Sunday, July 31, 2011

Negative Interest Rates!

I know we're all weary... so, so weary. But just in case facts matter to the people you discuss this fiasco with, please take a moment to remind them that right now, the federal government can borrow money at negative interest rates. I know it's hard to wrap your brain around, but it's still true. This is not only not a debt crisis, it's the exact opposite of a debt crisis. Our debt service payments are much lower now than they were back before the debt "exploded" – because Uncle Sam can borrow at negative interest rates!

Under the circumstances, with fourteen million people out of work, it's nuts not to borrow and spend the money necessary to hire back all the teachers, cops, construction workers and others tossed out of work by this zombie austerity movement. Why, oh why are we ruled by such lunatics?

Oh yeah, see previous post.

Toward Better Wishing

Well, it looks like I'm about to get my wish: for this whole sordid, excruciatingly stupid ordeal to be over. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. For one thing, of course, we're bound to go through this again, and fairly soon, as the GOP tests the efficacy of the Madman Theory as it applies to the Catfood Commission, as well as the next round of budget negotiations.

Moreover, of course, just having this over with is small comfort, since it's bound to be a bad deal – though the extent to which it's an evil-Spock/anti-Keynes deal remains to be seen. Whippersnapper Matt Yglesias suggests a bad deal was inevitable:
The rumored deals flying around Washington today all sound pretty bad. And how could they not be? The White House started with a position that: 
1. Failure to raise the debt ceiling is unacceptable.
2. The country should enact substantial deficit reduction in 2011.
3. Any deficit reduction package must include revenue increases. 
But (1) and (3) were in significant tension. The White House strategy for getting (3) was to persuade the public that (3) was the correct position. They did that, and all polls showed that public opinion was on their side. But then an underpants gnome problem arose. They didn’t dissolve parliament and call for a snap election. Eric Cantor said “no” and once he said “no,” (1) collided with (3) and the White House dropped (3). Once you’re there, how is the deal not going to be bad?
Meanwhile whippersnapper Ezra Klein likewise opines that failure was always an option:
It’s difficult to see how it could have ended otherwise. Virtually no Democrats are willing to go past Aug. 2 without raising the debt ceiling. Plenty of Republicans are prepared to blow through the deadline. That’s not a dynamic that lends itself to a deal. That’s a dynamic that lends itself to a ransom.
On the other hand, greybeard BooMan argues that Obama played his cards about as well as could be expected:
Let's look at where we stand this weekend. As soon as the ink was dry from the 2010 midterm elections it was clear that we would be seeing something never seen before. We would be seeing a link between raising the debt ceiling and cutting the deficit dramatically. I believe MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell discussed this on the air on election night, or within days of it anyway. So many new members had pledged to make this link that it was inevitable that the link would be made. 
How did the president respond? At first he made the obvious argument that such a linkage had never been made before and should not be made now. But it wasn't something the Republicans could be deterred from doing by mere rhetoric. In fact, raising the debt ceiling polls very poorly and educating the public about it would entail a months-long effort to justify the government's inability to live within its means. The president's mission wouldn't be merely to improve those poll numbers to parity, but to convince an overwhelming number of people so that immense pressure would be placed on Republicans serving in conservative districts to abandon their linkage. This would have been an impossible task, even if his own party remained united behind him. But they wouldn't have remained united; increasingly they would have become divided. 
As should be obvious by now, the new Speaker of the House never had the votes to pass a clean hike in the debt ceiling. He never had the votes to pass any reasonable or acceptable or even sane hike in the debt ceiling. And this wasn't any great secret. By no later than early spring it was clear that decoupling was impossible and that some deal must be struck. It was also clear before long that the Speaker couldn't deliver any fair or reasonable deal. What I'm saying here is that our present situation was not avoidable. We should not be debating why we're debating the debt ceiling. We're debating it because we lost the 2010 midterms, badly, to a bunch of fire-breathing debt-crusaders. It's fair to place some blame on the president for those midterm losses, but we have to keep things in context.

There's much to agree with in BooMan's defense of BHO-Man. The problem for me is the line I bolded at the end of that last paragraph. IIRC. the president was using anti-Keynesian rhetoric long before the midterm elections, and gave up on Keynesian economics well before the GOP forced his hand. Some of that was baked into the peculiar results of the '08 legislative races, with the bad luck of Al Franken's contested race and Ted Kennedy's brain cancer.

But if we're talking about how well BHO has played the cards he's been dealt, we also have to talk about how effectively he played cards available to him to influence the outcome of of the '08 and '10 legislative races. He had a tremendous war chest in '08 and a floundering opponent. There were grumblings at the time that a few cash infusions could have swung a Senate seat or two the other way (the GOP wins in Kentucky and Georgia were surprisingly close). There were grumblings as well that placing Napolitano, Sibelius, Salazar and Vilsack in the cabinet removed some formidable '10 Senate contenders from contention, as well as any incentives for John McCain or Chuck Grassley to behave themselves. (Never mind the decision by BHO and party leadership to support the Connecticut for Lieberman Party nominee in '06 instead of the Democrat.)

