Friday, October 30, 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ayn Ascendant, Again

Ayn Rand, who never really went away, is having a landmark year in 2009. Sales of Atlas Shrugged have surged since the financial crisis. Some members of the Right, few of whom are actually Objectivists, have coined the term "Going Galt," a reference to the hero of the novel, as a shorthand for opposition to the leftward shift the Obama administration is taking the country. A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, long stuck in development hell, seems poised to become a television miniseries. And now, two major biographies of Rand, Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market and Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, have been published in the last three weeks. (See my review of Goddess of the Market here.)

This confluence of events has resulted in a flurry of articles and reviews by major publications like Time, Newsweek, and The New Republic. Burns recently spoke about Rand on The Daily Show (see below). The New York Times alone has devoted two reviews of these bios in a week (one by Janet Maslin, and a forthcoming front-page review in this Sunday's Book Review). Most of the reviews, while praising the quality of the bios, have been highly critical of Rand herself. Most notably, Jonathan Chait's review of the books for TNR was merely a springboard for a sneering diatribe against Rand. (It seemed unclear that he had ever read Rand's, or Burns' and Heller's, books.)

Is this recent resurgence of Rand good news for fans like me? A couple of weeks ago I had a heated discussion on this very topic, with a friend of mine who is also an Objectivist. He argued that the bios, and the media attention surrounding them, only further obfuscate Rand's ideas. He makes a good point. Burns and Heller, who have become admirers of Rand, misconstrue many of her ideas, and play up her tumultuous personal life. The reviews of their books cull them for their negative bits, and largely ignore the praise the authors have for Rand.
[A brief aside on this last point: Earlier today, I attended a discussion on Rand, featuring Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller, at the Cato Institute. Before the start of the talk, the aforementioned NYT Book Review piece was distributed to the audience. One of the review's many incorrect assertions popped out at me (and at a fellow audience member). The reviewer, Adam Kirsch, describes how Rand accepted a 7 cent-per-copy decrease in royalties, to ensure Galt's climatic 60-page philosophical speech in Atlas Shrugged remained completely intact:
That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. [...]

[W]hile Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love for capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.
The final question of the night was about this assertion. The audience member who also took umbrage asked Heller what she thought of it. How could the reviewer misunderstand Rand's ideas so? "Few critics understand Ayn Rand," she replied, to great applause. "It was an investment -- and it paid off." Indeed.]
I think this recent attention, however negatively skewed, is still a very good thing. Rand has been receiving negative reviews since the publication of her first novel. This has never affected her popularity, with some thanks to a few notable champions, but mostly due to popular word of mouth recommendations. But these books bring a serious study of Rand and her ideas, one thing Rand has always lacked. And, I know this will sound like apostasy to my fellow Objectivists, I think their mixed evaluation of Rand actually encourages further academic study. These books could never be described as fawning hagiographies by devotees. Nevertheless, they take Rand -- her ideas, her art, and her impact -- seriously. How can this be seen as a bad thing?

For Objectivism to have a real impact on the culture, it has to studied impartially. Inroads have already been made. But, I don't know how any fan could argue that ignoring Ayn Rand is better than giving her more attention, however mixed that attention is.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Arianna Huffington is Right?

[W]hat we have right now is not actually capitalism -- it's corporatism. It's welfare for the rich. It's the government picking winners and losers. It's Wall Street having their taxpayer-funded cake and eating it too. It's socialized losses and privatized gains.
Yes, yes, and yes.

(Via Hit & Run)

Monday, October 26, 2009

More on *Live at the The Olympia*

Accelerate is, in my opinion, the best R.E.M. album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi (which was also mostly rehearsed live). Listening to Live at The Olympia a few times reveals why. I have seen R.E.M. live a number of times, before and after the performances aggregated on this live record. But never like this. This is the sound of a band with something to prove.

R.E.M. were coming off of their artistic nadir, Around the Sun, an album much maligned as adult contemporary. The album belied the band's power as a live act. Even on the ATS tour, those songs played with a ferocity that sounded neutered and over-produced on the album proper. The band heard the roundly negative criticisms they received and responded in kind with the stripped down Accelerate.

What's striking about Live at The Olympia is that R.E.M.'s classic songs sit so comfortably beside the still-embryonic tunes that would become Accelerate. They are put in a context of R.E.M.'s larger canon, something the band never did with the fussy songs of Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. The problem was not one a lack of tunefulness, but of execution. Just listen to how ATS's "Worst Joke Ever" and Reveal's "I've Been High," excellent songs both, pop like they never did on their recordings.

R.E.M. is currently working on their follow-up to Accelerate. They say they will repeat the live rehearsal format for that album, too. If the success of Live at The Olympia is any indication, R.E.M. have another great album in the making.

Well Put

(HT Radley Balko via 4Chan)

First Listen: R.E.M. *Live at The Olympia*

R.E.M.'s new double live album is a fan's wet dream. It was recorded during their five "live rehearsals" in Dublin in 2007, what Michael Stipe called R.E.M.'s "experiment in terror." Accordingly, it features early versions of almost every song from Accelerate (which is actually a good thing.) While the diehards who attended the shows would have been happy enough with the sneak peek of the new material, R.E.M. went further and culled some of their oft-forgotten tunes from their 25 plus year career, and breathed new life in them.

