May 31, 2009

Dear Consumption Advisor...

Laird, given your position as de facto consumption advisor, and impeccable track record as same, please let me know which sextant I should buy.

The top-of-the-line? Or the budget lifeboat special?

Here is a "how to buy a sextant" article which I arbitrarily reject as sadly ill-informed and inadequate, whatever its merits.

My purchase criteria are:
- Good value for money
- Must look cool
- Must actually work
- Shouldn't cost a lot (TARP money, yadda yadda yaddah...)

Must-own consumer item


May 30, 2009

Night Music, pt. 2

Martin Hayes, as every schoolchild knows, is one of the two or three finest Irish fiddle players. This is sort of like being one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the NFL. It's a crowded league and there's a lot of talent nipping at his heels.

But Hayes is a bit different. In the first instance, he is not the primary type of Irish fiddler. His music is typically slower and more contemplative. One cannot imagine him doing something like this performance by John Sheahan (however awesome). Hayes explains that
One of the most obvious slivers of Irish music is this kind of upbeat happy, in-your-face kind of thing, because in some ways it's the easiest to sell, it's the easiest to record, it's the easiest to present. But my experience in many ways was that that just didn't reflect the core realities of the music. So in my recordings, there's a slightly more reflective way of looking at the melodies.
In the second instance, his best work has been as a part of a duo. He has achieved a remarkable chemistry with his longtime accompanist, Dennis Cahill (their website is here). I first heard them on their 1997 album, The Lonesome Touch. That album, like Kind of Blue or The Golden Band, is full of quiet music that sneaks up on you. You notice one day that you have been listening to it a lot, and know the tunes in great detail, yet need to listen more because you're still picking things up.

Here is a recent example of their work. I cannot imagine any way it could be improved. Hayes plays very well, and could certainly play it as a solo...but Cahill makes it better. But beyond that what could be added? What could be taken away?

Here is a bit more.

A documentary on Hayes (with quite a bit of Cahill) is here:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Keep it up

President takes wife out on date.

Republicans: how dare you!?

Imagine if he spent a month at ranch hardly doing anything...

Useful in the Coming Monkey Wars

Science: we gots glow in the dark marmosets; thus instantly solving the whole host of problems long caused by our previous lack of glow in the dark marmosets, whatever particular problems those might be.

Mark my words: glow in the dark trustafarians cannot be far off.

May 29, 2009

Bad Republicans...

...but good Americans. Rollins and Feehery fail to fall in line.

May 28, 2009

A Little Night Music

Lester Young improvises here with Charlie Christian, the All-American Rhythm Section, and some other dudes.

They could basically do this at will. Basie, Green, Jones, and Page would get something simple going. Then, whoever else was there could solo. If they didn't have a soloist around, maybe Basie would stretch out a little, as he does here for a San Francisco tv audience (the host is the estimable Ralph Gleason).

Young grew up in that Basie format, then went out on his own. He had his highs and lows, but some of his small combo work is just perfect. Here he is strolling through "Tea for Two" with Nat King Cole on piano. (Cole played piano on one album with Young under the name "A. Guy".)

In 1957 at Newport they got the Old Testament (Jo Jones, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, head arrangements) and New Testament Basie bands (Joe Williams, Quincy Jones arrangements) together in one place. Swinging at Newport starts off with the small group formula - the Rhythm Section sets it up, Basie makes an opening statement, then, after some call-and-response by the band, Young takes over (2:48).

Young defies the band's shouting dynamics with an opening whisper, then goes into a conversational but lyrical small group solo that becomes bigger and more explicitly rhythmic as it progresses, until he is in a full volume dialogue with the other horns. He raises hell, kicks ass, takes names, squawks, honks, decorates, and powers on to some high arpeggios. And, just like, that he's done, and the other soloists can step in and do their stuff. It's a team sport, after all.

I can't find the exact quote now, but shortly before his death (1959) Young sat down with someone and listened to those Newport sessions. Hearing the dynamic, reaching solos again he shook his head and said "I always played like a motherfucker for those guys."

These orchestral jazz performances are awesome, and reason enough to listen - but for me it's still just a performance, not the real Lester Young. The real Lester Young played late at night, in those small jam sessions, in that soft, cool, tone, talking (and singing a little) with the horn.

Pencil Power

Joe Shuster's concept sketch for Superman.

May 27, 2009

Toward Cultural Understanding

On tonight's American Masters there is a fine episode about the Chinese in Hollywood. It covers a lot of ground, and I learned quite a bit. Some funny interviews - James Hong doing Peter Lorre, Nancy Kwan defending her skin creme infomercial...

The high point for me is them giving some attention to Chan is Missing, an old favorite of mine (a cool update is here).

[Posted that too early - the high point is Ebert getting up at Sundance screaming "they have the right to be anyone they want to be!"]

Somehow I managed to get this far without having ever heard of Flower Drum Song. One fellow says he watched it as a child, and this song "really made me want to be a grown-up." Me too...

Proper Form of Retort to Swineherds of Greater AND Lesser Egypt

I thought of this remarkable painting by Repin recently. Religious nonsense aside, if you ever tire of authority generally and wish to discomfit it, I suggest emulating the Cossacks in this classic retort to the Ottomans. In these days of ubiquitous soul-crushing marketing, endless surveillance and assorted micro-managed centi-whiles, I particularly like the closing. From Wikipedia...