But the place where the grumblings were loudest, both inside and outside the White House, was the debate over the size of the stimulus. Hindsight is 20/20, but plenty of people at the time (no link required) could see both that the stimulus was too small to fully jumpstart the economy, and that consequently it was likely to affect the results of the '10 midterm elections. The way that hand was played means that the player has fewer chips to bargain with today.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Werner Herzog's Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, like all Werner Herzog films, is in some measure about Werner Herzog. In this case, the old boy shows up often in front of the camera, and rather than choose a distinguished narrator like Morgan Freeman or Helen Mirren to convey his awe, we are treated to his own wizened, accented croak. And whether in spite of this or because of it, the film is a triumph.

It's probably true of all great filmmakers that their movies are, in some measure, about themselves (Scorsese springs to mind). But Herzog has a knack for intertwining his subject matter with his own idiosyncratic vision – one of the many films about him is, after all, entitled I Am My Films. Herzog and his camera crews have a way of becoming part of the story, enhancing the viewing with sometimes apocryphal tales of the arduous shoot.

Herzog's methods have become legendary, whether it's trekking to the rim of an active volcano (La Soufrière), schlepping his entire crew up to the source waters of the Amazon (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), hypnotizing his onscreen actors (Heart of Glass), going to extreme lengths to mollify a disgruntled all-dwarf cast (Even Dwarves Started Small), going to extreme lengths to stare down a prima donna star (Aguirre, again), or most famously, literally – and disastrously – dragging a ship over a mountain, just like his megalomaniac title character (Fitzcarraldo),

After that glorious fiasco, it's a wonder anyone gives him financing anymore, but we're all the richer that someone did. And Herzog's reputation has recovered sufficiently (Oscar noms always help) that the History Channel and the French government thought it would be a good idea for him to be granted filming priveleges inside the amazing Chauvet Cave, site of the world's oldest known cave paintings.

Herzog's sense of wonder at the "abyss of time" represented by these 32,000-year-old images is palpable. Though the scientists and art historians he interviews have interesting things to say, the paintings themselves are the true star of the film. With their delicate, sweeping lines, subtle shading and the detailed, emotive empathy with the animals depicted, any contemporary artist would be proud to have created such images. And the evocative choral score by Ernst Reijseger masterfully reflects the majesty of the site.

But Herzog the filmmaker also notices that the cave painter anticpated the use of motion in painting by, for instance, depicting an ox with eight legs. This recalls Duchamp's 1911 "Sad Young Man On a Train" and other painterly reactions to the birth of cinema. Herzog makes other explicit connections to moviemaking, as when he compares the artist's torchlit figure painting to a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with his own projected shadows. One interviewed archaeologist points directly at the camera lens to make the point that the Chauvet painter basically invented the medium of communicating with a future audience - "just as that camera does."

To Herzog, this stunning artwork represents "the dawn of the modern human soul," and he asks his scientists what is perhaps the central question in all his work: "What is human-ness?" And from exploring the world of the deaf and blind to the solitary work of a grizzly bear afficionado, this has concerned Herzog throughout his career. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, after years of pointing his camera at extraordinary sights, he's found a subject that both illuminates and deepens this mystery.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Some Things Bear Repeating

It's been said before, and plenty of times, that Bush's policies are contributing far more to our so-called "debt crisis" than Obama's policies do. The New York Times lays it out for us one more time.

A couple of things stand out for me in this presentation. The first is, no matter how much rightwingers harp on "Obama's failed stimulus," you'll notice that Bush put a stimulus package together, too, in response to the global financial meltdown. That was all tax cuts, and added on top of the original tax cut bill. And that failed pretty spectacularly, too, since the economy continued to melt down, oh, until Obama's stimulus bill passed.

One could argue, I suppose, that Bush's stimulus, and Obama's, added together, were finally enough to keep the entire global economy from going over the cliff into Great Depression II. But to make such an argument, you'd have to embrace the now- quaint notion that Keynesian counter-cyclical measures are a good idea. How I miss living on that planet.

The second thing that occurs to me is that, unlike Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, Obama didn't even vote for most of the Bush policies that dug us into deeper debt. It's true that he did help whip the TARP deal, but that still leaves the GOP holding most of the shovels at the bottom of a pretty deep pit.

Also, note that this chart shows projections for two full terms in office for President Obama, based on policies implemented to date. You'll note that Obama has already cut spending, something Bush didn't do during his entire eight years. Obviously at this point we can expect further spending cuts, even if Obama never gets a second term.

Finally, this chart concerns only the policies each president put in place. It doesn't even address the main reason we have record deficits right now: the ongoing jobs recession, which deprives government of revenue – at all levels – and impels higher payments to individuals and institutions – again, at all levels.

So, just to review: on whose watch did the global economy implode?

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Better Speech

I think what I was hoping he would say was: I'm tired of dicking around with these irresponsible fools. They've already passed budgets mandating this level of spending, and if they won't do the right thing and cover their own debt obligations, I will. Pursuant to the 14th amendment, I'm directing the Treasury Secretary to ignore the debt limit and follow the spending plans Congress has already approved. If they don't like it they can sue me or impeach me, but I'm not letting them crash the global economy - AGAIN.

But that would have been quite a surprise.

Flor de Muertos: Two Movies in One

Shortly after the January 8th shootings, I lamented that this would be the first thing people would think of when they heard the word "Tucson," Like Oklahoma City, we'd become a synonym for a tragedy, since the city hadn't distinguished itself in any other notable way. But yesterday I saw an extraordinary film that not only celebrates the best of Tucson, but nails its essence for anyone who's never had the good fortune to visit here.