A handful of the songs here are close to being definitive versions ("New Test Leper", "Maps and Legends", "Electrolite," and a few others). The others come close to rivaling their album counterparts.

There are two previously unreleased tracks that were left off Accelerate, "Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance" and "On the Fly." Both are capable tunes. But who are we kidding? This album is of interest because its the Greatest R.E.M. Setlist Of All Time. Utterly fantastic.

NPR is streaming the entire album here. The actual record comes out tomorrow.

Global Warming PSA: Before and After

Both are funny. Only one is intentionally so.

Via Russ Roberts.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Our Gaping Political Void

More poll results, via RealClearPolitics:

A poll of opinion polls shows Americans' attitudes are changing rapidly.

They are less and less thrilled about the country's direction and Congress, according to Tom Bevan, executive editor of national polling aggregator RealClearPolitics. He says independent voters are shifting away from the polices of the Obama administration and Democrats.

"Independents have flipped negative," warns Bevan. "That's not a good thing for any party."

Democrats continue to pull the country leftward, while Republicans offer nothing but empty anti-Obama rhetoric. Independents seem to be dissatisfied by both.
What does all this portend? Very possibly a Ross Perot moment -- the emergence of someone with serious charts and serious language that angry Americans will see as more authentic than "hope and change."
Possibly, yes. But I think it will merely result in another Republic sweep, but only by default. At this point it seems unlikely that a plurality of Americans will defect from the two major parties. Thus the Republicans, as the opposition party, will enjoy the consequence of voter frustration. For better or for worse.

*A Serious Man* Review

Walking into the theater, I was half-expecting to hate the Coen brothers' latest film, A Serious Man. The film has received some widely mixed reviews, which have ranged from ecstatic to eviscerating. The negative reviews have highlighted the increasing bleakness of the Coens' films. The criticism is undoubtedly true. To use a popular modern idiom, A Serious Man can be described as suffer porn. The film's protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (the incredible Michael Stuhlbarg), a modern Job, is put through the metaphysical ringer, over and over again. And we are left to helplessly watch his life spin out of control.

I don't know what it says about me, but I loved the movie. Mostly because the Coens have honed their skills so well. Despite the utter blackness of this black comedy, it was still very funny. The performances are all fabulous, though the cast is largely comprised of unknowns (the only name I recognized beforehand was Fyvush Finkel).

Fargo remains my all-time favorite movie, and A Serious Man nears its greatness, as did No Country for Old Men. Yes, all three are dark. But they contain a warmth in their lead performances. Frances McDormand, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tommy Lee Jones all save their respective films from falling into an existential void. I don't see the Coen brothers as jaded nihilists, but as merry pranksters who are very, very good at what they do.

With Continued Apologies to Al Gore

A recent Pew poll shows that fewer people believe global warming is a "very serious problem."

According to the poll, 35% of respondents said global warming was a serious problem, down from 44% in April 2008. Even starker is the increase in voters' skepticism: Only 57% said they believe there is solid evidence that earth's average temperature has increased over the past few decades, compared with 71% who said that last year -- a 14-point drop. Also, just 36% said increases in global temperatures are the result of human activity, which was down from 47% last year.
Is this the beginning of a trend, or the regular oscillation of opinion that accompanies any complex issue? This is the second Pew poll to find global warming a low-priority issue among the public at large. A poll taken earlier this year showed that "moral decline" and "lobbyists" were deemed more pernicious than climate change.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Good Sentence

In fact, in the hierarchy of victimhood, young beats old, female beats male, domestic beats foreign, fur beats scales, defenseless beats well-armed, pregnant beats nonpregnant, and kittens beat everything.
From Slate.

Blazing Rhetoric

Obama To Enter Diplomatic Talks With Raging Wildfire

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Triumph of the Bland

Here are some incredible pictures of late-Soviet Era storefronts. This is what anti-consumerism looks like. (HT Hit & Run)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Onward to Corporatism!

From the NYT:
Responding to the growing furor over the paychecks of executives at companies that received billions of dollars in federal bailouts, the Obama administration will order the companies that received the most aid to deeply slash the compensation to their highest paid executives, an official involved in the decision said on Wednesday.

Under the plan, which will be announced in the next few days by the Treasury Department, the seven companies that received the most assistance will have to cut the cash payouts to their 25 best-paid executives by an average of about 90 percent from last year. For many of the executives, the cash they would have received will be replaced by stock that they will be restricted from selling immediately.

And for all executives the total compensation, which includes bonuses, will drop, on average, by about 50 percent.
Update: Alex Tabarrok predicts a brain drain:
There is no way this will work as advertised. If the administration actually follows through, most of these executives will quit and get higher paying jobs elsewhere. Executives not directly affected by the pay cuts will also quit when they see their prospects for future salary gains have been cut. Chaos will be created at these firms as top people leave in droves. Will the administration then order people back to work?
Tabarrok titled his post "Going Galt." As for his final question, "Will the administration then order people back to work?," Atlas Shrugged anticipated the query with Directive 10-289:
"Point One. All workers, wage earners and employees of any kind whatsoever shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment, under penalty of a term in jail."