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks is a historical tableau, set in 1676, exploiting the legend of the reply that the Cossacks sent the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed IV. The Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host (from 'beyond the rapids', za porohamy), inhabiting the lands around the lower Dnieper River in Ukraine, had defeated Ottoman Turkish forces in battle. However, Mehmed demanded that the Cossacks submit to Turkish rule. The Cossacks, led by Ivan Sirko, replied in an uncharacteristic manner: they wrote a letter, replete with insults and profanities.

The text of the Sultan's letter to the Cossacks:

As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the Sun and Moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians—I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.

—Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV

According to the legend, the reply was a stream of invective and vulgar rhymes, parodying the Sultan's titles:

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!

You, turkish devil and damned devil's brother and friend, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can't slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil shits, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we've no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother.

You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian villain, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig's snout, mare's arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother!

So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won't even be herding Christian pigs. Now we'll conclude, for we don't know the date and don't own a calendar; the moon's in the sky, the year in the book, the day's the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse!

Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host

Zero Motorcycles..

Street electric motorcycle, apparently now available for demo rides in the Bay Area. Sacrilege, and yet...

May 26, 2009

Something Familiar...

Teri Garr and Gene Hackman, in a strangely familiar setting...

"Make My Day"

NYT: Republicans weigh risks of attacking Supreme Court nominee.

May 25, 2009

The Paul Krugman and Dr. Kapital Anti-California Taxpayer Conspiracy!

Dr. Kapital and Paul Krugman have conspired, it seems.

May 24, 2009

Running with the Demo

Dr. X posts this from Diamond Bar:

"Some groups can barely play when their first album breaks, some can only play a couple of songs passably well and have to go to school to live up to their new reputation. Then there was Van Halen. Here is the original demo version of 'Running With the Devil', produced by Gene Simmons. (Simmons dropped his involvement after his business manager explained to him that Van Halen had no chance of making it big.)

"A little like the Beatles, Van Halen had played together for a long time before their first record broke. They had been together four years when they cut the demo, and six years when their first album was released. Which makes this ... a little more advanced ... than the usual band demo.

"Which reminds me of the time Wittgenstein came back to England. The Tractatus had run ahead of him, and the British academic nobility was literally there to meet him at the station. (Keynes said "well, God has arrived, I met him on the 5:15 train.")

"There were some technicalities. They realized they couldn't let him teach until he had a degree. Russell noted that Wittgenstein had put in enough hours to qualify for a doctorate before the war, and proposed that they treat the Tractatus as his thesis. Moore's reaction: 'In my opinion, this is a work of genius; in any case it is up to the standards of a degree from Cambridge.'

"So it was when I first heard Van Halen. Just as Wittgenstein had rescued western philosophy from its profound semantic confusion, Van Halen squarely faced the American cultural question. The answer, of course, was rock. But no one could seize the heights. The punks were interesting, but too edgy for the mainstream. The Dead were tasteful, sensitive, brilliant, but really, who cared? Queen, Bowie, and the Stones were, with their glam pretensions, part of the problem (and this demo put them on notice - everyone: just fucking fire your guitar player).

"It was Van Halen that beat some sense back into America. And 'Running with the Devil' was their cricket bat (Largo, MD '82 here; Buenos Aires '83 here; some random festival '83 here).

"Chuck Klosterman (the Picador Guest Professor for Literature at the University of Leipzig's Institute for American Studies) delivers the definitive (btw, if you care about American music at all, read everything Klosterman has written): 'This band should have been the biggest arena act of the early 80s, and they were. They had the greatest guitar player of the 1980s, and everyone (except possibly Yngwie Malmsteen) seems to agree.' They have sold 56 million albums so far.

"The effect on the youth of the 1980s cannot be overstated. I spoke with a group of prominent attorneys last week, and to a man they attributed their success to this song."

The Obama Problem

If not impossible, it really is perplexing- how do you make fun of this guy? It's particularly annoying when Obama himself is the source of some of the better jokes, like "Michelle has the right to bare arms."

The man's not only good, he's cool. The fact that he shows very slight tendencies to nerdiness, yet clearly stays cool, only makes him more cool. This is death to comedy.

But there are methods. You can go after his aspirational tone, and, basically, reducio ad absurdum.

Obama Calls for National Day of Service Stations

Which is mostly just silly. For the most part, that's the best default.

Obama Confronts Iran Over Fashion Week

Desperate North Korea Erects 700 ft Obama Statue

Obama Disarms Burmese Junta With Valentine Chocolates

Obama Appoints Gingrich Ambassador to Texas

President to Balance Budget by Taxing Hope

One handle might be his tendency to call people out on weaknesses..

Obama Declares "War" on Lazy Children

Under Obama Plan, Baby Boombers Receive Federal Admonishment, Bill

Or go to the Superman/Jesus-like qualities..

Aides Alarmed as President Begins Blessing Things

Obama Divides Fishwich and Large Order of Fries

Obama To Address Nation From Awesome Mount

Doctors Report Carpal Tunnel in Obama's Wrist From Ceaseless Leprosy Cures

Bypassing NASA Plan, Obama To Reach Mars With But a Single Thought

Or perhaps pot references...

