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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Daily Log

Greg Magarian wrote (on Facebook):

What follows is, I hope, the ultimate EW freak battery of questions about (mostly) Xgau B pluses. Authoritative knowledge sought where applicable; idle opining encouraged everywhere.

(1) Qualitatively (not by Xgau's deliberate explanation), has the meaning of a B plus grade (whatever that includes; see below) changed over the years? In other words, is a 1975 B plus a higher or lower grade, relative to the overall grading system, than a 1998 B plus?

(2) Same question as (1), but for B's and B minuses. (I have the sense that Xgau thought more kindly of some 1970s B and B minus records than he would think of any 1990s/2000s albums with those grades; but I have no concrete basis for that thought.)

(3) Is it clear that every "starred" album post-1991 falls somewhere in the pre-1991 B plus range? I mean to ask this question both as to Xgau's deliberate explanation and qualitatively -- i.e., do you think some * albums seem (for whatever reason) more like Xgau B's than Xgau B pluses?

(4) When Xgau gave a post-1990 B plus album a CG/EW write-up, did his choice to do so convey that the album was better than the B plus albums that just got honorable mentions? In other words, was every such album a "****" B plus? If not, can we at least be confident that every such album was at least a *** ? Or did Xgau's choice to write up a B plus album simply convey that he wanted to say something about that album for reasons not necessarily related to distinctive quality?

I responded:

Regarding Greg's third question (is every HM a B+? aren't some * albums more like previous B records?), you should look at the CG stats. From 1984-89 Christgau was averaging 100-110 B+ records per year. In the early 1990s he averages about 120-130 B+ plus starred albums, a slight increase, but less than the increase in A- albums (from about 60 per year to 75, sometimes more than 80. At the time he wanted to focus on finding more A- records, so he stopped spending time with B and below. It makes sense that in looking for more A- records (which he was successful at) he'd find more near-misses, hence the increase in B+ and stars. You don't need to assume grade degradation to get those stats.

The other thing: he has sometimes featured B records as duds (and told me that I should), so I find it incongruous that he would ever pass a B record as a * HM.

The other question about whether the reviewed B+ records rank higher than ***: he has as much as said so, but still I (for lots of reasons I can't enumerate here) doubt that that is always true. The fact that one B+ record is worth writing more on than another doesn't necessarily make it the better record.

Joe Yanosik published his list of records he thinks Christgau meant to grade A- or above but didn't:

What follows is a list of albums in my collection that I assume would be graded A- or better by Xgau if he ever officially CG'd them. The list was compiled from various sources (SPIN, CG Additional Consumer News, Blender, etc.) and there's loads of great stuff on it. If anyone is aware of Xgau's latest opinion on any of these (i.e. definitely Aminus or better OR definitely NOT), lemme know. Enjoy.

  • Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington: The Great Summit: Master Takes (EMI)
  • Nat King Cole: Jumpin' at Capitol: The Best of Nat King Cole Trio (Rhino)
  • The Animals: Retrospective (Abkco)
  • Count Basie: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years (Legacy)
  • Big Band Jazz (Smithsonian)
  • Lucille Bogan: Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of (Legacy)
  • Big Bill Broonzy: The Young Big Bill Broonzy 1928-1935 (Yazoo)
  • James Brown: Revolution of the Mind (Polydor)
  • James Brown: Love Power Peace (Polydor)
  • James Brown: Dead on the Heavy Funk 1975-1983 (Polydor)
  • Roy Brown: Good Rocking Tonight: The Best of (Rhino)
  • Butterbeans & Susie (Classic Jazz)
  • Don Byas: Savoy Jam Party (Savoy)
  • James Carr: At the Dark End of the Street (Blues Side)
  • Ray Charles: Sweet and Sour Tears (Rhino)
  • A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records (Legacy)
  • Bruce Cockburn: Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 (Rounder)
  • Nat King Cole: The Nat King Cole Story (Capitol)
  • Ornette Coleman: Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino/Atlantic)
  • Ornette Coleman: Something Else! (OJC)
  • Hank Crawford/Jimmy McGriff: Steppin' Up (Milestone)
  • Hank Crawford: Night Beat (Milestone)
  • Tyrone Davis: Greatest Hits (Epic)
  • Dead Moon: Echoes of the Past (Sub Pop)
  • Digital Underground: Playwutchyalike: The Best of (Rhino)
  • Bill Doggett: Honky Tonk: The Best of (Collectables)
  • Duke Ellington: Feat. Paul Gonsalves (Fantasy)
  • Roky Erickson: I Have Always Been Here Before: Anthology (Shout!)
  • The Fabulous Swing Collection (RCA)
  • Art Farmer Quintet: Plays the Great Jazz Hits (Columbia)
  • For Jumpers Only! (Delmark)
  • Macy Gray: The Very Best of (Epic)
  • Emmylou Harris: Profile II: Best of (Warner Bros.)
  • Isaac Hayes: Greatest Hit Singles (Stax)
  • Lightnin' Hopkins: Blues Kingpins (Virgin)
  • Alan Jackson: Greatest Hits Vol. II (Arista)
  • Jefferson Airplane: 2400 Fulton Street/An Anthology (RCA)
  • Budd Johnson & Phil Woods: The Ole Dude & the Fundance Kid (Uptown)
  • Pete Johnson: Central Avenue Boogie (Delmark)
  • Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia)
  • Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II (Columbia)
  • George Jones: The Great Lost Hits (Time/Life)
  • Steve Lacy with Don Cherry: Evidence (Prestige)
  • Steve Lacy with Mal Waldron: Hot House (RCA Novus)
  • Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin (1990 Box Atlantic)
  • Peggy Lee: Black Coffee (Verve)
  • Peggy Lee: Beauty and the Beat (Capitol)
  • Blind Willie McTell: The Early Years 1927-1933 (Yazoo)
  • Memphis Celebrates 50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll (BMG)
  • Thelonious Monk: Underground (Columbia)
  • More New Orleans Party Classics (Rhino)
  • Frank Morgan: Lament (Contemporary)
  • Mystikal: Prince of the South: The Hits (Jive)
  • Youssou N'Dour et le Super Etoile: Le Grand Bal Bercy Vol. 2 (Jololi)
  • Now That's Chicago! (Legacy)
  • ODB: The Definitive ODB Story (Elektra/Rhino)
  • Bud Powell: Portrait of Thelonious (Columbia)
  • Propellorheads: Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (DreamWorks)
  • Sun Ra: Lanquidity (Evidence)
  • Ragged but Right: Great Country String Bands of the 1930s (RCA)
  • The Replacements: Hootenanny (Twin/Tone)
  • Sonny Rollins: Volume One (Blue Note)
  • Santana: The Essential Santana (Columbia)
  • Jimmy Scott: Dream (Sire)
  • The Sheppards: The Sheppards (Solid Smoke)
  • Sonic Youth: EVOL (DGC)
  • Sonic Youth: Murray Street (DGC)
  • Britney Spears; Blackout (Jive)
  • Booker T. & the MG's: The Very Best of (Rhino)
  • Them: Them Featuring Van Morrison (Parrot)
  • T. Rex: T.Rextasy: The Best of 1970-73 (Warner Bros.)
  • VH-1 8-Track Flashback: Classic '70s Soul (Rhino)
  • T-Bone Walker: The Best of the Black & White and Imperial Years (MetroBlue)
  • Dinah Washington: The Fats Waller Songbook (EmArcy)
  • Bukka White: The Complete Bukka White (Columbia/Legacy)
  • Smokey Wood: The Houston Hipster 1937 (Rambler)
  • Lester Young: The Kansas City Sessions (Commodore)

Again - these are assumed "A" records, ones I'm not sure of. I didn't included hundreds of others, also ungraded, that I AM sure of. And I added a couple of albums that were previously graded HM or B+ that I am assuming were upgraded to Aminus (Britney, SY).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23165 [23091] rated (+74), 557 [581] unrated (-24).

Very productive week with most of the newly rated records found while trolling Rhapsody for Penguin 4-star recommendations, but a big chunk of the newly rated records -- half, I would guess -- were bookkeeping corrections I discovered while scrounging through database files looking for answers to the Downbeat critics poll. The Penguin Guide search got as far as G (more precisely, pianist Michael Garrick; the Tambastics record was listed under Robert Dick), so I expect there will be more of that in the future.

The Penguin Guide search generated nine A-list albums. I've been showing album covers for all the A and A- records listed in Music Week, but last week I had to arrange them in two columns to get them to fit, and this week would have required a hideous three columns (or me writing a lot more than I feel up to), so I cut the show down to three -- I expect that will be a limit going forward. The other idea I considered was to skip the bullet list and go ahead and post my review/notes weekly as part of Music Week. I certainly have enough material to post right now, but rather doubt that I will indefinitely into the future. So what I finally decided is to post my second April Rhapsody Streamnotes tomorrow (or soon after), and keep doing these abbreviated lists on Mondays.

Two big things chewed up my time this past week: 1) voting in Downbeat's Critics Poll, which involved answering 50-some questions about who or what is the best in the known universe; and 2) writing up responses to a number of questions Scott Woods posed for an interview at Both are honors, and perhaps most importantly, they put the ball in my court, which matters because I do much better at responding to pressure than setting out on my own projects. In essence, all this music reviewing after I said I would if not stop at least slow down is my way of procrastinating.