Obama's Read My Lips Moment

Never forget.

Via Reason.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Media Bias and Leftist Jingoism

Michael C. Moynihan responds to Newsweek's Jacob Weisberg:

Sure, says Weisberg, MSNBC and CNN are attempting to boost ratings by copying the Fox model, but the blame ultimately lies with Murdoch who "provoked his rivals at CNN and MSNBC to develop a variety of populist and ideological takes on the news." So if Rachel Maddow calls Americans for Prosperity's Tim Phillips a "parasite," if Olbermann calls anyone to his right a "fascist," you know who to blame. And it's downright bizarre to claim that, prior to the advent of Fox News, American media had a "tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups."

There are plenty of problems with Weisberg's argument, but, as many others have pointed out, there is something peculiarly disconcerting about liberals, who frequently reminded us that dissent is the "highest form of patriotism," getting in to the un-American, unpatriotic game. I took a quick (and by no means comprehensive) look in Nexis and found the following recent examples of lefty jingoism:

Bill Press, syndicated columnist and former CNN host: "There's only one thing left: to rename the party for what it really stands for. It's no longer the Republican Party; it's the Hate America Party."

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post columnist: "Why, oh why, do conservatives hate America so?...As Republican leaders -- except RNC Chairman Michael Steele -- are beginning to realize, "I'm With the Taliban Against America" is not likely to be a winning slogan."

CNN Headline News host Joy Behar: Guest Richard Belzer: "We see, you know, they`re cheering when we don`t get the Olympics and - and demeaning the Nobel Prize...Joy Behar: Right, which is so un-American.

MSNBC's host Ed Schultz: "This attack on President Obama trying to get the Olympics is about the most un-American thing I think I've ever seen."

Radio host Cynthia Hardy on MSNBC's Hardball: "So [with the case of Rep. Joe Wilson] what you get is this blatant disregard for the office of the presidency, which is extremely un-American."

MSNBC's host Ed Schultz: "Rush must have been popping a few too many pills that particular day. Turning a hopeful message about the resiliency of Americans into a partisan attack. That's un-American 'Psycho Talk,' which is par for the course."

Blogger Steve Clemons, appearing on MSNBC: "Jesse Helms of North Carolina was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. And many of these folks that have come into their own today, particularly in the Bush administration, were essentially tutored by Helms to bring, you know, somewhat of a 'Fortress America' attitude to the comments, which are, I think, quite unpatriotic."

CNN Headline News host Joy Behar: "Now why don`t you figure that this is a little unpatriotic for [Palin] to go to Hong Kong and badmouth the president of the United States? At the very least it's disrespectful."

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, appearing on MSNBC: "But they're trying to delegitimize him in any way they can, be as disrespectful, not just to him but to the office as they can. And to my mind, to be actually, what I would call unpatriotic in their approach."

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann: "How are Democrats, anything but at best -- I`ll use this combination -- irresponsible at worst, unpatriotic for giving that party more say than utterly necessary than what they have already in many amendments of this bill in health care reform."

Monday, October 19, 2009

8. Outkast "Hey Ya!" (2003)

One morning in late-September of 2003, I woke to my television on and tuned to MTV. (I must have been watching Real World/Road Rules Challenge the night before, the only reason to watch MTV at the time.) I turned over and saw Outkast's Andre 3000 in eight incarnations, joyfully paying homage to the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I listened in my semi-stupor, and as I turned over to fall back asleep I thought, God, I love this song. Only later did I realize I had never heard it before.

Such is the brilliance of "Hey Ya!," a song whose instant likability belies a remarkable level of complexity and virtuosity. The song has been so ubiquitous, that its novelty is easily taken for granted. Its meter unexpectedly shifts between 4/4 and 2/4, giving it an odd, syncopated beat. The tempo, a brisk 160 BPM, never feels rushed, thanks to its bass line. Andre's vocal spans a range of over an octave and a half, from its half-spoken verse to its giddy height at the chorus. Its lyric is responsible for adding idioms like "shake it like a Polaroid picture" into the vernacular. All told, no small feat for one single.

It's no secret that "Hey Ya!" was solely the work of Andre 3000, with no input from his Outkast collaborator Big Boi (who concurrently released the competent, but no way comparable, single, "The Way You Move"). Andre has admitted rock music inspired "Hey Ya!." No surprise. The song is stripped of any vestige of hip hop, and is closer to the funk-inspired rock of Prince, than Outkast's previous (however eclectic) style.

Repetition may have diminished its immediacy, but "Hey Ya!" remains a mini-masterpiece, and the defining instant classic of the decade.

Click here to view the entire list.

Is Media Bias Un-American?

CNN and MSNBC are leftist mouthpieces, and Fox News is scripted by Karl Rove. Let's assume this statement is true, just for a moment. Would it matter? As long as people know a channel's biases (much like how people know the WSJ slants right, the NYT left), what is the problem? Yet, pundits on both sides continue to work themselves into a froth arguing that one of the above news channels has whatever political bias. From Newsweek:

That Rupert Murdoch may tilt the news rightward more for commercial than ideological reasons is beside the point. What matters is the way that Fox's model has invaded the bloodstream of the American media. By showing that ideologically distorted news can drive ratings, Ailes has provoked his rivals at CNN and MSNBC to develop a variety of populist and ideological takes on the news. In this way, Fox hasn't just corrupted its own coverage. Its example has made all of cable news unpleasant and unreliable.

What's most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its century-old tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in many other countries that do have a free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has applied at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he's doing as he does it. For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, "fair and balanced" is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media's role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes fair play. But it's a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.
Who really believes Fox News is "fair and balanced," or that CNN or MSNBC is, for that matter? They're all biased, which means the prudent person follows one simple dictum: viewer beware. Get your information from multiple sources. It takes effort, yes. But expecting someone to feed you the truth without any effort on your part is more Un-American than Fox News and CNN combined.

Friday, October 16, 2009

9. Rihanna "Umbrella" (2007)

Rihanna is a 21-year-old Barbadian Pop Dynamo. She is responsible for three incredible pop songs this decade: "Don't Stop the Music," "SOS," and "Umbrella." It was damn-near impossible to choose just one, so consider this post an umbrella recognition of her best singles. (Har.)

"Umbrella" is the crown jewel of the songwriting/production duo Terius Nash and Christopher Stewart. Their augties output includes mega-singles like Britney Spears' insipid "Me Against the Music" and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Britney's management inexplicably rejected "Umbrella" (as did Mary J. Blige's), and it eventually landed on Rihanna's lap. Yada yada yada, the song became a monumental success (and even spawned a line of Isotoner umbrellas).

Ella ella, eh eh eh: an instant hook, and as simple as they get. Add a dark synthesizer, and a seductive beat, and you get a near-perfect paean to devotion. Sure, the rain metaphor is anodyne. But who cares?

Rihanna is no Beyoncé or Britney, at least not yet. But, given her impeccable ear for good material, she may yet dominate the list of the best songs of next decade. Considering her record thus far, I think it's a safe bet.

Click here for the entire list.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Whole Foods, Revisited

What happened to the Whole Foods boycott? Reason was at a DC location to shoot some illuminating footage of clueless protesters. Watch the entire video to catch a priceless exchange.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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

"Hope There's Someone" is a profoundly sad song. Maybe the saddest.

It's not only about being alone, not only about being without love, but something much more primal: not having someone to hold onto at night. Antony taps into the deepest of fears, of being alone at the time of death.

"Hope There's Someone" is the opening track of Antony and the Johnsons' excellent second record, I Am a Bird Now, a loose concept album about gender identity. On it, Antony sings about being stuck between two worlds, male and female, a state that makes the enormous difficulty of finding love that much harder.

The song manages to be wrenching, without being sentimental or melodramatic. Antony Hegarty's voice, whose upper-register is chilling, is naked in its yearning. The melancholy is almost suffocating. Come the song's coda, where Antony howls over a pounding ostinato piano, the pall doesn't lift, but is actually intensified.

"Hope There's Someone" is not an easy song to listen to. But it's a gorgeous lullaby for the lonely, a lovely torch song for the most fundamental of human fears.

Click here to view the entire list.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

11. Gorillaz "DARE" (2005)

There's no escaping the lure of "DARE." It is the perfect sum of its parts: dazzling synthesizer, infectious beat, Shaun Ryder's Mancunian charm, Rosie Wilson's lovely chorus, the sighing beauty of its background vocals. It's the highlight of any dancefloor weird enough to succumb to it.

Who would have guessed that the decade's best dance song would be recorded by a rock band? Or, to be more precise, by a virtual rock band? (Imagine the Archies on acid and cocaine.)

Gorillaz is the brainchild of Damian Albarn of Blur, and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett. Officially a collaborative effort of many artists, Gorillaz is first and foremost the repository for Albarn's more outré tendencies. Still, his music is always firmly grounded in pop. Singles like "Clint Eastwood," "Feel Good Inc," and "Dirty Harry" are all driven by their memorable hooks.

"DARE" is their best song because, though it too has hooks to spare, it makes you want to shake your rump. And really, isn't that the very definition of a great song?

Click here to view the entire list.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

*Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right* Review

To this day, Ayn Rand elicits many strong reactions, few of which are evenhanded. Her fans (I count myself as one) adore her; her enemies dismiss her, at best, or savage her, at worst. While there are exceptions that prove the rule, most who know enough to have an opinion come down on either side. Ayn Rand remains the polarizing intellectual figure of the last half-century.

Her ideas have been canonized, co-opted, obfuscated, openly misunderstood, and caricatured by friends and foes alike. Biographies of Rand have either been hagiographies or outright smear-pieces. Only in the last fifteen years have serious, though marginal, academic publications begun to study Rand's ideas. But now two major biographies, Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, have arrived to set the intellectual record straight and reassess Ayn Rand as serious thinker, free from the shackles of her admirers and detractors.

(I have only read Burns' work, since Heller's has not yet been released. A review of that book will follow.)

I'm happy to report that Goddess of the Market is an excellent intellectual biography of Ayn Rand. Burns briskly retells Rand's life, from her childhood in Soviet Russia, to her early adult life in Hollywood, her rise as a novelist and philosopher, and her place within "libertarian" thought today. (Rand never aligned herself with the libertarian movement. In fact, she referred to them as "hippies of the right." Still, the libertarian movement largely credits Rand as one of its founders.)

Burns spent eight years researching the book, and had unprecedented access to the Ayn Rand Archives (which Heller did not). And it shows. While she has an unfortunate penchant for taking Rand's ideas out of context, she still exhibits a impressive understanding of Objectivist thought. However, concerning Rand's personal life (which I think has little bearing on the validity of her philosophy), Burns sides with Rand's detractors more often than not, without explanation. This is the book's greatest flaw, especially since it is the first to have access to such a wide breadth of primary sources.

The highlight of Goddess of the Market is its description of Rand's middle-years, the time between the writing of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. This era found Rand a burgeoning political activist (first for Wendell Willkie, and later for Barry Goldwater), who was interacting with libertarian luminaries like Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Here Burns shows how they aided Rand in defining her philosophy, either by providing the perspective that Rand lacked (Paterson and Mises), or by providing touchstones for disagreement (Hayek and Friedman).

The latter half of the book focuses on Rand's post-Atlas Shrugged life, with emphasis on her doomed (professional and personal) relationship with Nathanial Branden. While this story has been told before, of particular interest is Burns' description of Rand's increasing influence on the ideas of the political right, which was both welcomed and harshly rejected. Her most important opponent was William F. Buckley, whose National Review provided the most scathing criticisms of Rand, more so than anyone on the Left. (Rand's current vogue among conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck is tenuous and superficial; they largely focus on a narrow understanding of some of her political philosophy, and simply ignore the bulk of her ideas, which are at odds with theirs.)

Though Rand's blithe disregard for her enemies fueled their vitriol, her ideas were sure to inflame both sides of the political spectrum on their own. She not only advocated capitalism, but bluntly stated that it was the only moral political system, something even the Right was hesitant to do. She was also an outspoken atheist, who abhorred the Right's increasing religiosity (this was the source of Buckley's dislike). And both sides bristled at Rand's idea that altruism is evil and selfishness is good.

To the chagrin of literary critics, college professors, and political commentators, Rand remains immensely popular. Her fame has only increased since her death in 1982. Indeed, her continued relevance could be described as populist, at least in the cultural sense. Her novels continue to thrive on word of mouth recommendations, an amazing feat for books that are at least 50 years old.

Rand's critics focus on her negativity, which was undoubtedly robust. She loathed most of modern culture, and at times was pessimistic about the future. But they miss what her fans embrace about Rand: her celebration of the individual, her fierce advocacy of freedom, her belief that the rational human mind is man's greatest asset.

Burns' book doesn't seek to bridge the differences between Ayn Rand's fans and enemies. Instead, it provides an intelligent assessment of her place within 20th century thought. Something she has been denied, until now.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

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

If Brian Wilson had been reared in Appalachia, instead of Southern California, he might have written a song like "White Winter Hymnal." Fleet Foxes, who are actually from Seattle, share Wilson's ear for harmony, and have created a song that matches the virtuosity of his best compositions. But, where Beach Boys songs are as sunny as their locale, "White Winter Hymnal" is wistful and pastoral.

Fleet Foxes have described their music as "baroque harmonic pop jams," a description so remarkably apt that it shows how defined their musical identity is. "White Winter Hymnal" is a perfect example of this paradigm: its sound is lush; its vocal harmonies are sparkling; its melody is complex, yet gorgeous; its structure is loose, though not meandering.

The innocence and nostalgia of "White Winter Hymnal" is part of a welcome trend in modern music that has become an antidote to the jaded persona that defined the rock music of the nineties. Yes, dirty rock 'n roll has its place. But only the clean beauty of a song like "White Winter Hymnal" can lift the soul.

Click here to view the entire list.

Friday, October 9, 2009

No Accolade Left Behind

via Reason.

Well Put

Slate's John Dickerson on Obama's Nobel win:
The committee of five Norwegians has a more relaxed standard than Saturday Night Live, which recently poked fun at Obama for his lack of accomplishments, and Arizona State University, which declined to award him an honorary degree because of his inexperience.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Hate Crime" is Thought Crime

Today the House voted to expand the definition of "hate crime" to include a victim's "gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability." The NYT reports:

Democrats and advocates hailed the 281-to-146 vote, which put the measure on the brink of becoming law, as the culmination of a long push to curb violent expressions of bias like the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student.

“Left unchecked, crimes of this kind threaten to ruin the very fabric of America,” said Representative Susan Davis, Democrat of California.
What would this legislation accomplish? The article quotes Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat,
“The hate-crimes act will hopefully deter people from being targeted for violent attacks because of the color of their skin or their religion, their disability, their gender, or their sexual orientation, regardless of where the crime takes place,” he said.
The idea is, the current punishment for crimes like the heinous murder of Matthew Shepard is an insufficient deterrent. We must punish the motive, as well as the act. Supporters were quick to offer the following caveat:
[T]he bill specifically bars prosecution based on an individual’s expression of “racial, religious, political or other beliefs.” It also states that nothing in the measure should be “construed to diminish any rights under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.” [Emphasis mine.]
What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? What is the mainspring of attacks motivated by "the color of [the victim's] skin or their religion, their disability, their gender, or their sexual orientation," if not a criminal's "racial, religious, political or other beliefs"? Are we really just penalizing pure, non-ideological, animal hatred?

The point is, every action is somehow motivated by a belief, by a value judgment. Even when the action is not premeditated, implicit premises motivate an action. Otherwise our choices and actions would be completely random, motivated by nothing but whim. (It could be argued that even actions based on whim have premises at their root, however emotionalistic. A truly unmotivated action would be the result of the purely probabilistic flip of the coin. Yet the decision to cede a decision to probability, is still a decision based on belief.)

Thus, punishing a criminal for their motivation is tantamount to thought crime. Otherwise, it would be impossible to prosecute someone for a "hate crime." The animals who slaughtered Matthew Shepard were motivated by hatred. But that hatred had a root, be it religion, prejudice, whatever. It is impossible to untangle the source of this hatred and punish it, without punishing the ideas that caused the hatred.

Once the door is open to punish the criminal's motive, it is a short road to codifying "political crimes," as well. I personally think the leftist-anarchists who destroy private property, in the name of anti-capitalism, are motivated by pernicious ideals. Should we also punish their motives, on top of their crimes? Do these crimes not "threaten to ruin the very fabric of America?"

Hatred is an emotion, a response to an individual's values. Ultimately, the punishment of "hatred" is the punishment of values and the ideas that define them. Crimes ought to be punished, because they are crimes, i.e., because they infringe on the rights of an individual. The motive of the crime is only important in establishing guilt. Otherwise, we are punishing ideas, however wrong and unpopular. That is the very definition of thought crime.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

13. Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" (2006)

Gnarls Barkley, a collaboration between producer Danger Mouse and singer/rapper Cee-Lo Green, originally thought to title their debut record Who Cares?, which referred to the reception they expected the album would garner. Their pessimism was spectacularly off the mark. (Much like Led Zeppelin, whose name refers to the fact they thought their first album would sink like a lead balloon.) The album, retitled St. Elsewhere, was a critical and commercial success. Its first single, "Crazy" became the inescapable summer hit of 2006.

The genius of "Crazy" begins and ends with Cee-Lo's marvelous vocal. It's a song that demands a sing-along, with a vocal that ensures utter failure. Cee-Lo's instrument, which seems to effortlessly climb octaves like rungs on a ladder, is damn-near impossible to mimic (at least with an average man's vocal chords). His vocal virtuosity gives the song a delirious sound to match the delirium of its subject matter.

Not to play down Danger Mouse's virtues. He's a brilliant producer who can seamlessly blend sounds to create something novel, best evidenced by his mash-up of the Beatle's White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album, the appropriately-titled Grey Album. With "Crazy," he deftly samples the spaghetti western sound of Ennio Morricone, which gives the song a cinematic quality. (Indeed, the duo defined their image with the movies. Whenever they performed live, they dressed in film-character-inspired costumes, from Back to the Future to Star Wars.)

Cheerfully odd, yet infinitely accessible, "Crazy" remains the decade's Good-Time Song, par excellence.

Click here to view the entire list.

More on Calorie Labeling

Megan McArdle responds to the NY calorie labeling study:
There was never any very good evidence that labelling was going to work. Most of the arguments in support seemed to rely either on self reported data, or a gut check by a handful of already pretty slender bloggers--they were sure they'd pay attention to the calorie counts, and so why wouldn't everyone else? But personal hypotheticals are at best weak evidence, and self-report is even worse. This study found that a significant minority of people reported changing their behavior as a result of the calorie information, and ordering a lower-calorie meal. But when you looked at what they actually ordered, it was no less fattening than either logitudinal or latitudinal controls.

I can think of a number of reasons for this. People may have mentally credited themselves with a savings on one item, and allowed themselves an indulgence in another: "I orderd a single instead of a double or triple, so I get large fries and a frosty!" They might just be bad at math. Or they might have wanted to look good for the interviewer, which is always a risk in these sorts of surveys. But the receipts don't lie.

There are a bunch of caveats: the study focused on poor people in fast food restaurants (on the grounds that these are the people we most want to reach.) It happened when the calorie labeling was very new, and people may have needed time to get adjusted, learning how to read the calorie counts, and remembering to do it. Public health studies of this sort are notoriously shaky, just because it's basically impossible to do a good double-blind controlled study.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


That's the most common Hotmail password, according to Wired:

A researcher who examined 10,000 Hotmail, MSN and passwords that were recently exposed online has published an analysis of the list and found that “123456″ was the most commonly used password, appearing 64 times.

Forty-two percent of the passwords used lowercase letters from “a to z”; only 6 percent mixed alpha-numeric and other characters.

Many of the top 20 passwords used were Spanish names, such as Alejandra and Alberto, suggesting that the victims were in Spanish-speaking communities. Nearly 2,000 of the passwords were only six characters long. The longest password was 30 characters — lafaroleratropezoooooooooooooo.

Nanny State FAIL

The NYT reports:
A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains.

The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
This doesn't surprise me. I think posted calorie counts only help people who are already health conscious. Yes, studies show that most people underestimate the calorie content of the food they eat, but who really thinks a Big Mac is health food? No one. If you want a Big Mac, knowing it actually contains 540 calories, not the 300 calories you might have thought it contained, probably won't keep you from ordering it. If you've decided to order it, you have accepted the fact that it's not very good for you.

The assumption here is that overweight people are overweight because they don't realize how many calories they ingest. I disagree. I think someone who eats unhealthily knows it, even if he can't quote the exact number of calories he ingests daily. These people at least implicitly accept the trade-off between eating what they want and having a flabby body.

Calorie posting probably helps health-conscious people reduce calories, at least on the margin. If you already watch your caloric intake, the shock that a Dunkin' Donuts bagel sandwich contains 700 calories might make you substitute it. That said, even a health-conscious person committed to splurge on dessert will not be deterred by calorie content.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Say What?

Michael Moore on CNN, after being asked what economic system he advocates:
Well, I don't think that this is -- I don't think that exists yet.

I think that we're -- we're talking about usually two ideologies, capitalism and socialism. One's a 16th century idea. One's a 19th century idea. We're in the 21st century. Can't we come up with our own system that meets the needs of this new era and has democracy at its core? (Emphasis mine)
Moore's idea of a 21st century system was conceived by Ancient Greeks in the 5th century BC. And he dislikes capitalism and socialism (right) because they're too old?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Health-Care Cost Reduction, R.I.P.

While Congressional leaders say they want to curb the explosive growth of health costs, it is unclear whether the final bill will make a serious effort to do so. Every proposal meets resistance from health care providers who fear a loss of income, even as they stand to gain millions of paying customers if nearly everyone has insurance.
From the NYT.

Friday, October 2, 2009

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

Rufus Wainwright was on the brink of an Amy Winehouse-style meltdown, even before Poses established him as a critically-acclaimed, but popularly ignored, artist. He was already known for drunken live performances (a bottle of red wine usually rested on top of his grand piano). Stories of Wainwright's debauch antics at New York City gay bars, while possibly apocryphal, are famous among scenesters. Wainwright, himself, has described a particular instance of drug use that left him blind for three days. With the help of Elton John (how's that for a celebrity intervention?), he entered rehab, and there began to write what would become his magnum opus, the double-album Want.

Wainwright has admitted that his slide into alcoholism and drug use was exacerbated by the disappointment of never breaking into the mainstream. Poses, his most accessible record by far, didn't bring the level fame he hoped for. (He's described its most radio-friendly single, "California," as a Bee Gees song minus the popularity.) Perhaps rehab gave him the confidence to follow his instincts. Even Want's catchiest tunes would never be played on mainstream radio (though you can often catch them in Starbucks stores).

On its surface, "Oh What a World," Want's opener, doesn't seem to be an exceptionally personal song. But knowing Rufus' state of mind when he wrote the song illuminates it a bit. It captures his disillusionment with having fame, without being really famous ("Why am I always on a plane or a fast train?"). Wainwright comes from a great musical stock: his father, mother, and aunt are well-known folk singers. "Oh what a world my parents gave me," he sings, almost ambivalent to the amount of success he's achieved.

Rufus Wainwright is a love-him-or-hate-him artist. While his pedigree is folk-pop, his intuition is with classical music and opera. His voice is typically a nonstarter for detractors. His penchant for the baroque and the over-the-top doesn't help him, either. I accept that this is a matter of taste; there is no arguing with that. At the least, you have to applaud Wainwright's audacity. While many artists have looked back to the eighties to cull hooks, for "Oh What a World," Wainwright reached back to the twenties, and covered Maurice Ravel's masterpiece, Boléro.

"Oh What a World" follows Ravel's outline: it builds upon itself, by adding more and more musical voices (including Rufus' own, solo and in the form of a Gregorian choir) that recapitulate the composer's famous theme. Instead of Boléro's snare drum, a tuba provides the ostinato rhythm that provides the song's base. It marches on, a steady crescendo that breaks free in the flourish of its climax.

Wainwright, always the Romantic (in style and in temperament), seeks a world where life is declared "beautiful" on the cover of the New York Times. This obsession with the beautiful is, in my opinion, Wainwright's greatest virtue as an artist. His detractors may disagree. But this, at least, is not a matter of taste. It's a matter of worldview.

Click here to view the entire list.

[Note: The accompanying video is a 2004 performance of the song, which I had the great privilege of seeing live at the Filmore West in San Francisco. There is no official video of the song to embed on this blog. All of my musings refer to the album version of the song.]

15. Amy Winehouse "Rehab" (2007)

Amy Winehouse's repeated public meltdowns have now been amply covered by the mainstream media and tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic. Her shenanigans have almost overshadowed the fact that, unlike other tabloid creatures, she has a great talent. Her signature song, "Rehab," captures this tension between her art and her defiant self-destruction.