Rob Emmanuel Confronts President Over Darth Vader Bong Found in Oval Office

GOP Reports Contact-Inspiration From Obama

Reversals of nature speaking to character, one of my favorite tactics, produced Onion classics like

"Christopher Hitchens Forcibly Removed From Trailer Park After Drunken Confrontation With Common-Law Wife, "

And my personal favorite:

"Bush Regales White House with Impromptu Recitation of Virgil's Minor Works."

The Onion got close with "Obama's Hillbilly half Brother Threatens to Derail Campaign."

Which gets you to:

Michelle Obama Furious Over "Trail" of Stale Cheetos and Coors Light Cans "All the Way to the Oval Office"

Obama Calls Out Fiji: "Go Ahead and Try Something"

Obama Orders Mass Arrests of Elementary School Librarians

Obama Canoodles Madonna

Obama Orders Invasion of Denmark "Just to Fuck With Their Minds"

Why Bother Blogging With Diderot Around?

"In any country where talent and virtue produce no advancement, money will be the national god. Its inhabitants will either have to possess money or make others believe that they do. Wealth will be the highest virtue, poverty the greatest vice. Those who have money will display it in every imaginable way. If their ostentation does not exceed their fortune, all will be well. But if their ostentation does exceed their fortune they will ruin themselves. In such a country, the greatest fortunes will vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Those who don't have money will ruin themselves with vain efforts to conceal their poverty. That is one kind of affluence: the outward sign of wealth for a small number, the mask of poverty for the majority, and a source of corruption for all."

May 23, 2009

The Question of the Age

How do you make fun of Obama?

David Letterman, a talk-show host, describes him as “cogent, eloquent, and in complete command of the issues” and sighs: “What the hell am I supposed to do with that?”

I Direct Monsieur to Diderot

Denis Diderot, French philosopher and editor/writer of the Encyclopédie, has some excellent things to say about painting.

Go, my friend, into a studio, and watch an artist at his work. If you see him arranging his tints and half-tints very carefully all round his palette, or if a quarter of an hour's work has not disturbed all this, you may boldly say that that artist is cold by temperament and will never produce any great work. He is like a heavy, pedantic scholar, who, when he wishes to quote a passage, mounts up his ladder and takes down the author he wants, opens the book, and, sitting down to his desk, copies out the passage, then mounts up his ladder again and replaces the volume. Those are not the ways of genius. The artist who has a strong feeling for colour sits before his canvas with his eyes fixed on it, his mouth open, his breath comes quick, his palette is in a state of chaos. And in this chaos he plunges his brush, and out of it he brings his creations—birds with all their varied plumage, flowers with their velvety texture, and the many-tinted foliage of trees, and the blue depth of sky, and the misty vapours that float therein, and the animals with their soft fur, and different markings, and their fiery eyes. He gets up and stands a little way off from his easel to look at his work ; and then he sits down again and you see appear under his touch the human form, drapery, cloth and velvet, damask and taffety, muslin, linen, or coarser stuff ; or you may see the ripe yellow pear dropping from the tree, or the unripe cluster's of grapes on the vine....

But what is the use of all these principles if taste is a capricious thing and if there is no eternal unchangeable law of beauty ?

If taste is merely a matter of caprice, if there is no law of beauty, whence come those delicious emotions which rise suddenly and involuntarily and tumultuously from the depths of our being, which loosen or tighten our heart-strings and force tears of joy, grief and admiration from our eyes at the sight of some grand physical phenomenon, or the hearing of some lofty moral trait of character? Begone, sophist, you will never persuade my heart that it did wrong to beat quicker, nor my emotions that they ought not to have been deeply stirred.

The true, the good, and the beautiful are very nearly connected. Add to either of the first two qualities some rare and striking circumstance and the true will be beautiful and the good will be beautiful.

Diderot, as the consummate encyclopaedicist, has a rather devotional wikipedia page, and was also the source for some excellent quotes:

No man has received from nature the right to command his fellow human beings.

In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.

It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all. (Darn. A point I've honestly thought was one of my better insights.)

Let us strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest.

The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.

My ideas are my whores.

Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory.

When superstition is allowed to perform the task of old age in dulling the human temperament, we can say goodbye to all excellence in poetry, in painting, and in music.

The best mannered people make the most absurd lovers.

You have to make it happen.

May 22, 2009

Soldiers of the Great Struggle

I am sorry to have let another Victory Day pass by without timely comment, so this will have to serve as my Memorial Day post. As always the proceedings in Russia were, to my eyes, both alien and beautiful. In contrast to American military events, the Russian ones seem more serious, more resolute, and more aware of the contingency of war. American military events seem to always have an optimistic character. Sure we've had our defeats - but we leave them behind on parade day. The Russians, on the other hand, always march with their eyes on history...

The Victory Day parade seems to remember defeat as well as triumph, and to memorialize not only the fallen, but perhaps even the marchers themselves. It is a show of strength, but to my eyes also a reminder that (as Stalin said) "there are no invincible armies" (video of German POWs marching through Moscow in 1944 here).

The marchers know they are expendable, and that is the precise nature of their value. If the Russian military parade stands for anything, it stands for the resolve of an entire people, of the power of sacrifice in the face of predatory and merciless enemies.

v02_18662019.jpg picture by DoctorX

I have always wished an American president could go there, and in a public forum, say something about all this. Something to make them realize that someone over here has an inkling of what they have been through, what they are willing to endure:
You know already that America is a fortunate country in many ways. And you should know that we understand...we have not been tested as you have been tested. We realize - but can never truly comprehend - the sacrifices that were made in the Great Patriotic War. We fought our battles, too, but they were not fought on our soil, amongst our homes, against an enemy determined to enslave us.

