January 2007 Notebook


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Executive Power: L'Etat, C'est Moi

The following appeared in the Wichita Eagle today, written by Robert Pear of the New York Times:

President Bush has signed a directive that gives the White Houe much greaer control over the rules and policy statements that the government develops to protect public health, safety, the environment, civil rights and privacy.

In an executive order published last week in the Federal Register, Bush said that each agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president's priorities.

This strengthens the hand of the White House in shaping rules that have, in the past, often been generated by civil servants and scientific experts. It suggests that the administration still has ways to exert its power after the takeover of Congress by the Democrats.

This is news only in its naked assertion that the president has the power to direct every facet of the federal government for his own political benefit. Bush has frequently claimed extraordinary unprecedented executive power over security matters in his guise of commander in chief -- most recently in his imperious rejection of all objections to his "new way forward" in Iraq. In describing himself as "the decision maker" he presumes the right to dictate policy free of law, constitutional checks and balances, popular opinion, or even the courtesy of acknowledging our heritage. In extending these same claims to the entire federal government, he recalls the dictators and absolute monarchs of the past: Louis XIV of France expressed this most plainly: l'etat, c'est moi -- usually translated "I am the state," but more literally, "the state, that's me."

The old news is that Bush has been working on this for six years now. The most important underreported story of the period is the rout of the federal civil service that the administration has accomplished, either by directly purge or by making working conditions impossible for anyone with a conscience and a sense of professional responsibility. TomDispatch has run several lists of names (parts 1, 2, 3), but that just scratches the surface. Another facet to the purge is the privatization of government functions, which allows them to be used as patronage plums. The "faith-based initiatives" and the "reconstruction of Iraq" are among the better-known examples of Bush cronyism. Most of this has been oriented toward keeping Bush's corporate sponsors satisfied, but recent reports show the administration working to get rid of inconvenient prosecutors, such as the one who put Duke Cunningham in jail.

Bush has done most of this under cover of war, with effective control of Congress and an embarrassingly complaisant media, so one question now is why did he "decide" to rub it in. It's almost like he's daring Congress to impeach him.

John Edwards: Slouching Toward Armageddon

John Edwards made a campaign stop -- via satellite, I gather -- in Herzliya recently, where he rededicated himself to sucking up to Israel's anti-Iran warmongers. His comments are frightening and stupefying. For example:

Iran threatens the security of Israel and the entire world. Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons. For years, the US hasn't done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran. As my country sayed on the sidelines, these problems got worse. To a large extent, the US abdicated its responsibility to the Europeans. This was a mistake. The Iranian president's statements such as his description of the Holocaust as a myth and his goals to wipe Israel off the map indicate that Iran is serious about its threats.

Once Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the Middle East will go nuclear, making Israel's neighborhood much more volatile.

Iran must know that the world won't back down. The recent UN resolution ordering Iran to halt the enrichment of uranium was not enough. We need meaningful political and economic sanctions. We have muddled along for far too long. To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table. Let me reiterate -- ALL options must remain on the table.

The war in Lebanon had Iranian fingerprints all over it. I was in Israel in June, and I took a helicopter trip over the Lebanese border. I saw the Hezbollah rockets, and the havoc wreaked by the extremism on Israel's border. Hezbollah is an instrument of the Iranian government, and Iranian rockets allowed Hezbollah to attack and wage war against Israel.

I cannot talk about the war last summer without referring to the Syrian role in destabilizing area. Syria needs to be held accountable. Syria has recently called for peace talks with Israel. Talk is cheap. . . .

While Iran is the greatest threat now, but just as alarming is the one on your doorstep. Hamas, with Iranian support, doesn't make any mistake of its intentions to wipe out Israel, and repeatedly makes calls to raise the banner of Allah over all of Israel. Israel made many concessions. Many settlers gave up there land in order to advance peace. . . .

We should be finding ways to upgrade Israel's relationship with NATO. This could even some day mean membership. NATO's mission now goes far beyond just Europe. Therefore, it is only natural that NATO seeks to include Israel.

It's hard to know how serious Edwards is about all this. He's been plainly critical of Bush's Iraq misadventure, and he's admitted his own mistake in voting for the use of force authorization that Bush took as license to invade. On the other hand, it's not clear that he's learned anything from his mistakes. In particular, he hasn't learned the need to couch his words to give him the wiggle room he would need as president to maneuver in a region where the US faces declining power and increasing risk. The only way the US can regain any measure of respect is to bring Israel, kicking and screaming if need be, to peace and justice. Edwards' utter lack of concern with just those issues all but disqualifies him from the task.

On the other hand, it's worth noting that Edwards' website has nothing, at least on the home page, on the Herzliyah comments, or for that matter on Israel or Iran. That suggests he doesn't see those issues as central to his campaign -- the lead piece is on the minimum wage. That also suggests another level of shallowness. Edwards, quite famously, is a lawyer. He put a good speech together in the 2004 campaign and rode it to the #2 spot on the Democratic ticket, but once he got there he lost it. Instead of adding some badly needed populism, he simply became Kerry's mouthpiece -- a task so thankless he couldn't even hold his own vs. Cheney. His willingness to say whatever the situation suggests may make for a successful lawyer, but it also makes him look and sound like an empty shell. America doesn't need a lawyer (although Bush and his mob do). America needs a statesman, which leaves folks like Edwards out.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Music: Current count 12828 [12795] rated (+33), 845 [858] unrated (-13). Spent the week on Recycled Goods, starting with the jazz backlog to keep from falling flat there. Way over my limit at this point, but still on the recycled trail.

  • Stella Chiweshe: Double Check (1987-2005 [2006], Piranha, 2CD): Mbira is the traditional thumb piano, and more generally a term for the music of the Shona in Zimbabwe. Chiweshe emerged in '80s as a local and international star -- in Zimbabwe known as Ambuya Chinyakare (Grandmother of Traditional Music), but pop enough for the rest of us. At least that much is clear from the second disc here, a retrospective Classic Hits. The first disc is new, or new recordings of old songs that offer a minimalist, perhaps irreducible core of folk mbira. She calls it Trance Hits, suggesting that the music has powers to heal as well as soothe and move. That may not be pop enough for the world. Why else bundle it with a hits package that blows it away? One answer is the subtitle: Two Sides of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen. B+(***)
  • Joe Farrell with Art Pepper: Darn That Dream (1982 [1994], Drive): The three opening cuts with Pepper warm up magnificently, even when the tenor saxophonist is the one in the lead. Five cuts without Pepper are less exceptional. B+
  • Giorgio Gaslini: Gaslini Plays Monk (1981, Soul Note): Solo. The Monk pieces are well known, but far from obvious. Some evidence that the piano was prepared, although mostly Gaslini colors outside the lines, often to impressive effect. B+
  • Johnny Griffin Sextet (1958 [1994], Riverside OJC): Griffin for once doesn't race away from the other horns -- Donald Byrd's trumpet and Pepper Adams' baritone sax -- or for that matter the superb rhythm section, mostly because everyone else is of a mind to keep up, and has the chops to do so. A-
  • The Hilliard Ensemble: Nicolas Gombert: Missa Media Vita in Morte Sumus (2002 [2006], ECM): Medieval choral music, composed by Gombert (c. 1495-1560), performed by a well-known group I sort of like when Jan Garbarek plays over them. Laura likes this quite a bit. I find it grows tedious over the long haul, and that the haul is indeed long. B
  • Steve Lacy Quartet: Revenue (1993 [1995], Soul Note): With Steve Potts on alto sax or second soprano, Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass, John Betsch on drums. All Lacy originals. Has a nice unhinged flavor to it. B+
  • Oliver Lake Quintet: Expandable Language (1984 [1985], Black Saint): Lake's alto sax makes a big impression, but his soprano and flute less so. Fred Hopkins and Pheeroan akLaff anchor the rhythm section superbly; Geri Allen and Kevin Eubanks fill out the quintet, making spot contributions but not much of a plus. B+
  • Joe Lovano Wind Ensemble: Worlds (1989 [1995], Evidence): Actually, Lovano is the only reedist here, playing soprano sax and alto clarinet as well as tenor sax. He's joined by two brass -- Tim Hagans on trumpet, Gary Valente on trombone -- the only other wind being Judi Silvano's voice. Strikes me as a rather scattered experiment, with the vocal stuff the least appealing. B
  • Joe Lovano: Universal Language (1992 [1993], Blue Note): Same basic setup as the Wind Ensemble, minus the trombone and guitar, but with Tim Hagans on trumpet and Judi Silvano's vocal gyrations, and with more fooling around from Lovano -- alto sax, wood flute, gongs, percussion. Best when he keeps it simplest, which means tenor sax and rhythm, with or without Hagans' blips and blurs. B
  • Wes Montgomery: Full House (1962 [1987], Riverside OJC): Subtitle: "Recorded 'live' at Tsubo -- Berkeley, California." Group includes Wynton Kelly and Johnny Griffin, who both have good upbeat spots. Montgomery himself is most effective in a couple of intimate spots. As is so often the case with his records, he seems close to making a breakthrough, then gets distracted by something else. B+
  • Putumayo Presents: A New Groove (2003-06 [2007], Putumayo Grooves): Laptop-based trip-hop, minus the doom and gloom, from the far-flung corners of the first world, if not directly the second or third; neither well-defined nor exotic enough to need a primer, which is fine -- the cosmpolitan obscurities are winning in their own right. B+(***)
  • Putumayo Presents: Blues Around the World (1965-2005 [2006], Putumayo World Music): B-
  • Putumayo Presents: One World, Many Cultures (1998-2006 [2006], Putumayo World Music): Each song pairs artists from two or more countries for discreet multiculturalism, but for most this is just business as usual; the high point is a Toots Hibbert-Willie Nelson duet; the low point is Alan Stivell's Celtic harp wiping out Youssou N'Dour; in between you get such uninspired pairings as Cheb Mami with Ziggy Marley. B
  • Putumayo Presents: Radio Latino (2001-06 [2006], Putumayo World Music): Concept: "some of our favorite songs that have been heard on Latin music radio stations from Miami to Montevideo, Bogotá to Barcelona"; caveat: "as well as a few songs by rising stars who we're sure will be heard on the airwaves in years to come"; makes me wonder what the Spanish for payola is. B
  • Frankie Lee Sims: Walking With Frankie (1960 [2006], AIM): Born in New Orleans, but he spent most of his life in Texas, and sounds as deeply engrained with his adopted state's postwar electric juke joint blues as T-Bone Walker, Lil' Son Jackson, or his famous cousin, Lightnin' Hopkins; a rough, noisy recording, probably the point. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #12, Part 10)

I should be further along than I am, but I spent this past week on Recycled Goods, including a few recycled jazz releases, which make up the bulk of what I have to report here. Will keep working in that vein for a few more days, but the new jazz is piling up alarmingly. Don't know when I'll turn the corner. This has been a difficult month on almost every front -- including blogging, which hasn't been so sparse since my last long road trip, couple of years ago (hard to even remember which year at this point).

Note: The Riverside Profiles series continues Concord's sacking of Fantasy's catalog, picking out five artists who worked for Riverside Records. Previous Profiles have appeared for Prestige, Stax, and Specialty. Two of these five previously appeared in a pre-Concord The Best Of series (Thelonious Monk and Chet Baker) but unlike the Prestige Profiles, the compilations are different this time: mostly shorter, around 60 minutes vs. 80. That's not such a bad thing, given that this sort of thing is really only useful for people who don't know or much care about the original albums. The other thing to note is that the sets all come with the same even-more-useless label sampler, adding cuts by Bobby Timmons, Charlie Byrd, and Art Blakey to the big five. I mention it under Monk, but ignore the "bonus disc" otherwise, not even describing these as 2-CD sets.

Thelonious Monk: Riverside Profiles (1955-59 [2006], Riverside): From Brilliant Corners to Town Hall, Monk's Riversides were his growth period, in many cases taking early songs and finding new ways of orchestrating them -- most notably aided by saxophonists named Hawkins, Coltrane, Rollins, Griffin, and Rouse. Ten cuts from ten albums, most deserving to be heard at far greater length. Come with a generic Riverside bonus disc, including "Bemsha Swing" -- which I would have preferred here to the solo pieces, or the Ellington. A-

Cannonball Adderley: Riverside Profiles (1958-62 [2006], Riverside): A useful, typically breezy selection of cuts from a series of uneventful albums, distinguished by the warm tone and ingratiating dynamics of the leader's alto sax. Also by guests like Milt Jackson, and songs like "This Here" and "Work Song" by band members -- the latter by brother Nat, who often stands out. B+(**)

Chet Baker: Riverside Profiles (1958-59 [2006], Riverside): A narrow slice of Baker's discography, transitional between his important Pacific Jazz 1952-57 recordings, where is made his name as a cool trumpeter and wan vocalist, and his long exile in Europe -- one cut here stands him up against "fifty Italian strings," and another features a pick-up band in Milan. Only two easy-going vocals, lots of lovely trumpet. I like this mix better than Riverside's previous The Best of Chet Baker, which shares five songs. A-

Bill Evans: Riverside Profiles (1958-63 [2006], Riverside): Like Thelonious Monk, Evans did his major work for Riverside, his Complete Riverside Recordings amassing 12 discs, just shy of Monk's 15. Monk was by far the more radical player, which in retrospect makes him much easier to grasp. He had a knack for putting notes in wrong places, arguing his case obstreperously, eventually winning. Evans, on the other hand, seemed to always work within the lines, finding right notes no one could doubt. So while I recommend going straight to the original albums for Monk, this survey strikes me as a useful primer. The first eight cuts are trios, so they flow evenly even though Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian -- already the sneakiest drummer in jazz -- stand out. The last two cuts are a group with Freddie Hubbard and Jim Hall and a solo piece -- a good one-two punch to close this out. A

Wes Montgomery: Riverside Profiles (1959-63 [2006], Riverside): His soft metallic tone, intricate lines, and irrepressible groove made him the premier jazz guitarist of his times and immensely influential ever since. His Complete Riverside Recordings box totals 12 discs at the peak of a shortened career -- he died in 1968 at age 43 -- so this should be prime, but it's also rather spotty, with organ grinds and strings, and others frequently stealing the spotlight. B+(***)

Kenny Dorham: Trompeta Toccata (1964 [2006], Blue Note): A hard bop trumpeter very fond of Latin rhythms, something he explored in 1955's Afro-Cuban (Blue Note) and returned to frequently, including this his last album; Joe Henderson is a tower of strength on tenor sax, and Tootie Heath's cymbals suffice for the clave. B+(*)

Lee Morgan: The Cooker (1957 [2006], Blue Note): Relatively early, in fact still in his teens, but Morgan's trumpet sound is loud and clear, contrasting brilliantly with Pepper Adams' baritone sax, with a young Bobby Timmons on piano. B+(**)

Freddie Hubbard: Here to Stay (1962 [2006], Blue Note): The younger generation of hard boppers hard at work, with Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman, with Philly Joe Jones the only over-30, offering a sleekly modern take, even of standard fare like "Body and Soul." Cut between Impulse albums at a time when it seemed he could do no wrong, this sat on the shelf until 1976. B+(***)

Johnny Griffin: The Congregation (1957 [2006], Blue Note): A bebop tenor saxophonist given to heavy blowing sessions, this quartet layers his big bold sound over Sonny Clark's free-flowing piano, a simple formula that pays off handsomely. A-

Bobby Hutcherson: Happenings (1966 [2006], Blue Note): A quartet matching the leader's vibes with Herbie Hancock's piano, the latter taking the lead on a pair of lovely slow pieces, while the vibes run off with the fast ones; Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" gets an especially sensitive reading. A-

Jackie McLean: Demon's Dance (1967 [2006], Blue Note): The last of McLean's Blue Notes is a bright, breezy, bop quintet with newcomers Woody Shaw and Jack DeJohnette standing out -- the sort of quickie he made routinely a decade earlier at Prestige, but with his mastery all the more evident. B+(***)

Ike Quebec: It Might As Well Be Spring (1961 [2006], Blue Note): Great name, but a spotty career, cutting r&b 78s for Blue Note and Savoy in the late '40s, then reappearing from 1958-62, specializing in soul jazz 45s, before dying of lung cancer in 1963, age 44. All along he may have been more notable as Blue Note's a&r guy, recruiting Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, and many more. He played on Monk's early "genius" recordings, sounding confused. But by 1960 he developed a rich, lustrous tone to his tenor sax, and his blues and ballads bring out the joyous warmth of the instrument. This quartet with Freddie Roach on organ and Milt Hinton on bass has two originals that go down easy, but it's the well-worn standards that shine: "Lover Man," "Ol' Man River," "Willow Weep for Me," and the title track. A-

Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie: Stratus (1981 [2006], Inak): Fusion group, with electric keyboards, bass and guitar. Mike Stern plays the latter, but the tone that really dominates is Michal Urbaniak's violin -- electric too, natch. B

The Vandermark 5: Free Jazz Classics Vols. 3 & 4 (2003-04 [2006], Atavistic, 2CD): All the maybes at the end of Ken Vandermark's liner notes might make you think he's giving up on this series of explorations into the free jazz tradition, which would be a shame. Originally released as bonus discs in early runs of four Vandermark 5 albums from Acoustic Machine to Elements of Style, Vols. 1 & 2 (2000-01 [2002], Atavistic, 2CD) essayed pioneer pieces from Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry to Joe McPhee and Julius Hemphill, while Vols. 3 & 4 focus on two saxophonist-composers not of the movement but so creative they couldn't help but parallel it: Sonny Rollins and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The recognizable themes give you a more accessible framework than usual -- with free jazz every clue helps -- but in the end the band makes all the difference. With two great saxophonists and a trombonist who loves to get down and dirty, they can spin on a dime, punch the chords up, or blow them apart. A

Corbett Vs. Dempsey: Eye & Ear (1943-2004 [2006], Atavistic): Corbett vs. Dempsey is actually an art gallery in Chicago, named for principals Jon Corbett and Jim Dempsey. The record is Corbett's arrangement of old jazz, avant jazz, and divers sound effects for a show dubbed "Artist <-> Musician." The soundtrack was originally released for sale at the show, and has been picked up by Atavistic -- Corbett produces their invaluable Unheard Music Series. Interesting scholarship, as always, but it's less clear what we're listening to, let alone why. Pee Wee Russell and Dave Coleman are old meant to sound older; Sun Ra offers a pathetic little vocal; Han Bennink adds silence as much as divers percussion; Hal Rommel's random noise tape weaves and dazes, as advertised. B

Once again, no final grades/notes on records put back for further listening. Looks like about three dozen of them on the shelf in front of me.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Crunchy Cons

I've been working on compiling a list of recent political books, and ran across this little item. Someone named Rod Dreher has a book called Crunchy Cons (Crown) which champions a species of conservative that is out-of-goosestep with the political right these days. Dreher includes "A Crunchy Con Manifesto":

  1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.
  2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.
  3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.
  4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.
  5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship-especially of the natural world-is not fundamentally conservative.
  6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.
  7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.
  8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.
  9. We share Russell Kirk's conviction that "the institution most essential to conserve is the family."

Actually, at least some new lefties managed to see common ground and complementary perspectives in both right-identified (libertarian) and left-identified (communitarian) anarchists -- the Murray Rothbards and Murray Bookchins, if you will. I can't say as I ever had the least bit of interest in Russell Kirk, but aside from that there's not much obviously wrong with this manifesto. The big realization in #3 starts you off on a critique of power itself. The idea that there's anything outside of politics and economics puts you somewhere beyond Marx and Smith and all the other dismal scientists. I'm still not inclined to use words like "authentic truth" and "beauty" because they still strike me as overly arbitrary and often prejudicial, but I've come to respect conventional standards much more than I used to. So these Crunchy Cons seem like decent folks. A little weird, but hey, we don't all hatch from the same eggs.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tim Flannery: The Weather Makers

I was a skeptic on global warming for a long time. It's not so much that I doubted the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as that I figured both the carbon cycle and the translation of greenhouse gases into actual weather were much more complex than the models presumed. That skepticism wasn't exactly ill-founded, but ultimately washed out in the noise. My other great doubt, about what the actual impacts (and plural is necessary here) of the climat changes (again plural) will be is still very much in play, but that some people (and many other species) will get hurt bad seems certain.

The book that brought these lessons home for me was Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, although it certainly helped that I read it during an uncomfortable trip to Florida in August. I figured it was time for an update, so I picked up Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (2006, Atlantic Monthly Press). I figured I had already read most of the other new book, Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change in The New Yorker, and could get the condensed version of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in movie form.

I didn't bother marking any quotes in the front of the book, probably because a lot of it rehearses well known information. First quote I marked summed up a long series of events (p. 140):

In terms of extreme weather events, it's worth recording that the United States already has the most varied weather of any country on Earth, with more intense and damaging tornadoes, flash floods, intense thunderstorms, hurricanes, and blizzards than anywhere else. With the intensity of such events projected to increase as our planet warms, in purely human terms the United States would seem to have more to lose from climate change than any other large nation. Indeed, its ever spiraling insurance bill resulting from severe weather events and its growing water shortrages in the west mean that the United States is already paying dearly for its CO2 emissions.

(p. 169):

In other words, it's too late to avoid changing our world, but we still have time, if good policy is implemented, to avoid disaster. Good policy, in Mastrandrea and Schneider's model, means a carbon tax of $200 per ton, implemented by 2050, which is sufficient to reduce the probability of dangerous climate change to zero.

(p. 177):

There is, surprisingly, one group of species that will benefit enormously from this aspect of climate change. These are the parasites that cause the four strains of malaria. As rainfall increases, the mosquitoes that carry the parasite will spread, the malarial season will lengthen, and the disease will proliferate. From Mexico City to Papua New Guinea's Mt. Hagen, the mountain valleys of the world support human populations in high densities. And they are healthy, glorious places in which disease, where population density is not too great, is rare. Just below these communities -- in the case of New Guinea at around 4,500 feet -- are great forests where no one lives. This is because of malaria, which is so prevalent in parts of the tropics that it controls human populations. In the new future, global warming will grant access to the malarial parasite and its vector the Anopheles mosquito to those high mountain valleys, and there they will find tens of thousands of people without any resistance to the disease.

(p. 208):

English environmental politician Aubrey Meyer pointed out how this matter is being discussed at the highest levels. Economists who participated in the IPCC discussions stated that doing anything seroius about climate change was too expensive to be worthwhile, leading in Meyer's view to "the effective murder of members of the world's poorer populations," whose lives by the economists' estimates were worth only a fifteenth of that of a rich person. I agree with Meyer that adaptation of this sort is genocide, and attempted Gaia-cide, as well.

(p. 234):

Economist Eban Goodstein has undertaken a detailed analysis of past projections of regulatory costs as they relate to a variety of industries. Goodstein demonstrated that in every case, when compared with the actual costs paid, the estimates were grossly inflated. His examples range from asbestos to vinyl, and in all instances but one the estimated cost flowing from regulatory change was at least double the actual cost paid, while in some cases estimates were even more exaggerated. This inflation of estimated costs holds regardless of whether industry itself or an independent assessor did the work, which suggests a systematic source of error.

Goodstein argues the reason for this discrepancy is that economists find it difficult to anticipate the innovative ways in which industry goes about complying with new regulations. In some isntances they dump the old processes altogether and adopt new, cost-effective ones, while in others they radically transform their entire business. The projections, in contrast, assume a business-as-usual approach that must absorb the burden of costs. Goodstein's analysis of projected versus actual costs for environmental cleanups provides another interesting outcome. In his study these tasks were almost always underestimated -- in some instances grossly so -- which leads one to wonder if the economists who calculate the estimates are ignorant of matters of the environment or, more nefariously, have an anti-environment bias.

(p. 235):

The National Climatic Data Center lists seventeen weather events that occurred betwen 1998 and 2002, which cost over a billion dollars apiece. They include droughts, floods, fire seasons, tropical storms, hailstorms, tornadoes, heat waves, ice storms, and hurricanes; the most expensive, at a cost of $10 billion, was the drought of 2002. This suggests that the costs of doing nothing about climate change are so large that the failure to calculate it bankrupts the argument.

Over the last four decades the insurance industry has been reeling under the burden of losses as a result of natural disasters, of which the impact of the 1998 El Niño offers a fine example. Paul Epstein of the Harvard Medical School calculated that, in the first eleven months of that year alone, weather-related losses totaled $89 billion, while 32,000 people died and 300 million were made homeless. This was more than the total losses experienced in the entire decade of the 1980s.

Sine the 1970s, insurance losses have risen at an annual rate of around 10 percent, reaching $100 billion by 1999. Losses at this scale threaten the very fabric of our economic system, for an annual increase in the damages bill of 10 percent means that the total bill doubles every seven or eight years. Such a rate of increase implies that by 2065 or soon thereafter, the damage bill resulting from climate change may equal the total value of everything that humanity produced in the course of a year.

Of course, the other factor that pushes the insurance issues to the top is the sheer amount of development. If humans were scarce and mobile, as they were in the stone age, most could adjust, moving on to more hospitable climes. But settlement locks us down, and the expropriation of so many of nature's niches makes us vulnerable to damage to each and every one. Insurance is also an issue because it seems likely that private risk insurance will not survive -- more and more the costs of disasters are being dumped onto government, and despite the usual anti-entitlement warnings of the right most people the need for government to settle accounts. On the other hand, in the US at least we live in a political system that favors private interests over public, and that is to a large extent dominated by private-interest lobbyists. It is, for instance, much easier for the coal industry to establish a lobbying presence in support of a limited but easily quantifiable set of economic goals than for those affected by burning coal -- victims of environmental and climate damage, pretty much everyone, but with a much weaker individual motivation.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Simple Man

Tom Engelhart writes about Bush:

The essential doctrine of faith that ties all the disparate foreign-policy acts of this administration together is the belief that to every global problem, to every difficult situation, there is but a single striking and uniform response -- not the application of democracy, but the application of force.

In its pursuit of force as a faith, the Bush administration has managed to lower the bar on all applications of force by any state (just as it has raised the value of a nuclear arsenal and so, despite its threats of war, lowered the bar on the proliferation of those weapons). This is but a small part of the price a regime of force must pay when force is such an inadequate instrument in our world. The single most striking aspect of Bush foreign policy is that, over and over, it is revealed to be a quiver with but a single arrow in it. If things are going well, you reach back, take that arrow of force, or the threat of it, and notch it into your bow. If things are going badly, you do the same. For an administration so focused on the domination of planetary resources, its officials have, in fact, proven themselves remarkably resourceless.

I'm reminded here of the story Ron Susskind told of how Bush's belief in how force clarifies things guided his approach to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Such a single-minded devotion to the power of violence is actually rather anomalous among Americans today. Among individuals it strikes many of us as downright neurotic, and when pursued to the exclusion of all other approaches as it fails on every level, criminal even. Yet through a bizarre series of circumstances this neurosis has been elevated to national policy.

I'm reading a book by Ira Chernus now, Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, which tracks the neocon will to war back to a primal fear of sin. There's a danger this line of reasoning will bring back the Reichian notion that finds the roots of violence in sexual dysfunction. Long ago I developed an intense dislike for psychological explanations of human behavior. It's a sad state of affairs when such behavior can be explained so simplistically. But then no one ever doubted that Bush was a simple man. They just couldn't comprehend it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Music: Current count 12795 [12769] rated (+26), 858 [842] unrated (+16). Spent most of the week doing initial jazz prospecting, which often doesn't lead to a lot of rated records -- not sure whether I'm more cautious or more indecisive, but many records deserve further hearing, especially if I am to write something meaningful about them. On the other hand, I make quick work of the stuff I get out of the Wichita Public Library, which fills out most of what follows.

  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Alternative Express (1989, DIW): Typical squeakiness, perhaps more compelling than most. B+(***)
  • Borah Bergman: A New Frontier (1983, Soul Note): Solo piano, avant-garde, a lot of tinkling and abstract construction, which makes a surprising amount of sense. One of the best such albums I've heard. A-
  • Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006, Anti): Nothing country-ish here, so I guess her past association with Bloodshot has finally worn off. No big surprise -- her New Pornographers gig wrung the Virginia out of her voice long ago, while leaving her with a passel of songs that don't register much one way or the other here. B
  • Norah Jones: Come Away With Me (2002, Blue Note): An attractive singer-songwriter, with a debut album that doesn't seem like much at first, but gains on you, and in any case is so unassuming it's impossible to dislike. It turned into a huge hit, rolling its small virtues into an implacable force. I've come to it real late, and can't spend much time. It's not impossible it would gain on me as well. B+
  • Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet: Duper Sessions (2006, Astralwerks): Mostly originals, although the inclusion of tracks like "Night and Day" point this back to the standards era. Don't know his other work, nor how this fits in. B+(*)
  • Brad Mehldau: Places (2000, Warner Bros.): Inauspicious, I would say, that the tray photo shows the trio -- Larry Grenadier on bass, Jorge Rossy on drums -- taking a leak together. Still, this seems expert enough, although I haven't spent enough time with it to refine the grade down to the star level. Early on Mehldau elicited quite a bit of interest, but almost everything he's done since is trio, and those things run together in my mind. B+
  • Panic! at the Disco: A Fever You Can't Sweat Out (2005, Decaydance/Fueled by Ramen): Emo group, panicking at the thought of being asked to dance. C-
  • Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental (2006, Rhino): It's getting to where their albums are more of the same with less to make them stand out, although "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" and "I'm With Stupid" and maybe others hold up pretty well. B+(**)
  • Scritti Politti: White Bread Black Beer (2006, Nonesuch/Rough Trade): First album in seven years, only the second in 18. Glenn Gartside hasn't exactly been hoarding great songs either. B
  • Sufjan Stevens: Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003, Asthmatic Kitty): The first of what promises to be 50 state-themed albums, starting sensibly with his own home state. He followed it up with Illinois two years later, but two subsequent releases -- a set of outtakes and a box of Christmas songs -- strayed off the master plan. He has a unique pop genius. For instance, "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti" is built around a plaintive bit of folk banjo, but adds choral voices for a hyman sound, and English horn for resonance. Stevens' contributions are listed as: oboe, English horn, piano, electric ogan, electric piano, banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, recorders, wood flute and likeminded whistles, drum kit, various percussion, shakers, sleigh bells, tambourine, dramatic cymbol swells, singing, rhetoric." Normally this kind of kitchen sink arranging turns me off. This is something else. A-

Jazz Prospecting (CG #12, Part 9)

Spent most of the week quickly running through new new stuff -- no replays this week, although I expect to shift toward them in the next week. Also starting to take a look at advances, which I don't much like either on principle or in practice. Some of the advances are just like the final product except for the usual punch holes and scratched UPC codes, so the only problem there is that I don't know whether to wait until the record becomes available or go ahead and review it when I get to it. What I've decided to do there is to go ahead, but at the end of the review I'll note the street date if it's still in the future. Some labels like Zoho manage to provide these well in advance. The other group bear little or no relation to the final product. I've started to flag those as "[promo]" in the credits at the top. In some cases, like Blue Note, these are honest advance copies, with real packages to follow. In others, like Palmetto, they are cheap replicas, the only shot I get at listening to the record. Other labels fall in between. I didn't realize until recently that I have half-a-dozen ECM promos piled up, some old by now -- they used to follow up with finished copies, and I was just waiting for them. Since I came up with this scheme in the middle of the week, I'm not sure I've applied it in all cases below.

