coaster ride, with the kids rambunctious coming out of a three-day weekend, and rowdy at the end of it, careening off a Thursday with a substitute. In the middle, some teaching got done, and possibly some learning.

Awww, Skippy

If this story doesn't make you go awwww, you haven't got a heart.

It's a Stretch

This morning's paper brings three updates to this link, offered two posts below. The bottom line is, if you're not willing to touch Medicare growth, corporate welfare, tax increases and (not and/or!) the Pentagon budget, you're not serious about the deficit. Both Obama and the GOP are dancing around these plain truths in their budget proposals. Given the incentives in our political system, they can hardly behave otherwise, but both sides have bases that were expecting something different.

Meanwhile, as I expected in my previous, the Pentagon will only stand for so much when it comes to trimming their fat. Good thing we're not dominated by a powerful, entrenched military establishment like those poor Egyptians!

Finally, the odious George Will takes a break from his elite version of Michael Savage's schtick to make some sense for a change: The Pentagon can't even produce auditable budgets in compliance with the law (not to mention the good old Constitution). His conclusion is, so how can we even know what to cut? Well, aside from bloated, outdated weapons systems and a broken contracting process, let me offer two words: imperial overstretch.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

1987: The Neville Brothers/Chris Cain

Add another 24 years to the road schedule of Chris Cain, who's still at it; seems to be based in the East Bay these days. And the Neville Brothers, an American treasure for more than a half century, are still the 600 pound gorilla of New Orleans music. Catch them at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this May.

Fourteen years of low-paying club dates and blues festivals are finally starting to pay off for the Chris Cain Band. Guitarist Cain, who's spent seven of those years with the current lineup, just turned down a vacancy in Roomful of Blues. He is occasionally recognized on the street in Europe, humbly turning over spare guitar picks and autographs to blues devotees. The band released their first album, Late Night City Blues, in April on the Blue Rock-it label. And at home in Santa Cruz, they continue plugging away, opening for the Neville Brothers last week at the Catalyst, and headlining another Dollar Night tonight.

Last Monday's show demonstrated how well these players have grown on each other, and how hungry they still are. Ron Torbenson started it out with a jovial bassline; the others pounced on it a few bars later when Robert Higgins' impeccable drumming kicked in. Lizz Fischer's keyboards and Noel Catura's saxes give the unit a nice fat sound, and Cain just sails through one joyful solo after another, his head thrown back and ticking like a metronome.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

1997: Bye Fife!

Today brings the news that not only will Hosni Mubarak relinquish power, but that creepy sociopath Jon Kyl is giving up his Senate seat. So I rummaged through the archives to go back the last time Arizona lost a statesman of his stature:

So, now, let's just chat a bit about the recent demise of our fairhaired governor, J. Fife Symington III. I couldn't ask for a better fourth anniversary present than for us to finally be rid of this tan blond despot. He exemplifies all the worst qualities of his political party: the shameless pandering to the wealthy and to corporate power, the willingness to bend over backwards to help polluters, developers and other parasites, and the supreme indifference to the health, education and welfare of a majority of the citizenry. Good riddance, indeed.

Fife's successor, Governor Hull, may not be much of an improvement in substance, though doubtless she will be in style. At the very least, Fife's wrongheaded school funding plans seem headed for yet another revision. Maybe someday they'll get it right.

Ms. Hull was recently quoted as saying that the trevails of Fife and of former governor Evan Mecham should not reflect badly on the people of Arizona. Well, excuse me, but of course they should! A majority of the voters of this state voted these yutzes into office, and if that doesn't reflect badly on them, then I don't know what will. Maybe we can find an even more surreal candidate in next year's election and go three for three, huh?

1999: Pondering Pavement

Pavement were, hands down, one of my favorite bands ever. They broke up shortly after this review was written. However, they reunited last year and toured the world, selling out venues wherever they landed. As I understand it, though, they have no current plans to record together, or to stay reunited. But you never know...

In a recent interview with the boys from Pavement, none other than Moon Unit Zappa exulted at the lack of commercial potential exhibited on their extraordinary fifth album, Terror Twilight. And she’s right: you won’t have to go to a baseball stadium to hear them play anytime soon. In fact, you can catch one of the finest rock bands of the 90s right here in Tucson on October 5th at our little old Rialto Theatre downtown.

Actually, given the mediocre sameness of most of what gets played on commercial radio these days, it’s a great compliment that radio seems to have given up on Pavement, and vice versa. While too many of their contemporaries sing of strangled masculine angst, Pavement makes idiosyncratic grooves on subjects like water politics, trench warfare, architecture and, yes, the mediocre sameness of contemporary rockers. They blend Stephen Malkmus’ oblique lyrics and improbable rhymes (my favorite: “men in dashikis/and their leftist weeklies”) with a cheerful eclecticism that embraces free jazz and bluegrass as well as the whole of rock history.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2006: Time Crunch

From 2005 to 2007 I wrote for Tucson Business Edge, a monthly supplement to the late Tucson Citizen. Mostly these were profiles of business owners, but occasionally I was assigned a longer piece. Not all of them need to be preserved here, but this one seems to bring up some interesting issues. It's pretty long because of the OTOH/OTOH journalistic conventions, but if you're underemployed, maybe you've got time to read it.