For all Americans let me express here our profound respect for the sacrifices made along the Volokolamsk the Grain Prokhorovka. Whatever our differences, do not imagine that we are unaware of the extraordinary determination and bravery of your people. And join us in our efforts to make the world a place where such sacrifices need never be made again.
Or words to that effect...

It will never happen of course. But I wish Americans could understand better the magnitude of it all. Soviet military deaths were in the neighborhood of 10 mm during the Great Patriotic War. This included 3.6 mm POWs (most captured in the opening German offensives) who died in German captivity. That's roughly the population of Chicago. Put another way - that's about how many soldiers died on all sides in World War I. The civilian casualties are impossible to estimate, but maybe another Chicago, or two.

It wasn't just the young men, either, as it had been in World War I. The chess master Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky was about my age when he was killed in an air raid during the Siege of Leningrad.

Well, they say it was an air raid. Ilyin-Genevsky was an original Bolshevik, one of the few to survive Stalin's purges of the 30s. Most shared the fate of Bukharin, condemned to die at show trials in the name of a revolution that had been regularized, commoditized, and turned against them. Yet Bukharin found meaning in it all:
For three months I refused to say anything Then I began to testify. Why? Because while in prison I made a revaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself: "lf you must die, what are you dying for?"-an absolutely black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented. And, on the contrary, everything positive that glistens in the Soviet Union acquires new dimensions in a man's mind. This in the end disarmed me completely and led me to bend my knees before the Party and the country. And when you ask yourself: "Very well, suppose you do not die; suppose by some miracle you remain alive, again what for? Isolated from everybody, an enemy of the people, in an inhuman position, completely isolated from everything that constitutes the essence of life..." And at once the same reply arises. And at such moments, Citizens judges, everything personal . . . all the rancour, pride, and a number of other things, fall away, disappear.
The old Bolshevism was to be excised, and he understood that as its last great avatar, he too must go. But not quietly. In his final testimony he consistently admitted responsibility, admitted guilt, admitted the fact of his criminality - while denying each specific charge laid against him. He was guilty because the State said so - this made it a simple fact - but not because he had actually done anything he was accused of. Without resources or assistance of any kind, he challenged the state prosecutors, outmaneuvered and embarrassed his tormentors, and ultimately challenged those who would survive him to dedicate their lives to the betterment of the nation. To draw these distinctions in the crucible of a hostile courtroom was a fitting culmination to his career.

So maybe Ilyin-Genevsky (so named because he had been a political exile in Geneva for a time) wasn't killed by the Germans. It was dangerous to be an old Bolshevik. We'll never know for sure - there were a lot of viruses going around in 1941.

Ilyin-Genevsky had a trial of a different sort, and from it we have a different kind of testimony. I present as evidence the game of chess he played, at the Moscow International Tournament of 1925, against Jose Raoul Capablanca, Chess Champion of the World. To face Capablanca at that moment - at the height of his powers and always surrounded by curious and admiring spectators, was the supreme test of a chess master:
Capablanca (r) faces Bogoljubov later in the tournament.

As they sat down to play in the Hotel Metropol, Ilyin-Genevsky must have known he was facing the best chess player in the world, a man who had said "I can draw at will against any master." The Russian was outclassed, but he was not a patsy - Chessmetrics estimates that he was one of the 20 or 30 best players in the world at that time.

He must have felt a sense of responsibility. After all, he had promoted chess as a revolutionary idea - a way to encourage analytical rigor in military training and scientific thinking among the populace at large. He had personally organized the first Soviet Championship in 1920. As one of the founding fathers of Soviet Chess, he had a duty to play well. Still, he knew he was a backwater guy, a club champion - playing a man whose game was so logical, clean, and irrefutable that it is questionable whether he even had a 'style'. Capablanca's style was to always play the right move.

The game evolved as a simple closed Sicilian. Capablanca, playing White, advanced on the kingside, centralized his knights behind the pawn wall, and applied pressure in the center. Ilyin-Genevsky sought thematic counterplay on the queen's side. And then...he thought he saw something. No...he was sure he saw something.

At move 29 Ilyin-Genevsky's queen penetrated the White position, unsupported. At move 31 Capablanca moved a rook to attack the intruder.

Ilyin-Genevsky left the queen where it was, and pushed a pawn forward, positioned to recapture. He was offering a queen sacrifice to the best player in the world.

Capablanca accepted the sacrifice...and, seven moves later, resigned.

Soviet chess had arrived, and would be around for a very long time.

It wasn't until Capablanca's most fervent disciple dared to confront it that the Soviet chess machine began to lose its aura of invulnerability. Unfortunately for Bobby Fischer, it was essentially a suicide mission. Studying on his own, without state support, without the benefit of the easy draws the Soviets gave one another to stay fresh for him, he took the fight to them, and won outright.

When Fischer died, the Laird asked about an obituary. At the time I had no answer. I could only think of that line from Once Upon a Time in the West - Fischer, in my mind, had died a long time ago. He had won, but lost his sanity in the process.

So here is the obituary: Bobby Fischer was one of the few genuine tragic heroes of modern times. Like Bukharin and Ilyin-Genevsky, he risked everything to challenge his antithesis - the immense calculator, the Other, the Beast. It is not so easy to make such a challenge - first you must become brilliant, then you must decide to fight instead of living a nice quiet life, and agree with yourself that the risk of annihilation is an acceptable one. Such men are so rare they hardly ever meet one another (Fischer was fortunate to meet Bronstein early in his career). They fight, and usually are destroyed, in profound loneliness. Let Eliot have the last word:
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.


NYT: Reification in the Cubicle of Hell

A good case for the full human being encompassed in work, expressed as fully credentialed academic abstract writing vs. motorcycle maintenance.

I saw much of this in action yesterday while helping do a bronze pour for a Wyatt Earp sculpture, in a tiny bit of reciprocation for a morning's mold-making instruction, at my neighborhood worker's co-op art foundry (one under immediate threat, of course, from gentrification- a fact so unsurprising I could barely muster a sigh). The foundry had the feel of a competent auto shop, an ambitious boat yard, a promising internet startup, even a good art school: supremely functional dilapidation, playful productivity, deceptively organized disorganization.

Everyone there knew off-hand that bronze casting was 5000 years old, that the tools and thinking were both ancient and as challenging as ever. One guy mentioned that he'd once spent six months learning flint-knapping, noting that it was among the most intensely concentrated activities, the most intellectually demanding in some ways, that he had ever done.

Unfortunately, like a lot of New York Times articles like this, the piece is politically toothless, while nodding ever so tentatively and slightly to Marx. To accomplish better human lives in a basically market economy, political policy driven by a relentless form of mass democratic pressure would have to transform the present of managerial and capital power. While he portrays an internal corporate power structure's erosion of cognitive autonomy, the author mostly frames this as a personal path- a mistake, I think, common to educated people who after all had full choices about their life paths.

I will echo his bleakness about academic careers; for all the blather about the information economy, less that 30% of credentialed community college instructors in Seattle, for example, even have an opportunity for tenure track. The same is true of universities, which is about a third of what it was 20 years ago nationally. It has gotten to the point in the humanities that I cannot easily recommend someone go into teaching as a single career in any field, considering the historically distorted price of college. (And yet the tuition for a single student at a private college can be higher than the salary paid to a full-time adjunct instructor.)

A final factor is whether technology centralizes or decentralizes individuals' economic power over their own lives.

I need no riches to pursue my career as an artist, in spite of my laughable income, because the personal rewards and interest are enough, and I have enough self-delusion to believe that I am fairly near to figuring out how to eventually maintain a somewhat decent life. But my political beliefs are strongly affected by this: I'm interested in good economic, social, environmental and cultural outcomes, whether most Americans benefit not only in prosperity but in humanisitic terms. For the course of my whole life I have not seen evidence that free markets in the present conception, one where vast amounts of capital are heavily concentrated among nonresponsible actors, benefit most of the people of the country in terms of services, salaries, and real goods. Careers paths are widely disappearing. This is all while the nature of work for most people - people not in the social class where you can choose between a doctorate in philosophy and owning a motorcycle shop - just seems to get worse and worse, less leisure, more stress, less autonomy, a deepening message that we are all disposable, always replaceable, all a burden on someone else's bottom line.

The evidence that the Market alone- that baleful, jealous, mythical god- can properly value an earth in balance, vibrant culture, satisfying work, and lives well lived, has escaped my attention.


Marsch forbore with manly mien
Tho' baleful cancer did one nut rob;
Through gnash-ed teeth he said again:
Lance Armstrong is a douche-kebob.

May 21, 2009

Memo from a Statesman

"The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation."

May 20, 2009

I Just Vomited in My Mouth

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May 19, 2009

Spoils of War

My mother died of a brain aneurysm. I remember the exact spot in my grandparents' yard where my father told us the news and told us we had a decision to make. Her brain was destroyed but she had a lot of good parts left. What should we do with them? I became an organ donation booster at the age of seven.

He explained what her eyes, kidneys, skin, and other bits could do for people who were suffering. Of course, we all agreed: scavenge every usable part and give it away. In one of his finest moments, my father told us how some very good things could come from our loss. It helped.

When my father's prostate cancer stopped responding to treatment, his West Virginia doctor told him to put his affairs in order. Eighteen months, tops. He came out to stay with us and participated in an early clinical trial at UCSF. I can't evaluate the results of the trial, but Dad lived very well for many more years, before succumbing to lymphoma.

I recently heard from the doctor who ran the trial my father was in, and some of the subsequent trails to bring the drug to market. They have proven that their experimental treatment prolongs the lives of men with advanced prostate cancer. The interesting wrinkle is they aren't sure why. It looks like the treatment given to my father may be the first time an immunotherapy approach has tested out as safe and effective. Not a cure, sadly, but another medical tool.

It's not the same as restoring someone's sight or relieving them from dialysis or giving them a liver. But it's a good start. And, it helps.

May 18, 2009

Well that's a relief

"The Pentagon said Monday it no longer includes a Bible quote on the cover page of daily intelligence briefings it sends to the White House as was practice during the Bush administration."

That's good. It would be nice if the people in charge of our defense weren't fucking insane.