Flor de Muertos thrums with the pulse of Tucson, celebrating its unique nature as the confluence of two powerful and confounding cultures. If, ultimately, the filmmakers have cast their nets too widely, there is nonetheless a very impressive catch hauled aboard. Either Lisa Rinzler's stunning and evocative cinematography or Calexico's vibrant and emotional soundtrack could stand on its own as one of the pillars of a mighty achievement. The problem is, Flor de Muertos is really two movies.

The first is an exploration of two celebrations: the traditional Mexican Dia de los Muertos, and Tucson's unique All Souls Procession. The latter was filmed in its 20th anniversary incarnation, which culminated with a concert from our justifiably renowned hometown heroes.

This is what director Danny Vinik initially sought to capture: a Calexico concert film, with proceeds to benefit the nonprofit that organizes the Procession. But in so doing, he and his crew began to make a second film which arose from exploring the cross-border attitudes towards mortality. The second film is about the border itself, and the deaths that are happening on either side, from the violence of the drug war in the south, and the arduous desert crossings of the migrants in the north.

These two films inevitably complement each other, and inevitably crowd each other out. The focus on the celebrations and the music omits the richness of the debate over border issues, and each community's response to the xenophobia and violence. The articulate talking-heads interviews (with journalists Charles Bowden and Margaret Regan) feel both too short and too long. And at the same time, by wading into these contentious waters, the film gives short shrift to the vibrancy and spirit of the All Souls Procession – though the filmed performance finale is breathtaking, the civilian parade participants are largely unheard from.

The Procession began with a creative mourning ritual by artist Susan Johnson and a few friends in 1990, and has grown to include 20,000 spectators/participants each November. Part Dia de Los Muertos celebration, part Burning Man audience participation event, part Halloween parade, and part avant-circus spectacle, the weekend of events is utterly Tucsonan, a reflection of the best of what it means to live in this particular place. The parade and finale includes the work of professionals like fire acrobats Flam Chen, Taiko drumming troupe Odaiko Sonora, experimental puppeteer Matt Cohen, circus arts educators Rhythm Industry, and trip-rock feedback artisans Ensphere. Exploring this in greater depth is the movie that got away – but beyond the organized aspect of the event, the heartfelt contributions from volunteer parade participants are intrinsic to its spirit and success. Particularly poignant in the 2009 Procession, but barely glimpsed in the film, were the tributes to mistakenly slain jaguar Macho B and recently deceased newspaper the Tucson Citizen.

As a concert film, FdM is incomparable, and rightly places the band's singular  "desert noir" regional identity in the context of a nurturing and tight-knit community of kindred musicians, artists and performers. Calexico, resplendent in their own skeleton costumes and makeup, are joined by simpatico guest artists like Salvador Duran, Amparo Sanchez, Gabriel Sullivan and the Molehill Orkestrah. The richness of this sonic landscape and its resonance with the themes explored by the camera strengthen the heart of the film despite its overambitious thematic multiplicity.

Producer Douglas Biggers explained that the screening I saw was a 90-minute "directors cut" that will eventually be pared down to an hour in hopes of wider distribution. He mentioned that if the project breaks even, a portion of the profits from DVD sales will go to benefit the organizations that nurture this annual burst of creativity and emotion. I'm hoping that more of the hundreds of hours of footage can be included as bonus material, even as the film itself comes into sharper focus. But there's also an ongoing opportunity for Vinik – or another filmmaker – to delve deeper into the cross-border response to the twin crises infecting our communities, or the amazingly symbiotic artistic meditation on mortality that these communities have evolved. Because to truly do justice to either story takes more than one movie.

Monday Random Ten #19

Here are the first ten songs to pop up on my iPod; Artist/ Song/ Album:

1. Onipa Nua/ Auntie Rosina/ I Feel Alright

2. Paul McCartney/ Too Many People/ Wingspan: Hits and Highlights

3. Marshall Crenshaw/ Whenever You're On My Mind/ This is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw

4. Rick Nelson/ Lonesome Town/ Greatest Hits

5. Beastie Boys/ Don't Play No Game That I can't Win/ Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2

6. Ryan Adams/ La Cieniga Just Smiled/ The Suicide Handbook

7. Frank Zappa/ Sunshine of Your Love/ The Best Band You Never Heard

8. Kalambya Boys/ Eka Nzasu/ Utanu UTA 113

9. Elmore James/ Madison Blues/ The Sky Is Crying: Best of Elmore James

10. Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadors/ Drivin' Nails in My Coffin/ Waltz Across Texas

Not a lot of information available on the late Mr. Nua, who I learned of via Awesome Tapes from Africa. From Ghana; blind since age 2; made two albums.

McCartney cops to the fact that his song contains a little dig or two at John and Yoko, but still. "How Do You Sleep?" is a bit of an overreaction.

Crenshaw's back catalogue is deep. If all you know is a hit or two, seek out more. What a great songwriter.

That's my favorite track on the new Beasties album, because it features the delicious vocals of Santigold. Can't wait for her to release another full-length. There's a video that goes with it.

Ryan Adams is, like Prince and Ani diFranco, an overachiever who could benefit from an editor. It's great that you're prolific, but you probably don't need to release everything you ever wrote. In this case, the official releases being insufficient, he fills up many bootlegs as well.

More esoteric Africana, this time from Kenya. Don't know much about it, but I know what I like.

Lotta people cover Elmore; nothing like the original.

Now go out there and do the random thing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Barney Frank is a National Treasure

How diminished our national discourse would be without him. He's a one-man quote factory. This is my favorite since the "dining room table" quip. Via Crooks and Liars:
I've already voted to raise the debt limit. I voted to raise it earlier this year straight forward. And by the way, it's not my debt limit. I voted against the war in Iraq and I voted against the Bush tax cuts. On my debt limit, I got a couple trillion left to go. I was very generous. I voted to raise the other people's debt.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What Digby Sez

Everything Digby writes is a JGRTWT, but she's at the top of her game here. She's built up a righteous head of steam today (which isn't hard to do) on Obama's negotiating strategies:
It's not that people don't understand that he has to compromise. It's that he puts the defining issues of the Democratic Party on the table in exchange for gimmicks and promises from the other side. It would be as if George W. Bush had offered to tax evangelical churches and ban private ownership of handguns in exchange for Democrats agreeing to raise the cap on Social Security. When you do something like that, you should expect some blowback.  
She ties this in to Krugman's recent post on what Obama was willing to be seen as willing to give away. Even if he knew that Republicans were going to turn him down no matter what, laying out these kinds of cards can't help but make it harder for the president's party to win back the House and hold the Senate next year.

However much slack one is willing to cut Barack Obama, it's getting hard to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt. BooMan runs down what may have been going through John Boehner's mind:
I don't know what Boehner may have thought was possible or what he truly wanted. Alcoholics don't think straight and are hard to decipher. But I don't think he wanted to be in the history books as making a deal with the Kenyan, Muslim, socialist president. He certainly wanted to leave the impression with his caucus that he was only humoring the president.
Referring back to my earlier post, "No, Our Side Sucks More," it's a huge mistake to assume that Republicans are willing to negotiate in good faith anymore. They've made it clear that damaging the president is their top priority – even above the national interest. Playing chicken with them, or even calling their bluff, has such enormous consequences for non-rich Americans that it's excruciating to watch.

I'd love to wrong about this, but I just want it to be over. Please let it end soon.

RIP Amy Winehouse

Just remember her before she became fodder for tabloids and comedians, when she was the fresh, clear-voiced young talent proclaiming over Mark Ronson's arrangements. Condolences to her friends and family, and may all troubled by addiction find the peace they need.

Congratulations, Arizona

Our state easily defeated all other contenders for the top spot in AlterNet's list of the "Ten Craziest State Legislatures in America." This is especially impressive when you consider that the competition included Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Texas. But in the end, it wasn't even close.

The rundown of major embarrassments and flights from sanity that have caught national attention is, of necessity, abbreviated. Left out, for instance, is the absurd refusal to accept federal funds to extend unemployment benefits, a bonehead move that costs the state millions of dollars a week.

Moreover, of strictly regional interest is the irrational hostility to Tucson and Tucsonans. The attack on our local ethnic studies program is part and parcel of that. This hostility is also manifest in the move to usurp local control over our redevelopment district and place it in the hands of appointees from the Governor and the Republican legislative leadership. This tyranny from Maricopa County has led to an active secession movement to found the state of Baja Arizona.

It's hard to pick which is the craziest law considered on the floor of of our state capitol (now leased from its private ownership). Guns in barrooms? Bans on teachers with foreign accents? ID requirements for presidential candidates? The ban on human-animal hybrids? There's no shortage, and you can be assured of future outrages in the next session.

But less amusing is the way this impacts ordinary peoples' lives - or ends them prematurely. It's a dubious honor, to be sure, but it helps to have outside confirmation that we're not imagining the extent of our nightmare here. My state is crazier than your state.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Unemployed No More

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 14.1 million unemployed persons in this country. As of yesterday, I'm not one of them.

I signed a contract with a local district to teach 7th grade language arts for the 2011-2012 school year. What's especially sweet for me is that I'll be teaching some of the same kids I taught as 3rd graders in 2007 and as 5th graders in 2009. Watching their progress is wonderful, and being a part of it is humbling and gratifying.

If you're just tuning in, I was laid off last May after several rounds of budget cuts to K-12 education from the Arizona legislature (and they're not finished with that, either). My job was saved from elimination in the 2009-2010 budget only due to President Obama's stimulus package. But that funding ran out, and the district ended up cutting jobs for 2010-2011. After the legislature cut the education budget still further, salaries were reduced as well, so I'll be making about what I did as a rookie.

But the "good news" is, if more jobs are eliminated next year, I have as much chance as anyone else of surviving. That is,  the last round of layoffs was based on seniority – everyone with three years or less experience was let go. But Arizona has also eliminated teacher tenure. So a 30-year veteran faces the same prospect of layoffs as I do – without due process.

What this means for the blog is that I'll probably be posting less frequently beginning next month – though that's already dropped off as I've spent more time with my kids during their summer vacation. I'll continue to write about education policy, though I won't mention names of students, staff, or the school. But I will be able to comment from the trenches about how policies at the federal, state and local level are affecting our kids. Hopefully the Arizona legislature won't outlaw that as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fuzzier Than Thou

While in California, I had the opportunity to peruse an article in the Weekly Standard, entitled "The Democrats' Fuzzy Math: Yes, Paul Ryan’s Medicare Plan Would Lower Costs."

The author, Jeffrey H. Anderson, cites a number of statistics to make the case that Medicare is not such a great deal compared to private health plans – contrary to both conventional wisdom and CBO reports. And hence, he argues, the GOP's Ryancare proposal will be likely to bring down health care costs by forcing Medicare to compete with the mighty free market for its beneficiaries' (voucher) dollars.

It struck me that Anderson's argument was somewhat disingenuous, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I had had an opportunity to sit down and ponder it at length. The thing is, he bases his claims on his own think-tank study, which shows that the costs of Medicare, as a share of GDP, have risen much more than other health care costs over the same period.

So there are a couple of problems here. First is that he used the years 1970 through 2008 to make his comparisons. Anybody catch the weasel? That's right – there was a huge GDP contraction in the year 2008 (including a wrenching 7% drop in Q4), coinciding with the onset of the Great Recession. Not only that, but given the rate of job losses that year, more and more people were being forced into reliance on Medicare and Medicaid, even if they might have preferred to put it off a few more years. So naturally the costs of covering these people, as a share of a diminished GDP, are going to look much higher if you use that particular year as a comparison.

But the share of elderly people in the population – the people served exclusively by Medicare and in large part by Medicaid as well – increased over those years. The rate of growth of the US population as whole has barely edged above 1% in any given year since 1970 (and dropped to a low of 0.88% in guess which year... that's right, 2008). But the growth rate for the elderly population averaged 2.2% from 1970 to 1990, and then averaged 1.3% from 1990 to 2010. Not only that, but the proportion of those 85 and older has exploded (274% between 1960 and 1994).

As you might guess, these folks tend to use health care services a lot more than your average John Q. Public, and their costs are considerably higher as well. So it's doubly dishonest to claim that Medicare costs are out of control when the aging of the US population is the chief culprit. Anderson tries to weasel that as well, saying that it cost more to treat the elderly in 1970, too. But in both 1970 and 2008, private health care plans didn't need to treat very many elderly people, precisely because Medicare was available to them.

Republicans have been saying that Ryancare simply needs a better marketing job for the public to get over their overwhelmingly negative view of it. But this is straight out of How to Lie With Statistics. If they have to rely on this kind of chicanery to make their case, it doesn't inspire much confidence for its implementation. Gawd forbid.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monday Random Ten #18

Here are the first ten songs to pop up on my iPod; Artist/ Song/ Album:

1. Vampire Weekend/ California English Pt 2/ Cousins

2. Was (Not Was)/ Oh, Mr. Friction/ Was (Not Was)

3. Eels/ Fresh Feeling/ Meet the Eels: Essential Eels Vol. 1

4. Billie Holiday/ Just One of Those Things/ Songs for Distingué Lovers

5. R.E.M./ Talk About the Passion/ Eponymous

6. Michael Nesmith/ Rio/ From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing

7. Steve Young/ Holler in the Swamp/ Rock Salt and Nails

8. Editors/ Road to Nowhere/ Editors Rarities

9. Elvis Costello & the Attractions/ Almost Beaten to the Punch/ Get Happy!!

10. Langhorne Slim/ I Love You, But Goodbye/ Be Set Free

I remember what Don Was was - back when Was (Not Was) was what it was.

 Billie Holiday's album of standards was recorded in 1957. 

The Monkees were my first great musical love affair; after I got my first radio, I used to sit up late at night, waiting to hear one of their songs. And while I waited, the whole world of pop music started to open up for me. Last week, while I was up in Portland, the Monkees had a gig there - or at least 75% of them. Mr. Nesmith does not tour with them. So what does he do instead? Get your Nez news over yonder.

The Editors sound a lot like The National to me, with the lead singer's deep baritone. That's a nice cover of the old T-Heads number, but you'll want to check out their originals, too. 

For some reason I get Langhorne Slim confused with Slaid Cleaves. They're both wonderful. 

Back in Tucson tomorrow. See ya!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

October Surprise Redux

Robert Parry 's reporting continues to make mincemeat out of apologists for Bush the Elder. In a new article he runs down more evidence conveniently overlooked and/or covered up:
In November 1991, as Newsweek and The New Republic were ridiculing the idea that Ronald Reagan's campaign chief William Casey might have made a secret trip to meet Iranians in Madrid in 1980, a senior State Department official was informing George H.W. Bush's White House that Casey indeed had gone to Spain on a mysterious visit...
Casey’s family grudgingly turned over his personal records to congressional investigators, but Casey's 1980 passport was missing along with several pages from his personal calendar for that year... From the Bush library files, there's no indication that the White House told investigators about Williamson's information regarding a Casey trip to Madrid. Nor did anyone in power do anything to stop the Washington press corps' rush to judgment, which condemned Jamshid Hashemi as a liar and a perjurer.
It helps to keep these sorts of things in mind, apropos the kind of folks we're dealing with in Washington, and the extent to which they are capable of not just obfuscating, but obliterating, reality.

Alviso Blogging

When I was a teen, Alviso was a bit of a joke for us, a kind of a run-down, low-rent, out of the way section of the Bay Area. A few times we parked there and hiked along the railroad tracks to visit the ghost town of Drawbridge, half-sunk into the mud.

Yesterday, on a whim, our host drove us through scenic downtown Alviso for a quick visit to the wetlands . There I learned that its peculiar geography still makes Alviso a poor candidate for gentrification, despite its proximity to Silicon Valley.  True, there was one big condo project nearer to the frreeway, and TiVo's headquarters are situated just within the city limits, but otherwise Alviso looked much like it did in the mid-70s.

But more importantly, I found that Alviso is one of the hotspots to reverse a trend that was one of the sadder byproducts of the rise of the Bay Area metropolitan area: the destruction of the wetlands. Down by the shoreline, a restoration project is underway, with many of the old salt ponds being converted back into riparian areas, and others preserved as ponds for the benefit of migrating waterfowl.

As if on cue, we were approached by a birding geek in full regalia, who was pretty excited, in a deadpan sort of way, to have sighted a Wilson's Phalorope . A bunch of them, in fact, though they looked like tiny specks to me, since he wouldn't share his binoculars with civilians. On inspection via Google, however, they are a fine-looking avian, and impressive in their mighty migration from the Andes to the Yukon, especially given their tiny size.

So if you happen to be in the South Bay, be aware of the possibility of a rare phalorope sighting. And tread lightly on the land.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Velvety Kids

Aterciopelados, or "the velvety kids," are from Columbia, and here is one of their many fine songs for your Friday Night Video:


Oh, and here's another....

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Blogging Leftovers

It's always a pleasure to visit my parents, and one of the side benefits is the sheer bulk of the right-wing propaganda my dad has lying around. I do my best to keep in touch with the loyal opposition, but I can really get an immersion in the conservative milieu when I'm there. So, for instance, I got to thumb through Ann Coulter's latest hate literature, Demonic. Therein I learned that righties still can't get over the French Revolution, for one thing.

And a lot of Coulter's schtick consists of "nyah, nyah, you guys do it, too." So I was amused to see her chapter equating the fever dreams of the birthers with the left's "obsession" with the October Surprise. If only. Most lefties, like everyone else, have too many more recent scandals to keep up with. But one reporter who's never let go of the story is Robert Parry. He's long since demolished the tissue of lies that "vindicated" Poppy Bush. And tonight I see that he's used a FOIA request to examine how the tissue of lies was constructed in the first place. Very illuminating reading.

It was also amusing to watch a bit of Fox News, and see Bill O'Reilly and Dick Morris treat each other like serious thinkers. That about made my day. They both seem to think that Obama is really going to take the heat for his intransigence on the debt ceiling talks. Ask Mitch McConnell how that's working out , fellas. Over at the news division I learned that a testy Obama walked out of the talks today, and I had a feeling that there was a bit more to the story than they were letting on. Ya think ?

At a dinner party tonight the topic of the Shaggs came up - well, because I brought them up. For some reason I was reminded that a stage adaptation of their singular story has been unleashed on the world . If you don't know them, this 1999 New Yorker profile is a good intro . If you do know their strangely compelling outsider music, then you want to stop by their official site. I always thought those girls' story would make a great movie, and maybe that's just a matter of time, now. But you still have a chance to say you were into them before they were cool.

The Yglesias blog is always a fecund source of wonkery, but today his intern, Matthew Cameron, delivered some useful thinking on agricultural policy.

Finally, I never get tired of airplane rides, no matter how old I get. Last week when we flew up to Portland, I got a great view of Clear Lake, CA, which looked something like this.

Yesterday I got to visit the place on a lovely California day and even paddle around a bit on a canoe. Gives you a completely different perspective - kind of like seeing a story on Fox News  and then getting a  closer look later on.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Monday Random Ten #17

Here are the first ten songs to pop up on my iPod; Artist/Song/Album:

1. Raspberries/ I wanna Be With You/ Greatest

2. Harry Shearer/ 935 Lies/ Songs of the Bushmen

3. Richard & Linda Thompson/ The Cavalry Cross/ I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

4. The Hold Steady/ Cattle & the Creeping Things/ Separation Sunday

5. Joe "King" Carrasco & the Crowns/ Nervoused Out/ Joe "King" Carrasco & the Crowns

6. A. B. Crentsil/ Ehurisi/ A. B. Crentsil & the Ahenfo Band

7. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers/ Free Fallin'/ Greatest Hits

8. PJ Harvey/ Dress/ Dry

9. Merle Haggard/ Today I Started Lovin' You Again/ The Original Outlaw

10. Waylon Jennings/ I'm a Ramblin' Man/ Ultimate Waylon Jennings 

The great Mr. Shearer, AKA Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, explains his composition in an essay for the Huffington Post. A video can be found here.

I'll never forget the kindness of Joe "King" Carrasco. I did a radio interview with him in the middle of the night, by phone from his hotel room somewhere. Owing to my engineering ineptitude, the audience heard only my questions, followed by long silences as he answered. And when I found out, I called him back and he graciously agreed to do the interview all over again - for whoever was still tuned in, anyway.

A. B. Crentsil is from Ghana. His website says that "AB Crentsil is a musician of substance, his career has been a smooth one with the public always appreciating in totality the numerous albums that he has released and continues to release over the years."

Okay, gotta travel on!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Day 5: So Long, Portland

On the whole, Portland - at least the parts we saw - has a great, livable, walkable feel to it. Not only were there plenty of stores and eateries (and drinkeries) within comfortable walking distance, but the streets had an inviting atmosphere, owing to the old-fashioned concept of building right up to the sidewalk without dropping a giant parking lot in front.