While unpacking is up this week, I'm noticing more and more records (in places like Downbeat and Jazz Times) that would previously have received but didn't get. Felt, well, ambivalent about that.

The Downbeat poll notes, by the way, are in the usual place. I should go back over them, round them out, write an intro, and post that sometime, but they're there in case I don't.

New records rated this week:

  • Sheela Bringi: Incantations (2014, Black Swan Sounds): India-based cosmopolitanism [r]: B+(**)
  • Keith Davis Trio: Still (2013 [2014], LoNote): piano trio [cd]: B+(**)
  • Luther Dickinson: Rock 'n Roll Blues (2014, New West): a paler shade of blues [r]: B+(*)
  • Dave Douglas/Chet Doxas/Steve Swallow/Jim Doxas: Riverside (2012 [2014], Greenleaf Music): Jimmy Giuffre tribute [cd]: A-
  • Robert Ellis: The Lights of the Chemical Plant (2014, New West): singer-songwriter [r]: B
  • EMA: The Future's Void (2014, Matador): hard-edged electropop [r]: B+(**)
  • Andrew Hadro: For Us, the Living (2013 [2014], Tone Rogue): baritone sax quartet [cd]: B+(***)
  • Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want (2014, Daptone): retro-soul [r]: B+(*)
  • Kool & Kass: Coke Boys 5 (2014, self-released): underground rhymes [bc]: B+(***)
  • Glenn Kotche: Adventureland (2014, Cantaloupe): post-minimalism [r]: B+(***)
  • John Németh: Memphis Grease (2014, Blue Corn Music): Memphis soul-blues [r]: B+(**)
  • Ratking: So It Goes (2014, Hot Charity/HXC/XL): NYC rap [r]: B
  • Rufus Reid: Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (2012 [2014], Motéma): big band [r]: B+(*)
  • Ellen Rowe Quintet: Courage Music (2013 [2014], PKO): postbop piano-trumpet-sax quintet [cd]: B+(***)
  • Michael Wollny Trio: Weltentraum (2013 [2014], ACT): piano trio + surprise [cd]: B+(**)

Old records rated this week:

  • Kenny Davern: Breezin' Along (1996 [1997], Arbors): clarinet-guitar swing [r]: B+(***)
  • Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble: Cape Town Shuffle: Live at Hothouse (2002 [2003], Delmark): Chicago tenor [r]: A-
  • Elton Dean: Elton Dean's Newsense (1997 [1998], Slam): orchestrated avant [r]: B+(*)
  • Walt Dickerson: Relativity (1962 [1995], New Jazz/OJC): postbop vibes quartet [r]: B+(*)
  • Walt Dickerson: To My Queen (1962 [1996], New Jazz/OJC): postbop vibes quartet [r]: B+(**)
  • Danny D'Imperio: The Outlaw (1994-96 [1996], Sackville): hard bop expanded [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Dodds/Jimmy Blythe: Johnny Dodds & Jimmy Blythe 1926-1928 (1926-28 [1993], Timeless): hot jazz in Chicago [r]: A-
  • Kenny Dorham: 'Round About Midnight at the Cafe Bohemia (1956 [2002], Blue Note, 2CD): hard bop [r]: A-
  • Mark Dresser/Denman Maroney: Duologues (2000 [2001], Victo): avant bass-piano duets [r]: B+(***)
  • Kenny Drew: Trio/Quartet/Quintet: The Riverside Collection (1956-57 [1988], Riverside/OJC): piano trio-to-quintet [r]: B+(***)
  • Billy Drummond: Dubai (1995 [1996], Criss Cross): two-sax quartet [r]: A-
  • 8 Bold Souls: Last Option (1999 [2000], Thrill Jockey): AACM tailgate party [r]: A-
  • Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra: Jungle Nights in Harlam 1927-1932 (1927-32 [1991], RCA/Bluebird): early swing [r]: A-
  • Duke Ellington: At the Bal Masque (1958 [1959], Columbia): dance schmaltz [r]: B
  • Duke Ellington: At the Bal Masque (1958-60 [2011], Essential Jazz Classics): + a gorgeous 1960 small band session [r]: B+(*)
  • Duke Ellington's Spacemen: The Cosmic Scene (1958 [2007], Mosaic): nonet plays suborbital blues [r]: B+(**)
  • Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Afro-Bossa (1962-63 [1982], Discovery): the far south suite [r]: A
  • James Emery: Standing on a Whale Fishing for Minnows (1996 [1997], Enja): postbop guitar trio plus sax/clarinet [r]: A-
  • James Emery Septet: Spectral Domains (1997-98 [1999], Enja): ulta-complex postbop [r]: B+(***)
  • James Emery: Transformations (2001 [2003], Between the Lines): postbop goes orchestral [r]: B+(*)
  • Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Freedom Jazz Dance (1999, Delmark): worldly beats and free flights [r]: A-
  • Orrin Evans: Listen to the Band (1999 [2000], Criss Cross): postbop sextet [r]: B+(***)
  • Maynard Ferguson: Maynard Ferguson and His Birdland Dream Band (1956 [2011], Fresh Sound): brass-heavy big band [r]: B+(***)
  • Kenny Garrett: Standard of Language (2001-02 [2003], Warner Brothers): Bird lives [r]: B+(**)
  • Michael Garrick Trio: A Lady in Waiting (1993, Jazz Academy): piano trio [r]: B+(***)
  • Dennis Gonzalez Dallas-London Sextet: Catechism (1987 [1996], Music & Arts): brass-heavy postbop sextet [r]: B+(**)
  • Tambastics: Tambastics (1992, Music & Arts): avant flute quartet [r]: B+(*)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Joe Beck: Get Me (2006, Whaling City Sound)
  • Mark Buselli: Untold Stories (OA2): April 15
  • Ty Citerman: Bop Kabbalah (Tzadik): advance, May 27
  • Dave Douglas/Chet Doxas/Steve Swallow/Jim Doxas: Riverside (Greenleaf Music): April 15
  • Thom Douvan: Brother Brother (self-released): April 29
  • The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4: New York Concerts (1965, Elemental, 2CD): June 10
  • Elias Haslanger: Live at the Gallery (Cherrywood): May 6
  • Dolly Parton: Blue Smoke (Sony Masterworks): May 13
  • Jamie Saft: The New Standard (Rare Noise): advance, May 20
  • Felipe Salles: Ugandan Suite (Tapestry): May 20
  • Jessica Williams: With Love (Origin): April 15

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Crowson this week, following up on the Kansas legislature's emergency school spending bill, which stripped schoolteachers of the right to a hearing if terminated:

Some scattered links this week:

  • John Feffer: NATO on Viagra: Asks the question, why does NATO still exist? The Warsaw Pact, after all, set a good example and closed up shop long ago. That the US and Russia are increasingly seen in conflict has much to do with the persistence of NATO and its continuing encroachment on (but exclusion of) Russia.

    NATO has long resisted retirement. It has been cooking up new mandates ever since the Iron Curtain unexpectedly melted away and with it the alliance's raison d'être. First it rediscovered its military mojo during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Then it got involved in "out-of-area operations." September 11 offered a full-blown coalition effort in Afghanistan. And Libya was an opportunity to test out the "responsibility to protect" doctrine. Every time that NATO appeared to be on its way out, a new crisis convinced everyone of the alliance's necessity. And there has also been a steady stream of aspiring members who want to shelter under the umbrella in case of rain. [ . . . ]

    During its Cold War youth, NATO didn't engage in military operations. In the post-Cold War era, when the collective defense of members had become largely moot, NATO justified its existence through combat. "It is still struggling with a Hamlet-like identity crisis: to attack or not to attack," I wrote at the time. "The Afghan war has only underscored this central paradox. If the alliance doesn't engage in military operations, everyone questions its ultimate purpose. But if it does go to war -- and the war is unsuccessful -- everyone questions its ultimate efficacy."

    Five years later, just when the testosterone levels seemed to be on an irreversible decline, NATO is back. The current crisis in Ukraine is the geopolitical equivalent of Viagra. "This is the age where giving up isn't who you are," the ads proclaim, and NATO has fallen for the copywriter's hook. [ . . . ]

    Geopolitics abhors an exception. Instead of emulating Japan's "peace constitution," the United States has been pressing the country to acquire a "normal" military. Instead of embracing the reductions in military spending in Europe, the United States has been pushing NATO members to "shoulder more of their burden." We need to be praising European countries for their sensible military reductions and urging other parts of the world to follow suit.

    Of course, we can't rerun history to test whether how a different decision, like abolishing NATO in 1992, would have played out. In the 1990s NATO expanded into eastern Europe, tightening their noose around Russia, plus NATO intervened in Serbia against Russian interests -- threats and insults which, combined with the economic disaster of privatization, led to Putin's nationalist resurgence. At the same time, the persistence of anti-Soviet institutions in the US (NATO, CIA, NSA, etc.) combined with the "Washington consensus" economic dogma kept the US from providing any real aid as Russia floundered. Moreover, those institutions have rarely missed an opportunity to kick back at Russia for the slightest offense -- see Stephen F. Cohen: Distorting Russia for a prescient piece dated back on March 4 on American media coverage of Russia. Since then the distortions have only gotten worse.