Amy Winehouse openly embraces the early sixties girl-group aesthetic. She clearly idolizes Ronnie Spector, even down (or up?) to her hairdo. But she, with the help of her producer Mark Ronson, reimagines the music in a modern context. Lesser acts, like the Pipettes, only ape the girl-group ethos; Winehouse makes it matter again.

Even without the context of her personal life, "Rehab" would still be troubling song. Its message is unambiguous: Winehouse thumbs her nose at critics who think she has a problem. I've seen a number of joyful barroom singalongs of "Rehab," with drinks held high. Even the television show Glee had teenagers cover the song, with accompanying choreography, to boot.

Of course, in the latter case, the homage being paid was to the song's infectious melody. And that's where the tension lies. It's such a good song, that by liking it, Winehouse makes us all her enablers. By cheering the music, we inadvertently cheer the message, too. It's a dirty trick, but a sly one, nonetheless.

Click here to view the entire list.

Pro-Market, Anti-Business?

Arnold Kling makes an excellent point. He argues that you can't confuse pro-business with pro-market, or anti-business with anti-market. He offers this matrix to explain (I've filled in the cells):

The Obama Administration is clearly anti-market/pro-business. As Kling notes,
The [Obama] wonks do not trust markets at all, and they think they can do a better job of regulating them. But they are more than willing to keep big business interests happy.
We've already seen this in regard to health care.

Further, being pro-business usually means using the government to give special privileges to some businesses. Thus many businesses are also anti-market/pro-business (since the market creates the incessant gale of competition, to paraphrase Schumpeter.)

Republicans tend to fall into the pro-market/pro-business category -- they seemingly trust markets, but still favor handouts for some businesses.

The anti/anti category describes Michael Moore and his ilk.

Which leaves pro-market/anti-business, which is where I would fall. Remember, here anti-business means being against "special privileges" for businesses, what is usually called "corporate welfare."

Us Versus Them, Redux

Courtesy of Reason.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

16. Beyonce "Crazy in Love" (2003)

In his book, Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman writes about what it was like hearing "Crazy in Love" way back in 2003, when it was still Beyonce's new single:
There is a new song on Top 40 radio right now that's so good I want to kill myself. I'm not sure why exceptionally good hip-hop singles make me want to commit suicide, but they often do. I don't know what the title of the song is, but it's that religious woman with the perfect stomach from Destiny's Child and Jay-Z doing a duet featuring a horn riff from the '70s that I've never heard before (but that sounds completely familiar), and the chorus is something along the lines of, "Your love is driving me crazy right now/ I'm kind of hoping you'll page me right now." It's also possible that Jay-Z compares himself to Golden State Warriors guard Nick Van Exel during the last verse, but I can't be positive.

ANYWAY, by the time you read this sentence, the song I am referring to will be ten thousand years old. You will have heard it approximately 15,000 times, and you might hate it, and I might hate it, too. But right now -- today -- I am living for this song. As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing that matters as much as hearing it on the radio; I am interested in nothing beyond Beyonce Knowles's voice. All I do is scan the FM dial for hours at a time, trying to find it.
"Crazy in Love" was probably the third song that sprung to my mind when I began compiling this list at the beginning of the year. I, like Klosterman, was obsessed with the song when it first came out. The fanfare of the Chi-Lites horn sample made me want to jump up and down in place, while badly singing along with Ms. Knowles.

Even when in Destiny's Child, Beyonce was always the de facto soloist, while the ever-rotating members of the group were just her back-up singers. But "Crazy in Love" was Beyonce's first proper solo single, and it needed to establish her as singular entity, apart from the fame she gained with Destiny's Child. By being a critical and commercial blockbuster, "Crazy in Love" did one better and established Beyonce as the female performer of the 2000s.

Unfortunately, it hasn't aged so well for me. But that's largely due to its ubiquity. I don't doubt that in a few years, after we've been apart for a while, "Crazy in Love" will make me jump around like an idiot, again.

Click here to view the entire list.

17. The Arcade Fire "Intervention" (2007)

I like to think of Arcade Fire as a band that makes overblown anthems for people who are too cool to like U2. The band, at full touring capacity, resembles a small army. Their live shows have been described as a church-like experience, both for the band's vigor and for the fervor of their fans.

From its goosebump-inducing opening organ chord, to the swelling intensity that explodes in the song's climax, "Intervention" is magnificent. My iTunes says I've listened to the song hundreds of times, yet it remains as rousing playing on my speakers now as it did the first time I heard it.

While its lyrics are purposely oblique, the theme of "Intervention" is a condemnation of the Iraq war, or more to be more precise, the quasi-religious motive for intervention:
Working for the church
While your family dies
You take what they give you
And you keep it inside
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone"

I can taste the fear
Gonna lift me up and take me out of here
Don't wanna fight, don't wanna die
Just wanna hear you cry

Who's gonna throw the very first stone?
Oh! Who's gonna reset the bone?
Walking with your head in a sling
Wanna hear the soldier sing
Many bands wrote songs about Iraq, but their songs were focused on scorn for George Bush. "Intervention," instead, presents the war as an operatic tragedy.

Click here to view the entire list.