Here are a few that did not make the cut -

Thou shalt not kill. - Exodus 20:13

I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. - Hosea 6:6

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. - Matthew 5:9

My late mother found great comfort in the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, who said:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.

Frank Rich opines here.

May 17, 2009

We Should All Be Matthew Stanley Williams

As acts of civil disobedience go, this one is marvelous. My spin is that we all carry this exact card, and proffer it when ID is illegally demanded. Maybe change the name to Spartacus...

Why Didn't I Procreate!

How sad. If only we had had kids, I could enroll them in this little program brought to you by the Boy Scouts of America and our fearless warriors on the border.

The Explorers program, which is affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, is putting thousands of young people through intense training in a simulated environment...It fits right in with the honor and bravery of the Boy Scouts. -Felix Arce, 16

I like shooting them, Cathy told the newspaper. I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.

Another exercise involves a raid on a marijuana field. The Explorers were told how to restrain a defiant crop watcher. Put him on his face and put a knee in his back, a Border Patrol agent tells them.

I guarantee that he’ll shut up.

NY Times Article Here

This is about being a true-blooded American guy and girl... said A. J. Lowenthal, a sheriff’s deputy here in Imperial County, whose life clock, he says, is set around the Explorers events he helps run. It fits right in with the honor and bravery of the Boy Scouts.

May 16, 2009

Remember to Tell Them

When the history of my life is written the reporters will ask you (my friends): "just who were Eric's major influences?" I expect you to tell them, that my vast musical talents, by devoted love of cookies and my fascination with all things ursine all came from one source, The Cookie Bear.

Tell them that the Cookie Bear captivated Mr. Evans, even invading his dream state:

May 15, 2009

Taking all the fun out of learning about electricity

Apparently, administering electric shocks to children during "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day" is just not PC enough for the Florida Department of Corrections.


"What's a blueprint, Dad?" Um, yeah... Explanation here. Cool examples:
The motherlode is here (registration required). Aviation blueprint shop here.

May 14, 2009

Admiral Radio Believes That When All Men Receive The Blessings of the Four Freedoms...

Fascinating newscast from CBS on March 28, 1943. The war is happening absolutely everywhere. It is a newscast completely full of news.

Also, be sure to listen to a full variety of differing opinions on your Admiral radio.

Posted on the World War II history blog.

Oh No! Socialism!

Two words: Norway's fine.

May 13, 2009

Map of the Creative Class?

May 12, 2009

Can't we all just get along?

Well, we could if we all just shopped at the Red House furniture store!

The Red House Furniture Store

Pencil Sharpening Issues Draw Sharp Contrasts

As any schoolboy knows, power sharpeners are all very well and good for the pencil laity, but the professional pencil technician will generally stand by the precision and superiority of a high quality hand-cranked sharpener model, which like shoes, are generally better the older they are; however, there is a very notable exception to the reliance on your good old 1947 Boston.

I will of course have to examine Dr. X's contention regarding the Ipoint Titanium, but I am skeptical. The difficulty lies in the inherent contradiction- power sharpeners are all too consistent, and frequently have an over-steep angle with too short a distance between the pencil body and the pencil tip. Unless extremely heavy or bolted to something, the tend to fall off the desk (a general degradation and lightness in pencil sharpeners lead to the deterioration of wood pencil use, and necessitated the rise of the disposable mechanical pencil, I believe). Also, at the very tip, there is a strong tendency for power sharpeners to round off the very tip, which contramands the very purpose for which one is generally trying to sharpen the pencil.

But if you wish to be truly manful regarding pencils, you sharpen your pencils with a KNIFE. A knife of a high quality, somewhat thin blade, and kept in a state of maintained sharpness. The penknife, so named because it was designed to shape quill pens, is perfectly suited for this.

This must be done with some sensitivity to the wood and the feel of the lead- you must become sensitive enough to stop cutting as your knife touches the lead. Always, of course, cut away from you, use light, light pressure, and try not to stab yourself in the thigh. A pencil of base nature and spiteful quality will quickly show its cheapness under such treatment, breaking, splitting, splintering, and forcing too much pressure on the knife. A cheap pencil is not only a danger to Art, but to your leg! Cutting a Staedler or a Tombow is a safe and satisfying experience.

You also do this so that you allow a lead projecting shape, which exposes not only the tip, but greatly increases the availablity of the lead to create a much larger variety of marks than would otherwise be possible; drawings involving different shades or a variation of marks all but require a knife-sharpened lead.

Better still, the lead tip can be kept sharp by the act of drawing on the edge of the lead rather than the tip, and rotating as your draw, greatly reducing the need to resharpen. This is an important element of pencil mastery: adjusting the shape of the lead, and thereby the mark used, by controlling the wear pattern made by the very act of mark-making.

This also requires relearning to hold a pencil. Most people do not really know how to hold a pencil for drawing and sketching or for anything really except accidently sticking it in their eye- generally, it should be held lightly length-wise across all tips of the fingers, index finger dangling over the pencil tip ready to steady it or vary pressure. Done properly, the variety of marks to make with a pencil held this becomes very large, and the range of available darkness or lightness under such fine control nearly makes a common #2B perfect for most purposes.

The needle shape shown above is not ideal for art purposes although excellent for traditional drafting; I leave about a quarter inch or less of lead exposed, fully-rounded, with the sharpening only to a point towards the tip. A 3H sharpened this way will stay sharp for a ridiculously long stretch of time.