    By the way, I got to Cohen's piece via James Kirchik: How the 'Realists' Misjudged Ukraine, which decries Cohen as "noxious" and says the piece "will go down in history as one of the most slavish defenses of Putinism." Kirchik's piece is a perfect example of what Cohen complained about. I can't quite see in it what it is that Kirchik wants to do, other than to sweep away any "realist" arguments that might inhibit the US from vigorous intervention in the Ukraine. Kirchik doesn't go quite so far as to rattle sabres, but he definitely wants to keep all those deadly options on the table.

    For my part, I'm not particularly sympathetic to Putin's point of view there, but I do believe one has to be realistic. And one thing I am fairly sure of here is that the Obama, so wrapped up in the leftover rhetoric of the cold war, is missing an opportunity for a mutually beneficial deal with Putin over Syria.

  • Paul Krugman: Offshore and Underground: Points out that economists have established that "a lot of wealth at the top is held in offshore tax havens."

    I think this is telling us something important about how the world really works. There was a flurry of interest in the offshore haven issue when Mitt Romney's Cayman Islands accounts; a bit more interest when Cyprus hit the wall, and the question of what it was doing arose. But the issue keeps receding, I think due to a sense that it's somehow trivial, a matter of a few Russians and maybe a handful of our own wealthy.

    In reality, however, it's almost surely a much bigger deal than that. At the commanding heights of the US economy, hiding a lot of one's wealth offshore is probably the norm, not the exception.

Also, a few links for further study:

  • John Cassidy: Forces of Divergence: Review of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century, an (reputedly the) new book on what's driving the massive increase in inequality over the last few decades. Sample paragraph:

    Piketty believes that the rise in inequality can't be understood independently of politics. For his new book, he chose a title evoking Marx, but he doesn't think that capitalism is doomed, or that ever-rising inequality is inevitable. There are circumstances, he concedes, in which incomes can converge and the living standards of the masses can increase steadily -- as happened in the so-called Golden Age, from 1945 to 1973. But Piketty argues that this state of affairs, which many of us regard as normal, may well have been a historical exception. The "forces of divergence can at any point regain the upper hand, as seems to be happening now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century," he writes. And, if current trends continue, "the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying."

    One point only now occurs to me. In discussing "big pay packages" for CEOs, Pikkety points out how hard it is to measure the "marginal productivity" of any one individual in a large corporation, but I doubt that anyone tries except at the corporation's margins. Pikkety also notes, no doubt truly, "that people in a position to set their own salaries have a natural incentive to treat themselves generously." But it occurs to me that another factor contributes here, which is the outsized self-regard CEOs typically have, reinforced by the myth of individualism, itself an artifact of increasing inequality.

    Also, see the review by Andrew Hussey: Occupy was right: capitalism has failed the world. Also, the long-awaited review by Paul Krugman: Why We're in a New Gilded Age.

    Brad De Long has more, including further links: An Ongoing Discussion: Democracy and Plutocracy.
  • Laura Gottesdiener: Fantasy, Greed, and Housing, the Prequel: Reports that private equity firms are buying up housing -- she identifies Blackstone Group as "the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the nation" -- turning their debt leverage into "rental-backed" derivatives, and squeezing their renters much like they do the employees of companies they plunder.

  • David E Sanger: Obama Lets NSA Exploit Some Internet Flaws, Officials Say: A more apt title was provided by Paul Woodward in linking to this peace: "NSA pretends it can increase national security while diminishing internet security." It's not clear now whether the NSA knew about and exploited the recently disclosed "Heartbleed" virus -- it has been reported that they did, then denied -- but it would have been extremely irresponsible had they done so. Otherwise all they are doing is putting their own organization goals above the security of the people they supposedly work for. Still, we have good reason to suspect they did just that, as Sanger explains:

    But documents released by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, make it clear that two years before Heartbleed became known, the N.S.A. was looking at ways to accomplish exactly what the flaw did by accident. A program code-named Bullrun, apparently named for the site of two Civil War battles just outside Washington, was part of a decade-long effort to crack or circumvent encryption on the web. The documents do not make clear how well it succeeded, but it may well have been more effective than exploiting Heartbleed would be at enabling access to secret data.

    Also see: Dan Gillmor: How to stop the next Heartland bug: pay open-source coders to protect us.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23091 [23045] rated (+46), 581 [594] unrated (-13).

Big rated count, which usually means a lot of Rhapsody -- partly to fill up last week's post, partly post-post momentum, but I also took a big bite out of the new jazz backlog. And long as the lists below are, they don't quite add up to the rated total, which benefited from finding several bookkeeping errors. Still, none of the pictured (A-) albums on the side came after the Streamnotes post: could be evidence that I was successful in scooping up the best leads before the post. I've been leaning on my tracking file since then, but it's nowhere near as systematic as last year's metacritic file was.

Unrated count dropped because the mail dried up. This is probably temporary -- I got three packages today that I haven't entered yet, so next week is already guaranteed to bounce back -- but two records is probably the fewest I've received in ten years, and if you count things I bought I have no idea how far back you'd have to go -- forty years? Something like that.

Don't have anything more to say, so looks like I'll have to stack the covers double-wide.

New records rated this week:

  • Jason Anick: Tipping Point (2013 [2014], Magic Fiddle Music): violin jazz [cd]: B+(*)
  • Big Ups: Eighteen Hours of Static (2014, Tough Love/Dead Labour): post-hardcore [r]: A-
  • Kris Bowers: Heroes + Misfits (2012 [2014], Concord Jazz): keyboard jazz/funk [r]: B-
  • Carla Bozulich: Boy (2014, Constellation): deep chill [r]: B+(***)
  • Carlene Carter: Carter Girl (2014, Rounder): family revival [os]: B+(**)
  • Chicago Underground Duo: Locus (2014, Northern Spy): cornet-drums with electronics [r]: B+(***)
  • The Coathangers: Suck My Shirt (2014, Suicide Squeeze): girl punk trio [r]: B+(**)
  • Company Freak: Le Disco Social (2014, Opus Label): retro disco [r]: A-
  • The Tim Daisy Quartet: Streets in Time (2012 [2013], Relay): cornet-trombone quartet [bc]: B+(**)
  • The Tim Daisy Trio: A Fine Day in Berlin (2013, Relay): avant piano trio [bc]: B+(**)
  • Tim Daisy & Mikolaj Trzaska: In This Moment (2012 [2014], Relay): avant sax-drums duo [bc]: B+(**)
  • Eagulls: Eagulls (2014, Partisan): ambient post-punk [r]: B+(*)
  • Colin Edwin/Lorenzo Feliciati: Twinscapes (2013 [2014], RareNoise): bass-based grooves [cdr]: B+(***)
  • Free Nelson Mandoomjazz: The Shape of Doomjazz to Come/Saxophone Giganticus (2013 [2014], RareNoise): sax trio with doom overtones [cdr]: A-
  • Ross Hammond: Humanity Suite (2013 [2014], Prescott): post-avant sextet [cdr]: B+(***)
  • International Orange: International Orange (2013 [2014], self-released): guitar trio [cd]: B+(***)
  • JazzBonez: Watch It! (2013 [2014], Summit): 6-trombone big band [cd]: B
  • Krom: Krom (2013 [2014], self-released): piano trio [cd]: C+
  • Takuya Kuroda: Rising Son (2014, Blue Note): trumpet funk [r]: B+(*)
  • John Langford: Skull Orchard Revisited (2011, Bloodshot): secrets of the Welsh [r]: A-
  • Jon Langford & Skull Orchard: Here Be Monsters (2014, In De Goot/Relativity): post-punk roots [r]: A-
  • Metronomy: Love Letters (2014, Because/Elektra): Brit pop group [r]: B+(**)
  • Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics: Cigarros Explosivos! (2014, Asphalt Tango): Cuban-Balkan fusion, almost [r]: B+(*)
  • Noshir Mody: Stories From the Years of Living Passionately (2013 [2014], self-released): fusion schmaltz [cd]: B
  • Matt Newton: Within Reach (2013 [2014], self-released): piano trio, mostly [cd]: B+(*)
  • Off!: Wasted Years (2014, Vice): hardcore punk [os]: B+(**)
  • Phantogram: Voices (2014, Republic): electropop duo [r]: B+(*)
  • Leslie Pintchik: In the Nature of Things (2013 [2014], Pintch Hard): piano jazz + postbop horns [cd]: B+(*)
  • Dave Rempis/Lasse Marhaug: Naancore (2012 [2014], Aerophonic): sax + electronics = noise [dl]: B+(**)
  • Dave Rempis/Darren Johnston/Larry Ochs: Spectral (2012 [2014], Aerophonic): avant sax-trumpet-sax trio [cd]: B+(***)
  • Leon Russell: Life Journey (2014, Universal): aging standards crooner [r]: B-
  • Sabina: Toujours (2014, Bar/None): panethnic chanteuse [r]: B+(**)
  • Sisyphus: Sisyphus (2014: Asthmatic Kitty): Serengeti/Son Lux/Sufjan Stevens [r]: B+(**)
  • Speedy Ortiz: Real Hair (2014, Carpark, EP): oblique pop [r]: B+(*)
  • Zan Stewart: The Street Is Making Music (2013 [2014], Mobo Dog): mainstream sax quartet [cd]: B+(***)
  • Tokyo Police Club: Forcefield (2014, Mom + Pop Music): snappy pop-rock [r]: B+(***)

Old records rated this week:

  • John Gill's Dixieland Serenaders: Take Me to the Midnight Cakewalk Ball (1995 [1998], Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: A-
  • Vince Giordano's Nighthawks: Quality Shout! (1992-93 [1993], Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: A-
  • New Orleans Classic Jazz Orchestra: Blowin' Off Steam (1990, Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: B+(***)
  • Pam Pameijer's New Jazz Wizards: Remember Johnny Dodds Vol. 1 (2002 [2003], Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: A-
  • Pam Pameijer's New Jazz Wizards: Remember Johnny Dodds Vol. 2 (2002 [2004], Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: A-
  • South Frisco Jazz Band: Got Everything (1989-91 [1992], Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Jeff Denson & Claudio Puntin: Two (Pfmentum): April 15
  • Jeff Denson & Joshua White: I'll Fly Away (Pfmentum): April 15

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Weekend Roundup

After yesterday's post on Kansas Republicans' latest attack on the environment, and the federal government's pathetic effort to protect it (Exterminating Prairie Chickens) I thought of another point I could have tacked onto the end. Most people think Kansas Republicans are a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, but the Kochs suffered a dramatic setback in the House a couple weeks ago when their campaign to end subsidies for wind power was voted down. Aside from certain shorelines, Kansas is probably the windiest state in the union -- constantly battered by front moving in from the north and the south, both deflected by westerlies which pick up speed (and warmth) descending from the Rocky Mountains. And Kansas has a lot of grazing land, so many landowners have taken advantage of various tax shelters and subsidies and installed "wind farms." The Kochs don't like this because they're in the oil business, and wind power competes with them. Of course, that's not how their propaganda arm -- the sorely misnamed Americans for Prosperity -- puts it. The party line is: government shouldn't pick winners and losers. That's the market's job, especially since the market doesn't charge oil and gas producers for externalities like pollution and global warming. If oil companies had to pay the full bill for their wares, wind power wouldn't need those subsidies to compete.

Of course, the Kansas House members don't understand externalities any more than they understand global warming, biodiversity, or the need for a competent school system. It's just that it's easier to satisfy the landowners and businesses that profit from wind subsidies, and they know good and well the oilmen will get their breaks too. Still, I have to wonder whether the windmills didn't have a secret selling point: they kill birds -- thousands every year. Maybe windmills are a secret weapon in the GOP's jihad against avian freeloaders?

Richard Crowson's editorial cartoon this takes on the Kansas state legislature's growing sense of omnipotence as they seek to nullify both federal and local laws, aggregating all power to themselves:

The little dog in the lower right corner is a regular feature of Crowson's cartoons. If its quote seems obscure, the endangered bird is technically known as the lesser prairie chicken. Meanwhile, the legislature continues to make news. The courts have ordered the state to come up with $120 million in extra education funding to make up for gross inequities in school funding, so the Republicans are begrudgingly offering a bill, trying to make it as hideous as possible. One clause denies teachers the right to a hearing on dismissal, inviting flagrant abuses of power by administrators. Another offers property tax relief to parents who undermine the public school system by home schooling or sending their children to private schools. (But, alas, not for those of us with no grade school children.)

The requirement for equitable school funding is written into the state constitution. Many Republicans would rather repeal that plank than cough up the money. [Also, it now appears that the House killed the Senate's education bill, so back to the drawing board.] [UPDATE: The bill was revived and passed both houses. They kept the plank that denies due process hearings when teachers are fired -- the teachers unions have vowed to take that to court, but one way or another it's an additional burden for teachers, and an invitation for administrators to abuse their power. The property tax breaks seemed to have died, but new tax breaks for corporations were added.]

Some scattered links this week:

  • Rhonda Holman: No future without water: Wichita Eagle editorial, of interest for illustrating the amazing credulity of some people -- Holman is politically aware enough to be on the Eagle's editorial board -- that lets Republicans continue to be taken seriously despite amazingly awful track records.

    The jury is still out on much of Gov. Sam Brownback's first term, as well as the certainty of a second. But hopes continue to build that his legacy will include preserving and protecting Kansas' water supply far into the century.

    If so, that will be a big gift to his native state. As he said during one State of the State address, "We have no future without water."

    And that future long has looked grim, with lots of worried talk and some helpful regional efforts but no viable statewide strategy. That's unsustainable, either for Kansas' standing as an agricultural state or its economy.

    Experts say that 85 percent of the water use in the state happens in western Kansas and that the Ogallala Aquifer could be 70 percent depleted in 50 years. By then, the state's reservoirs also could be 40 percent sediment.

    Last fall Brownback launched a process to craft a 50-year water plan. About 140 public meetings have been held and more than 7,000 people have weighed in -- impressive numbers.

    So, starting with a life-or-death problem, Brownback's leadership contribution has been to "launch a process" aimed 50 years down the road: what you might call "just-in-time disaster management," except that would only call attention to the stupidity of the approach. Any hack can start a process, and most do it precisely to avoid having to make a hard decision -- how gullible is Holman? Well, she cites Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) working on "voluntary plans to cut consumption" as an early victory. Of course, conservation could mean a thoughtful effort to make a limited resource last longer, or it could be evidence of ongoing failure. For instance, she cites farmers switching to crops that require less water, begging the question: how many farmers do you know who would do that voluntarily if they still had the water available? In recent years, farmers in southwest Kansas -- what used to be known as the Great American Desert, then later as the Dustbowl -- used irrigation to grow a lot of corn. In the future they can try wheat or sugar beets but eventually they'll wind up reverting to grass. The Ogalala isn't renewable: the more water you pump from it, the further it drops, and the more energy it takes to lift that water. It ceases to be usable even before it dries up. How much worse it is in 50 years depends solely on how much is pumped betwen now and then. One can plan for this eventuality, but let's face it, Brownback can't plan for it, because he's part of the Republican "wrecking crew" -- Thomas Frank's apt phrase for the narrow-minded partisans who are out to destroy "big government" and turn out fates over to small-minded profit-seeking private interests.

    The only idea in the editorial that seeks to replenish declining water resources is a hail Mary "aqueduct from far-northeast to western Kansas to pipe excess water from the Missouri River" with a (current) price tag of $4.4 billion. Someone thinking fifty years ahead might well be thinking about how to pay for that, but clearly Brownback isn't that person: his signature thus far has been to cripple the state's income tax collections, promising deficits and spending crises far into the future, and his stated dream is to abolish the state income tax altogether. Moreover, the growth that those tax cuts were supposed to generate hasn't happened: under Brownback Kansas has benefitted from the nationwide economic recovery less than any neighboring state. And his signature plan to offer tax breaks to motivate people to move into the rural parts of the state which have been depopulating for decades has been a total bust. And we need hardly go into the issue that will have the most impact 50 years from now: given that every known model of climate change shows that as the earth warms Kansas will become ever more drought-prone. Needless to say, that's an issue that Brownback, like his sponsors in Koch Industries, won't even give lip service to. So how can anyone -- even the dumbest writer on the Eagle editorial board -- think that Brownback has answers, or even cares about the real world? Yet here we have a trusted voice of the state's largest newspaper continuing to take the governor seriously, to credit him with good intentions, and to respect him as a credible future candidate. Nor is Brownback the only Republican who has totally discredited everything he stands for, yet still enjoys the deference of the press. Paul Ryan is the first additional name that pops into my mind, but there are droves more where he came from.

  • Thomas L Friedman: Sheldon: Iran's Best Friend: Speaking of morons who write columns, in the New York Times this qualifies as "thinking" (out of the box, for sure):

    It occurred to me the other day that the zealously pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually have one big thing in common. They are both trying to destroy Israel. Adelson is doing it by loving Israel to death and Khamenei by hating Israel to death. And now even Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey inadvertently got drawn into this craziness.

    What's the logic? Very simple. Iran's leaders want Israel destroyed but have no desire, in my view, to use a nuclear bomb to do it. That would expose them to retaliation and sure death. Their real strategy is more subtle: Do everything possible to ensure that Israel remains in the "occupied territory," as the U.S. State Department refers to the West Bank, won by Israel in the 1967 war. By supporting Palestinian militants dedicated to destroying any peace process, Tehran hopes to keep Israel permanently mired in the West Bank and occupying 2.7 million Palestinians, denying them any statehood and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state that might recognize Israel and live in peace alongside it. The more Israel is stuck there, the more Palestinians and the world will demand a "one-state solution," with Palestinians given the right to vote. The more Israel resists that, the more isolated it becomes. [ . . . ]

    Iran could not be happier. The more Israel sinks into the West Bank, the more it is delegitimized and isolated, the more the world focuses on Israel's colonialism rather than Iran's nuclear enrichment, the more people call for a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

    And now Iran has an ally: Sheldon Adelson -- the foolhardy Las Vegas casino magnate and crude right-wing, pro-Israel extremist. Adelson gave away some $100 million in the last presidential campaign to fund Republican candidates, with several priorities in mind: that they delegitimize the Palestinians and that they avoid any reference to the West Bank as "occupied territories" and any notion that the U.S. should pressure Israel to trade land for peace there. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took the money and played by Sheldon's rules. [ . . . ]

    I don't know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will. But I know this: If Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic state, it should be doing everything it can to nurture such a partner or acting unilaterally to get out. Because, I'm certain that when reports about the "Adelson primary" reached the desk of Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran, a big smile crossed his face and he said to his aides: "May Allah grant Sheldon a long life. Everything is going according to plan."