What if you came home from work on October 24th and took the rest of the year off? Suppose you just unplugged from the office, turned off the cellphone, and spent time with your family until after New Year’s Day. If you did that, you’d be enjoying the same amount of time off every year as the average European worker.

“The Europeans average about six weeks vacation,” says Deborah Figart, a professor at Stockton College in New Jersey. “And in the United States, if you’re on the job long enough – which is typically two to three years – the average is about two weeks.”

In a nutshell,” says Figart, “the Japanese used to be the workaholics of the world, and the data and studies are showing that in the United States, now we are the workaholics of the world. And families are having a very difficult time, trying to balance work and family and all the demands. And folks are cutting their vacations short, and they’re taking their cellphones with them, and they’re working out of their cars. And it’s becoming a nation of workaholics, the United States.”

1998: Liz, Love & Polly

I mentioned in my Pazz&Jop commentary that four women had won the critics' poll back in the 90s (and none since). Three of them are discussed in the review beneath (the fourth was Lucinda Williams). Of the three, the only one who's really stayed at the top of her game is Polly Harvey, and the leaks from her upcoming release indicate this one is no exception. As for Courtney Love's heroic journey, I think it's safe to say it hasn't ended in triumph so far, though last year's comeback was nothing to snort at. Liz Phair, on the other hand, probably alienated her base as much as Barack Obama did - and just as with Obama, not all the criticism was completely fair. She offers a free sample from her latest at her official site, which is well worth checking out.

If Liz Phair seems more confident on record than onstage, Courtney Love is just the opposite. It’s not that her commanding stage presence doesn’t translate to the studio; her crunchy bandmates and crack production team help her give definitive readings of her songs. It’s just that the songs themselves come from someone deeply wounded, broken at an early age.

Phair’s middle-class upbringing left her prepared to take on the world. She says the only expectations her parents had of her was that she would do very well at whatever she chose. It shows in her alternately wry, sarcastic, ironic and blunt songwriting. Love’s oeuvre speaks of a child beaten down at an early age, and an adult woman who may never feel fully whole as a result. But what gives her music such power is that she’ll never let that stop her.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

High Speed Rail

It's heartening to see the White House standing up for modernizing our country's infrastructure. Today Joe Biden announced that the president's budget will call for $53 million in spending on new and existing high-speed rail networks over the next six years. Of course, that same link tells us that the Chinese are spending roughly double that over the same time period - and we have a lot more catching up to do.

Unfortuantely, whether some or all of that money gets allocated depends on the leverage of a handful of Tea Party Republicans in the US House. And even it it is allocated, GOP governors like Kasich and Scott are turning down funds for rail transport in their states - thus freeing up more cash for the states who have already committed to the program, like California.

We seem to be having yet another dispute between people who believe in empirical evidence, and people who enjoy comforting myths. According to this study, states that spent their stimulus money on infrastructure and transportation projects created more jobs than the states that didn't.

I spent a futile hour last month trying to explain the concept of "multipliers" to a high school economics class, after being asked "when has government spending ever done any good?" From the looks of it, I would have had equally dismal success explaining it to GOP lawmakers.

It's unsurprising, given the general level of ignorance about economics and budgetary issues. But that doesn't make it any less tragic. Thus is our nation's future squandered.

1994: Nixon Obituary

Working today as a substitute, teaching junior high students about World War II. During my lunch break I fished out my flash drive to see what I felt like posting today. This is my obituary for one of the central figures of the post-war era. You might argue that Ronald Reagan had more influence on American politics as it stands today - but nearly everything Reagan did, Nixon paved the way for it.

I lost a little piece of myself last month. A man I had hated for most of my life, who I had studied intensively for the last eleven years, the subject both of my first book and of my first published writing at the tender age of eleven...the man whose library I was thrown out of on opening day.

My initial feelings were of relief and elation, not for the death of another human, but for the fact that that conniving little mind was finally shut down, that he could do no further harm. Then, gradually, for the first time I was able to see Nixon as a human being, not as a symbol, or as the author of his policies. I felt sympathy for him, his family and his admirers. And I was able to get in touch with those qualities of his that I myself admired.

It was the shallow and superficial nature of the coverage that cured me of this. Ignorant anchors who got their facts mixed up. Pundits eulogizing his "legacy" and downplaying his "mistakes." Pathetic man-in-the-street interviews: "Waaal, he opened up to China, and he brought our boys home from Vietnam, sure he made some mistakes, but who doesn't, evrybody's human, and I think he was one of the greatest Presidents we ever had..." YYYAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH.