Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Meaning of New Year's Day

No other national holiday is celebrated with as much brio as New Year's Day, without a defined idea of what is being celebrated. Other holidays are obvious: Independence Day celebrates American political freedom, Halloween the pleasure of masquerading, Thanksgiving material abundance, Christmas (in the secular sense) good-will toward loved ones, May Day (and Earth Day) the establishment of international socialism. But what of New Year's Day? Is it a taking stock of the prior twelve months? Is it a commitment for better times ahead? I think both are true, but they are corollaries of the real meaning of New Year's Day.

New Year's Day is, in a way, a meta-holiday; it's a celebration of existence, of life, as such. That's why it can be seen as a taking stock of the past and a look to the future at once. The common theme here is one's own life: where one has been and where one wants to go. The holiday takes introspection and turns it outward in celebration.

The two main traditions that define the holiday, the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" and the establishment of New Year's resolutions, capture the backward and forward looking nature of New Year's Day. "Auld Lang Syne," a song everyone knows, yet almost no one knows the lyrics to, is concerned with fondly looking back. The title roughly translates to "days gone by."
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and days of old lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
New Year's resolutions, on the other hand, are commitments to better oneself in the coming year. No matter how good or bad the prior year was, the tradition of making resolutions is still one of further improvement.

There is a third tradition that unites both aspects of New Year's Day: the drinking of champagne. Champagne is traditionally brought out for the most important of celebrations, and it shows the import of the New Year's holiday. Here's where you raise a glass and toast; it's both a well done! and a here we go! in one clink of glass.

The underlying premise is that life is worth celebrating and is capable of being improved. It's a feeling few people express during the rest of the year. For some that feeling survives the afterglow of the holiday and is a permanent state of mind. But for a few hours before and after midnight on December 31, we can feel that life isn't only a series of disappointments and frustrations. For a few hours we can all agree on one thing: life is good.

What a Headline

Russia to Plan Deflection of Asteroid From Earth
That was the New York Times, not the Onion. Word is, Putin has hired Michael Bay as an adviser.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is *Crash* the Worst Movie of the Decade?

I've never seen Crash, nor do I plan to. From what I know about the film, it represents the worst of the multiculturalist ideology, which I hold is the philosophical equivalent of a shrieking baby on a plane. Happily, and a bit surprisingly, the Atlantic's Te-Nehisi Coates agrees:
Before we go any further, I need to admit that several people who I love and respect actually like Crash. I need let them know that I don't hold this against them, and I still love and respect them--though, with Crash in mind, more the former than the latter.

With that said, I don't think there's a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness. ("Hey look, I'm a black carjacker who resents being stereotyped.") But more than a bad film, Crash, which won an Oscar (!), is the apotheosis of a kind of unthinking, incurious, nihilistic, multiculturalism. To be blunt, nothing tempers my extremism more than watching a fellow liberal exhort the virtues of Crash.

If you're angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash. If you're black and believe in the curative qualities of yet another "dialogue around race," you probably liked Crash. If you're white and voted for Barack Obama strictly because he was black, you probably liked Crash. If you've ever used the term "post-racial" or "post-black" in a serious conversation, without a hint of irony, you probably liked Crash.

And I swear if any of you defend the film, I'm going to ban you. Not just from this site, not just from the Internet, but from all public life. Don't test me. My armies are legion.
In this sense only, consider me one of Coates' foot soldiers.

Song Break

The Rolling Stones first and foremost succeeded at appropriating genres and making them their own. Superficially, "Dead Flowers" is a country song. But really it's just another Rolling Stone song -- a damn good, and under-appreciated, one, at that. It is the sweetest sounding of songs, with the most withering of lyrics.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Terrorizing Ourselves

Bruce Schneier, responding to Jeffery Goldberg's question on whether air travel would survive if terrorists successfully explode an airliner:
Probably. Air travel survived decades of terrorism, including attacks which resulted in the deaths of everyone on the plane. It survived 9/11. It'll survive the next successful attack. The only real worry is that we'll scare ourselves into making air travel so onerous that we won't fly anymore. We won't be any safer -- more people will die in car crashes resulting from the increase in automobile travel, and terrorists will simply switch to one of the millions of other targets -- and we won't even feel any safer. It's frustrating; terrorism is rare and largely ineffectual, yet we regularly magnify the effects of both their successes and failures by terrorizing ourselves.
As clich├ęd as it sounds, terrorists only win by effecting an overblown response from the "terrorized." And as TSA's hasty response to Friday's failed terror attempt shows, politicians are inclined to do something, no matter how colossally inept that reaction is.

Speaking of which, here's Goldberg's spot-on thoughts on TSA's ridiculous response:
Sometimes the stupidity is too much to bear. From the new guidelines for international air travel:
U.S.-bound passengers aboard international flights must undergo a "thorough pat-down" at boarding gates, focused on the upper legs and torso.
Thanks for letting us know, TSA, that the search should be focused on the upper legs and torso. As I've said on numerous occasions, pat-downs that ignore the crotch and the ass are useless. We recently saw in Saudi Arabia the detonation of a rectal bomb, so it really doesn't take much creativity to imagine that terrorists will be taping explosives to their scrotums. Of course, TSA is not going to be feeling-up people's scrotums anytime soon, so the question remains: Why does our government continue to make believe that it can stop terrorists from boarding civilian planes when anyone with half-a-brain and a spare two minutes can think up a dozen ways to bypass the symbolic security measures at our airports?

Next item: "Passengers must remain seated for the final hour before landing. During that time, they may not have access to their carry-on baggage or hold personal items on their laps." But what about their underwear? Can they have access to their underwear, which is where our latest would-be Muslim martyr apparently hid his bomb? And why can't we have access to our laptops, if they've already been screened?

By the way, these rules, the Washington Post says, are in effect only until December 30th. In January, you see, the jihad is over. That, or the TSA needs until December 30th to properly promulgate a formal set of inane new rules, to add to the inane rules currently in place. Here's an alternative suggestion for the Obama administration: Focus on capturing and killing Islamist terrorists overseas. By the time they get to the airport, it is, generally speaking, too late.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reality Check

From the NYT:
Despite the billions spent since 2001 on intelligence and counterterrorism programs, sophisticated airport scanners and elaborate watch lists, it was something simpler that averted disaster on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit: alert and courageous passengers and crew members.

More on TSA's New Restrictions

In addition to keeping with its usually tradition of making policy on a reactionary basis, this one wouldn’t even have done anything to prevent the attempt over the weekend. The guy was in his seat when he tried to light the explosive device. And the passenger who confronted him got out of his seat to do it.

Also, if the goal was to bring the plane down from the air, why add restrictions for the last hour of the flight?

Seems to me that what this, Flight 93, and the Richard Reid incident have shown us is that the best line of defense against airplane-based terrorism is us. Alert, aware, informed passengers.

TSA, on the other hand, equates hassle with safety. For all the crap they put us through, this guy still got some sort of explosive material on the plane from Amsterdam. He was stopped by law-abiding passengers. So TSA responds to all of this by . . . announcing plans to hassle law-abiding U.S. passengers even more.

If you’re really cynical, you could make a good argument that they’re really only interested in the appearance of safety. They’ve simply concluded that the more difficult they make your flight, the safer you’ll feel. Never mind if any of the theatrics actually work.

That was Radley Balko.

If Only

Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first glass and giving them free drinks.
More here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Just When You Thought Air Travel Restrictions Couldn't Get Any Worse

They get worse:
Although transportation officials had not announced new security measures yet, Air Canada said the Transportation Security Agency would make significant changes to the way passengers are able to move about on aircraft. During the final hour of flight, customers will have to remain seated, will not be allowed access to carry-on baggage and cannot have personal belongings or other items on their laps, according to a notice on Air Canada’s Web site.

In effect, that means passengers on flights of about 90 minutes or less will not be able to get out of their seats, since they are not allowed to move about while an airplane is climbing to its cruising altitude.

Air Canada also told its United States bound customers that they would be limited to a single carry-on item and that they would be subjected to personal and baggage searches at security check points and in the gate area. It said this would result in significant delays, canceled flights and missed connections. Air Canada said it would waive the baggage fee for the first checked bag as a result of the new policy.

At this point, walking cross country sounds more pleasant.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Song Break: Christmas Edition

This second-best Christmas song (in my not-so-humble opinion), bested only by Mariah Carey's fabulous "All I Want for Christmas is You," isn't really about the holiday, but intense longing (a running theme throughout girl-group music). The song is pure joy, despite its melancholy subject, which, I guess, aptly describes the whole of the girl-group genre.

Thank You, Capitalism

It's easy to forget that many of the the mundane marvels of our day didn't exist a mere 10 years ago. Lest we forget how good we've got it, The Atlantic takes a side-by-side look at how far technology has progressed in just one decade. It's a good reminder that, though capitalism has (unjustly) fallen on hard times, it only makes our lives better.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Shibboleth for the Educated

Keith Staskiewicz wonders why people feel so embarrassed when they mispronounce a word they've only seen in print:
Haven’t we all had a name or a word that we’ve seen many times in print, but never heard in conversation? We know what it means, how to use it, how it’s spelled; everything but how to pronounce it.

For the majority of my life, I was convinced that awry was pronounced similarly to the word orrery. To this day “uh-RYE” still rings false in my ear. I also admit to pronouncing posthumous as if it meant “following a savory Middle Eastern spread.” And I, like many others, have Googled the phrase “Goethe, how to pronounce.” (Don’t get me started on South African-born Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee.) I just wonder why there’s such a stigma attached to those of us (like poor Margaret Tate) who seem to know certain words only in writing. Surely, there is quite a large vocabulary that doesn’t appear that often in everyday conversation, so why should one feel ashamed to get it wrong now and again? In the end, it’s more important to know what it means than how it sounds. I say go forth and mispronounce because how will you ever get it right if you’re never corrected?

I agree. I think those who fancy themselves cultured and highly educated use pronunciation as a shibboleth, as if knowing a word's meaning is fine for laymen, but serious people know how to properly pronounce dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It's a silly distinction to make, and one that reeks of elitism and a little bit of the "gotcha!" mentality. ("What did you just say? Oh, it's actually pronounced dis-pyuh-TAY-shus. God, everyone knows that.")

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Burj Dubai

The world's tallest skyscraper is about to open in Dubai. To help comprehend just how friggin' tall this thing is, I quote Spiegel Online:

The tower, at any rate, is real. With its 160 habitable stories, it juts 818 meters (2,683 feet) into the sky. Tourists have to kneel down on the sidewalk to photograph the building in its entirety, from base to tip.

The Burj Dubai is so tall that Bedouins can see it from their oases 100 kilometers (63 miles) inland and sailors can see it from their supertankers, 50 nautical miles out in the Gulf -- at least on the few winter days when the air is as clear as it's portrayed on the mural in front of the model apartment window.

The tower is so enormous that the air temperature at the top is up to 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than at the base. If anyone ever hit upon the idea of opening a door at the top and a door at the bottom, as well as the airlocks in between, a storm would rush through the air-conditioned building that would destroy most everything in its wake, except perhaps the heavy marble tiles in the luxury apartments. The phenomenon is called the "chimney effect."

Here's what it would look like if it were erected in Midtown Manhattan.

Finally, here's a video shot from the top of the building. Unbelievable.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Song Break

The New Pornographers' insanely catchy "Sing Me Spanish Techno." The video, which I hadn't seen before today, is tranny-tastic. Also, AC Newman makes one damn fine lady.

70-Minute *Phantom Menace* Review

This has been making its way around the internet. Ostensibly, it's a snarky fanboy review of Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Actually, it's a brilliant, and hilarious, work of comedy. I don't know who this "Mike from Milwaukee" is, but the Onion needs to find him and hire him now.

Mickey Mouse, Gay Basher

Jeet Heer tours the history of homosexuality in early-20th century comic strips, starting with Disney's high-pitched rodent:
What could be more wholesome than Mickey Mouse, the big-eared emblem of the Disney empire? Yet a Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 22, 1931 shows the little rodent meeting a big cat who displays all the markers stereotypically given to gay characters during that period: a lisp, a limp handshake, and a general effeminacy of manner (in this case, batting eyelashes). Revealing himself to be not just homophobic but a violent gay-basher, Mickey attacks the big cat.
Most of the comic strips Heer presents were published during the "Pansy Craze," a period in the late-twenties/early-thirties, where effeminate men and butch women were finding underground popularity.

The strips are fascinating, first for how openly homosexuality was presented in a medium like comic strips, but mostly as a reminder of how far culture (and Disney) has advanced in eighty years.

(HT Jesse Walker at Hit & Run)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A List That's Pretty Much Amazing

The music site Pretty Much Amazing has compiled a great list of the best songs of the decade. Even better, I've contributed to one of the posts.

You can read my list of the best songs of the decade here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Song Break

A hidden gem of a song, from a hidden gem of an album. The charming video was directed by the great Paul Thomas Anderson.

Democrats Poised to Pass Health Bill, Fall on Their Swords

So it looks like it's going to pass. Megan McArdle predicts political suicide:
So there's now about a 90% chance that the health care bill will pass.

At this point, the thing is more than a little inexplicable. Democrats are on a political suicide mission; I'm not a particularly accurate prognosticator, but I think this makes it very likely that in 2010 they will [lose] several seats in the Senate--enough to make it damn hard to pass any more of their signature legislation--and will lose the house outright. In the case of the House, you can attribute it to the fact that the leadership has safe seats. But three out of four of the Democrats on the podium today are in serious danger of losing their seats.

No bill this large has ever before passed on a straight party-line vote, or even anything close to a straight party-line vote. No bill this unpopular has ever before passed on a straight party-line vote. We're in a new political world. I'm not sure I understand it.

On Heavy Rotation

What I've been listening to:
  • Various Artists, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. A truly excellent album, Christmas or otherwise. The best album that you can only listen to in December. I've blogged about it before here. Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is almost as good as Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You."
  • LCD Soundsystem, The Sound of Silver. One of the many albums I purchased at release, then ignored. A terrific "dance" album, reminiscent of Bowie, Lou Reed, and New Order. "Someone Great" or "All My Friends" (or both, perhaps) should have been on my list of the best songs of the decade.
  • Hercules and Love Affair, Hercules and Love Affair. Another great dance album that doesn't play like a dance album. I think I made a mistake choosing "Hercules Theme" for my list and not "Blind." Oh well.
  • Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend. I was late to this record. I think the Strokes' influence is a bit too pronounced. Still, I love the baroque instrumentation and song structures. The songs reveal their complexity with each subsequent play. Their new single, "Cousins," is also very good.
  • Beck, Odelay. I played the hell out of this album from the beginning. The remastered version is worth purchasing, just for the sound of the album proper. I haven't given enough attention to the extra tracks. After all these years, the album still astounds.

Friday, December 18, 2009

ABBA: An Apology

There has been some grumbling about ABBA's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is bullshit, so whether or not they belong there doesn't concern me. But there's one aspect of this complaint that I take issue with: the artistic status (or lack thereof) of pop music, and pop's relation to rock.

ABBA embodies pop music at its fizziest and most effervescent. They certainly are a far cry from Hendrix, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the like. This much is true. But those rock "purists" miss something when they bemoan the celebration of pop music. Pop and rock have always been intertwined, as have R&B and rock, hip hop and rock, folk and rock, soul and rock, country and rock, blues and rock, and on and on and on. In fact, I can't think of any artist or band that represents "pure" rock and roll. That genre just doesn't exist. Rock is a word that always requires an antecedent, a musical inspiration apart from itself. Let's take my aforementioned examples: Jimi Hendrix made blues-rock, the Stones R&B-rock (and sometimes soul-rock, blues-rock, and country-rock), and Bob Dylan folk-rock.

ABBA is not rock music, strictly speaking, but the group has its lineage in the music of Phil Spector and the girl groups of the sixties. Those groups' influence on rock music, especially on the Beatles and the Stones, was undeniable. Listen to ABBA's "Waterloo," arguably their greatest song (see below). No other song channels and matches the glory of Spector's Wall of Sound. Further, ABBA, even at their most syrupy ("The Winner Takes It All," "Fernando"), wrote breathtaking melodies. Rock music has always sought to match pop's knack for melody, albeit with thrashing guitars, loud drums, and large doses of go-fuck-yourself attitude. That's why a band as seemingly anti-pop as Sonic Youth can worship the music of the Carpenters and still seem cool.

I think the problem some people have with ABBA is that their music is so universally loved, a crime only the Beatles are allowed to get away with. But let's not forget that the Beatles were first and foremost a pop group, and they are loved for their gorgeous melodies. Maybe ABBA will never be accepted as being cool. But their music is better than cool. It's wonderful.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Song Break

Youth Group's wistful and lovely cover of Alphaville's "Forever Young."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Total Irrelevance of "Person of the Year"

This morning Time magazine announced that their "Person of the Year" is Ben Bernanke, for "saving the American economy." Let's set aside the very thorny issue of whether or not Bernanke actually accomplished this, whether the economy is "saved" or if the Fed's actions were even efficacious. The real issue is: who the hell cares about who Time's editors think is "the single person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year?" Reason's Jesse Walker sums it up nicely in a 2002 post on Time's selection that year, "The Whistleblowers":

My hat goes off to Time—not for its selection, but for once more inspiring so many people to discuss the world's single vaguest annual award as though it were meaningful and important. Even People's yearly announcement of the Sexiest Man Alive—isn't it funny how the sexiest man alive always turns out to be famous already? What are the odds of that?—has the advantage of being restricted to one qualification (sexiness); if an aggrieved fan wants to dispute the pick, she at least knows what she's disputing. To this day, I'm not sure how one outqualifies someone else to be Man of the Year. The magazine's definition—"the single person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year"—isn't helpful, since the mag regularly ignores the "single person" bit in practice and doesn't seem very interested in the admittedly impossible task of measuring "influence," either.

Nonetheless, each December people behave as though there is some platonic ideal Man of the Year out there, and that the disinterested scientists at Time somehow misidentified it. Last year the rap on the editors was that they only picked Rudy Giuliani because they were too scared to select Osama bin Laden. (Their stated rationale was that he was "not a larger-than-life figure with broad historical sweep," but "a garden-variety terrorist whose evil plan succeeded beyond his highest hopes.") This time the complaint is that they've picked three people whom hardly anyone's heard of and who didn't make much of a difference in the big picture anyway. (They are nonetheless, one presumes, larger-than-life figures with broad historical sweep.) Next year, when Time honors Whitney Houston or Carrot Top, the naysayers will doubtless swoop in once more.

Even better is Radly Balko's reponse to Time's choice of "You" as the "Person of the Year" back in 2006. When asked who he would choose as "Person of the Year," Balko replied:
If Time magazine picked "you," as its Person of the Year, then everyone alive is "person of the year," except, ironically enough, for the staff of Time magazine. Even the two dozen or so marketing professionals the magazine just laid off can take solace from the fact that now that they're no longer with the company, from Time's perspective, they're no longer "us," but "you," meaning that they too now inherit the title of "Person of the Year." So I'm going with the staff of Time for my "Person of the Year," for two reasons: One, it seems silly to leave them out. And two, their gimmicky stunt gave the rest of us an extra line on our resumes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Year in Film

2009 was a good year for movies, especially for comedies. I've just posted on the excellent Jason Reitman film, Up in the Air. It's more than just a comedy, but it most fits in that genre. Adventureland was a minor success, though I wanted to like it more than I did. For Meryl Streep's performance alone, Julie and Julia was worth seeing. It's also a great food movie, along the lines of Like Water for Chocolate, Babette's Feast, and Big Night. In the Loop was good, but I wasn't nearly as bowled over as most people. The best, and most surprising, was The Hangover. It was absolutely hilarious, but more importantly it was smart -- reminiscent of Memento, however improbable as that seems.

In the realm of blockbusters, I really enjoyed J.J. Abrams' take on Star Trek and I'm in no way a fan of the franchise. I'm excited to see where he goes with this reboot. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was a bit of a disappointment, yet still better than most summer blockbusters. I thought District 9 was a spectacular failure, though most critics loved it. Watchmen was great to see, just because I've always loved the graphic novel. But it was for fans only. As I've already said, Inglourious Basterds was fantastic. Christoph Waltz's performance was a revelation.

I haven't see many great dramas, though I've yet to see Precious or An Education. Funny People, definitely not a comedy, was maddening: its first-half was phenomenal, its second-half was terrible. The best drama I've seen this year was the excellent Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man. Maybe their best since Fargo.

State of Play was a good political thriller. Russell Crowe, someone I don't normally enjoy, was excellent. Still, they could have done their research on the layout of Washington, DC. But that's a minor quibble.

The best films this year were animated. Coraline was wonderfully strange and creepy. It was a pleasure to watch in 3-D. My two favorite movies this year were Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up. Fantastic Mr. Fox is the only Wes Anderson film I've liked, at least since Rushmore. He has found his calling in animation. It's a whimsical gem, full of warmth and pure childlike wonder. Up, on the other hand, is a movie that only Pixar could make. On paper it sounds like a mess -- an elderly man travels to South America in his balloon-lifted house, to fulfill a lifelong dream and a pact made with his now-deceased wife. It was actually a poignant and exciting adventure tale. Its first ten minutes are marvelous; the remaining 86 are almost as good. I get teary-eyed every time I see it. And god bless Pixar for making Ed Asner the star of a blockbuster.

Some other films I haven't seen, but that might belong in this post include The Hurt Locker, Bruno, and Ponyo. Avatar looks awful, though it's been getting some good reviews.

*Up in the Air*

George Clooney has finally won me over, thanks to the one-two punch of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up in the Air. He has become the Cary Grant of his generation. It's not that he is charming and debonair, though he is. It's that he is charming and debonair with the utmost ease. It seems totally natural.

Up in the Air is a terrific movie: funny, sad, and poignant. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a "termination specialist." He's the guy a company calls in to fire its employees. He flies from one city to the next, secretly collecting frequent flyer miles with the hope of becoming the seventh person to reach the 10 million miles mark. He is a man without a home, purposefully unfettered by family, friends, or a romantic relationship. That is, until he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) his female doppelganger.

The film's performances are all wonderful. Vera Farmiga plays Alex with intelligence, humor, and sexiness. Anna Kendrick is great as Bingham's protege´, a mixture of Election's Tracy Flick and Sex and the City's Charlotte.

Jason Reitman is beginning to remind me of Alexander Payne (speaking of Election), who has become a master of comedies that have both warmth and depth. I loved Juno, but Up in the Air is a better movie, leaner and more focused. I can't wait to see it again.

Just announced: Up in the Air is getting some Golden Globe lovin'.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Oh My God

Buried on page 43 of the A section of today's NYT is this eye-popping story:
In North Carolina, Lawsuit Is Threatened Over Councilman’s Lack of Belief in God

City Councilman Cecil Bothwell of Ashville believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government, but he does not believe in God. His political opponents say that is a sin that makes him unworthy of office, and they have the North Carolina Constitution on their side.

Detractors of Mr. Bothwell, who was elected in November, are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in last week, even though the state’s antiquated requirement that officeholders believe in God is unenforceable because it violates the United States Constitution.

“The question of whether or not God exists is not particularly interesting to me,” said Mr. Bothwell, 59, “and it’s certainly not relevant to public office.”

As the story notes, the law is unenforceable, due to the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. But the lawsuit could lead to a protracted legal battle and all the fees involved. This would be a de facto penalty against Bothwell, simply because of an arcane, backward, and thoroughly un-American requirement.

Mr. Bothwell cannot be forced out of office over his atheist views because the North Carolina provision is unenforceable, according to the supremacy clause of the Constitution. Six other states have similar provisions barring atheist officeholders.

In 1961, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that federal law prohibits states from requiring any kind of religious test for officeholders when it ruled in favor of a Maryland atheist seeking to be a notary public.

But the federal protections do not necessarily spare atheist public officials from spending years defending themselves in court. An avowed atheist, Herb Silverman, won an eight-year court battle in 1997 when South Carolina’s highest court granted him the right to be appointed a notary despite the state’s law.

Mr. Bothwell said a legal challenge to his appointment would be “fun,” but he believes that his opponents’ efforts have more to do with politics than religion.

“It’s local political opponents seeking to change the outcome of an election they lost,” he said.

It makes no difference if this suit is politically motivated or not. It's shameful, no disgusting, that a public figure is being legally threatened for being an atheist. It's worse that the North Carolina Constitution is on the side of thugs making the threats.

Friday, December 11, 2009

*Bel Canto*

I'm pleased to say that Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is not a romantic travelogue through Italy. Of course, there is no reason to think it would be. It was my mistake, and one of two happy instances of surprise the novel provided me. Perhaps my erroneous idea of the novel's subject is what kept me from picking it up until now, eight years after its release. Boy am I glad I did. The book is terrific, the best I've read since Joseph O'Neill's Netherland.

Bel Canto
begins with a gala set in the mansion of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. The party is in honor of a wealthy Japanese businessman, who is only there to witness a private performance by the world's foremost soprano. But before the diva is able to finish her performance, the lights go out: terrorists have broken into the mansion, thus beginning a standoff that will last months.

The second surprise is that the book is not a thriller filled with failed escape attempts and one tense situation after another. No, Bel Canto is about life in purgatory, as the characters, hostage and terrorist alike, settle into their new home. Their only contact to the outside world is a Red Cross worker who is a conduit for negotiations, and a courier for necessities like food, newspapers, and most importantly, sheet music. Patchett's diva must sing, and it's through her that the book's theme of love -- of music, beauty, language, human bonds -- is realized.

I won't go into more detail about the story (which is not really a plot, in the strictest sense of the term), since it would ruin the remarkable tale that Patchett deftly unspools. I will mention the sentences, so lovely and elegant (a word that best describes the entire novel) that I can't pick out just one example for fear of slighting another. Bel Canto is to be read slowly to be fully enjoyed.

In the end, Bel Canto is a novelization of Stockholm syndrome. Yes, the characters succumb to it, but it is the reader who is inexorably made to feel sympathy for the hapless devil that overtakes the opulent estate. By the novel's conclusion, the abrupt tragedy of the climax only underlines the beauty that takes place in the three hundred pages that precedes it. I was left wanting more, but I appreciated Patchett's restraint.

It's a remarkable book. I waited eight years to find this out, but, as the saying goes, better late than never.

Monday, December 7, 2009

On Heavy Rotation

What I've been listening to:

Pernicious Behavior

Moral suasion is a powerful social tool to alter behavior, and a justified one in certain circumstances. Citizens of Abilene, Kansas took up the cause against what many thought was a pernicious new intruder to their town. What evil entity were these people combating? An "adult superstore." From Time:
But Abilene — terminus of the great longhorn cattle drives, boyhood home of Dwight D. Eisenhower — fought back. Some folks anyway. Citizens launched Operation Daniel, named for the biblical prophet who was thrown into a lion's den but somehow tamed the beasts. As lonely truckers pulled into the parking lot, protesters met them waving signs that threatened, "Think Again or We Report." They vowed to send the tag numbers of porn-purchasing drivers to corporate employers. Wal-Mart soon put out the word to its drivers to steer clear.
They used intimidation to prevent private individuals from purchasing legal products like sex toys, adult videos, and "sheer little costumes." If you want to see pure, naked hatred for humanity, look to people who think "there is a link between pornography and fantasy-driven criminal behavior."

The article focuses on a legal battle over commercial speech, which the store ended up winning (for now). But what jumped out at me was the mentality that thinks porn (read: sexuality) leads to "the rape of a child." Perhaps I have been naive, but how is it possible that people really believe this? Frightening.

Et Tu, Mankiw?

Of all the improbable answers to the question "what am I listening to?," Harvard economist Greg Mankiw's takes the cake:
I am bit embarrassed to admit this, but the answer is Lady Gaga. Her music reminds me Blondie, which I enjoyed back in my student days. I particularly like the Lady Gaga song Bad Romance.
I don't agree with the Blondie comparison, but at least we can both agree that "Bad Romance" is awesome.

[HT: Brant Miller]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What's So Great About Gaga?

Besides "Bad Romance?" Not much.

I've been listening to the deluxe edition of her Grammy-nominated The Fame, and I just can't understand why Lady Gaga has broken out of the club scene to become a genuine pop phenom. Yes, her singles are decent, and she knows how to market herself (and endear herself to the gay community). In that latter sense, she invites comparisons to a young Madonna. But the comparison ends there. Go back and listen to Madonna's first few records. Those songs were some of the best pop of the eighties. Other than the incredible, aforementioned "Bad Romance" (which is as close as she gets to Madge's early brilliance), her material is pretty middling.

So what explains it? Perhaps it's because she's an amalgamation of what people like about other pop stars. She embraces style and fashion (like Gwen Stefani), she's a little outre (like Bjork and Kelis), and she flirts with prurience (like a lite version of Peaches). But is she really greater than the sum of her parts?

I don't think so. I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein's description of Oakland, California: When you listen to Lady Gaga, you find there is no there there.

Dept of Huh???

From Time's tedious "Decade from Hell" cover story, on the 2000s:
Bankers and financial engineers had an unsupervised free-market free-for-all just as the increased complexity of financial products — e.g., derivatives — screamed out for greater regulation or at least supervision. Enron, for instance, was a bastard child of a deregulated utilities industry and a mind-bending financial alchemy.
This is simply not true. The financial sector is, as has been, one of the most regulated. And to say that utilities were "deregulated" is a misrepresentation of what actually occurred, which was more like "re-regulation."

Repeating a lie over and over again does not make it true. But it does make it stick.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Harsanyi on Climategate

Another wonderful op-ed from David Harsanyi.

We found out that respected men discussed the manipulation of science, the blocking of freedom of information requests, the exclusion of dissenting scientists from debate, the removal of dissent from the peer-reviewed publications, and the discarding of historical temperature data and e-mail evidence.

You may suppose that those with a resilient faith in end-of-days global warming would be more distraught than anyone over these actions. You'd be wrong. In the wake of the scandal, we are told there is nothing to see. The administration, the United Nations, most of the left-wing punditry and political establishment have shrugged it off. What else can they do?

To many of these folks, the science of global warming is only a tool of ideology. To step back and re-examine their thinking would also mean — at least temporarily — ceding a foothold on policy that allows government to control behavior. It would mean putting the brakes on the billions of dollars allocated to force fundamental economic and societal manipulations through cap-and-trade schemes and fabricated "new energy economies," among many other intrusive policies.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

50 Best Songs of the 2000s: The Complete List

1. The White Stripes "Fell in Love with a Girl" (2001)

2. Bob Dylan "Mississippi" (2001)

3. Kelly Clarkson "Since U Been Gone" (2004)

4. Animal Collective "My Girls" (2009)

5. PJ Harvey "This Is Love" (2000)

6. Loretta Lynn (feat. Jack White) "Portland, Oregon" (2004)

7. M.I.A. "Boyz" (2008)

8. Outkast "Hey Ya!" (2003)

9. Rihanna "Umbrella" (2007)

10. Antony and the Johnsons "Hope There's Someone" (2005)

11. Gorillaz "DARE" (2005)

12. Fleet Foxes "White Winter Hymnal" (2008)

13. Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" (2006)

14. Rufus Wainwright "Oh What a World" (2003)

15. Amy Winehouse "Rehab" (2007)

16. Beyonce "Crazy in Love" (2003)

17. The Arcade Fire "Intervention" (2007)

18. Radiohead "Pyramid Song" (2001)

19. My Morning Jacket "Off the Record" (2005)

20. Outkast "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" (2000)

21. Mitch & Mickey "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" (2003)

22. The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" (2003)

23. Jay-Z "99 Problems" (2004)

24. Madonna "Hung Up" (2005)

25. Justin Timberlake "Cry Me a River" (2002)

26. The Strokes "Someday" (2001)

27. Sleater-Kinney "Jumpers" (2005)

28. Bob Dylan "Thunder on the Mountain" (2006)

29. Sade "By Your Side" (2000)

30. Basement Jaxx "Where's Your Head At" (2001)

31. Mary J. Blige "No More Drama" (2001)

32. Eminem "Lose Yourself" (2002)

33. PJ Harvey "Good Fortune" (2000)

34. Daft Punk "One More Time" (2000)

35. Bjork "New World" (2000)

36. Spoon "Sister Jack" (2005)

37. Cat Power "Living Proof" (2006)

38. Grizzly Bear "Two Weeks" (2009)

39. Aimee Mann "Wise Up" (2000)

40. Nelly Furtado "Maneater" (2006)

41. Hot Hot Heat "Bandages" (2002)

42. Liz Phair "Why Can't I?" (2003)

43. The Magnetic Fields "California Girls" (2008)

44. 50 Cent "In Da Club" (2003)

45. Britney Spears "Toxic" (2003)

46. Junior Senior "Move Your Feet" (2003)

47. Kanye West "Stronger" (2007)

48. Yeah Yeah Yeahs "Maps" (2003)

49. Hercules and Love Affair "Hercules Theme" (2008)

50. Jimmy Eat World "The Middle", Destiny's Child "Say My Name" (Tie)

Click on a song to read the entry, or here to view all the entries.

Monday, November 30, 2009

1. The White Stripes "Fell in Love with a Girl" (2001)

Jack White, rock's MVP this last decade, was responsible for two incredible albums (Elephant and White Blood Cells), three great albums (De Stijl, Get Behind Me Satan, and Icky Thump), a pretty good side-band (the Raconteurs), an awesome collaboration (with Loretta Lynn), and some interesting one-off work (like the Cold Mountain soundtrack). The consistency of his output was unmatched by any other artist.

"Fell in Love with a Girl" is his greatest achievement. Its brilliance is its simplicity: it is as stripped down to essentials as music gets; with just three musical voices -- White's vocal, an electric guitar, and a drum kit -- and clocking in at less than two minutes, it is pure hook, with not a single extraneous note. It's noisy and breathless, a pure shot of adrenaline.

No one has embraced the garage-rock aesthetic like White, and no one is as responsible for its embrace in this decade. In a way, "Fell in Love with a Girl" is like a modern rewrite of "Louie, Louie," the apotheosis of irresistibly fun DIY rock. Both songs sound like they were tossed-off in a day, yet they contain the power that eludes the most bloated anthems.

"Fell in Love with a Girl" is as good as rock and roll, and as good as music, gets. Period.

Click here to view the entire list.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2. Bob Dylan "Mississippi" (2001)

It sounds like it took Bob Dylan his entire life to write "Mississippi." I see it as a response to "Like a Rolling Stone," the period at the end of the sentence "Rolling Stone" began. Where "Rolling Stone" condemned an unnamed person for being a worthless vagabond, "Mississippi" turns the scorn inward for staying somewhere for "a day too long." It's a song drenched in regret, yet leavened with a weary optimism unseen in Dylan's music before.

The song marks a turning point for Dylan. Yes, Time Out of Mind is an extraordinary record, but it was a sidestep. With "Mississippi" Dylan established the template for his most recent records, some of his best.

Lyrically, nothing Dylan has written matches "Mississippi." It's as good an argument as any for why he has a real shot at a Nobel in literature. His command of rhyme has reached its peak, as has his verbal eloquence:
Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, Pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need something strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me

Everybody's moving, if they ain't already there
Everybody's got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
Some people throw Dylan a bone and say he's still a great songwriter, but then dismiss him as a performer. That's nonsense. Just listen to Sheryl Crow's version of the song, which Dylan gave to her for the Globe Sessions record before he released it on "Love and Theft". I enjoy Sheryl Crow, but a side-by-side comparison shows why no one can perform a Dylan song like Bob Dylan. Her version is toothless and sterile. It's a small embarrassment compared to Dylan's impeccable performance on "Love and Theft."

It seems like Dylan knew how great "Mississippi" was when he wrote it. He recorded three other versions of the song, which were recently released on his Tell Tale Signs compilation. Each version is approached differently, yet the brilliance of the lyric remains throughout. Whatever the version, "Mississippi" is a huge achievement for an artist whose career is filled with huge achievements.

Click here to view the entire list.

[You can listen to the song on the Lala player below. It requires you get a free subscription to the service.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3. Kelly Clarkson "Since U Been Gone" (2004)

I don’t think I need to convince anyone how improbable it was that an overblown talent show like American Idol (indirectly) begat a song as superb as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” (I know Eurovision begat “Waterloo,” but still.) It is, without question, the best pop song of the decade, a song so good everyone thought it was totally awesome when it came out.

It still is.

While there many reasons to love the song – the crunchy electric guitars, the Wall of Kelly that wails in the chorus, the loud/soft dynamic shift that still thrills – it’s all about the melody, which if slowed down would make a gorgeous ballad. It also helps that Clarkson is eminently likable.

“Since U Been Gone” is, of course, a kiss-off. But there doesn’t seem to be a shred of sadness in the lyric. The song is like an exuberant sigh of relief. I can breathe for the first time.

I used to work at a club, in the DJ booth. I remember how the entire dance floor would jump up and down, arms up high, when “Since U Been Gone” hit its chorus. That reaction has a name: pop bliss.

Click here to view the entire list.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

4. Animal Collective "My Girls" (2009)

I began working on this list right around the time Merriweather Post Pavilion was released. I caved and bought the album after reading the rapturous reviews it was getting. Listening to the record a few times, I was immediately intrigued by its first single, "My Girls." It's a slow-burn song, like the rest of MPP. But as I compiled my list, it worked its way into my mind. I've probably listened to the song a few hundred times now, so I feel comfortable making the next statement. "My Girls" is brilliant. Utterly, utterly brilliant.

A caveat: I am not a fan of avant-garde music. But "My Girls" (or MPP, for that matter) is not avante-garde, no matter what is said of it. It is pop music dismantled and put back together funny. At first it sounds structureless, which is why it invites the avante-garde label and why it is so slow-burn. Actually, its structure is fugal, repeating elements and themes until they bore their way into your ear, never to escape.

"My Girls" is an example of how, in music, the right element played at the right time can cause unadulterated joy in the listener. Here it's a well-timed hand clap, or an exuberant "wooooo," that does the trick. What at first appears to be a cacophony of sound becomes a glorious cacophony of sound.

Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in music nowadays, especially over this list. But "My Girls" is an example of how a band can channel Wilson while pushing his sound into new territory, and in this case, into the cosmos.

Click here to view the entire list.

Happy Birthday, Cultural Minefield!

One year old today.

Monday, November 23, 2009

5. PJ Harvey "This Is Love" (2000)

On the surface, "This Is Love" is Polly Harvey's most unabashedly happy song on an album full of them. Yet Harvey performs it with an almost malevolent ferocity. Even in love, Polly is not short on passion and theatricality.

"This Is Love" begins with one of PJ Harvey's best lyrics:
I can't believe life's so complex, when I just wanna sit here and watch you undress.
It's a remarkable line for an artist who has previously seemed tortured by life's complexity. Harvey goes on to chase her man-prey around a table, her head burning with lust. This is love? It sounds more like raging desire.

The music is as straightforward and accessible as PJ Harvey gets. A charging bass hook gives the song its menacing pounce, while her guitar shimmers with lovely arpeggios. Above it all, Polly roars like a lioness in heat.

It should be noted that "This Is Love" is the second song from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea to make this list. It only goes to show the album's embarrassment of riches, and how high PJ Harvey towers over her peers when she's at her best.

Click here to view the entire list.

Friday, November 20, 2009

6. Loretta Lynn (feat. Jack White) "Portland, Oregon" (2004)

Jack White dedicated the White Stripes' second record, White Blood Cells, to Loretta Lynn. His admiration for Lynn is taken to its logical conclusion on "Portland, Oregon," a song about a septuagenarian cougar and a young buck meeting over sloe gin fizz and getting it on. The song somehow avoids being creepy, despite the extreme age gap of the duettists. In fact, it's the quintessential celebratory one-night-stand song, completely devoid of regret or shame.

Forget Conway Twitty, Jack White has become Lynn's partner in crime and, in her words, her "forever friend". "Portland, Oregon" begins with a meandering Jack White intro, but when the song kicks in, it's clear that Lynn has been reinvigorated by her collaboration with the White Stripe. In fact, White's garage rock aesthetic only heightens the outlaw country of Loretta Lynn.

Loretta Lynn hasn't been this relevant since the late 1970s, and it's not only thanks to Jack White. Her voice is as strong as ever, and she's been making some killer music. Few artists produce such amazing work at such an old age, especially not music this youthful.

Click here to view the entire list.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is Radiohead Overrated?

I've said so before, with regard to Kid A and Amnesiac. I love Radiohead, but this article in Spin makes some good points:
They're the vanguard of music, a post-rock think tank, the absolute state of the art.

They've also been righteous, giving a confused music world a moral center. So we sit, wearing headphones and frozen grins, and continue denying that guilty, nagging feeling that actually, in some ways, when you think about it…Radiohead kinda blow.

Few, save for Liam or Noel Gallagher, dare speak this heresy aloud, instead couching it in longings for a "back-to-basics" album or a "return to form," despite the fact that Radiohead are at their critical and commercial peak. Civil (by Internet standards) discussions reside on Yahoo message boards with titles like "Why Did Radiohead Become Dull and Boring?" But while such almost apologetic criticism typically hides online or at water coolers, sometimes the elephant isn't in the room, but onstage.

At last year's All Points West festival, as their thin, stubbly faces filled massive video screens, Radiohead began their set with In Rainbows' "15 Step": an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they did the 2001 song "Morning Bell/Amnesiac": an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they kept going, one groovy tone poem into another, masterfully weaving beats, sound-washes, and misty vocals into an immersive experience of sound, light, pattern, rhythm, and utter, paralyzing boredom. By the encore, it was obvious what Radiohead had become: an exceptionally well-dressed jam band. That you can't even dance to.


The Wealth of Nations

Daron Acemoglu, channeling Paul Collier, has an excellent primer on development economics in this month's Esquire. A highlight is Acemoglu's comparison of Jeffrey Sachs and Jared Diamond to Montesquieu:
You can chart the search for a theory of inequality to the French political philosopher Montesquieu, who in the mid-eighteenth century came up with a very simple explanation: People in hot places are inherently lazy. Other no less sweeping explanations soon followed: Could it be that Max Weber's Protestant work ethic is the true driver of economic success? Or perhaps the richest countries are those that were former British colonies? Or maybe it's as simple as tracing which nations have the largest populations of European descent? The problem with all of these theories is that while they superficially fit some specific cases, others radically disprove them. [...]

And yet while Sachs and Diamond offer good insight into certain aspects of poverty, they share something in common with Montesquieu and others who followed: They ignore incentives. People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. That's what determines the haves from the have-nots — not geography or weather or technology or disease or ethnicity.

Put simply: Fix incentives and you will fix poverty. And if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments.

Easier said than done, but true nonetheless.