    If that's the plan, well, you've got to admire the Ayatollah's patience in laying out so much line just to hook Israel: 47 years of occupation, 22 before Ali Khamanei became Supreme Leader of Iran (in 1989), 12 before Iran's 1979 revolution. Moreover, while Iran does provide some small backing to Hamas, Israel has been equally incapable of striking a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, who is primarily supported by the US and Europe. It's much more likely that Israel has no peace deal because Israel's leaders want no peace deal: they are quite happy with a status quo which allows them to bomb supposed enemies on the slightest arbitrary whim, while no one is able to threaten them with anything worse than scornful looks. Indeed, nothing Friedman says about Iran has the slightest air of truth to it, least of all the plainly invented quotes. Friedman assumes that the Iranian leader's hates Israel because that's what his Israeli friends tell him, and doesn't give it a critical thought.

    Friedman's a little sharper when it comes to Adelson, but that is probably dumb luck. He's right that Adelson is able to make his politician cronies like Gingrich, Romney, and Christie dangle from his strings, but there's no evidence that he's anything more than a loud cheerleader for Israel's ultra-right. In pressuring someone like Christie to apologize for using the common and legally proper term "occupied territories" he has managed to embarrass everyone involved, and through this chain of subservience he's given Israel's ultra-right all the more reason to be confident of their ability to wag America any way they want, whenever they want. When Americans jump through hoops to pledge allegiance to the craziest shit Israeli right-wingers can imagine, they thrill in their power, and push on to demand even more. The facts are: they don't want peace, let alone any whiff of one-state or two-state equal rights, and they are very confident in their ability to eventually grind the Palestinians into submission (and preferably exile, although they're not going to close their jails and interrogation rooms either), regardless of world opinion. Adelson isn't their leader; he's their stooge, and through him the Republican Party, and through them Obama.

    But poor Friedman, his tiny brain unable to grasp the fact that his 1990s propaganda points, so carefully memorized and internalized back when he was Israel's stooge, has no clue how washed up and useless he's become. But he's so committed to those propaganda points that he feels compelled to try to save Israel from itself but he's still unable to blame Israelis, so he conjures up this imaginary Adelson-Khamanei axis of evil. Despite his dementia, I suppose we can count as progress that he's admitting that the occupation and settlements are driving Israel to ruin -- if not physically, at least in the minds of potentially most people all around the world. But that's been clear enough for long enough that most of the Israeli right have moved on, groping towards what strikes them as a better solution: it smells like fascism in that it's racist and wed to a cult of violence, but it's more of an ethnocratic caste system, with trappings of democracy for those on top and serfdom for those on the bottom. Sooner or later Friedman will have to decide which side of that he's on. Unfortunately, it will involve thinking -- something Friedman is not only bad at but will probably ead to even greater absurdities.

    By the way, it looks like all that embarrassing "Sheldon Primary" publicity paid off for Adelson in a $2.1 billion stock market uptick, so he's likely to become even more insufferable.

  • Kathleen Geier: 460,000 people with college degrees are working in minimum wage jobs: This casts doubt on the common nostrum that sending more people to college is "the main fix for inequality." Indeed, it suggests that raising the minimum wage would be a much more immediate fix: raising the floor, although getting people off the floor matters too.

    According to the report, there are 260,000 workers with bachelor's degrees and 200,000 workers with associate's degrees who are making the minimum wage. As a reminder, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and the minimum wage for tipped workers is a shockingly low $2.13 an hour. In some cities and states, the minimum wage is higher, but the BLS report defines only those making $7.25 an hour or less as "minimum wage workers."

    Some other fun facts about the minimum wage: the U.S. has the third lowest minimum wage of any OECD country, the value of the minimum wage has declined dramatically since its peak in 1968, and about half of the increase in inequality in the bottom half of the income distribution is due to the decline in the minimum wage.

  • Alex Pareene: Want to cut the rich's influence? Take away their money!: That advice is also pretty close to the Eddie Murphy line in Trading Places: How's the best way to punish rich people? Make them poor. Not that punishment is necessarily what we need, but we can look back at the 1950s and see that when things like CEO salaries were more compressed CEOs had less reason to misbehave.

    So, if we think that money in politics is a problem; if we think it creates the appearance of corruption, alienates non-wealthy citizens from the democratic process, perverts incentives for politicians and candidates, and creates an unequal system in which the speech of the rich drowns out the speech of everyone else -- and all of those things are already the long-standing status quo -- we can no longer seek to address the problem by preventing money from flowing into politics. The Supreme Court is clearly not going to meet a new spending restriction that it likes any time soon. Instead of attempting to dictate how the wealthy spend their money, we are probably just going to have to take away their money.

    If the super-rich had less money, they would have less money to spend on campaigns and lobbying. And unlike speech, the government is very clearly allowed to take away people's money. It's in the Constitution and everything. [ . . . ]

    There is one glaring problem with my plan, of course, which is that Congress is already captured by wealthy interests, and is not inclined to tax them. But all I'm saying is that would-be campaign finance reformers ought to give up on their lost cause and shift their energies toward confiscation and redistribution.

    Also see Parene's The conservative book industry isn't dead, it's just embarrassing. I've noted before the astonishing decline in sanity (much less quality) in conservative publishing around the election of Obama. There appears to be very little new on that front now -- just a couple briefs for impeachment.

Also, a few links for further study:

  • Robert Christgau: They Bet Your Life: Review of several books on hedge funds and the relevant chapter of Jeff Madrick's excellent Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present. Sample quote:

    Two points, then. First is that, at the very least, the financial markets attract natural gamblers. There are exceptions, and some gamblers are more mindful of risk management than others. But there are always going to be addicts and high rollers, just as there are always going to be crooks, and it's in the public interest to constrain both. Second is that philanthropy will always involve, at the very least, unnecessarily rich men (and a few women) riding their hobbyhorses. Wealthy speculators may indeed underwrite causes that save some real ordinary lives and improve many others. But their careers as championship number pushers limit their insight into -- and sympathy for -- the duller struggles of their fellow citizens.

  • Kathleen Geier: Piketty-mania: progressives are going gaga about a sobering new book about economic inequality. Why is that?: Thomas Piketty's Capital: In the Twenty-First Century has been at the top of my Amazon recommended new books list for a while now -- a suggestion I had initially resisted as someone who never got more than a hundred pages deep into Marx's Capital and has far less interest in trying to do so now. (Although I did make my way through David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism and Philip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, two long books that were deadly slogs but occasionally brilliant.) I've known for some time that Paul Krugman's writing a review of it, but initially I wasn't clear whether that's because he learned things from the book or just wanted to use it to teach. Geier finally convinces me with this cheery note, although I should have noticed her review first. When I went back to Amazon, I saw that the book is "temporarily out of stock." I also noticed that the blurbs section has exploded. Robert Skidelsky's quote:

    You many think that it doesn't require 600 pages to get this message across. This would be wrong. The strength of Piketty's book is his close attention to the different sources of inequality, the massive documentation underpinning his history and conclusions, and his impressive culls from sociology and literature, which exhibit the richness of 'political economy' compared to its thin mathematical successor that has attained such prominence.

    As I've mentioned before, I want to write a lengthy essay (or small book) on inequality, and one challenge there is to detail the many ways -- other than political favoritism; that's obvious -- the economy generates inequality. It sounds like Pikkety has done the right legwork there.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Exterminating Prairie Chickens

For a couple decades now, it hasn't been unusual to hear right-wingers gripe about the Endangered Species Act, which gives the federal government some latitude in identifying species that are in danger of extinction and taking measures to prevent that from happening. Still, most complaints have been mere noise: rather than attack the principle of saving endangered species, they look for loopholes -- some way to clearcut a forest, say, without noting that the last remaining spotted owls live there. However, the rhetoric has escalated recently here in Kansas, where Secretary of State Kris Kobach is pushing a bill to expedite the extermination of prairie chickens (see Kobach urges tough Kansas bill on prairie chickens), going so far as to make it felony for the federal government to try to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA) anywhere in the state of Kansas. Moreover, other state senators (all Republicans) are trying to expand Kobach's bill to exempt another 70 endangered species, including whooping cranes, from ESA protection (see Wildlife, conservation bills stir strong feelings in Kansas).

The ESA law was laudably idealistic when it was passed in 1973, but it also came too late for many dozens of species that vanished since Europeans first settled in North America -- not to mention the many more species that became extinct after the first people arrived in North America some 10,000 years ago. The initial popularity of the law was probably based on several naive sentiments, like the assumption that its implementation wouldn't be much burden -- and for most people it really hasn't. Its opponents are shortsighted landowners who host or border endangered populations, and have designs to use that land in ways that destroy habitat needed for the survival of those species. Such people (or more often corporations) are few and far between, but they smell money to be made so they make a stink about it, enough noise to capture the allegiance of greedy right-wingers like Kobach. Deep down, they believe that owning a property should give them an unlimited right not just to exploit it for personal profit, but to destroy anything on that land that stands in their way. Moreover, they do not believe that the public has any rights or business limiting what they do with their property. Such ideas would be laughable -- laws have long placed limits on usage (zoning) and enforced liabilities (e.g., on externalities like pollution) -- but the right wing's ideological drive has been toward ever greater business "freedom" (a term which more and more means a lack of restraint and responsibility).

Kobach's statute, like most of what he proposes, is almost certainly unconstitutional in that it seeks to use state law to nullify federal law -- the only reason for waffling at all is that the current US Supreme Court has become so political that a majority recently ruled that the rich have a "free speech" right to bribe politicians. One thing you can be sure of is that Kobach follows no underlying legal or philosophical principle: figuring that the state government of Kansas, with deranged governor Sam Brownback and three-quarter Republican majorities, recently purged of nearly all "moderates," is his ideal power base, Kobach has supported laws both to nullify federal gun controls and to prevent any local Kansas towns or counties from passing their own gun control laws. The working principle for conservatives these days is to use any formula that gets them their desired ends: stacking the courts, rigging elections, flooding elections with special-interest money, or just dispensing with them altogether (e.g., some Republicans recently introduced a bill to make it illegal for certain Kansas counties to vote on allowing casino gambling).

You'd think such unscrupulous contempt for democracy would be met with a hysterical reaction, but thus far no affront has done the trick. If people really understood the consequences of giving Republicans the sort of unlimited power they enjoy in Kansas, the results would be catastrophic even way beyond the precedent set by G.W. Bush. But one might still cling to the hope that bad policies are still reversible: things may get awful for a while, but eventually the pendulum swings back. Extinction, on the other hand, is irreversible, which is one reason this attack on the Endangered Species Act seems so brazen, so terrifying, and so thoughtless.

By the way, on biodiversity, see E.O. Wilson: The Diversity of Life (1992, Harvard University Press). Wilson goes to great lengths to stress the economic value of biodiversity -- more so than I think is necessary (or even desirable), as I've found that I value the existence of most life forms even if I never interact with them: at the very least they enrich my understanding of the world, and that's one of the things I treasure in life.

To put the Endangered Species Act into a broader context, see David Quammen: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (paperback, 1997, Scribner). The new book by Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014, Henry Holt) is probably also worthwhile.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Rhapsody Streamnotes (April 2014)

Pick up text here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

New Book Notes

Another batch of new book notes. Last one came out on February 11 and cleared out a backlog of 52 books -- more than my usual 40 limit. I imagine I can do these posts monthly or so, and indeed with my research unfinished, a little less than two months has filled this post (40 titles) and left me with 33 in the queue. Notably, that queue includes a few books that are either just out (Michael Lewis: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt) or forthcoming (David Harvey: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism [April 4]; Nomi Prins: All the President's Bankers [April 8]; Matt Taibbi: The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap [April 8]; Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State [May 13]). Given the importance of those books, another column should be due soon.

Sasha Abramsky: The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (2013, Nation Books): Fifty years after Michael Harrington's The Other America, we still live in a land of poverty and want -- even more so now than then, as the trendline is getting worse and the political will to do something about it has vanished. Mixed views on this book suggest that jumping between anecdotal description and broadside prescription doesn't reall handle either end, but the problem is real enough.

Bill Bryson: One Summer: America, 1927 (2013, Doubleday): Pick a year, any year. Bryson picked the one when Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, the Mississippi flooded, and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, among other things (e.g., "the four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression"). Good chance Bryson could turn any year into something vastly entertaining and deeply informative.

Ian Buruma: Year Zero: A History of 1945 (2013, Penguin Press): Every year things change a little, but an astonishing number of big things changed in 1945: the world war ended with Japan and Germany unconditionally defeated, the holocaust and the atom bomb were revealed, European colonial control over Europe and Asia had been undermined (but it would take some years to fully fracture), the map of Eastern Europe was quickly redrawn, various revolutions erupted, economies were in ruins (except for the US, which was never stronger), millions of people had been displaced, the "cold war" was quickly brewing (although at the same time the UN was forming). Much to write about, including the simultaneity of all that change.

David Brion Davis: The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014, Knopf): The author's third The Problem of Slavery book, the trilogy spread out over 45 years -- hard to overstate how important the first volume was in changing our view of slavery and racism. This picks up the story around 1820, focusing on the UK and US with a side glance at Haiti.

Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin): His two previous books -- Guns, Germ and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004) -- were high concept comparative mega-histories, sweeping and thought-provoking. Here he returns to his anthropology roots, writing about primitive societies, no doubt including a lot of New Guinea, since that's his specialty. Still, big questions abide: the transition to agriculture 11,000 years ago was not without its down sides, and those problems percolate up to the present.

William Easterly: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014, Basic Books): Author writes on development economics -- e.g., The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good -- so he could be taken as one of the experts he disparages. But he cuts against the grain, and has no shortage of examples of ideas that haven't worked. Also, his argument for "respect of the individual rights of people in developing countries" seems right, as is his point that "unchecked state power is the problem and not the solution" (here we're talking about the predatory effect of dictators, not the fevers of the tea party).

Yuval Elizur/Lawrence Malkin: The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox (2013; paperback, 2014, Overlook): On the special roles and privileges of the ultra-orthodox in Israel, an often sore point for secular Jews in Israel, and I suspect one of the forces that relentlessly pushes Israel to the right, further estranging it from the rest of the world.

Lee Fang: The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (2013, New Press): The "vast right-wing conspiracy" (in Hillary Clinton's apt phrase) has been carefully built up since the 1970s, and swung into full gear in 2009 to disrupt and undermine newly elected president Obama and the Democrats' "fillibuster-proof" congressional majority, and they did a remarkable job of it. This book goes into how they did it, how they manufactured a viable critique and enough noise to pose as grass roots momentum.

Caroline B Glick: The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East (2014, Crown Forum): Not a single state in Israel/Palestine where everyone lives with equal rights under equitable laws, though Glick dresses up Jewish dominance in various guises, including her claim that census data "wildly exaggerated the numbers of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza." So this does start to shift away from the "two-state solution" that gets so much lip service but no actual support from liberal Zionists, including virtually all American politicians.

Frances Goldin/Debby Smith/Michael Steven Smith, eds: Living in a Socialist USA (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): A mixed bag of essays, none afraid of the "S-word" but while some take the traditional tack and blame capitalism (e.g., Paul Street's "Capitalism: The Real Enemy") and some try to imagine post-capitalist (Rick Wolff) or ecosocialist (Joel Kovel) economic forms, others are likely more reformist, either intent on mitigating excesses of capitalism or using government to make amends. A big part of the reason socialism has come to be more respected of late is that the right uses the scare word so loosely, it now covers all sorts of modest reforms few old leftists would even recognize.

Daniel Gordis: Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (2014, Schocken): Born in Poland, in his youth joined the fascist Betar movement, emigrating to Palestine in the 1940s where he quickly rose to head the Irgun, an ultra-right-wing paramilitary organization responsible for many of the worst atrocities of Israel's "War for Independence." Once the Irgun was integrated into the IDF, he went into politics, establishing himself as an extreme right-wing demagogue until he was suddenly invited ("without portfolio") into the "unity government" which launched Israel's expansionist 1967 war. A decade later he became Israel's first Likud Prime Minister, consolidating and furthering the nation's drift into militarism. He reluctantly signed a peace agreement which returned the Sinai to Egypt, allowing reopening of the Suez Canal, then plotted to destroy the PLO once and for all by invading Lebanon -- the act which, for me at least, destroyed the last shred of credibility that Israel possessed. This looks to be a sympathetic biography, which doesn't mean you'll come away liking the little monster.

Gershom Gorenberg: The Unmaking of Israel (2011; paperback, 2012, Harper Perennial): I read this a few years ago and was surprised I hadn't mentioned it here before. You can think of this as a kinder, gentler version of (not alternative to) Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Both deal with the rot at the heart of a nation dedicated to the domination of one group over all others. The shadings differ a bit, with Gorenberg more concerned with the established religion, but religion wouldn't be so critical if it weren't needed to justify the occupation. Gorenberg previously wrote The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, which similarly soft-pedaled the origins of the settler movement while at least acknowledging the facts.

Greg Grandin: The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014, Metropolitan Books): One story here concerns New Englanders establishing colonial outposts in the south Pacific in the early 19th century, killing seals and selling them in China. Not sure what else you get here, but Herman Melville seems to be one prism into looking at early post-independence America, an "age of freedom" but also an "age of slavery."

Husain Haqqani: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (2013, Public Affairs): Of course, I doubt that the US could have done anything to make a success out of the 2001 Afghanistan intervention -- I think they sealed their fate in 1979 when they decided it would be such fun to arm religious fanatics to kill Russians -- but high on the Bush administration's list of tactical errors was their utter inability to come to a mutual understanding with Pakistan. (Nor did Obama do any better when he gave that pompous ass Richard Holbrooke the assignment.) Haqqani has been a Pakistani diplomat and is currently a professor at Boston U, so he's likely to be intimately acquainted with the sort of incomprehensible nonsense that makes for such epic misunderstandings.