If memory serves, there are specialized drafting sharpeners that expose the lead in just this way-it's a two step process, one machine to expose the lead, and a tipper to create a perfect cone tip. They are not common.

Done properly, re-sharpening with a knife is the fastest and most specifically shaped of all, but for initial sharpening, the easiest is to begin with a hand-crank and finish with the knife.

May 11, 2009

The Acme of Pencil Sharpening

After considerable debate, we have opted to acquire the iPoint Titanium, by Acme United (a Westcott Company). This product won a Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award in 2006:
The sharpener is a bit noisy, but it has numerous advantages. It has a small footprint and elegant styling cues. It is also very good at sharpening pencils (click this link for a video of pencil-sharpening action). I am a little concerned about its longevity - it is not self-sharpening, and I suspect that the highly-touted titanium blades may disappoint.

Our four year-old thinks it's great. He comes by every few minutes to sharpen a pencil. Most pencils, he sharpens both ends, in case one end runs out. A lot of times he'll draw a picture and discover that the pencil needs sharpening again, so he comes back and sharpens it.

As I type this I just noticed that several of the pencils in our home have not been sharpened, so I'll end here and go take care of that.

May 10, 2009

Two sad good-byes

Conde Nast Portfolio magazine folds...a shame, because it was excellent.

And, after 15 brilliant years, Peter Kaplan is leaving The New York Observer. His signoff:
I had a little newspaper in New York City! You can't beat that. No matter who you are. I had a little newspaper in New York City. That's as good as it gets. It's better to have a little newspaper in New York City than a big newspaper in New York City. Because then you only have to report and write for the people you care about. And nobody else.

Mess with the best...

Was Gordon Brown the last man on earth who didn't know ... you don't mess with the Gurkhas!

More on Gay Republicans

New movie entitled Outrage.

The GOP response:
"If people have made lifestyle decisions they've kept private, then the makers of this video are showing the utmost contempt for the people who have made the sacrifice of being in public office," he said. "This flies in the face of an American tradition - that is, that people's personal lives are supposed to be just that."

Which would be a pretty good argument if it weren't being advanced by people who tried to impeach a sitting President for getting a blowjob.

Obama's Kitchen Cabinet

God I hate this comedy dinner they do with the President every year - the "nerd prom." The New York Times doesn't bother to show up, and that's probably the right idea.

"The evening's guest list featured (in no particular order): Glenn Close; Robert De Niro; Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck; Natalie Portman; Stevie Wonder; Sting; Taye Diggs; John Cusack; Demi Moore; Alicia Keys; Brad Paisley; Eva Longoria Parker; Forest Whitaker; Jon Hamm; Chris "Ludacris" Bridges; young actors Miranda Cosgrove and Chace Crawford; and, for good measure, directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." Oh, and Todd Palin.

In other news, people's lives are being destroyed by the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.

Enjoy the cake.

May 09, 2009

UW Neural study on Degrees of Certainty as an Aspect of Decision-Making

"Our findings suggest that when the brain embraces truth, it does so in a graded way so that even a binary [yes/no, true/false, left/right] choice leaves in its wake a quantity that represents a degree of belief. The neural mechanism of decision making doesn't flip into a fixed point, but instead approximates a probability distribution."

Ripped from today's headlines

Dr. Kapital posts this from the financial ethics office:

"Headline of the week goes to NY magazine for:

New York Fed Chairman Resigns Despite Being Totally Innocent


May 07, 2009

Palins Vs. Hockey Player Rematch! Hockey Player Wins!

Speaking of selfish punishment, the Palins are at again:

“I just want to go out there and promote abstinence and say this is the safest choice,” (Bristol) said on “Good Morning America.”

“It’s not going to work,” said her ex-boyfriend, Levi Johnston, in a dueling early-morning interview.

If you have ever watched Levi Johnston on TV for two minutes you will appreciate how terrifying it is when he has the most reasonable analysis of a social issue.

Selfish Punishment

This thesis about why the biggest cheaters are often the biggest complainers has finally given me a term for what bothers me about Republicans, and my older brother.

"If you're a single selfish individual in a group of altruists, the best thing you can do evolutionarily is to make sure nobody else becomes selfish make sure you're the only one." That is why, he points out, some of the harshest critics of sports doping, for example, turn out to be guilty of steroid use themselves: cheating gives athletes an edge only if their competitors aren't doing it, too.

May 06, 2009

My sentiments exactly

Kissing Suzy Kolber on Bret Farve.

On Walden Pond, Makin Ur Penzils

Henry David Thoreau. Pyro and pencil pioneer.

May 05, 2009

It was all this guy's fault

Dr. Kapital tweets this from Alphabet City in 1982:

"For your 'blog' I suggest this fine article."

"Mm, Merci, Monsieur?"

Speculation about Van Gogh is usually off. Somehow, I buy this one. Gaughin cut off Van Gogh's ear in a swordfight, then Van Gogh handed the bits to a nearby prostitute, wrapped in cloth. Van Gogh may have been covering for his friend.

The problem with Art today? Not enough honest swordfights.

May 04, 2009

A little economics

Dr. Kapital recommends this link.

May 03, 2009

I Actually Cite Art in America

A 2001 article in Art in America called Polish Passions Destroy 2 Artworks. Entertaining. Note the point at which an unsung hero steps in to historically contextualize at a key moment.