What impressed me, as well, was the relaxed zoning that allowed for cafes to be situated right in the middle of residential neighborhoods. I remember seeing that in Europe, but not in any American city that I can recall. Even if you mandated today that new construction should adjoin the streetspace - or even if you rezoned to allow parking lots to be filled in with new structures - it would take many years to transition from sprawl to density. But rezoning to allow mixed uses in existing structures can happen overnight, given the will. Some of this is discussed in the book Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and Jill Williamson.

Portland is also taking steps towards encouraging  urban farming.  It's a great foodie town, obviously, and the food cart revolution rides on both trends. The cart pods are a great use of space, packing in a dozen or more micro-retail units as a way of standing economy of scale on its head. On our last morning we experienced the Saturday Market,  a weekly festival of food and carfts, eventually settling on a Nepalese cart as the ideal lunch location. We also waited in a ridiculously long line for the privilege of selecting from the outrageous menu at Voodoo Doughnuts. Just before heading south, we drank in the sublime architecture of the Multnomah County Library's main branch. The 14-foot bronze tree in the Beverly Cleary children's room is worth the visit alone, but the lobby staircases are masterpieces of craft.

Today we're settled in with kin in the smallish town of Sutherlin, a couple hours south. Later today we're off to Ashland. But as for Portland - we'll be back.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Day 4: Multnomah Falls & the Reverb Brothers

Friday morning we drove out along the Columbia River Gorge until we reached the breathtaking Multnomah Falls. What was even more breathtaking was that we hiked all the way to the top. Because of the steep vertical ascent, it felt like a lot longer than the advertised one mile trail, but the view from the top was worth every step. And after sampling the wares of so many of Portland's fine breweries over the previous three days, I had plenty of extra calories to burn off.

That evening we travelled downtown to see the Reverb Brothers. One of our hosts is a band member, and they hold a long-standing Friday evening happy hour residency at the White Eagle Saloon in the Lloyd District. On the way we stopped so I could get this shot of the Fremont Bridge, my favorite of the eleven Willamette River spans in the downtown area.

The Reverb Brothers describe their music as "1930's Swamp Rock - fun songs about death, drugs, sex and despair." They mixed covers by Slim Harpo, Johnny Cash and the Stones with like-minded originals. Claes Almroth, who played harp, keys and sang lead vocals, was as generous in spirit with his singing as he had been in sharing his house with us all week. And I managed to sample enough local brews that I need another waterfall to walk up. And so a good time was had by all.

Today, Saturday, was our last day in Portland. But today is over, so I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Day 3: Wine and Chocolate

Through the wonders of Facebook, I've been able to reconnect with all sorts of people from various times in my life. And during this trip I've been able to arrange some meatspace encounters with some of these reconnected online pals.

Two such pals are comfortably ensconced an hour south of Portland, in the charming town of Carlton. He runs a winery , and she has a chain of chocolate shops . In their charming tasting room, we sampled the best of both. Then a short drive through the verdant countryside brought us to see the amazing Spruce Goose (free of charge, as the museum was just about to close). Finally, we returned to Portland for a picnic in Washington Park's rose garden, to which we brought, naturally, wine and chocolate.

Today I think I'll go see the Columbia River Gorge. This is living!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Portland Day 2: OMSI and Powell's

Today was about a few simple things:

1. A nice museum experience for the kids
2. One of the world's greatest bookshops, and
3. Hanging with Portlandian friends, old and new

On the first count, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, (OMSI ), while no match for its counterparts in Munich or Chicago, more than fulfilled the requirements of part 1.) above. Aside from the fact that we had to pay two bucks extra for a glorified advertisement for Disney's Narnia movies, it was a good ride.

Regarding the second count: in this age and day, the sheer amount of square footage dedicated to book retailing is an anachronism I can get behind. The kids, again, were favorably impressed – and they even had copies of my books, which damn few bricks-and-mortar sites do. And since, all things being equal, the advertising click-throughs here last month earned me a grand total  of eighty-two cents, maybe you and I would both be more comfortable with Powell's instead of Amazon as the clickor (or is it clickee) of choice.

Either way, disposable income being what it is, I couldn't spring 22 bucks for the T-shirt, but the image above left on a notecard was three and a half. I do love bridges, and this town has an embarrassment of riches in that department.

Likewise, I have to say this town has a good aura, as we Californians put it. Everybody and their brother is in a band, and just as there is an unusual amount of book retailing, there's an inordinate amount of attention to music. This is all to the good, and conversely also helps me appreciate the regionalism of the Tucson scene as something of an anachronism – a throwback to the days when local sounds could develop in relative isolation. That said, I could get used to the level of musical engagement here.

Tomorrow, we'll be exploring the Willamette Valley south of here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Portland Blogging

Woke up in the middle of the night in a strange city. Couldn't sleep; might as well blog.

We're settled into a splendid, shady neighborhood near Laurelhurst Park, staying with dear friends from the previous century. We spent a bit of time before sunset walking the streets and getting the lay of the land. It's a nice, walkable area with lots of shops and restaurants nearby, including a cluster of food carts.