Wayne Wallace: Dedication (2006, Patois): San Francisco trombonist, born 1952, teaches, mostly plays Latin, although some of this is in a straighter jazz vein. Actually, he provides a thumbnail breakdown: jazz (4), latin (2), ballad (1), tone poem (1, a Coltrane piece Wallace doesn't play on; it's done with Asian flutes), bossa nova (1), afro/jazz (1). The groups run large, often with trumpet, two trombones (Jeff Cressman is the other), flute, three saxes, bass, piano, drums, congas, timbales, and/or other percussion. I find all this layered complexity often just cancels itself out, although I do enjoy the trombone when I can make it out. B

Wayne Wallace: The Reckless Search for Beauty (2006 [2007], Patois): This one works better, probably because it hews more consistently to the latin groove, with its undercurrent of percolating percussion and choppy blasts of brass. The one break is Ellington's "Chromatic Love Affair," described as a bolero, but basically one of his dreamy suite things rendered gorgeously. The other big difference here is the presence of Alexa Weber-Morales' vocals. She's credited with leads on six tracks -- most memorably on Bill Withers' "Use Me." [B+(***)]

Nanny Assis: Double Rainbow (2006, Blue Toucan): Brazilian percussionist from Bahia; sings a couple of originals, a range of soft sambas and such like -- one from Carlhinos Brown is described as "Brazilian rap," but you could have fooled me -- and one piece by Seal. The cover and most of the booklet photos feature him with guitar, but the credits only list him once on acoustic guitar. Hard for me to pin down whatever it is that may separate this from the norm. B

Hendrik Meurkens: New York Samba Jazz Quintet (2005 [2007], Zoho): Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1957; moved to the US in 1977, first to Berklee in Boston, then on to New York. He plays Brazilian music with the single-minded devotion of a native. His instruments are vibes and harmonica. Over time the ratio has shifted in favor of harmonica, at least two-to-one here. I've never cared much for his work in the past, but this is a sharp group -- "New York" is an intenstifying adjective, putting a charge into samba that is often lacking -- and his leads stand out on both instruments. His harmonica is especially revelatory. The instrument's range, tone, and sweep is such that it's curious how few jazz musicians have taken it up -- Toots Thielemans has pretty much had the field to himself, but he's hardly been an obscurity, winning "miscellaneous instrument" polls with absurd ease. Records like this should open some ears. B+(**)

Pablo Aslan: Buenos Aires Tango Standards (2006 [2007], Zoho): Argentine bassist, lives in New York, but recorded this in Buenos Aires. Group is a quintet, unknown to me, presumably all Argentine: Gustavo Bergalli on trumpet, Jorge Retamoza on tenor and baritone sax, Abel Rogantini on piano, Daniel Piazzolla on drums (Astor's grandson). The songs are putative tango classics, but the jazz instrumentation, especially the absence of bandoneon, shifts them out of their natural element. The main effect is to exaggerate the choppiness of the music. Very interesting stuff. Aslan has a previous album called Avantango. This makes me even more curious about it. [B+(***)] [Feb 13]

Scott Colley: Architect of the Silent Moment (2005 [2007], Cam Jazz): A bassist working in New York. I hadn't noticed him until he won a Downbeat TDWR, then quickly discovered him damn near everywhere: AMG credits him with 139 albums since 1986, although the hype sheet just claims 80. This is his 7th as a leader. I've played it several times, but still don't much get what's going on -- a common problem I have with the cutting edge of the not-so-avant-garde. I could quote David Ake's liner notes on the importance of the recorded jazz tradition, but there's a shortage of info on the music. Don't know which guests play on which tracks, although Gregoire Maret's harmonica is obvious, and the others shouldn't be too hard to pick out -- the only instrument intersect is piano with Craig Taborn and Jason Moran, and how hard can that be? What I do like, quite a bit, is Ralph Alessi's trumpet. The rest is more work, possibly rewarding. [B+(**)] [Jan 30]

Charles Tolliver Big Band: With Love (2006 [2007], Blue Note/Mosaic): I reckon that Tolliver's reemergence is a dividend of Andrew Hill's accession to living legend status, given the trumpeter's prominence on Hill records old and new. Tolliver appeared on numerous avant-leaning Blue Note recordings in the late '60s, but his own work was limited to his own very limited Strata East label -- The Ringer (1969) is a personal favorite, but it's about the only one I know. (I haven't heard the recent 3-CD Mosaic Select box, which picks up live tracks from 1970 and 1973.) Tolliver's discography shows little after 1975, at least until he reappeared on Hill's Time Lines. Unfortunately, his new record is a loud and brassy big band thang. I don't much care for it: the high energy parts don't move me even when they're bruising, the solos lack finesse, and there's no groove to hang things on. It will be interesting to see how this is received. B

Torben Waldorff Quartet: Brilliance: Live at 55 Bar NYC (2006, ArtistShare): Guitarist, born in Denmark although his home turf seems to lap over into Sweden. Two previous albums with Danish/Swedish groups, unheard by me. The guitarist does a nice enough job here, but the main interest will be McCaslin, who throttles back from his usual overwhelming performance and carries the album anyway, always seeming to be in the right place at the right time. B+(***)

Peter Primamore: Grancia (2006 [2007], Blue Apples Music): Pianist from New Jersey, probably in his 40s, first record, background includes: Neil Young tribute band on Jersey shore, a gamelan ensemble at Cornell, lounge piano in Atlantic City. AMG classified this as easy listening. On listening to it, I shuttled it off to my new age file. In fairness, he does rock a bit, on a piece called "Free Western." This is composed and neatly layered instrumental music -- mostly strings (including Chieli Minucci's guitars, a quartet, and harp), soft reeds (clarinets, flutes, oboe), percussion -- with no jazz feel. Often pleasant, at times lovely. B-

Steve Herberman Trio: Action:Reaction (2006, Reach Music): DC-based guitarist, plays 7-string. Second album, with Drew Gress on bass, Mark Ferber on drums. PR comes with laudatory quotes from Gene Bertoncini, Jimmy Bruno, and Jim Hall. The trio setting does a nice job of setting up the guitar, offering a clean, clear exposition. Will keep this open -- for now he doesn't particularly remind me of anyone else, including his fans. Good rhythm section. [B+(**)]

Brad Shepik Trio: Places You Go (2005-06 [2007], Songlines): Guitarist-led organ trio, with Gary Versace on the B-3 and Tom Rainey on drums. As such, the group leans more avant and more exotic than most such, but inevitably the organ takes center stage, which brings out its limited range but deep well of church and funk. The result is awkward and rather unsatisfying, although it's hard to pin this on the guitar or drums, or for that matter even the tastefully restrained organ. B [Feb 13]

John Pisano's Guitar Night (1997-2006 [2007], Mel Bay, 2CD): Guitar Night is every Tuesday at Spazio's in Sherman Oaks CA -- at least that's where all the recordings from 2001 on come from. Pisano hosts one or more guest guitarists, usually with a revolving set of bassists and drummers. Pisano's first Guitar Night was in 1997 at Papashon, with George Van Eps and Herb Ellis early guests. Picking 16 cuts from a decade, Guitar Night features 12 guitarists plus Pisano on roughly half of the cuts. Pisano's own credits include work with Chico Hamilton in 1956-58 and a current duo with vocalist-wife Jeanne dba the Flying Pisanos. I'm not familiar with most of the guitarists here -- Peter Bernstein, Joe Diorio, and Larry Koonse are the exceptions, aside from Ellis and Van Eps -- and they sort of flow together. A good thing, I'd say, a delight for anyone into the intricate inner workings of postbop jazz guitar. B+(*)

The Stryker/Slagle Band: Latest Outlook (2006 [2007], Zoho): Steve Slagle strikes me as the model of what a good postbop alto saxophonist should sound like, which among more postive traits admits that he lacks the individuality of Braxton, Coleman, Konitz, or McLean. He sounds terrific here, even though he doesn't do anything unexpected. Dave Stryker is a similarly virtuous, not to say virtuosic, guitarist. Separately or together they recorded a long string of first rate records for Steeplechase, of which the best are together, and this is another. Joe Lovano, who like Slagle came up in Woody Herman's band, drops in for two cuts. His harmony adds a bit, and his solo a bit more. B+(***) [Mar 13]

The Four Bags: Live at Barbès (2006, NCM East): Quartet. Second album. Very unusual instrumentation: trombone (Brian Drye), accordion (Jacob Garchik), electric guitar (Sean Moran), soprano sax/clarinet/bass clarinet (Michael McGinnis). I recalled Garchik as playing trombone, as on his pretty good debut album Abstracts (2005, Yestereve), and that's how his website identifies him. Originals by all four. Covers include one from Arnold Schoenberg, who also gets rather belated thanks. Given the instruments and influences, it's not surprising that this comes off choppy, rhythmically unhinged. Very interesting sound. Could wear on you after a while. We'll see. [B+(**)]

Exploding Star Orchestra: We Are All From Somewhere Else (2006 [2007], Thrill Jockey): This is cornetist Rob Mazurek, better known as the cornerstone of Chicago Underground Duo, Trio, and Quartet. This, his big Sun Ra move, could have been attributed to the Chicago Underground Big Band. Two multi-part pieces called "Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time" and "Cosmic Tones for Sleep Walking Lovers" and a one-part interlude called "Black Sun." Starts out in fine orbit before it cracks up a bit, then wanders off into a cloud of microscopic space dust. Eventually the cosmic tones start to emerge -- something else I guess we can blame on flutes. Not unlike the man from Saturn, the best parts sound fabulous; not so sure about the rest. [B+(**)]

Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle: Battery Milk (2006 [2007], Hyena): Plays vibes and percussion in a bunch of more/less related bands, including Critters Buggin, Garage A Trois, the Malachy Papers, Billy Goat, Hairy Apes BMX, and the Dead Kenny Gs, as well as side credits with MC 900 Ft Jesus, Brave Combo, Pigface, Karl Denson, Les Claypool, and Sex Mob. There must be some kind of genre label for this sort of thing, but experimental rock doesn't convey how pop it is, and fusion leaves one wondering what sources it's trying to put together. A couple of raps, an Aaron Neville soul ballad, various groove pieces, cultural critique ("Stupid Americans"), and one for Bush ("Bad Man"). B+(**) [Jan 30]

The Leonisa Ardizzone Quartet: Afraid of the Heights (2006 [2007], Ardijenn Music): She has an M.Ed. in Science Education, an Ed.D. in International Educational Development with a "doctoral concentration . . . in Peace Education," and a day job as Executive Director of Salvadori Center, which "introduces children to the beauty, wonder and logic of architecture and engineering as a way of helping them to master mathematics, science, arts and the humanities." She also moonlights as a jazz singer, in a duo with guitarist Chris Jennings, here augmented with bass and drums. Standards-oriented, but not ready for cabaret: starts with a scat on "Anthropology," adds new words to "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," adds a yarn to "Autumn Leaves," deftly navigates one by Jobim, offers a couple of songs by group members, winds up with a wispy "You Go to My Head." Like her voice, phrasing, and wit. The band is never intrusive and the guitar is a plus when I notice it. LP length, short and sweet. B+(***)

Fay Victor Ensemble: Cartwheels Through the Cosmos (2006 [2007], ArtistShare): Distracting trying to write about Leonisa Ardizzone while listening to this: both are jazz singers backed by guitar-bass-drums trios, and both move beyond the norm, but that's where the similarities end. Ardizzone is a novice with an unknown band working off the standards. Victor and Ensemble are something else. She has one of those deep voices that so impress jazz writers, closer to Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln than Sarah Vaughan. That's not my idea of a plus -- I'm not a big fan of any of them, even when I can recognize what wows everyone else -- but it stands her apart from most vocalists, and she makes it work -- if not with Vaughan's precision, at least with a good deal of Carter's daring. Her songs go even further off the beaten path, with elaborate phrasing wrapped around convoluted melodies -- not something I'm inclined to like, but her band set them up impressively. Bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Michael TA Thompson are dependable avant players. I'm not familiar with the guitarist, but I've been playing guitar albums all week, and Anders Nilsson's the first one I want to hear more from. Complex, ambitious record. [A-]

Melissa Stylianou: Sliding Down (2006, Festival): Canadian jazz singer, based in Brooklyn. Third album, although this one is listed as Canada-only. Makes nice work of a couple of old standards ("Them There Eyes," "All of You") and offers a refreshing take on the Beatles' "Blackbird." The early going benefits from light latin percussion, but she doesn't hold our interest when she slows down, and the originals don't give her a lot to work with. B

Tony DeSare: Last First Kiss (2006 [2007], Telarc): It may not be fair to treat him as another Sinatra wannabe. He plays piano some, although he gives way to Tedd Firth on five cuts here, and he writes a bit, including the title cut. He's especially adept at going soft, as on an "How Deep Is the Ocean?" reduced to the barest simmer, or his own delicate "Lover's Lullaby." He takes two rock pieces -- Prince's "Kiss" and Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move"; I thought about saying contemporary but on average they're older than he is -- and pares them down to his niche, but he's more comfortable with the old stuff. Bucky Pizzarelli plays guitar. Five cuts have horns, including an underused but invaluable Harry Allen. Two albums down, he's my favorite of the wannabes -- except for Diana Krall, who already is. B+(***) [Jan 23]

Kendra Shank: A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook (2005 [2007], Challenge): Jazz singer, fourth album, plays guitar elsewhere but not here. Not sure what the relationship to Abbey Lincoln is, other than mutual admiration, but she does 11 Lincoln songs here. Lincoln may be my least favorite female jazz singer ever, so I'm not at all sure where to start here. Maybe that the music has a distinctly modern jazz flair to it, and that Shank's relatively moderate voice -- that is, compared to Lincoln's; it's still arch compared to most cabaret singers, but that may be a function of the music -- never trips up or grates. I should give this more time, but after three plays I doubt that will be cost-effective. I should give Lincoln another chance at some point, which this makes me dread a bit less. Gary Giddins wrote the liner notes. B+(*) [Feb 13]

Steve Kuhn Trio: Live at Birdland (2006 [2007], Blue Note [promo]): Piano trio with Ron Carter and Al Foster. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, skipping from Fats Waller to a Debussy-Strayhorn medley to Charlie Parker, and on for 75 minutes. Don't have much to say about it, least of all anything negative. [B+(***)] [Feb 20]

Tia Fuller: Healing Space (2006 [2007], Mack Avenue [promo]): From Colorado, plays alto sax and flute, has a group with three other women: pianist Miki Hayana, bassist Miriam Sullivan, drummer Kim Thompson. One previous album, Pillar of Strength, which I haven't heard, and AMG doesn't list. Sean Jones and Ron Blake also appear here, and someone (presumably Fuller) sings two. Given that she plays in Beyoncé band, I figured this would come out smoother, but it's actually fairly dense and complex postbop. [B+(*)] [Feb 20]

No final grades/notes this week on records I put back for further listening the first time around. The shelf there is piling up, so I need to start sorting through them soon.

The Oil Quotes

I've always been a slow reader, so I'm surprised to find how far my reading has outpaced my book postings. This week's Michael Klare post was based on two books I've read recently about peak oil. I've been promising to post some quotes from these books for quite a while now, but keep putting it off. How bad this has gotten is indicated by the books are now on lines 24-25 of my "recent reading" list. (Klare's is line 23.) One thing that slows me down is trying to write something between the quotes to connect them together -- a progressively harder task as memory fades. So to get things going, I may skip the notes and just provide the page references.

In this as in previous and future posts, the quotes are simply things that struck me as worth flagging for future reference. The reasons vary: some provide new (for me, anyway) info, while others merely sum up; some are well stated, while others are spectacularly dumb. The quotes are not necessarily representative of the books, and in total do not constitute book reviews.

The first book is Kenneth S. Deffeyes' Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak (2005 [2006 paperback], Hill and Wang). I've read a number of books on oil over the years, ranging from Daniel Yergin's massive history The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power to Rick Bass's novel Oil Notes. I recognized Deffeyes from John McPhee's Basin and Range, which had more to do with gold than oil, but it turns out that Deffeyes cut his teeth working for Shell Oil, where he knew M. King Hubbert. Hubbert came up with a model for predicting how much oil will be found and can be pumped out over time. Hubbert's model predicted that US oil production would peak around 1970, after which it would decline, leaving a bell-shaped plot. His model proved accurate. Subsequent attempts to apply the same model to oil worldwide come up with predictions ranging from 2000 to 2010 -- Deffeyes argues for 2005.

I've also read Deffeyes' previous book, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (2001 [2003 paperback], Princeton University Press), which is reduced to two schematic chapters here ("Where Oil Comes From" and "The Hubbert Method"). The rest of the book offers a rather breezy survey of possible alternatives to oil: gas, coal, tar sands/oil shales, nuclear, hydrogen. I didn't mark anything from those sections, although it's worth noting that he rather likes nuclear, and offers a brief defense of the Yucca Mountain dump.

A couple of summary comments (pp. xv-xvi):

There was a tremendous flap during 2004 over Shell's downgrading of oil reserves. Those of us who used to work for Shell were particularly surprised; typically Shell was overly cautious about almost everything. I have no private sources of information from inside the major oil companies. Mostly, I try to evaluate what they do, not what they say. For instance, an editorial in the June 21, 2004, issue of Business Week complained that the 30 percent increase in oil prices induced only a tiny increase in company exploration budgets. Similarly, U.S. refineries are running close to capacity, but no new refineries have been built since 1976. Oil tanker ships are fully booked, but outdated tankers are being retired faster than new ones are being built. Instead, the industry seems to be hoarding cash, buying back stock, and paying out dividends. What is going on? Why don't higher prices and increasing demand encourage investment? Suppose, for a moment, that the premise of this book is correct: We have already found most of the oil. Drilling for the few leftovers yields neither fun nor profit. Should the major oil companies drill a string of dry holes just to keep the editors of Business Week happy? If, as I claim, world oil production is about to decline, then there is no point in adding refineries or increasing the size of the tanker fleet.

(pp. xvi):

Some professional petroleum observers state that world oil production will continue to increase until the year 2030. Any publication that pretends to be "fair" feels compelled to present both sides of the story. When the professionals disagree, does that mean there is no real knowledge available? Is it safe to ignore the problem until the professionals agree?

Here's my reply: Doing nothing today is simply betting that Hubbert is wrong. Hubbert's 1956 prediction that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s was essentially correct. Hubbert's 1969 prediction that world oil production would peak around the year 2000 is coming true right now (details in Chapter 3). Fifteen years ago, we should have started investing heavily in alternative energy strategies. That opportunity is now lost. There is no time left for scholarly research. There is no time left for engineers to develop new machinery. We have to face the next five years with the equipment designs that are already in production. It's not going to be easy.

A general description on what oil's been good for (pp. 5-6):

The automobile and the oil business were made for each other. From 1859 through 1908, the major petroleum product was kerosene for lanterns. After that, automobiles and trucks became a rapidly expanding market. Oil refineries were gradually improved to turn a bigger fraction of the crude oil into gasoline. Oil exploration and production was a worldwide enterprise.

The year 1903 saw the Wright brothers' first flight. The high energy content per unit weight of gasoline was even more important for airplanes than for cars. High-grade aviation gasoline became a profitable product, even though aviation was a smaller market than automobiles. With the 1945 introduction of the jet aircraft engine, a kerosenelike product known as JP-4 became important. Mobility is now global. It is possible today to travel door-to-door from a street address in any city in the world to any other city in less than twenty-four hours. It's not just people: Mail, computer components, mangoes, and asparagus move by air freight.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, agriculture was transformed. Tractors replaced horses, produce was trucked to wider markets, and mineral fertilizers became widely available. The Green Revolution of the 1960s used improved seeds, pesticides, and mineral fertilizers to make famine obsolete. It wasn't "organic," but it sure beat death from starvation. A measure of the importance of oil and gas: 80 percent of an Iowa corn farmer's costs is, directly or indirectly, the cost of fuels.

A whole industry emerged for making products derived from oil: petrochemicals. An astonishing range of plastics, fibers, solvents, pesticides, and coatings are made from oil and natural gas. My guess is that petrochemicals will be the last, best use of petroleum as it becomes scarce. Using oil as premade building blocks for organic chemistry is better than burning it for fuel. When I am offered an unnecessary plastic bag at the grocery store, I reply, "No, save an oil well."

A note on the rise and fall of empires, a theme also developed by Kevin Phillips, whose American Theocracy also focuses on oil (pp. 179-180):

Hubbert pointed out that Spain was inadvertently devastated by New World gold and silver. During the years it plundered the New World's riches, Spain could sell gold and silver to other countries and buy anything: food, manufactured goods, art objects. By the time the flow of gold and silver ceased, Spain had lost the ability to produce anything and permanently lost its place as a world power. Hubbert's fear was that cheap oil and gas would permanently erode the industrial world's manufacturing and agricultural capability. Economists, in their all-seeing wisdom, point out that the U.S. economy today is much less dependent on energy than it was in 1980. Today, 92 percent of our economy provides services; petroleum is not supposed to matter. I shudder, rememberng Hubbert's talking across a cafeteria table about Spain. As long as the world will trade us oil in exchange for Microsoft software and Walt Disney movies, we're in fat city. Hearing that the U.S. service economy is being outsourced to India should be accompanied by Prewett bugling "Taps."

A note on oil geopolitics (p. 180):

The world oil peak is a world problem. Supertankers can haul oil halfway around the world for two dollars per barrel. Who gets oil from where is largely a matter of transportation convenience. Too many people define the U.S. problem as the amount of oil we import from the Middle East. They are missing the point. Most of Venezuela's and Mexico's oil exports come ot the United States. North Africa ships to Europe. Middle Eastern oil moves largely to Japan and to Europe. There is a spot market where shiploads of oil are bought and sold for cash in Rotterdam harbor. Export-import patterns can be rearranged with a few phone calls. As the world oil shortage becomes more severe, who ships what oil where is less relevant.

Deffeyes is one of the prime movers of the peak oil model, but his books don't stray very far from geology and closely related science and business. Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003 [2005 paperback], New Society) goes much further. I've thumbed through a lot of books on what happens as oil supplies constrict, and this one struck me as the one to read. I'll go further and say that it's impressed me more powerfully than any other book I've read in the last couple of years. The point that impressed me so was not that oil would run out or what would happen then, but how closely the growth of human population and industry since 1850 has tracked the increase in petroleum use. This has some rather chilling implications.

Heinberg has a couple of other books that I haven't read (yet). Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World was written after this one, expanding on the brief summary of alternative energy sources here. The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse came out last fall, expanding on the helpful practical suggestions that seem to be obligatory in doom and gloom books these days. I reckon that both are worth taking seriously. Meanwhile, the quotes:

Starts out with a discussion of anthopology and energy use (p. 20):

Anthropological data confirm that humans are capable of living in balance and harmony as long-term members of climax ecosystems. For most of our existence as a species, we survived by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. We lived within the energy balance of climax ecosystems -- altering our environment (as every species does), yet maintaining homeostatic, reciprocally limiting relationships with both our prey and our predators.

However, humans are also capable of acting as colonizers, dominating and disrupting the ecosystems they encounter. And there is evidence that we began to do this many millennia ago, long before Europeans set out deliberately to colonize the rest of the world.

One of the most striking things in the book is this comparison of two charts -- the top one of oil production up to and projected after the peak, the bottom one of world population (p. 31):

The idea that world population might reduce in the future is most disturbing -- almost totally unexpected. Heinberg doesn't discuss how this might happen; it's merely an implication from his analysis that the rising availability of cheap energy was what made the population explosion possible in the first place. However, when you consider how energy intense the agriculture that supports the current population has become, removing that energy is bound to have some impact.

An aside on Iraq, c. 1990 (p. 80):

Whatever the motive, the result was a quick military victory for the US and ongoing devastation for Iraq, which continued to suffer under UN-imposed trade sanctions throughout the following decade. During th hostilities, American strategists had apparently done some quick thinking and realized that they could make Saddam the swing producer of last recourse. By embargoing Iraq, they kept two ro three million barrels of crude per day off the world market at no cost to anyone but Saddam. This is perhaps why they stopped at the gates of Baghdad and left him in power. Later, when oil prices rose uncomfortably, the US relaxed the embargo for "humanitarian" reasons, and most of Iraq's subsequent exprots made their way to American gas tanks.

Business analysis similar to the Deffeyes quote above (p. 93):

Altogether, the oil industry appeared to be in a mode of consolidation, not one of expansion. As Goldman Sachs put it in an August 1999 report, "The oil companies are not going to keep rigs employed to drill dry holes. They know it but are unable . . . to admit it. The great merger mania is nothing more than a scaling down of a dying industry in recognition that 90 percent of global conventional oil has already been found."

Heinberg provides a good survey of the peak oil literature, including Deffeyes, and of its opponents, who he groups under the rubric of "cornucopians" -- Peter Huber is an example. It is interesting that the peak oil theorists are mostly geologists, whereas the cornucopians tend to specialize in physics and/or engineering, and are mostly popular science writers. An aside on Hubbert (p. 100):

Hubbert was quoted as saying that we are in a "crisis in the evolution of human society. It's unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can't possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered."

Statements like this one gave Hubbert the popular image of a doomsayer. Yet he was not a pessimist; indeed, on occasion he could assume the role of utopian seer. We have, he believed, the necessary know-how; all we need do is overhaul our culture and find an alternative to money. If society were to develop solar-energy technologies, reduce its population and its demands on resources, and develop a steady-state economy to replace the present one based on unending growth, our species' future could be rosy indeed. "We are not starting from zero," he emphasized. "We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge. It's just a matter of putting it all together. We still have great flexibility but our maneuverability will diminish with time."

On depletion rates (p. 112):

The North Sea provides an example of a relatively brief lag between discovery and extraction peaks: there, discoveries peaked in the early 1970s, while production peaked only 30 years later, at the turn of the new century. The latest exploration and extraction technologies were applied, and the resource base was drawn down at virtually the maximum possible rate because North Sea oil was in high demand throughout this period.

Iraq provides a counterexample: there, two principal perods of major discovery occurred -- in the early 1950s and the mid-1970s. For that country, political and economic events have constrained production to a very significant degree: first, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, then the US-led embargo of the 1990s, and finally the turmoil surrounding the US invasion and occupation have reduced extraction rates well below levels that would otherwise have been achieved. Consequently, Iraqi oil production mayu not peak until 2015 at the earliest, though more likely a decade or so later, yielding a discovery-to-production-peak lag of 45 to 60 years.

Needless to say, events since the book was written may have pushed Iraq's peak back even further. It is one of the many counterproductive aspects of US strategy that by preventing Iraq (and Iran) from fully exploiting their oil reserves during the run-up to the oil peak, we will significantly increase their profits once they are finally able to pump their oil.

Heinberg attempts some political analysis -- I won't bother with quoting his "political theory of the Left," which isn't so sharp, and in any case is of less practical import (p. 205):

According to the political theory of the Right, each individual is morally entitled to gain control over as large a share of the total resource base as he or she can possibly obtain, using legal means. Traditional ways of expanding one's resource share include capturing energy from other humans by hiring them for wage labor (from which surplus value is extracted in the form of profits) and by investing in energy-leveraging productive enterprises that depend directly or indirectly on energy resources extracted from the Earth. The government, according to this theory, has little or no responsibility to maintain equity in resource distribution or to provide a safety net for the disadvantaged. The Right thus gains part of its legitimacy from its appeal to the individual's desire for freedom -- the freedom, that is, to control a disproportionate share of resources. Most great cultural achievements, according to rightists, have been initiated not by the masses but by extraordinary individuals. Thus it is by giving rein to the individual quest for accomplishment and gain that society as a whole is bettered.

Another cornerstone of rightist politics is the pursuit of security through state investments in ever-expanding police and military powers. Such powers are needed, after all, to protect the concentrations ofwealth that result from the project of seeking to control resources. The Right aims its appeal primarily at those with disproportionate wealth, and secondarily to members of the lower classes who envy the wealthy or who can be persuaded that the highest aims of the state are law, order, and security.

I marked a few quotes from Heinberg's Klare-like survey of US oil foreign policy, which in retrospect don't appear all that interesting. But this summary leads into his new book (p. 270):

The only chance for a peaceful solution to the global energy crisis will be to foster cooperation between nations, the conservation of remaining resources, and the sharing of what oil is left. This is a politically challenging scenario at best, and it has been made far more so by the Bush administration's crimes and blunders.

(p. 273):

I would suggest that the effort to find more sources of cheap energy is somewhat analogous to buying more lottery tickets. Even if we "win," we will simply be miring ourselves deeper in a fundamentally unsustainable mode of existence.

Thus there may be no solution to the problem of oil depletion, if by "solution" we mean a strategy that will enable us to continue living as we are. "Free" energy has enabled us to create a lifestyle that has no future, simply because it is predicated on unending growth, and continuous growth within a finite system is an impossibility.

The book ends with a section called "Managing the Collapse: Strategies and Recommendations." My interest flags in sections like that, especially when they degenerate into lists of good things individuals can do. But I am struck by the sheer quantity of thought and effort that has already developed around this issue, as well as the convergent matter of global warming. The two issues converge in that both argue for the need to reduce and minimize fossil fuel consumption -- on the one hand because supplies are finite and dwindling, on the other because burning carbon is harmful on its own. These both dovetail into the big question of economic growth. As Marx had no trouble admitting, capitalism has proved remarkably efficient at driving economic growth -- one example being the speed with which we have burned up the buried carbon of geological eons. If, as Heinberg argues, such growth was enabled and is now limited by the finite supply of oil, then capitalism itself may have outlived its usefulness, and may need to be consigned to a somewhat more limited sphere of human activity.

I have several more oil-related books on the shelf, including Matthew R. Simmons' Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, which looks particularly attractive (albeit somewhat daunting, sizewise) for its geologic detail. Another more general book is Thom Hartmann's The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight -- an evocative image, although I'm more skeptical of the book, not least because the subtitle promises a lot of what we can do before it's too late. The New Yorker has an interesting profile on Amory Lovins, who has a book called Winning the Oil Endgame. The piece followed Lovins to Davos where he tried to give a copy away to Warren Buffett. But the book looks kind of pricey to me. Lovins is part of Paul Hawken's "Natural Capitalism" crowd, who are probably OK, but even if it's true, one quickly tires of reading about how much money can be made by conducting business responsibly.

Still, this is important stuff. Even if the sort of "controlled collapse" Heinberg advocates is psychologically impossible for the movers and shakers of American business and politics -- and the evidence that it is is pretty overwhelming -- it's good to know that saner paths were available.

Unpublished Fragment

I've always heard that the worst thing you can do to try to free yourself from quicksand is to struggle against it. I don't remember what the right way is, or even if there is one.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Energo-Fascists' Masked Ball

Whenever I read Michael Klare I'm reminded of a scene I witnessed at a leftist academic conference back in the '70s. Martin Jay had published a book on the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, etc.) based on his research there. Andrew Arato fielded a question with a deft, effortlessly offhand comment that it was Jay who had done the research in that area, but unfortunately he didn't understand it. That in a nutshell is the problem with Klare: nobody has spent more time researching the intersection of oil and imperial politics, but he hasn't managed to understand the most basic aspects of the problem. For example, in his "Is Energo-fascism in Your Future?" piece at TomDispatch he writes:

For the past 60 years, the international energy industry has largely succeeded in satisfying the world's ever-growing thirst for energy in all its forms. When it comes to oil alone, global demand jumped from 15 to 82 million barrels per day between 1955 and 2005, an increase of 450%. Global output rose by a like amount in those years. Worldwide demand is expected to keep growing at this rate, if not faster, for years to come -- propelled in large part by rising affluence in China, India, and other developing nations. There is, however, no expectation that global output can continue to keep pace.

First problem here is that demand and supply are reversed. Oil is a peculiar combination of pure commodity and monopoly rent. It is a commodity because it's all pretty much the same, at least once it's been refined, e.g. to gasoline. Even there, it's not that we actually care about it per se: it's just a means to do something else that we want, like to drive a car, or to mow a lawn. To the extent that those examples could be done by some other energy source, like a battery, oil isn't even differentiated from other energy sources. So its price should be pulled down to a small percentage above its cost, but in fact oil prices have always been way above marginal costs. Part of this is due to the need to amortize high startup costs, but mostly it's due to monopoly rents. No matter how many oil producers there are, the fact that the pools are finite and local has kept prices from collapse, especially when producers could fix prices through cartels. The result is that anyone fortune enough to own oil wells could in effect print their own money. The only things that might slow them down were lack of demand and running out of supply -- the two great anxieties of the industry.

Oil ownership is a matter of law, and as such of politics. The US got into the oil business early, trusting it to private owners, who had every incentive to find and pump all the oil they could as fast as possible. The main results have been: the US is by far the nation that depends most heavily on oil; the US was the first major oil producer to exhaust more than half of its oil reserves, yet has thus far been able to avoid the consequences by imports and debt; and the rentier class of oil owners have exerted extraordinary influence on US politics. The latter subject is what Klare studies in his rather backward way, but first let's go back to supply and demand. It's important to understand that the oil industry has, thus far, always been oversupplied -- it's just too tempting in a short-sighted world to keep the wells pumping and the money flowing. Accordingly, much of the industry's political clout has been used to stimulate demand to soak up all that production. The gas guzzling auto has been helpful in that regard, as has their biggest customer: the Defense Department.

It's easy to be seduced by the importance of cheap energy in the making of our lifestyle: the petroleum era is marked by explosive growth in human population, industry, science, technology, culture, and comfort. It's also reasonable to fear what might happen as the supply of cheap energy runs out. Worldwide oil production is very close to its peak right now -- maybe it's already happened, maybe there will be another year or two that slightly top the present before the decline sets in. One thing is certain about the passing of the "peak oil" point: life on the downslope will be different than life on the upslope was. Ergo, extrapolating from the past tells us nothing useful about the future. (Of course, there is another tipping point to consider: the effect of pumping all that carbon into the atmosphere. Again, this is a topic where the past tells us little of use for the future.)

But before humanity loses the benefits of cheap oil, the oil men themselves face a graver -- to them, anyhow -- prospect of loss: the very system that has made them so powerful is one that is leading us to crisis. What marked that system most of all was its effiency in spending our natural resources. They argue that we need that same effiency to find more, but it's too late; and failing that, they posit a zero-sum war against the world to try to hang on to a share inflated by their waste, which really only makes us all the more unworthy. Back on the upslope, it always looked like there would be more, so it was easy not to give any thought to limits. The view on the downslope is different: now that we can see the end, the need to push it out by conserving should finally be evident. But in this new world it's hard to think of anything more useless or dangerous than the old oil oligarchy.

Klare senses this, and has come up with a typically misleading name for them: the energo-fascists. Then he proceeds to attack Vladimir Putin for reversing the privatization of Russia's gas industry because it imposes political oversight over business's eagerness to exhaust Russia's resources. There's no doubt that political choke points can and will disrupt economies. However, the conclusion that one should draw from all this is that we need to work to bridge those political differences. Klare has done some useful work on those who think they can force these differences in their own favor. But without understanding the issues better, he repeatedly trips himself up, confusing us.

This has been a difficult post to write. Klare's misunderstandings and gaffes emerge in ways that are slightly off base rather than flat out wrong. We are running out of oil, and this will be significant, but the industry's political machinations -- what Klare studies -- are neither representative of the real problems or their solutions. A few months ago, I read two books on peak oil -- Kenneth Defeyes' Beyond Oil and Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over -- then followed them up with Klare's Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum. I marked quotes from all three, but Klare's were more likely because he struck me as wrong. For instance, this one's similar to the one above (p. 79):

To fully grasp the magnitude of this burden, consider the data available to the national energy group when it began its work in early 2001. According to that year's edition of the International Energy Outlook, total world oil production would have to grow by 60 percent between 1999 and 2020 to meet anticipated world consumption of 119 million barels per day. But because of flat or declining production in many other areas of the world, output in the Gulf would have to climb by 85 percent to satisfy this enormous rise in demand. Put another way, combined Persian Gulf production would have to rise from 24.0 million barrels per day in 1999 to 44.5 million barrels in 2020, a jump of 20.5 million barrels. . . . This means that the Gulf suppliers would have to be cajoled, coerced, or somehow compelled into doubling their combined production of oil for the Bush-Cheney plan to succeed.

Again, Klare starts with demand projections to create a crisis. It's worth recalling that OPEC reserves were inflated wildly during the 1980s, when oil prices dropped and suppliers tried to make up for lost revenues by pumping more. (How much an OPEC member could pump depended on how much they had in reserve.) This just reminds us that if the Persian Gulf nations have the oil, they won't have to be cajoled or coerced by anything more than cash.

Speaking of coercion (pp. 98-99):

Top administration officials took great pains to keep from mentioning oil as a casus belli -- an admission that would undoubtedly have undermined public support for the war. Nevertheless, a few moments of candor from Vice President Cheney provide hints as to the administration's deep anxiety about oil production in the Gulf. Cheney's August 2002 address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars was widely viewed as an unvarnished expression of administration thinking, both because he was Bush's most influential adivser and a key architect of the war and because it was the only speech on Iraq he gave. "Should all [of Hussein's WMD] ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous for the Middle East and the United States," Cheney declared. "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror and a set atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail." Viewed from this angle, the continued survival of his regime was unthinkable.

There's a lot of mirror-gazing in this quote. Nuclear diplomacy was something the Soviet Union accused the US of practicing when it was the sole possesor of atom bombs. After the Soviet Union joined the club, blackmail became impossible and gave way to deterrence. There is sufficient stigma attached to using nuclear weapons that no nation -- excepting the US, and then mostly rhetorically -- has threatened offensive use. Maybe Saddam Hussein might not have grasped that point -- Cheney doesn't seem to have gotten it, nor Klare. The idea that ownership of 10% of the world's oil reserves confers great power is, again, only an idea that an oil mogul could love. I don't doubt that it has a lot to do with why Cheney was so gung-ho after Iraq and Iran.

Some inadvertent humor on hydrogen cars (pp. 198-199):

Conceivably, fuel-cell cars could begin to replace gasoline-powered ones in another decade or so. But although there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about hydrogen-powered fuel cells, they are still very much in the experimental stage. Hydrogen is expensive to generate; it does not exist in a pure state in nature, so it has to be extracted from other materials, such as coal or water. It cannot be stored or transported through the existing oil-industry infrastructure, including America's roughly 180,000 service stations. And producing hydrogen may require large amounts of fossil fuels, either as raw material or as a source of energy for the process itself -- thereby defeating the whole purpose. Meeting these challenges is going to take very substantial public investment.

Ultimately Klare's confusion cancels itself out, but he gets a lot of things wrong along the way. Hydrogen does exist in nature: it's something like 75% of all the matter in the universe, but it's very rare on earth because it's so light our gravity can't hold it. Hydrogen cannot be extracted from coal, which is pure carbon -- or not so pure, but pure hydrogen is not an exception. The cheapest source of hydrogen is natural gas. I don't know whether that's more efficient than just burning the natural gas, but in either case carbon dioxide is a waste product. Making hydrogen from water is a sure loss: the conversions are equivalent, but in practice you lose efficiency going both ways. Fuel cells are not experimental. They're just not economical. Hydrogen is best viewed as a way of storing and transporting energy, like a battery, not as a source.

In view of this, here's another hydrogen quote (p. 196):

The widespread introduction of hydrogen-powered fuel cells may achieve even larger reductions in petroleum use. Like ordinary batteries, fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction; but where traditional batteries stop generating electricity once their chemical reagents run out, fuel cells can keep operating for almost as long as their chemical fuel source -- in most cases, hydrogen -- is renewed; and since hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the known universe, its supply is limitless.


Some tortured prose cut from the above:

By extrapolating from demand Klare sees an unsatisfied future instead of a profligate past. Most likely he is right about the future, but by pinning his analysis on demand he misses the fact that a large part of current energy use is wasted, and that this provides a cushion against future contraction. We see this in the way demand drops following price shocks -- for example, with last week's gasoline price drop under $2/gallon. Conservation could squeeze much of this waste out, but that's not what the industry is worried about. The world economy may contract as cheap energy sources are exhausted, but the industry's great fear is anything that might undermine their political power. Klare helps them out by accepting the

At least he managed to remember depletion this time -- that's been known to slip his mind -- so what's wrong? The main thing is that he's got demand and supply reversed. From Titusville in 1859 to more/less the present day, the industry has pumped about as much oil as they could. Their problem has always been getting demand to keep up, even with such extravagances as cars and suburbs. A proof of this is that constant-dollar prices have remained flat or even declined over nearly 150 years. The price drops of recent weeks are further evidence that demand is more flexible than commonly thought. The whole idea of "conservation" as an energy source is based on the suspicion that much oil is simply wasted.

The future is another story, but it's bound to be a confusing one if you don't understand the past properly. Klare's assumption that demand controls lets him extrapolate future demand from past history, factoring in things like population and economic growth. It doesn't make much math to see that equation outrunning supply, at which point he descends into Hobbesian Hell, with nations set to war to sate their inexorable demand from dwindling supplies. That would be insane were it not for the testimony provided by US political and military elites. Klare knows that stuff -- it's what makes him useful -- but he buys into so many of their assumptions that he winds up promoting their problems even when he doesn't like their solutions.

Oil is a rather peculiar. Like other undifferentiated commodities, its price is (or should be) a simple function of supply and demand. Actually, oil prices have always been somewhat more than free markets would negotiate. From early on the market has been distorted through political means -- Rockefeller's Standard Oil, OPEC, and Dick Cheney are three of the more notorious examples. In the US (and a few other countries) that extra profit has gone to a rentier class that has amplified its wealth and power through politics, and in the process has distorted the nation's politics. One might think that a democracy would favor consumers (i.e., everyone) over producers (a tiny fraction of a percent), but quite the opposite is true.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I have a couple brief observations on Fox television show 24. I don't watch much TV -- the active list right now is 24, Battlestar Gallactica, and Rome. Laura's raved about 24 since its beginning. I finally relented and tuned in two years ago, figuring it has something to do with cultural attitudes toward politics and terrorism, and that might be interesting even if more likely appalling. That's about what it is, at least based on the two seasons plus four hours I've seen.

For folks even more out of touch than me, the set up is that each season consists of 24 episodes, which map to real time in one long day: one hour episode equals one hour real time, with 20 minutes or so knocked out of each hour for commercial breaks. Each day/season starts off with the first of a cascading series of terrorist attacks, and follows agent Jack Bauer and the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) as they eventually thwart the attacks almost exactly 24 hours later. Aside from CTU, the other center of activity is the White House, where Presidents and conniving subordinates hysterically overreact, often making things worse, sometimes deliberately.

There are two basic things to understand about the world of 24. The first is that the one-day-real-time format forces gross distortions on the storyline. I don't know whether it is the cause or effect of having a super-packed action series, but it severely limits the potential for any kind of development. This may have less to do with the real time mapping than the fact that episodes are reliably packed into one hour chunks, often ending with a partial resolution as well as a dangling thread to be picked up next hour/episode. So not only have they reduced some pretty cataclysmic events to a single day, they've chopped them up into 24 single-hour packages. There is an upside to this in terms of action dynamics -- nothing gets stretched out dramatically, as always seems to happen with movies -- but it means they keep having to think of more things to promote more action. So their format itself forces a major distortion on the real world of terrorism: they have to vastly amplify the skills of terrorists in order to fill up 24 whole hours. In fact, terrorists almost by definition are incapable of implementing the sort of cascaded events that 24 depends on. Moreover, even if they could do it, there's no reason they would or should.

But even if we can somehow bracket the format-induced distortions, there is something very strange about the world of 24. This is shown first by the existence of CTU itself, by its methods, and by its relationship to the White House. 24 takes place in a world that sort of looks like ours, but is really quite different. The main difference is that terrorists in 24 are everywhere, in vast numbers, operating with a high degree of professional skill. In fact, many of them are strictly professional mercenaries. It's possible, for instance, for terrorists to hire a former USAF pilot to steal a stealth aircraft to shoot down the President's plane. It's possible to hire CTU double-agents to spy and sabotage. It's possible for terrorists to ally with US military contractors, and it's not always clear whether the shots are being called from the within the US government or by its alleged enemies. The curious thing about this overstatement of the world of terrorism is that it is a logical, albeit somewhat paranoid, projection of trends in existence today: the privatization of the "war on terror" and the lack of controls over covert operations. 24 is science fiction is that it shows us a world based on assumptions that are not true now, but it is also political critique in that it shows us how unchecked trends in our own world could turn out.

There are other aspects of the show that map roughly onto current concerns, although one should be careful and not expect much one way or another. The most conspicuous is CTU's fondness for torture, which Jack Bauer has quite a knack for, and everyone else gets no value out of whatsoever. It's unlikely that the Bush administration actually uses torture in anything like this way, but it's not exactly out of the question, and certainly not off the wish list. So it may be one of those projections from our current political malfeasance, or it may just be an artifact of the format: the dire need to move things along as fast as possible, which requires the equally fast discovery of clues. (Torture also adds to the violence quota, something the producers no doubt appreciate.)

Another trendline comes from the politicians, who repeatedly have to act rashly on ridiculously incomplete and often fallacious info -- to call this "intelligence" would be an act of torture not even Bauer could stomach -- and as such almost invariably make things worse. (I missed the first President Palmer, who presumably was more skillful, or maybe just luckier.) This again has more to do with the format's needs than political reality. Even Bush, who seems uniquely disposed to wrecklessness based on ignorance, would balk at some of the shit these guys have to swat back.

Still, even more profound than what happens on each of these season-days is the big slice of time that separates them. We barely know anything that happens then, which isn't such a big thing as far as the show is concerned. People do come and go, but nothing really changes, so every season starts from the same premise, the same fantasy world. But what's more important is that nobody ever learns anything from what happens. The first season I watched left me wondering what all those people would make of the day in the coming days, weeks, months. But of course they never made anything out of it, because they weren't on camera. And the next round took off so fast there was barely time to figure out who was who. After my second year, it mattered less to me, because I started realizing there was nothing real going on anyway.

Still, there's no reason why we can't learn something: terrorism is a rare event, the acts of people with limited power who feel deep grievances they can't find any better way to deal with; they can be marginalized by providing other means for such grievances, and by providing a more decent, more equitable model for the world. This follows from the fact that terrorism is most often a reaction against the violence and injustice of the state. But then if anyone did learn lessons like that 24 would lose its reason for existence. So no good educating the likes of us.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Music: Current count 12769 [12733] rated (+36), 842 [846] unrated (-4). Mostly recovered this week, with a pretty heavy rated count. Started with a pile of library quickies, then moved into the Recycled Goods backlog, trying to get on top of February's column, especially by slogging through the rotten fruit on the bottom. Caught enough jazz at the end to be able to post some prospecting. Mail fairly steady, mostly 2007 jazz. Didn't do much more on 2006 year-end, but did freeze the 2006 list, so I guess that's history.

  • Ray Anderson, Han Bennink & Christy Doran: Cheer Up (1995, Hat Art): GuitarDrumBone. Terrific stuff. A-
  • Dave Brubeck: For All Time (1959-65 [2003], Columbia/Legacy, 5CD): Famously educated, a student of modernist composer Darius Milhaud; bespectacled, he looked nerdy enough to vouchsafe his hit album Jazz Goes to College. Brubeck put all that education to use experimenting with time signatures far astray from standard 4/4, but it was actually his sidekick, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who wrote "Take Five" -- a 5/4 piece so elegant you never gave its unusualness a second thought. It was the clearest of the gems on Time Out (1959), an essential album for any jazz library. Like so many successes, it spawned sequels: Time Further Out, Countdown: Time in Outer Space, Time Changes, Time In. Most are available separately, or conveniently summed up in this box. The only piece I dislike is the kitschy "Elementals" from Time Changes: 16:35 of grossly orchestrated sturm und drang. But the Quartet pieces remind you that despite technical concerns, Brubeck was above all else a jazz improviser and that Desmond's alto tone was his perfect foil. There are a couple of bonus tracks here, which may or may not be on separate editions. However, the way the box is put together makes it easy to rate the individual pieces. (My copy is an advance, without the booklet, so I'm guessing a bit on the packaging.) The breakout follows. Overall: A-
  • Dave Brubeck: Time Further Out (1961-63, as above): Desmond is particularly thrilling here. A-
  • Dave Brubeck: Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1961-62, as above): I'm struck by the deep resonance of the drums on a few pieces. Again, everything impresses. A-
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Changes (1963-64, as above): The Quartet cuts continue the string of remarkable performances, but heavy orchestra piece "Elementals" is heavy, bombastic, kitschy. B
  • Dave Brubeck: Time In (1965, as above): More in the same vein, again quite good, but maybe we're getting a bit tired by now. B+
  • Dave Brubeck Trio & Gerry Mulligan: Live at the Berlin Philharmonie (1970 [1995], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Mulligan makes an interesting substitute for Desmond. Most pieces run long, with strong leads from both stars, and a couple of breaks for the bass and drums. A-
  • Dave Brubeck Quartet: The Great Concerts (1958-63 [1988], Columbia): Four cuts from Carnegie Hall 1963, starting with a terrific "Pennies From Heaven" and ending with "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Take Five" -- the latter getting an ovation as soon as it's recognized, which didn't take long; "Take the A Train" and "The Real Ambassador" from Amsterdam later in 1963; finishes with three cuts from Copenhagen in 1958. Pretty surefire stuff. A-
  • Eric Clapton: Me and Mr. Johnson (2004, Reprise): When in doubt, cut a straight blues album. In this case, 14 Robert Johnson songs. They don't have the bite or venom of the originals, but they're rockable enough to fit Clapton's narrow talents. B+(*)
  • Alan Jackson: What I Do (2004, Arista): Half-way through this skein of honky tonk love songs -- i.e., the kind about the love you don't recognize until it's too late -- I flashed on Paul McCartney, because I doubt if even he has ever written one as silly as "If French Fries Were Fat Free." (Inspirational verse: "You know the more I think about it/the more it makes sense/'Cause grease and love both cause heartache.") The songwriting gets sharper and wittier on the second half, probably because Jackson didn't write those: Dennis Linde's "Talkin' Song Repair Blues" overshoots Jackson's thesaurus by a country mile; "Monday Morning Church" is a honky tonk love song that really does feel heartfelt; "Burnin' the Honky Tonks Down" is the requisite upbeat number; "To Do What I Do" is adopted anthem, done live 'cause that's what the guy does. B+(***)
  • Janet Jackson: 20 Years Old (2006, Virgin): That would be 20 years ago, which would be the year she released her third album (Control, don't know it). She is a more calculated ingenue now, a shameless sexual being -- not necessarily object, although the distinction on the dreadful "Take Care" is hardly cost-effective. The beats are unexceptional, except in "Love 2 Love," where they fall short of the definition. Those cuts are toward the end. The early stuff isn't bad, but doesn't do much either. C+
  • Toby Keith: Greatest Hits 2 (1999-2004 [2004], Dreamworks): A cheap shot, given that there's no cross licensing, three new cuts, two live ones (with long breaks where he depends on the audience to sing -- and sounds like it's mostly the girls), and nothing from his year-old mega-platinum album. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" is "Fightin' Side" rendered impersonal and cartoonish, as in a video game. His honky tonk makes him out to be an asshole both coming and going. But by far the worse thing here is the Willie Nelson "Beer for My Horses" duet -- thought about recommending it to the Taliban, but I doubt they hit the bars after heavy days of exacting justice. C-
  • Nortec Collective: Tijuana Sessions Vol. 3 (2005, Nacional): Tijuana-based techno, name comes from norteño and techno. Vol. 1 was novel enough I gave it an A-; this is nearly as good, and could be interchangeable if I spent enough time on it. One vocal track, called "Tijuana Makes Me Happy," is crummy at first, but its loopiness gains on you. One track features Calexico, which no doubt means more to them than to me. B+(***)
  • Steve Perry: Greatest Hits (1977-98 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Maybe not the weakest case ever for a "hits" package: 4 of 5 songs from his first album charted top-40, as did 1 of 4 from his other album and a 1982 single released under Kenny Loggins' name, but 7 cuts come from an aborted 1988 exercise, and the other one is a demo that allegedly landed him the Journey job. D+
  • The Very Best of Peter Paul and Mary (1962-2003 [2005], Rhino): A folk group that had a good run in 1962-63 -- the years for the first eleven songs here -- capped by a novelty hit called "Puff, the Magic Dragon," which I loved when it came out and I was twelve. Every song you've heard someone else sing you've heard someone else sing better -- even the John Denver. Later fare like "The Great Mandala," "Day Is Done," "El Salvador," and "Weave the Sunshine" is dreadful; "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" is better, but not all that credible. Only one cut later than 1972, called "Don't Laugh at Me." The older 13-cut Ten Years Together is better. For one thing, it's shorter. C+
  • Paulina Rubio: Border Girl (2002, Universal): Mexican pop star makes a cross-border move, leading off with a batch of songs in English with yanqui-rock riddims, although the first thing you notice is her profiled midrift on the cover. She splits the difference between Shakira and Christina Aguillera. I've been curious about this since it came out, but now I'm a bit disappointed: I expect my exotica exotic. But I don't mind mindless pop like "Don't Say Goodbye" and "Fire (Sexy Dance)" -- "I'll Be Right Here (Sexual Lover)" is even better. Four songs in Spanish at the end also help. B+(*)
  • Frankie Ruiz: Gold (1990-98 [2006], Hip-O, 2CD): Classic salsa, or standard-issue -- hard for a non-expert to tell, with the percolation, the punchy horns, and the choral interplay so consistent its formalism suggests mass production; but the singer, a Puerto Rican from New Jersey who lived hard and died young, is appealing enough to cut through the language barrier, sometimes. B+(*)
  • Boz Scaggs: Hits! (1972-85 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Recycles the title from a 1980 LP, minus "You Can Have Me Anytime"; plus "What Can I Say," "Hard Times," "Slow Dancer," "Harbor Lights," "It's Over," "Heart of Mine." Scaggs actually charted 8 top-40 songs (all here, plus one more), but only "Lowdown" went top-10 (#3). B
  • The U.S. Vs. John Lennon (Music From the Motion Picture) (1969-80 [2006], Capitol): The film traces Lennon's evolving embrace of the new left antiwar movement and the Nixon government's efforts to stop him, against the backdrop of his very public, performance arty romance with Yoko Ono. The soundtrack marshalls the musical evidence, with one nominal Beatles track -- the essential "Ballad of John & Yoko" -- and key parts of his two great solo albums mixed in with the agitprop. The roots of Lennon's radicalization go back further -- his flippant remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus comes back in his certainty that war comes from religion and nationalism. If "All You Need Is Love" was too positive and "Revolution" too negative, "Imagine" proved to be the personal synthesis, its withering critique cloaked in its utopianism. The relevance is heightened by the return of Vietnam's hawks to wreak havoc in Iraq and degrade civility and law here, but not just to rehash old times. It's because Lennon's knack for getting to the simple heart of the problem. A

Jazz Prospecting (CG #12, Part 8)

A recovery week, getting back to work. I started with easy stuff -- items from the ancient unrated pile and a few library borrowings, then went to the Recycled Goods backlog and started working my way through the low-lying fruit, especially the rotten stuff that can be disposed of in a single play. (Thanks to Randy Haecker, who may have done this on purpose, all 13 of the bottom rated reissues on my 2006 list came from just two artists: Barry Manilow and Journey -- or three if you insist on breaking out count two Steve Perry solo joints. Actually, the next dozen lowest-rated reissues came out on Legacy as well, but by then you're getting into more varied acts -- Boston, Nina Simone, Julio Iglesias, Rick Springfield.) Only got to the jazz pile at the end of the week, so I don't have much to show here. But my week's rated count came to an exceptionally high 36, so I guess I'm back in business. Quite a bit of new jazz in the queue, especially 2007 items I've been holding back on. Quite a bit on the replay shelf too.

Revenge of Blind Joe Death: The John Fahey Tribute Album (2006, Takoma): The various artists here hew so closely to Fahey's guitar style that this tribute not only flows smoothly, it comes close to converging into a single mind -- compensation, for sure, for the fact that Fahey is no longer with us. One cut that stands out is Henry Kaiser and John Schott on "Steamboat Gwine 'Round the Bend/How Green Was My Valley," where they amplify Fahey's tone and double it up. B+(**)

Eli Degibri: Emotionally Available (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Israeli tenor saxophonist, "with Bulgarian and Persian roots," as his fancy website puts it, in a quartet with New Yorkers Aaron Goldberg, Ben Street, and Jeff Ballard. This has some good spots, particularly the cut with guest Ze Mauricio on pandeiro, although that's mostly because the sax perks up there. But more often his tone is a bit dull, and his play indistinct. B

Mikkel Ploug Group (2006, Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitarist, don't know anything more about him. Went to his website, which responded: "At present it's not possible to view the text in Firefox. Sorry for the inconvenience." Fuck you, too. Recorded at "Location Studios," wherever that is. The Group includes Jeppe Skovbakke on double bass and Sean Carpio on drums, whoever they are. The featured guest is Mark Turner, who they hardly need name given how clear and distinctive he sounds. (Cf. Eli Degibri, whose rating suffered in comparison.) Will write more when I've cooled off a bit. Seems like a good support guitarist behind a really good tenor saxophonist. [B+(**)]

Nicolas Masson: Yellow (A Little Orange) (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Swiss, plays tenor sax and bass clarinet, recorded this in Geneva, but has lived in NYC, studying with Chris Potter and Rich Perry. Two horn quartets on the avant side tend to let the horns fly free; on the mainstream postbop side they tend to be shackled together, which is mostly the case here. The other horn here is Russ Johnson on trumpet. Looks promising on paper, but thus far it's only impressive in spots. [B]

Mel Davis: It's About Time! (2006 [2007], TomTom): Davis plays Hammond B3, runs through a mess of shoogity boogity pieces, with guitar, drums, sometimes a little extra percussion and/or horns. Davis also sings four pieces, improving none of them. C+

Russell Malone: Live at Jazz Standard: Volume One (2005 [2006], MaxJazz): A guitarist, Malone has always struck me as a very straightlaced Wes Montgomery acolyte -- a style I've never much cared for, although I can point to exceptions in Montgomery's own catalog. This is lightweight, but as likeable as I've ever heard him, mostly fast groove pieces from his own pen, plus a slow, pretty one by Milt Jackson. Pianist Martin Bejerano can hold a solo too. [B+(**)]

Nancy King: Live at Jazz Standard With Fred Hersch (2004 [2006], MaxJazz): This won the Voice Critics' jazz poll as best vocal album of 2006, so I figured I should check it out. Vocal jazz is many things, and this is one of them: a standards singer with a lone pianist for support. Hersch is in pure support mode here -- if he takes a single solo it slipped past me. His patterns have little interest in themselves; they merely serve as foils for King. She too keeps this low key: it took a while before I noticed her subtleties rising to the surface -- the emergence of "Day by Day," the details to "Everything Happens to Me," little bits of inconspicuous scat. Didn't have this when the poll closed, not that it would have made any difference to me. It's the sort of thing that could slowly grow on you, but Diana Krall blew me away from the start, as did Maurice Hines, and there's maybe a dozen more jazz vocal albums higher on my 2006 list. But that's just my take: of the many things comprising vocal jazz, each has its own distinct appeal, defying easy comparison. B+(*)

And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Sonic Liberation Front: Change Over Time (2006, High Two): Kevin Diehl's Afro-Cuban percussion continues to amaze, especially when Dan Scofield's avant-rooted sax skips and skids over the complex beats. If this fails to live up to the previous one, Ashé a Go-Go, it's because the two vocal pieces are more mojo than magic. A-

Hat: Hi Ha (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Sergi Sirvent is an up and coming Spanish jazz pianist with a handful of impressive records over the last few years. Here he adds guitarist Jordi Matas to his trio and finds the perfect balance. At first it sounds like a mistake when he tries to sing one, but even that he puts over on pure emotion. A-

Bush's Iran Tantrum

There's an annotated copy of Bush's Jan. 10, 2007 speech up at Future of the Book. The idea is to run comments alongside the speech. They invited various people to comment, and also invited comments from the general public. The latter are moderated. I sent one in on Friday. The website promised a decision within two hours, but my comment has yet to appear, and I have not received anything back. Several new commenters have appeared in the meantime, but possibly they were preapproved. It's possible that they're just being slow, but looking at the biographical notes on the commenters make me suspect credentialism. Everyone to appear so far has an officious sounding job title and something of a publication record. I don't. Obviously, anyone can publish a blog, so that doesn't count for much. Same thing has been said about rock critics -- in fact, I recall doing so myself. Still, I'm reminded that Jane Jacobs put credentialism high on her list of dark ages trends. It seems like every time you turn on the TV or look an op-ed page, you'll see idiocy vouchsafed by nothing more than credentials. That seems to be the media's guideline for deciding who's opinion counts, and whose can be safely ignored. Like they say: opinions are like assholes -- everyone's got one.

But having a blog, I'll run this one anyway. For reference, it's about Bush's paragraph 19:

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity -- and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

My comment is:

Iran and Syria may have reasons for undermining the US in Iraq, but like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they also have reasons to fear instability and upheaval there. The Assad family's worst fear is that the Salafist Jihadis so prominent in Iraq's Sunni resistance will spread into Syria. Iran has historical issues with Sunnis and Kurds, although their favor with Iraq's Shiite parties puts them in a strong position to rival or replace the Americans as the Shiites protector. On the other hand, Turkey has threatened action if Iraq's Kurds move toward independence, and the Saudis have are making noises about defending Iraqi Sunnis in the civil war. Bush's focus on Iran and Syria reflect his blind ideology more than anything happening in the region. It's as if he can't even conceive of anyone else having interests orthogonal from his "either you're with us or against us" view of American interests.

That Iran is not supporting anti-American forces in Iraq in any significant way can be proven by comparing the arms that are used in Iraq to Iranian-supplied Hezbollah. If Iraqis had Qassam rockets, they could easily breach the Green Zone and the major US military bases, to devastating effect. If Iraqis had the anti-tank weaponry Hezbollah used, their attacks on US armored vehicles would be much more effective. In short, it's easy to see how Iranian-armed Iraqis could push the US death toll from 3000 to 4000 almost overnight. Of course, if that happened, the US would retaliate, and Iranian losses would be far worse, but that would set off further escalations in Iraq and the Persian Gulf which would be very painful for both sides.

Sane leaders would back away from any such confrontation. Indeed, even the Baker-Hamilton group found ample reason to argue that diplomacy could find all parties sharing a common interest in stabilizing Iraq. But here we find Bush issuing threats as if Tehran doesn't take the threat he represents seriously. As Baghdad burns, the moves we're seeing toward attacking Iran -- moving US carriers and subs into the area, Israel practicing bombing runs on Gibraltar -- I'm reminded of Nixon's "madman" strategy, when he tried to influence negotiations with the Vietnamese by scrambling SAC bombers to feint a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Of course, Nixon was just pretending to be wacko. It's hard to be sure about Bush.

After I wrote this, I saw a TV news story that showed a small cache of allegedly Iranian anti-tank weapons the US captured from the Mehdi Army -- the Sadr-affiliated militia. That is plausible, but falls far short of what Bush has implied. While there is no love lost between the Americans and the Sadrists, they are also not involved in open warfare, and where there are skirmishes it is often because the Americans went looking for it. That could, of course, change: there is at least a camp among the Americans that wants to squeeze Sadr out of the government and smash his militia. But Sadr seems to have far more grass roots support than SCIRI, coincidentally the Shiite group the Americans like best and the one most completely in Iran's pocket. That contradiction seems to have escaped the people who pick their friends by how flattering they are, and figure everyone else can be beat into shape.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Bobbie Ann Hull (1931-2007)

Bobbie Ann Hull passed away on Friday, Jan. 11, at age 75. She was married to my father's youngest brother, James, which makes her my aunt. An awkwardly written line, but not as awkward as the concept. I never thought of her as an aunt. She had none of the traits I associate with aunts, or relatives even. When she was young, she was a huge hulking monster of a woman -- close to six feet tall, weighing close to 300 lbs. She didn't talk so much as bark. She lurched about violently, flailed, shrieked. She was the least intelligent person I ever met. I remember her mostly from when I was a small child, and what I remember about her was first of all terror, then pity for her two small children, a few years younger than me. The younger, Jimmy, was severely retarded. He died at age 21, a wretched life I always blamed Bobbie Ann for. The elder, Gary, was just ordinary dumb, with little if any social skills. My brother, close to the same age, befriended him for a while, but that ended when Gary clumsily tried to rape a friend.

James joined the Air Force in the early '50s. He was a career NCO, working as an aircraft mechanic, so he moved from base to base over the next 25-30 years. In the late '50s he worked at McConnell AFB in Wichita. They lived in a brick ranch house in near southwest Wichita, and that's where my initial memories are set. He went to Germany after that, had several stretches in Las Vegas. He did a year in Vietnam where he never got off the base, so most of his memories were of bowling. He wound up back in Wichita for most of the '70s. When he retired, he got a job at Boeing here, doing what he had done in the Air Force, and wound up with two pensions. I spent time talking with him in the mid-'70s. He's an affable, cheerful, easy-going guy, with a corny sense of humor. As near as I can tell, he only has two political beliefs, but he takes them to extremes. He is so ardently pro-military he not only defends My Lai, he defends the Navy at Tailhook. (Haven't talked to him since Abu Ghraib; like, what's the point?) And he believes that capital punishment is not just a good thing -- it's a metric of economic progress in America. Last I heard he was writing a book on that.

James is the only survivor of five siblings in my father's generation. He was the youngest by most of a decade -- my father, the middle child, always referred to him as the "baby" and didn't seem to be all that close, especially when growing up. When I was young, my grandparents lived on a 160 acre wheat farm near the Smoky Hills, about 100 miles north and slightly west of Wichita. The farmhouse had a hand pump in the kitchen sink and an outhouse halfway to the barn. There was a pear tree, a corral, a windmill to pump water for a couple of cows, a small pond stocked with a few scrawny bullheads. My grandfather's family had homesteaded northeast of Dodge City in the 1870s, where my father was born in 1922. My grandmother's family came from Sweden in the 1880s, settling near Lindsborg, still the most pointedly Swedish town in Kansas. She was born in 1894. My grandfather was born in 1895. They were married in 1918. They had a daughter, Clara Belle, then four sons: George, Carl (my father), Bob, and James.

My grandfather died when he was 70 and I was 14. By that time he had retired and moved into a large house in Marquette, a small town west of Lindsborg, not far from the farm. We went to visit there something like once a month, including whole family get togethers at Christmas. Clara Belle also lived in Marquette; the rest of us lived in Wichita, except when James was somewhere else. My grandfather was cold and taciturn. I only found out much later that he had taught school as well as farmed, and that the family had spent the '40s living in Wichita. I mostly remember him talking about genealogy -- he traced the family back through Pennsylvania to Ireland in the 1810s (I later concluded these must have been English protestants from the plantations near Dublin) -- and Revelations (he was particularly interested in Israel as a sign of the end of times). He was, in short, a typical midwestern farmer-intellectual, where the latter trait was defined by his researches in one book. (My father had his own theories about Revelations, which were markedly different, although I never bothered to figure out how so. My own theory is that the Book is the denouement at the end of a play, where everything is revealed to have been a farce.)

My grandmother was another scary woman. She was harsh, bitterly judgmental, blithely prejudiced, her main skill cutting sarcasm. But she rarely took this out on me, so my resentment built up more in her absence than in her presence. She lived another 25 years after my grandfather died, but dementia set in in the early '70s. The last time I saw her she gave me some money to bail a stolen car out of the pound, an unusual but not unheard of kindness. My judgment is no doubt unfair, but I found it impossible to watch The Sopranos because the Livia character was the spitting image of her, making me wonder how much more evil her hatreds would have been had she the power to order up hitmen.

There are a couple of interesting Hull family traits. None of the five had much in the way of education -- at most a semester at Pittsburg State Teachers College under the GI bill before the three older brothers returned to the airplane factory; James might have had a bit more -- but at least two were regarded, by acquaintances if not experts, as geniuses at mechanics. George reportedly designed the Lunar Lander feet, an ingenious curved rocker that would gently center the craft on a hard surface but had enough surface area it wouldn't sink in powder. What I recall is that he had his own business building tractors and lawn mowers, and that he built go-karts, raced by his son. My father had no such ambitions, but he tinkered endlessly, converting old pieces of junk into new contraptions more elegant and more useful than their Rube Goldberg resemblances suggested. James had similar skills, but I don't know that he did anything so idiosyncratic with them.

The other trait is that the four sons, like their father, all married crazy women, and stuck with them long term. (The daughter, Clara Belle, married a guy we always thought was a hopeless bum. Their marriage lasted more than 50 years, until he died.) You might argue that Bob was the exception in that he divorced his first wife then remarried, but he stayed with each more than twenty years, and the second was even crazier -- albeit more fun -- than the first. Like my mother, Bob's two wives were demanding, dominant, sometimes shrill, always high maintenance, but at least they had redeeming qualities. My mother finally mellowed a bit once she discovered that the children she had tried to hard to drive crazy actually turned out OK. George's wife I'm less certain about, but she killed herself a few years after he died, so that's nothing to throw a good generalization out over. But Bobbie Ann was in a class by herself.

The same day James and Bobbie Ann were married, she freaked out and ran off, disappearing for three days. I don't know much more about that, but I always interpreted the story through the prism of something that happened to me. Shortly after I started dating my future first wife, at the end of a very long night, she freaked out on me and suddenly threatened suicide. She scared me something awful, but somehow I calmed her down. It wouldn't have been unusual to split at that point, or at the next one, or the one after that, but I kept being drawn back, and eventually I got better at coping with it all. We stayed together until she died -- she was a diabetic with nasty complications. I imagine that James experienced the same shock, fear, and sense of duty, and over time he got used to it all, even the rhythm. Probably even more so. At least I never had to call the cops to haul her away after she tried to kill me. Nor did I have to watch her destroy small children. Hell, I didn't even have to live in a house full of pigeons shitting up the place. And I could point to traits that I did appreciate and enjoy about my wife. Bobbie Ann was the most completely unappealing person I've ever met. She must have had a terrible life. But that she lived so long, and had any shred of normalcy in her life, is due to one person, James Hull.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Brooks' Fog Over Iraq

David Brooks in the NY Times following Bush's "new way forward":

If the Democrats don't like the U.S. policy on Iraq over the next six months, they have themselves partly to blame. There were millions of disaffected Republicans and independents ready to coalesce around some alternative way forward, but the Democrats never came up with anything remotely serious. [ . . . ] So we are stuck with the Bush proposal as the only serious plan on offer.

For the last twenty-some years, the Republicans' propagandists have been touting the GOP as the "party of ideas" -- the implicit point being that the Democrats have run out of ideas. Now that we've gotten a chance to see those Republican ideas in practice, even Brooks admits they're pretty ragged. But still he works the party line, insisting that nothing Democrats have said about Iraq over the last 4-5 years can be deemed "serious."

I'm not here to defend the Democrats, who aren't of one mind anyway -- and whose slow uptake has let fast-talking Republican hucksters henpeck them coming and going for decades now. There are two simple answers to this line. One is that there has been no shortage of alternative plans, even from Democrats -- George McGovern's is most clearly thought out, but John Murtha has one that's also workable, and even John Kerry and Joe Biden figured out that the goal of permanent US military bases won't fly. But the key word in Brooks' dismissal is "serious": I'm not sure whether what he means is that the media doesn't need to respect any idea that doesn't have the imprimatur of a major political party -- a point Walter Karp made long ago in criticizing the servility of the media -- or that any idea that rejects the president's assumptions can be dismissed out of hand. Somehow Brooks even seems to have dismissed the Baker-Hamilton plan, which while certainly flawed can hardly be considered inferior to the line Bush is pushing.

The other response is to concede that the Republicans are indeed the masters of ideas, the undisputed champs of fantasy, and that sort of idealized thinking unfettered by reality is exactly why their ideas translate into policy so poorly. The Democrats could even do a little mea culpa here and point out that in the past they've occasionally let their ideals get out in the lead, but over time they've learned to pay close attention to the real world. (Maybe they can rid themselves of some of those liberal hawks with this line.) I think this argument comes close to reality. One thing about Iraq that should be sobering is the recognition of how little actual power we have to implement any plan over there. That must be even more frustrating for folks like Brooks and Bush who were brought up believing that America has a God-given right to run the world in the 21st Century. It also blinds them to the fact that those who have started to grasp the limits of American power don't have any use for "serious" plans for world domination. All we need is the sense to back away when we find that the only thing we can do is hurt ourselves and others.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Recycled Goods #39: January 2007

Following the tradition started in 2006, the January edition of Recycled Goods this year rounds up the best new (well, mostly) records of 2006. It's up now at Static Multimedia.

This makes 39 columns, 1673 records. I was about a week late getting this in this time, and didn't quite cover everything I had hoped to get in, but that's what deadlines are for -- missing then scrambling and coming up short.

February's column will return to the usual old music/world music grind.

Here's the publicists letter:

Recycled Goods #39, January 2007, is up at Static Multimedia:


58 records, mostly new music in 2006, wrapping up my year-end list.
Next month will return to the usual old music/world music grind.

Index by label:

  Adventure Music: Vittor Santos
  Akron Cracker: Carneyball Johnson
  American Roots: Bill Sheffield
  Antagonist: KRS-One
  Anti-: Tom Waits
  Arbors: Maurice Hines
  Atavistic: Sound in Action
  AUM Fidelity: Kidd Jordan
  Barbes: Hazmat Modine
  Bruc: Hank Williams III
  Carrot Top: Handsome Family
  Cold Sweat: This Moment in Black History
  Concord: Scott Hamilton
  Def Jam: Ghostface Killah (2)
  Definitive Jux: Mr Lif
  Delmark: Fred Anderson
  Domino: Arctic Monkeys, Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid
  Downtown: Art Brut
  Drifter's Church: Chris Knight
  Ecstatic Peace: Be Your Own Pet
  EMI (Blue Note): Ignacio Berroa
  Epitaph: The Coup
  Fresh Sound: Hat, Bob Reynolds
  Guerrilla Funk: Public Enemy
  High Two: Sonic Liberation Front
  J: Rhymefest
  JDub: Golem
  Jesus H Christ Rocks: Jesus H Christ Rocks & the Four Hornsmen of the
  Libra/No Man's Land: Satoko Fujii, Gato Libre
  Pi: Odyssey the Band
  Roadrunner: New York Dolls
  Smalls: Frank Hewitt
  Sony/BMG (Columbia, Zomba): Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett, Clipse, OutKast
  Stern's: Kekele
  Sunnyside: Steven Bernstein
  Telarc: Maria Muldaur
  TVT: Crunk Hits (2)
  Universal (Geffen, Motown, New Door, Verve): Todd Snider, Diana Krall,
    Rapture, Sonic Youth
  Vagrant: Hold Steady
  V2: Rakes
  WEA (Atlantic, Nonesuch, Warners): Toumani Diabate, Gothic Archies,
    Lupe Fiasco, Madonna, Streets
  Wrasse: Rachid Taha

Also included are supplemental lists of A- or better albums that I have
already been reviewed in Recycled Goods or the Jazz Consumer Guide, plus
a few that I didn't get around to writing up (although I probably have
notes on them somewhere, and I swear they're good'uns). Many of the jazz
records that I haven't gotten to in Jazz CG are included here, but this
should not prevent them from appearing in the Voice next time around.

This is the 39th monthly column. Thus far I've covered a total of 1672
albums in Recycled Goods.

Thanks again for your support.

Bush's New Generals

Take a look at Helena Cobban's post on "Bush's New Generals in Iraq." Thomas Ricks, in Fiasco, made a point of contrasting Petraeus and Odierno. The latter was the prime example of how the US military kick-started the insurgency. Petraeus came off as relatively enlightened, but his limited success in Mosul had as much to do with timing as with what he actually did. At the beginning, many Iraqis were uncertain what the US would do once the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled, and as such took a skeptical wait-and-see attitude. (This has been documented by every journalist who actually talked to Iraqis during the period -- Anthony Shadid is a prime example.) Petraeus's engagement with local leaders, his willingness to listen, and his budget to deliver favors worked to extend that grace period. After he left all that collapsed, under the dead weight of the CPA and the active provocation of military directors who followed their prime directive, which is to fight.

Petraeus went back to Leavenworth to write a new counterinsurgency manual, which Cobban critiques in the post. Just glancing through Cobban's notes, I'm reminded of the old adage that generals always try to re-fight the last war. Iraq has moved on since Petraeus left. Two factors strike me as especially important: one is that the US has recognized (tried to legitimize) a "sovereign" Iraqi government which is hopelessly corrupt and sectarian and is positioned and motivated to block any attempt at the sort of political reforms that are called for by COIN doctrine; the other is that the Iraqi people have lost all trust or faith in US and Iraqi governments, so the burden of proof of progress is much higher than it was in the beginning (even then a standard that the US flunked).

Not covered in Cobban's post is the new CENTCOM commander, Admiral William Fallon. This almost suggests that the brass expects that the focus of operations in the Middle East will move from the lost cause(s) of Iraq (and Afghanistan) to the Persian Gulf. This would be consistent with a Vietnam-like plan to withdraw under the cover of broadening the war, e.g. to Iran. I've seen reports that Israel is training for long range bombing runs by flying warplanes across the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, a distance which in the other direction would put them well within Iran.

The Wichita Eagle had a big page 4A article today called "Palestinians kill fewer Israelis." The body count for 2006, including Israelis and foreign visitors, was 23 ("down from a high of 289 in 2002 during the height of the uprising"). Meanwhile, in 2006 the number of Palestinians killed by Israel jumped more than threefold, from 197 to 660. Cf. yesterday's post. QED.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dodging Fate

Tom Engelhart wrote this several days old, but is basically all you need to know about Bush's "new way forward":

Every now and then, you have to take a lesson or two from history. In the case of George Bush's Iraq, here's one: No matter what the President announces in his "new way forward" speech on Iraq next week -- including belated calls for "sacrifice" from the man whose answer to 9/11 was to urge Americans to surge into Disney World -- it won't work. Nothing our President suggests in relation to Iraq, in fact, will have a ghost of a chance of success. Worse than that, whatever it turns out to be, it is essentially guaranteed to make matters worse.

Repetition, after all, is most of what knowledge adds up to, and the Bush administration has been repetitively consistent in its Iraqi -- and larger Middle Eastern -- policies. Whatever it touches (or perhaps the better word would be "smashes") turns to dross. Iraq is now dross -- and Saddam Hussein was such a remarkably hard act to follow badly that this is no small accomplishment.

Actually, "dross" may be too sanitary a word. I've been reading Patrick Cockburn's The Occupation, where he details in many painful examples how the US lost the small amount of good will accrued from toppling Saddam Hussein (pp. 108-109):

All the ingredients leading to an insurrection against the US occupation were present in those first crucial months of the invasion. I had witnessed the palpable hatred of the US army in Baghdad and Sunni areas of central Iraq. Even so the guerrilla war developed at surprising speed. After the British captured Baghdad in 1917 it was still three years before the Shia tribes of the mid-Euphrates rose in rebellion. Iraq is a mosaic of communities with differing interests, but during the first disastrous year of the occupation the US showed a genius for offending everybody simultaneously. Even the Kurds, America's one reliable ally in the country, were outraged to discover that the Pentagon was hoping to bring in 10,000 Turkish troops to police western Iraq.

The successful US invasion was turning into a political catastrophe so swiftly because the occupation lacked legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and the world. Investigative teams failed to find the Weapons of Mass Destruction which had been America's and Britain's justification for going to war. The only way Washington could have overthrown Saddam Hussein and avoided a backlash against occupation would have been to hand over ultimate control of the country to the UN as quickly as possible. But this was never feasible because the purpose of the war, in the eyes of the American right, both nationalist and neoconservative, was to show that the US was the sole superpower, and did not need the UN or any other allies. [ . . . ]

America's political position in the first crucial year of the occupation of Iraq was surprisingly fragile. Its military and political leaders only truly began to grasp the risks they were running during the twin Sunni and Shia uprisings of April 2004. Bush's ability to manoeuvre was limited and weakened by past boastfulness. He had notoriously told the world on May 1 2003 that the war was won. Over the next three years he could never quite explain why it was still going on.

Cockburn attributes much of the Americans' arrogance to the relative ease with which they defeated the Iraqi army, without allowing that the key thing in that campaign was that the army didn't fight for Saddam Hussein. Thinking themselves invincible, the Americans had no reason to cut any Iraqi any slack. They proceeded to set up a long-term occupation following nothing but their own whims, and failed utterly.

Deep down, I believe their failure is due to two things: a fundamentally flawed sense of ethics, and overspecialization. The ethics matter can be complex to explain, but as far as we are concerned here, it comes down to a willingness to use force to defend and increase privilege. Bush is a man of conviction, and that's what he believes in, leaving him no need to respect anyone who doesn't enjoy force and privilege. Overspecialization differs slightly for the political and military elites, but both are limited in the same ways. The US military, putting Vietnam out of memory, has trained for one purpose: to kill so-called bad guys. That's it. Working with local people, reconstructing a country they had done so much to wreck -- those were tasks they had no skills or inclination to do. So all they could effectively do was to wait around for someone to take a shot at them, then fire back and kill a few more for good measure. Ethics might have constrained them a bit, but this is the Bush Administration we're talking about, and they don't have that kind of ethics.

The Bush Administration is every bit as specialized, and that is political rhetoric: specifically, the kind that gains them power in the US. They play an ugly game, but they've won at the polls, in the courts, and over the media often enough that you have to grant they have skills. To a large extent their success is the result of selection: American politics rewards those who raise a lot of money and talk a good game. That's what they do, and to an amazing extent that's all they do. That left them with two big weaknesses in Iraq. One is that their rhetoric and logic is so finely tuned to American ears they have no idea how badly it fares abroad, especially in Iraq -- a nation populated by lots of folks who fall into one definition or another of "bad guys" (i.e., military targets). The other problem is ultimately even more damaging: they're incapable of managing anything. The main reason is they're only concerned with the political returns of projects -- kickbacks and cronyism, including ideological favors. So if it sounded good, they just did it. Or tried to, but as I said, they weren't actually much good at anything, so it's hard to tell.

So this in a nutshell is why Bush can't come up with any sort of workable plan. He can only see the plans in his world-view, which is diametrically wrong for dealing with Iraq. And he's done a real good job of keeping any other world-views out of the loop. So we get one fantasy after another, one six-month critical window after another, all of which are based on the notion that privilege and force will win out in the end. And the more he breaks Iraq, and the more he breaks America -- and don't for a moment think he hasn't -- the harder it gets. It used to be said that "failure is not an option." That's right: now it's an accomplished fact. The only open question is how much more we have to pay for his failure. At this point, he's just stalling for time, like a gambling junkie dodging the loan shark's muscle. This isn't going to end pretty.

The Perils of Apartheid

Just to clarify a point in yesterday's post: I don't think that Israel is going to engage in genocide against Palestinians. I think they're getting desensitized and desperate enough that their peak massacre totals could jump from dozens to hundreds and their offensive body counts could grow from hundreds to thousands. Israel has killed about 4,000 Palestinians since September 2000. Unless some conscience arises within Israel or abroad to moderate current trends, we could see an order of magnitude more deaths in the next couple of years. That would be far short of the millions genocide implies, and will have no effect on the demographic struggle. But it would be a very bad omen: the lesson that terrorism has taught us is that even a miniscule statistical threat can be massively disrupting and debilitating, and ultimately dehumanizing and brutalizing.

A small example of this trend is the vicious assault on Jimmy Carter's Peace, Not Apartheid book. For a brief summary, see Patrick O'Connor's piece on Ethan Bronner's New York Times book review. I took a look at Carter's book last night, and decided once again that it's not all that interesting for me to read at this point. What's important about the book isn't what it reveals -- as opposed to, e.g., the works of Tanya Reinhart -- as that it's written by someone with Carter's political and religious credentials.

As Tony Karon wrote, Carter's charge of apartheid is fundamentally correct -- I might add "for all practical purposes." I have three caveats about the the term:

  1. Israel differentiates not just between Jews and Palestinians (Muslim or Christian), but discriminates differently according to where the Palestinians live. Approximately one million Palestinians are nominal citizens of Israel, and as such have considerably more rights than Palestinian residents of annexed Greater Jerusalem or the Occupied Territories (where the West Bank and Gaza are treated somewhat differently). Apartheid in South Africa (and segregation in the US, which provided the model for South Africa) was based on race, whereas Israel's discrimination is more complex and arbitrary. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are rigidly separated; in Israel the discrimination is more subtle, although the net effect in many cases is separation.

  2. The South African economy depended on black labor, whereas Israel has eliminated its dependencies on Palestinian labor. This significantly reduces the leverage Palestinians have in everyday activities, as well as grinding them into abject poverty. It means they have virtually no interaction with unarmed Jews, and it means that Jews have no view of Palestinians except as threats.

  3. The demographic balance in South Africa so heavily favored blacks -- about 90% of the population -- that black-majority rule appeared to be inevitable sooner or later. White settler colonies have either succeeded (US, Canada, Australia) or failed (South Africa, Algeria, Rhodesia) depending on overwhelming demographic balance. Israel is in between and indeterminate, but the general trend favors the Palestinians -- not to displace the Jews, but to join them in one or two states. One aspect of this shift is that it encourages Palestinians to adopt pro-democracy strategies, while increasingly limiting Israel's options to violence. This is in fact what we've observed over the last twenty years, although we've also seen a great deal of ingenuity on the part of Israel to divide and control the Palestinian population, and to shift the blame for the violence onto them. (It's noteworthy that Israel's efforts have been most successful with the US, which has a similar, albeit more successful, history.)

So it's not exactly the case that what Israel is doing is South African-style apartheid, much as it was not exactly the case that South Africa merely implemented Jim Crow segregation laws. But morally the three cases are equivalent: they divide the population into two or more groups and deny those groups equal rights and protections under law. Where they differ is in the details of control, and what that means on both sides of the boundaries. I wouldn't say that one is worse than the other, but I will say that what Israel is doing is both more tenacious and more destructive than what either US or SA did.

The US ultimately gave up segregation because white supremacy wasn't really threatened, either demographically or economically, and because it just proved to be a damn stupid and embarrassing institution. (In many ways it was just the South's way of taking revenge for losing the Civil War, a cause that the North humored for a while, then got bored with.) South Africa gave up apartheid because it ultimately isolated the nation's ruling whites to the point where it was no longer viable. It is worth noting in this regard that the last friends the Afrikaners had where the US and Israel; also that Israel was equally chummy with France while they were desperately trying to hold on to Algeria. Israel is still a ways from having to make peace with the Palestinians, but its leaders are starting to feel cramped, both from inside and outside. And that's why they struggle so desperately against the word "apartheid": it is a word that commands the world to stand up for human rights, and shows Israel itself to be so very much in the wrong; moreover, it is a word that bespeaks failure for just that reason.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bush's Hit List: Somalia, Palestine, . . .

If there was ever any doubt that the US had orchestrated Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia, it was laid to rest yesterday when the US Air Force joined the fray, sending an A-130 gunship to shoot up a tribal area suspected of harboring Al-Qaeda terrorists. This is a blatant act of war, and unlike the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched solely on Bush's presidential authority, with no discussion or chance for review or discussion in Congress or among the American people.

Somalia has always been on the War on Terror hit list. The fiasco of the US occupation of Mogadishu in 1993 has conveniently been blamed on Clinton, but the actual occupation was started under Bush I and left for Clinton as a poison pill. So the political attraction of this move for Bush II should be obvious to the point of caricature. But the important point is this is just one of a series of moves that shows that Bush's intention is to shoot his way out of the Iraq fiasco. His administration has dug in its heels against the Baker-Hamilton report, rejecting any diplomatic thaw with Syria and Iran or doing anything to ameliorate the situation in Palestine. And Bush senses that his time is running out: only two more years to accomplish his Great Work, and the tide has turned decisively against him in Iraq. What can he salvage for his epitaph?

One thing is genocidal destruction of Palestine. Elliott Abrams, who convinced Sharon to turn Gaza into Israel's version of the Nevada Bombing Range, seems to be the brains behind the latest scheme. The deal is: the US and Israel provides arms to Fatah militants to start a civil war against Hamas; this drives Hamas underground, breaking their "hudna" (ceasefire), forcing them to fight back; one result is that Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership are totally discredited -- with any luck they'll manage to get Abbas, who they've refused to deal with for decades, assassinated, turned into a symbol of the Palestinians' self-destructive obsession with violence; meanwhile, at least some of the influx of weapons will inevitably be diverted for use against Israelis, especially West Bank settlers; that, in turn, will be met with massive Israeli reprisals. Israel's 2001 offensive was aimed at destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, to make it impossible for Palestinians to operate anything resembling a state -- thereby delegitimizing them in the eyes of the world. There's little left to restrain the Israelis from targeting the Palestinian people when the next offensive comes. That Avigdor Lieberman is now part of the Olmert government is just one of many hints of what is to come.

This point bears repeating: the US and Israel are funnelling arms into Occupied Palestine knowing that they will be used to kill Jews and provoke (or more accurately, justify) a bloodbath.

Time and again, we've seen that ignoring reasonable grievances and attempting to beat down opposition with military force only perpetuates the problem. Political Islamism will not be beaten to death. The great irony here is that the beating itself drives people ever closer to their religion -- a safe haven, in the next world if not in this one. Beating heightens one's sense of injustice, and fuels one's instinct for revenge. The only way to break that cycle is to make people feel safe, secure, and satisfied in this world. But that's not an option, not even a concept, in the Bush Weltanschauung: only the rod matters, in the model of the wrath of God. And there's so much evil left to thwart, and so little time to do it.

Regarding Palestine, read Tony Karon, and its links, especially the Conflicts Forum piece on Abrams. These writers don't push the argument as far as I do above. Israel has in the past been relatively careful to limit the number of Palestinians they've killed, correctly seeing that massacres are bad for their PR. However, increasing brutalization of the conflict can only work to erode those scruples (if that's the right word). The ascendancy of politicians like Lieberman is one indication of this. The massive overkill exhibited in Israel's attack on Lebanon is further evidence, especially regarding the IDF.

I'm reminded also of a joke in Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost, where a bathhouse operator charges Abbas twice as much as he charges Arafat, because Abbas is so much dirtier. I didn't like, much less get, the joke when I read it: Abbas has long been a more hopeful figure -- the sort of guy the US and Israel could deal with if they wanted to resolve the conflict. But they had their chance, and did bupkes with it. Abbas only becomes useful to them when they can use him against some other symbol of resistance; what makes him so dirty is his willingness to play along. This is tragic: he is right that nothing else works, but caught in the trap that the US and Israel don't want a workable resolution. They want to win, or so they say. Mostly they want to keep fighting.

War in Context has some useful links regarding the Somalia strike.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Quagmire of the Vanities

Paul Krugman writes:

The only real question about the planned "surge" in Iraq -- which is better described as a Vietnam-style escalation -- is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional.

Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks they're cynical. He recently told The Washington Post that administration officials are simply running out the clock, so that the next president will be "the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof."

Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his research on irrationality in decision-making, thinks they're delusional. Mr. Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon recently argued in Foreign Policy magazine that the administration's unwillingness to face reality in Iraq reflects a basic human aversion to cutting one's losses -- the same instinct that makes gamblers stay at the table, hoping to break even.

Both theories have appeared at one point or another in this blog: I recall titling one entry "Double or Nothing," and I've described US provocation of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence as a stall tactic, a way of buying time until various elections and events have slipped past. So there's nothing new here; just the dead weight of sedimentation piling up.

It's hard to see why anyone would think that a troop "surge" would do the US any good. Every surge scheme to date has failed. The US political command of Iraq is visibly weakening, and not just because the American people are more than willing to write this misadventure off. The more immediate problem is that the Shiite militias have strengthened to the point where they could break the whole country open. That happened largely because we armed them to fight the Sunnis, but also because if we hadn't armed and empowered them, they wouldn't have had any need for us. Bush's people always assumed they have infinite time to deal with Iraq -- that, following the lesson they took from Vietnam, the only way we can lose is if we quit. In reality, the clock has been ticking down both here and there.

Krugman continues:

Either way, what's clear is the enormous price our nation is paying for President Bush's character flaws.

I began writing about the Bush administration's infallibility complex, the president's Captain Queeg-like inability to own up to mistakes, almost a year before the invasion of Iraq. When you put a man like that in a position of power -- the kind of position where he can punish people who tell him what he doesn't want to hear, and base policy decisions on the advice of people who play to his vanity -- it's a recipe for disaster.

Consider, on one side, the case of the C.I.A.'s Baghdad station chief during 2004, who provided accurate assessments of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. "What is he, some kind of defeatist?" asked the president -- and according to The Washington Post, at the end of his tour, the station chief "was punished with a poor assignment."

Actually, this is more than a character flaw. It's a deep-seated belief that real problems can be overcome by character -- stubborn persistence, moral certainty, self-gratifying rhetoric, and if/when all that fails, bribes and prayer. It demonstrates a frightening inability to understand how the world really works, which starts with an inability to imagine how other people see us. The old joke about rich kids is that they were born on third base and taught to think they'd hit a triple. Krugman finds an interesting pattern in this:

The principal proponents of the "surge" are William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. [ . . . ] And am I the only person to notice that after all the Oedipal innuendo surrounding the Iraq Study Group -- Daddy's men coming in to fix Junior's mess, etc. -- Mr. Bush turned for advice to two other sons of famous and more successful fathers?

It's a pretty sad state of affairs when a psychoanalysis cliché offers a better explanation for what went wrong than the media and the so-called opposition politicians can come up with.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Music: Current count 12733 [12719] rated (+14), 846 [851] unrated (-5). Spent most of this week crippled. Had guests toward the end of week, so I made them cook (under my direction). So I didn't get much done other than to read quite a bit of Tony Judt's mammoth book. In my few moments of consciousness, I did try to make some progress on year-end lists. Recycled Goods is finally done.

  • Darby & Tarlton: Complete Recordings (1927-33 [1995], Bear Family, 3CD); Tom Darby, Jimmy Tarlton, old-time country duo, although most of what they do could pass for blues. Looking at my database, I have a single-disc comp on County graded at B. That's presumably a subset of this, but I've enjoyed every minute of this one. Not spectacular by any means -- by blues, one thing I mean is pretty down and out. B+
  • Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra: Boulevard de l'Indépencence (2006, World Circuit/Nonesuch): The Malian kora master's relentless networking pays off here with a big band that spreads both traditional and modern instruments out into an even-handed, seamless mix that's consciously evocative of Mali old and new. A-
  • Ludacris: Release Therapy (2006, Disturbing Tha Peace): The thing about owning your own business is you have to keep the new product coming even when the muse gets constipated. This one pimps four ideas, none all that great on their own, all ridiculous in tandem. First up is quotidian porn like "Money Maker" and "Girls Gone Wild"; failing that he rhymes his business plan; then he decides to go gangsta and aim for socialist realism; finally, he goes after God in "Freedom to Preach." He's got a knack for the hook, and I appreciate the dig at Bush, but this cart's done lost its horse. B
  • Mr. Lif: Mo' Mega (2006, Definitive Jux): You know he's gone deep underground because he ends a diatribe against Bush with a "Fuck Clinton too!"; once upon a time his juxtapositions resolved as dialectics, but those were the days when we thought there would be resolutions; but at least he's got hope, and beats. A-
  • Múm: The Peel Sessions (2002 [2006], Fat Cat, EP): Short (21:15), although none of the four pieces seem rushed. Heard good things about them, but never heard the group before. Don't care much for the small vocal bits, but otherwise this is very attractive. B+(*)
  • Revenge of Blind Joe Death: The John Fahey Tribute Album (2006, Takoma): The various artists here hew so closely to Fahey's guitar style that this tribute not only flows smoothly, it comes close to converging into a single mind -- compensation, for sure, for the fact that Fahey is no longer with us; one cut that stands out is Henry Kaiser and John Schott on "Steamboat Gwine 'Round the Bend/How Green Was My Valley," where they amplify Fahey's tone and double it up. B+(**)
  • This Moment in Black History: It Takes a Nation (Of Assholes to Hold Us Back) (2005 [2006], Cold Sweat): Hardcore band, lot of thrash, but sharp on the downstroke. Produced by Steve Albini. Two whites, two blacks; don't know who does what. Can't decipher the lyrics, but the titles show some interest in Christ ("Larry Pulled a Knife on Jesus," "Nailed to the Cross," "God on Drugs"). Speaking of drugs, there's "On Tour With Charlie Parker." Final cut is long and gets by on music alone. A-
  • Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (2006, Frenchkiss): Making progress with this one -- loud rock but also with a bright pop shine, some muscle and some brains. Booklet has a lyric sheet, which might help. A-
  • Rhonda Towns: I Wanna Be Loved By You (2005 [2006], Dawn): Website bio doesn't say which college she attended, but notes that she won "the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Miss Black Culture Pageant -- the pageant's primary concentrations were intelligence, talent and beauty." Also doesn't say where she came from, or when she was born, or why she moved from her preacher-father's church choir to country music, other than her admiration for how bluesy Reba McEntire sounds. But it does include details of her modelling career, a list of all the TV commercials she's appeared in, and a note that she lives in Phoenix even though her heart's in Nashville. She sounds as country as Charley Pride and, for that matter, McEntire. One minor knock: the songs are standard country fare, and she didn't write any of them. The bigger knock is her acapella "Lord's Prayer," which stops me cold -- in part because I'm trying to remember which denomination reads it her way, something else not on the website, but mostly because I can enjoy love songs no matter how insincere but can't abide something about God that doesn't begin to swing. B+(**)

No Jazz Prospecting

No jazz prospecting this week. Don't even ask! It's been a total wipeout. Next week should be better.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pazz and Jop 2006

I sent my Pazz & Jop ballot in a day before the deadline. I made one change from the Jackin' Pop ballot: adding the Irène Schweizer Portrait, which bumped Adam Lane's Full Throttle Orchestra out of the bubble. I generally avoid reissue compilations in these ballots, but this one really stands on its own. It also keeps the jazz count at four, which is the sort of balance I like in a mostly-not-jazz poll. The list and points:

  1. Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar) 15
  2. Todd Snider: The Devil You Know (New Door) 13
  3. Public Enemy: Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk) 12
  4. The Coup: Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph) 10
  5. Jon Faddis: Teranga (Koch) 10
  6. Ghostface Killah: Fishscale (Def Jam) 10
  7. Irène Schweizer: Portrait (1984-2004, Intakt) 8
  8. The Klezmatics: Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie (JMG) 8
  9. World Saxophone Quartet: Political Blues (Justin Time) 8
  10. Jesus H Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (jesushchristrocks.com) 6

I also voted for songs this year -- something I have rarely if ever done in the past. I have no confidence that these are really the ten best songs of the year, but they're worth noting:

  1. Tom Waits: "Road to Peace" (Orphans)
  2. Bill Sheffield: "I Don't Hate Nobody" (Journal on a Shelf)
  3. Club D'Elf: "Just Kiddin'" (Now I Understand)
  4. Chris Knight: "Dirt" (Enough Rope)
  5. Hank Williams III: "Dick in Dixie" (Straight to Hell)
  6. Ben Allison: "Tricky Dick" (Cowboy Justice)
  7. Daddy Yankee, "Gasolina DJ Buddha Remix" (Crunk Hits Vol. 2)
  8. Neil Young: "Let's Impeach the President" (Living With War)
  9. Chris Smither: "Origin of Species" (Leave the Light On)
  10. T Bone Burnett: "Blinded by the Darkness" (The True False Identity)

Still working on my comments, but since their deadline is already upon us, I guess the Voice won't benefit from them this year. Too bad, but this has been a really tough time for me. I'd like to think the coming year will be better, but I doubt that it will.

Dec 2006 Feb 2007