Olbrychski arrived at the museum with a television news crew in tow and, refusing to heed an elderly attendant's entreaties to check his coat, stormed into the gallery containing The Nazis. There he extracted a saber from under the coat and proceeded to slash his photograph, along with three others (including one of his friend Jean-Paul Belmondo, who wrote a note expressing support for the gesture). Olbrychski apparently spirited one photograph away and held a brief press conference on the steps of the Zacheta before driving off. Subsequently, minister of culture Kazimierrz Ujazdowski ordered that a text panel be placed at the entrance of the show to historically contextualize the material, but the artist, seeing this as an act of censorship, preferred to let the exhibition be closed 10 days early.

Damn it

I have a theory that the Supreme Court tends to lag reality by a decade or so. In the 1970s, as America contemplated the inflationary consequences of the Great Society and the war in Vietnam, we had a Great Society court, and we all learned the phrase "got off on a technicality." (Which is probably why we had to put up with Starsky and Hutch and all those Death Wish movies.)

In modern times, after the historic election of a centrist Democrat, we get the bipolar (Limbaugh v. Clinton) court. On one side, representing the Limbaughs, the reliable Scalia and his young turks - Alito, Roberts, and Thomas - all selected because of their ideological and chronological virtues. On the other side, the Old Clintonians - Ginsburg and Breyer, and the warrior, John Paul Stevens, who is now 89 years old.

For a long time there was a center, too. In his wonderful book, The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin argued that the center was essentially Sandra Day O'Connor. In fact, the thesis of the book was that O'Connor was the one who prevented a complete conservative re-make of the U.S. legal system because of her consistent willingness to oppose her fellow Republicans. Toobin commented in one interview that "it was O'Connor who frustrated Rehnquist time after time...she voted against him on abortion...against him on race issues..."

Of course she did not do this on her own. The center of the court - the real Supreme court, if you will, consisted of O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter. And now, with Souter's retirement, we will have a center of one. President Obama will have no choice in this - of course he will appoint a good judge to the court, but the dominant consideration will be ideological balance. Since his predecessor appointed two far-right ideologues, this will require some strong medicine at the other end of the spectrum.

"Great," you might say, "that's the way it's supposed to work. It's an adversarial system." No, no it's not. The plaintiff and the defendant are supposed to be the adversaries, not the justices! That's what's wrong with the Supreme Court, and what the last administration made worse. The Supreme Court should be a collaborative body, a collective intelligence, a whole greater than its parts. Appointing ideological apparatchiks polarizes the Court and sets the stage for backlash and a loss of popular credibility. As David Hackett Fischer once said in his critique of Hegelian history, "an argument between two lunatics is unlikely to result in a triumph of reason."

Souter hates ideology. According to Toobin, his most difficult moments came after Bush v. Gore:

Toughened, or coarsened, by their worldly lives, the other dissenters could
shrug and move on, but Souter couldn’t. His whole life was being a judge. He
came from a tradition where the independence of the judiciary was the foundation
of the rule of law. And Souter believed Bush v. Gore mocked that tradition. His
colleagues’ actions were so transparently, so crudely partisan that Souter
thought he might not be able to serve with them anymore.

Souter seriously considered resigning. For many months, it was not at all clear whether he would remain as a justice. That the Court met in a city he loathed made the decision even harder. At the urging of a handful of close friends, he decided to stay on, but his attitude toward the Court was never the same.

So maybe that's why he's leaving early. There's no other obvious explanation - he's only 4th in seniority, his brain is working fine, he's been a good intellectual contributor and an important balancing element. But he doesn't like Washington (had a bad mugging a few years ago), and he's turning 70.

Wha...? Doesn't he know he's supposed to be driven by a neurotic desire for power and social acceptance? Doesn't he know that there are people who would chop off their right foot with a dull hatchet to have his job? Doesn't he know that he is living the dream? Doesn't he know that you don't retire from the Supreme Court?

He doesn't care. That's what's right about David Souter. He's recognizably human. He's not in this because he needs power, or money, or fame. He actually cares about legal issues - about thinking things through and getting the right answer.

That's what a Supreme Court Justice should look like. We don't need one less David Souter. We need eight more.

Too late now. Singular human being that he is, he's going home:


Damn you, David Souter. Damn you to hell.

The Talent Thing: Why David Brooks Should Practice More

David Brooks' popular column today on studies tending to refute the general concept of genius or talent. As usual, Brooks' notices something about three years later. Perhaps if he'd been reading the New York Times, or Eisengeiste, for that matter.

One corollary he doesn't make: can there be a better refutation of the alleged virtues and glories of entitled social classes, like the tiny number of families with vast, persistent concentrations of capital, or the absurd levels of compensation for allegedly irreplaceable business geniuses?

May 02, 2009

Do it, do it

Georgian GOP secessionists on the March, joining their Texas brethren. This after excoriating us yankee libs for disloyalty while their party was wrecking the country.

Gentlemen, Abe Lincoln had your number. If you'll turn to page 43 of your hymnal...

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

And that ain't right.

[Update] Thanks to Google, here is a compare-and-contrast between speeches on race from two Illinois lawyers from Garry Wills.

And Now the News For Cats

The BBC wishes to announce their comprehensive cat coverage.