It's far from the densest city in the US; ranked about 200th based on the 2000 census . The 2010 data shows density went up from just under 4000/square mile to about 4300. There are two and a quarter million people in the metro area.

Tucson , by contrast, has a density around 2800. And though both cities have about half a million inside the city limits, Tucson is about 230 square miles, compared to Portland's 145. And Tucson's metro area continues to sprawl out to the northwest and the southeast, with just about a million people scattered across it.

There are tradeoffs involved, of course. Like most cities not named Tucson, Portland is pretty expensive. Consequently, diversity has diminished since the last census. Grappling with affordable housing issues isn't unique to Portland, of course, but I'm interested in how this plots out over the next few decades . There's a lot of beautiful old housing stock here, too, but as land gets pricier, you're seeing more vertical development to compensate. You can see that back in my home turf of Silicon Valley, where I'll visit next week; along the transit routes in particular, land is too dear for one or two stories these days.

It's easy enough to offer cheap housing if you just tear up the desert and spread out. In my view, density needs to increase everywhere to make this country work more efficiently, because sprawl is a luxury we can no longer afford. But as a laboratory for urban development, Portland points to some of the challenges that will have to be balanced out to make that work.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Monday Random Ten #16

Here are the first ten songs to pop up on my iPod; Artist/Song/Album:

1. Lester Young/ Body and Soul/ The Complete Aladdin Sessions

2. Stephen Malkmus/ Baby C'mon/ Face the Truth

3. Jay-Z/ Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)/ Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life

4. Tartit/ Tabey Tarate/ Abacabok

5. Béla Bartók/ Four Orchestral Pieces, Opus 12/ Béla Bartók: Four Orchestral Pieces 

 6. Led Zeppelin/ Black Dog/ Led Zeppelin IV 

 7. Meg Baird/ When the Bridegroom Comes/ Crayon Angel: A Tribute to Julie Sill

8. Gnawa Njoum/ Kami Ni Mantara/ Gnawa Njoum Experience

9. Little Rita Laraine/ Stop/ More Great Rockin' Girls

10. Crowded House/ Don't Dream It's Over/ Crowded House

Malkmus has a new one coming soon, produced by Beck. The single, "Senator" is all over the intertubes.

Apparently Jay-Z had the idea for sampling Annie long before Zach Galifianakis. Both gentlemen are secure in their masculinity. Mr. Z is on Letterman tonight, if today is the day of this post.

Tartit are, like Tinariwen, a Tuareg collective from Mali. They put more emphasis on vocals and percussion than on guitars, though.

I was turned on to Bartók by Ernie Kovacs. In re-runs, though. I am not old enough to have seen the Ernie Kovacs Show live.

I read about Judee Sill in the "Rough Guide" book The Best Music You Never Heard. She died, almost completely forgotten, in 1979. The Meg Baird track is from a tribute album compiled thirty years later.

There's another one from that Great Rockin' Girls anthology of forgotten rockabilly gals. Little Rita is perhaps not the strongest singer in the bunch, but still.

I was turned on to the Moroccan group Gnawa Njoum Experience by the National Geographic music site. Lots of cool stuff there.

That Crowded House song has been overplayed to death. But I'll never forget how fresh it sounded on their debut tour, in a sweaty L-shaped warehouse in Silicon Valley. Who knew?

Next Random Ten will be posted from California. Stay random til then!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Night Two-Fer

Time for your Friday Night Video. I couldn't decide between the new Björk and the new Tinariwen, so why not both? Have a great weekend!

Tinariwen: Warriors of Love

Forged in rebellion, the lyrics of Tinariwen speak of liberation and loss, a sorrowful love for the oppressed Tuareg peoples of the Saharan Desert. The music reflects the steely resolve of their struggle, and the serenity born of a deep sense of belonging.

It sounds ancient, like the blues, before the blues left Africa. And it echoes back the permutations of the blues that traveled back to Africa, to the ears of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib in his youth: the sounds of Santana, Zeppelin, Hendrix. His father was a rebel, rising up against the government of Mali; at age 4 the son saw his father executed. Sixteen years later, with teenaged friends he met in the refugee camps of Algeria and the guerilla training camps of Libya, Alhabib formed the revolutionary musical collective Taghreft Tinariwen (variously translated as "people of the desert," "empty places" or "building of the countries").

As a boy, Algrahib built his own guitars from bicycle brake wires and tin cans. In Libya he got his first electric guitar, and he has wielded it ever since as a weapon of love. Weapons of war have been forgotten since a 1991 peace agreement, but the songs still speak to the longing of the Tuareg diaspora. Ten other guitarists have come an gone through the Tinariwen collective over the years, as younger members have replaced the elders. The current touring band consists of six guitarists (including bass) and two percussionists. But it never takes on the muddled sound of an overcrowded jam session. The songs both sparkle with energy and soothe with transcendence.

Starting with their first recording in 1992, Tinariwen's songs were passed around the Sahara on cassettes. But in the '00s, the rest of the world began to take notice. Tinariwen's music has always been based on the traditional sounds of the nomadic Berber peoples, translated to electric guitars. For their upcoming fifth CD, Tassili, the collective reached back to their folk roots, recording in the Algerian desert with acoustic instruments. But they are also joined in the studio by Western colleagues: Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Nels Cline of Wilco, and the horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Their 2011 world tour includes six stops in the USA in July, including Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.