Jacqueline Jones: A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama's America (2013, Basic Books): Rather than write a sketch history of racism in America, Jones takes six individuals including a slave in colonial Maryland and an auto worker in recent Detroit, real people to stand the various myths of race and the realities of power against.

John B Judis: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (2014, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Looks specifically at the years 1945-49, when the US had conquered the Axis powers and was starting to establish itself as a global hegemon, probing deep into why Truman sided with Israel and what that meant for the evolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Alison Weir: Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the United States Was Used to Create Israel (paperback, 2014, CreateSpace) covers the same ground, much more briefly. I've been reading Judis and am impressed with his depth and balance.

Michael B Katz: The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation With Poverty (1989; updated and revised, paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press): One effective way to keep poor people poor is to blame their poverty on their supposed shortcomings -- perhaps the title should be The Deserving Poor, since that's the thrust of interests which seek to deflect blame for impoverishment.

Stephen Kinzer: The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013, Times Books): A biography of two of the major architects of the Cold War, all the more potent when they controlled both the official (State Dept.) and clandestine (CIA) policy-making agencies, and weren't the least averse to going behind the back of the president who appointed them. Kinzer approached this story when he wrote one of the better accounts of the CIA coup against Iran in 1953 (All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror), then went on to take a longer look at American mischief (Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq).

Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014, Henry Holt): Five massive waves of extinctions have occurred since the Cambrian period when most modern phyla came into existence, with each defining boundaries between geological ages, something we can discern with the perspective of millions of years. Kolbert is suggesting that the sheer quantity of species extinctions that have occurred in recent years is well on its way to adding up to a sixth major extinction event, and she's traveling around the world gathering and checking out evidence. Not the first book on this subject -- cf. Richard E Leakey: The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (paperback, 1996, Anchor); Terry Glavin, The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind (2007, Thomas Dunne); and for that matter a couple classics: David Quammen: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (paperback, 1997, Scribner); and Paul S Martin/Herbert Edgar Wright, eds: Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause (1967, Yale University Press) -- but likely a succinct, thought-provoking summary.

David Landau: Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon (2014, Knopf): Having just referred to Begin as Israel's "little monster," it's no contest who the corresponding "big monster" was. Sharon could never be described as Begin's henchman: Begin bears responsibility for the Lebanon war, and more importantly for letting Sharon run it, but none for the actual details of how Sharon ran the war. Sharon had been a great favorite of Ben Gurion's and Dayan's, but what they loved him for wasn't doing what they wanted but invariably going much farther: he not only destroyed things, he did so at levels and degrees his "superiors" couldn't dream of asking for. His Lebanon War was like that, leading to the massacre of thousands of Palestinians, and his suppression of the second Intifada was like that. Still, it is important to realize that Sharon wasn't insane (unlike, say, Begin, whose tortured mind seemed to be stuck constantly replaying the Holocaust). He could make a tactical retreat when he needed to regroup, and on some level he seemed to be completely cynical about politics and everything else -- the real reason he was capable of such brutality was that he knew he would be adored for it, although it also helped that he was utterly indifferent to what anyone else thought or care about. And that he was so successful for so long ultimately says much more about his country than it does him. Reviewers say this is "scrupulously fair," which is to say it's mostly warts because that's what his supporters admired so much about him. Anything less would be a disservice.

Jill Lepore: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013, Knopf): Benjamin Franklin's sister, who unlike Shakespeare's sister was a real person we actually know a good deal about, not that anyone bothered to focus much on her before. Lepore started as a notable historian of 18th century America, but then developed a knack for semi-popular nonfiction pieces in the New Yorker and learned to bounce masterfully between past and present, as in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History.

Antony Lerman: The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (2012, Pluto Press): British Jew, in 1960s worked on a kibbutz and served in the IDF, later returning to England, working in think tanks, eventually turning into a critic of current Israeli policies.

Ian Haney López: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014, Oxford University Press): For obvious examples, recall the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (the "Willie Horton" one, not that the other was much better), then think of what else those elections delivered. López previously wrote White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race.

Bill McKibben: Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2013, Times Books): Author of one of the early books on global warming -- The End of Nature (1989) -- and many other books, writes about how he was increasingly drawn into political action, including leading protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. One step along the way was his activist manual: Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community (paperback, 2007, St. Martin's Griffin)

Betsy Medsger: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (2014, Knopf): The inside story of a small group of people who broke into an FBI office in Media, PA, and collected and leaked secret files about FBI operations aimed at harrassing the civil rights and antiwar movements. Hoover had used his extraordinary power base to blackmail presidents as well as to further his reactionary political goals, a secret program that couldn't survive exposure -- so this burglary was the beginning of the end of his reputation and reign of terror.

John Nichols/Robert W McChesney: Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (2013, Nation Books): $10 billion spent on the last election, and what do we have to show for it? Politicians of two parties beholden to money. That money distorts politics is one of the few things virtually everyone agrees on, yet it never emerges as a reform issue because the candidates themselves are selected precisely for their ability to raise money.

William Nordhaus: The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013, Yale University Press): Economist, has his name added to recent editions of Paul Samuelson's legendary economics textbook (at least since 1985), and previously weighed in on the economics of global warming in 2008: A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies; also Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming (2003), and Managing the Global Commons: The Economics of Climate Change (1994). A moderate and sensible guide to the science plus a lot of ideas on modeling risks and costs -- should be an important book.

Ilan Pappé: The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (2014, Verso): A history of Zionism as ideology, how its fundamental ideas infuse Israeli culture, especially in institutions like the school system and reinforced through the media. Focuses on the framing of the 1948 "War for Independence" in its initial "official" narrative and later post-Zionist and Neo-Zionist incarnations.

Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014, Belknap Press): Presumes not to update Marx but to dance on his grave, celebrating not only increasing inequality but the fact that wealth inequality is increasingly inherited -- with the risk that workers may once again feel that they have nothing to lose in revolution except their shackles. "The main driver of inequality -- the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth -- today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values." Meanwhile, most Marxists will tell you that those returns are fraudulently jacked up, so not even more inequality can keep the machine running. Nonetheless, what happens at the bottom is all too real. Piketty's future is what he calls "patrimonial capitalism" -- pretty much the same sort of aristocracy the bourgeois revolutions struggled to overturn.

Kenneth Pollack: Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (2013, Simon & Schuster): Ex-CIA analyst, wrote an influential book advocating war with Iraq, then turned around and became a dove rather than a "real man" on Iran in his book The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. Evidently, he still feels we need his advice -- possibly because it wasn't taken last time, although diplomatic breakthroughs since this was printed have rendered much of the tough posturing he felt necessary to retain his credibility has suddenly become irrelevant.

Jonathan Porritt: The World We Made: Alex McKay's Story From 2050 (paperback, 2013, Phaidon Press): An expert on sustainable development strategies jumps ahead to 2050 to look back on how those strategies saved the world, through the eyes of a 50-year-old fictional Alex McKay, recalling not only what happened but how such change came about -- a mix of disasters and activism. Porritt previously wrote Capitalism as if the World Matters (paperback, 2007, Routledge), which gives business a positive role to play even if they don't seem up to it.

Gareth Porter: Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (paperback, 2014, Just World Books): One of the few journalists to see through Israel's relentless propaganda about Iran's "nuclear program" in what should be a very important book. Porter's Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was an eye-opener in showing how US failure in Vietnam was rooted in arrogance.

Diane Ravitch: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (2013, Knopf): Follow up to The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010). Back in the late 1960s, after I dropped out of high school, I read a ton of books on education, of which the best was Charles Weingartner/Neal Postman: Teaching as a Subversive Activity, followed by Paul Goodman: Compulsory Mis-Education/The Community of Scholars. Those at least were books that recognized problems that I actually saw and attempted to overcome them. So my reaction here is that Ravitch is probably right as far as she goes, but, my oh my, has the level of discussion deteriorated. The last sensible thing I've read on education was Jane Jacobs: Dark Ages Ahead, and I don't see any indication that Jacobs is wrong. But I may be being too pessimistic, because the actual teachers and students I have known lately seem smarter and more dedicated than the ones I encountered back in the day. Unfortunately, I don't think they're getting those traits from school.

Barnett R Rubin: Afghanistan From the Cold War Through the War on Terror (2013, Oxford University Press): For many years one of the most insightful experts on Afghanistan, Rubin disappeared from public discourse when he signed on as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke and stayed on after Holbrooke died. His insider status -- he was also involved in the Bonn talks in 2001 and various other UN efforts -- no doubt informs this book, and probably compromises it as well. Leslie Gelb: "If published a decade ago, the insights in Barney Rubin's book could have prevented the Americanization of the war in Afghanistan." How lucky for Obama then to have co-opted the person he most needed as a critic?

Orville Schell/John Delury: Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century (2013, Random House): Goes back as far as the 19th century Opium Wars to get a handle on the intellectual threads that transformed China from peasant communism to a cutting-edge industrial powerhouse. Schell is one of the best-known historians of China.

Ari Shavit: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013, Spiegel & Grau): A "feel good" book about Israel for a time when one has to wonder, but the heroic personal stories establish an air of such exalted wonderfulness that one can admit to historical atrocities like the forced exile of the entire Arab population of Lydda and then write it off by declaring it as one of the necessary founding blocks of today's wonderful Israel. Imagine something like Dee Brown rewriting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and then turning around and explaining that every positive accomplishment in America since has only possible thanks to that act of slaughter.

Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby (2013, Viking Adult): Essays, I take it, "about arctic explorers, Che Guevara among the leper colonies, and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, about warmth and coldness, pain and kindness, decayand transformation, making art and making self." She has a dozen or more books, all on things that fascinate me, yet I've only managed to make it through one slim one.

Alan Weisman: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (2013, Little Brown): Previously wrote The World Without Us (2007, Thomas Dunne), a speculation on how the Earth would adjust if human beings were to vanish. In this sequel, he asks how likely that is, how many people can the Earth sustain, and whether exceeding those limits -- depleting resources, changing climate, etc. -- could cause a population crash.

Hugh Wilford: America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (2013, Basic Books): Previously wrote The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008). Robert D Kaplan popularized the term "Arabists" some while back in his book about US State Dept. Arab experts and how they tended to align with their subjects, especially against Israel. (I don't know that anyone's bothered to coin a term for pro-Israelis in State and the CIA, but a comparably long list of names could be rounded up.) So one "great game" has been between Israel and the Arabs, another between the US and the UK over influencing the Arabs (a game the UK surrendered around 1970), and another between the US and the USSR -- any of which could be the subject here.

Tim Wise: Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (paperback, 2014, City Lights): Obviously could write a lot more on this subject than 216 pages. Has mostly written on race politics in the past, a typical title: Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male (2008).

Some recent paperback reissues of book previously listed in hardcover. These are just a few of those I had noted, and I haven't done up-to-date research on them:

James Carroll: Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World (2011, Houghton Mifflin; paperback, 2012, Mariner Books): Sweeping history of both the real and imagined city in the various monotheistic religions and imperialist polities that try to claim her. Most recently, and importantly, that means Zionist Israel and its ongoing conflict, both for and against the past.

Lizzie Collingham: The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (2012; paperback, 2013, Penguin Books): Moves from a first book about Indian curries under the British imperium to a worldwide inquiry into how food and famine were considered and acted upon by all sides in World War II -- a story which certainly includes the great Bengal famine.

Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012; paperback, 2013, WW Norton): Important book by one of our most important economists, showing not only the structure of increasing inequality in America today but how that inequality stagnates the economy.

Patrick Tyler: Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country -- and Why They Can't Make Peace (2012; paperback, 2013, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Israel is the world's most militarized nation, its ruling caste so invested in its military identity that as soon as one supposed enemy folds they conjure up another: soon after they signed the peace treaty with Egypt they invaded Lebanon; unsatisfied they supported Iran in its 1980s war against Iraq, and when Iraq fell (to the US in 1990 and again in 2003) they started fantasizing that Iran was out to get them with nuclear weapons. Tyler dates this back to the early 1950s when David Ben-Gurion turned on his former protégé Moshe Sharrett for considering peace initiatives. I think Ben-Gurion's war lust goes deeper, and that it has been more deeply ingrained in Israeli society, but this book covers the basic history.

I've read three of these books (Carroll, Stiglitz, Tyler), and can recommend all of them. The Collingham book looks to be very interesting.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23045 [23007] rated (+38), 594 [593] unrated (+1).

Having trouble with this "emeritus" concept, as once again the rated count is in the stratosphere. I thought I'd do a second Rhapsody Streamnotes for March, then remembered I don't have to: why not run it the first week in April, then (maybe) a second one later in the month? The draft file is long enough to run now, but a few days shouldn't make any difference.

Lots of A- records this week, but note that three (of four) jazz albums got to me via Rhapsody, so only one of sixteen CD sets listed below made the grade -- not that I'm unhappy to own the high B+ releases. The Rainey and Russell records came recommended by other reviews, but I wasn't even aware that the Kühn & Kruglov disc existed until I stumbled on it looking for Kühn's 2013 trio, Voodoo Sense, also on ACT but not on Rhapsody.

I'm up to 19 jazz records on this year's A-list, so there's little doubt that this will be another bounteous year for new jazz. I'm having much more trouble with non-jazz: only five finds this year, but the two this week impressed me enough I went out and bought copies. Good chance the Hold Steady will wind up a full A. Don't know whether this is due to me or the world: I'm certainly not listening to as many records this year as last. I have a cribsheet of possible things to check out (there's actually a lot more in the file than you can see, but what you can't is probably of lesser interest). I don't have a metacritic file this year: that would give me a better idea of what other people think, but that's rarely a good guide these days.

In the old records section, I've been sampling John Gill and Chris Tyle. Like the Penguin Guide authors, I have a soft spot for trad jazz, so when I noticed a couple Stomp Off records on Rhapsody, I thought I'd try to round up whatever I had missed (i.e., most of them). Turns out there aren't that many available -- indeed, the Silver Leaf Jazz Band records are mostly on another label -- but I've found a couple and will keep digging. [A second album by Gill is at least as good as the first, and I've found an album by tuba tooter Vince Giordano.]

Rhapsody Streamnotes later this week. Michael Tatum's A Downloader's Diary should be running over at Odyshape sometime this week, and you can already scroll back for the first two installments of his singles column ("Public NME"), and pieces that appreciate Withered Hand and Skrillex more than I do.

New records rated this week:

  • Ambrose Akinmusire: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (2014, Blue Note): postbop trumpet [r]: B-
  • The Baseball Project: 3rd (2014, Yep Roc): America's past pastime [r]: B+(***)
  • Benjamin Duboc: St. James Infirmary (2013 [2014], Improvising Beings): solo bass [cd]: B+(*)
  • Scott Feiner & Pandeiro Jazz: A View From Below (2013 [2014], self-released): Brazil-oriented guitar-keyboard-pandeiro trio [cd]: B
  • Tom Griesgraber/Bert Lams: Unnamed Lands (2013 [2014], self-released): guitar-stick duo [cd]: B+(*)
  • Hamell on Trial: The Happiest Man in the World (2014, New West): folk rants [r]: B+(**)
  • Lisa Hilton: Kaleidoscope (2013 [2014], Ruby Slippers): piano trio + J.D. Allen [cd]: B+(**)
  • The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (2014, Razor & Tie/Washington Square): deep alt rock [r]: A-
  • Matthew Kaminski: Swingin' on the New Hammond (2013 [2014], Summit): organ-guitar trio [cd]: B+(*)
  • Stacey Kent: The Changing Lights (2013 [2014], Warner Jazz): jazz vocals [r]: B+(**)
  • Joachim Kühn/Alexey Kruglov: Duo Art: Moscow (2012 [2014], ACT): piano-sax duo [r]: A-
  • Mike Longo: Step On It (2013 [2014], CAP): piano trio [cd]: B+(***)
  • Allen Lowe: Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings: 1-4 (2012 [2014], Constant Sorrow, 4CD): avant-trad jazz [cd]: A-
  • Romero Lubambo: Só: Brazilian Essence (2013 [2014], Sunnyside): solo guitar [cd]: B+(*)
  • Machine Mass [Tony Bianco/Michel Delville]: Inti (2012 [2014], Moonjune): featuring Dave Liebman [cd]: B+(**)
  • Shawn Maxwell: Shawn Maxwell's Alliance (2013 [2014], Chicago Sessions): jazz tentet [cd]: B-
  • Kristen Miranda: Double Time (2013 [2014], self-released): jazz standards [cd]: B+(**)
  • The North: Slow Down (This Isn't the Mainland) (2013 [2014], Dowsett): piano trio [cd]: B+(*)
  • Itaru Oki: Chorul Zukan (2013 [2014], Improvising Beings): solo trumpet-flugelhorn [cd]: B+(***)
  • Tom Rainey: Obbligato (2013 [2014], Intakt): standards gone awry [r]: A-
  • Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo (2014, Top Dawg): left-coast rapper with dirty south roots [r]: B+(***)
  • Dianne Reeves: Beautiful Life (2014, Concord Jazz): jazz diva [r]: B-
  • Alfredo Rodriguez: The Invasion Parade (2014, Mack Avenue): Cuban piano jazz [r]: B+(*)
  • Noah Rosen/Alan Silva: O.I.L.: Orchestrated Improvised Lives (2013, Improvising Beings): orchestral synth [cd]: B+(***)
  • Catherine Russell: Bring It Back (2014, Jazz Village): swing standards [r]: A-
  • Shakira: Shakira (2014, RCA): cosmopolitan pop [r]: A-
  • Skrillex: Recess (2014, Owsla/Big Beat/Atlantic): daft punk [r]: B-
  • Adam Smale: Out of the Blue (2013 [2014], self-released): guitar-piano quartet [cd]: B+(*)
  • Daniel Szabo/Peter Erskine/Edwin Livingston: A Song From There (2013 [2014], self-released): piano trio [cd]: B+(*)
  • Caetano Veloso: Abraçoço (2014, Nonesuch): Brazilian legend [r]: B+(**)
  • The Westerlies: Wish the Children Would Come on Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz (2013 [2014], Songlines): brass quartet [cd]: B+(**)
  • YG: My Krazy Life (2014, Def Jam): juvenile gangstaphilia [r]: B-

Old records rated this week:

  • Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars (1981-84 [2014], Columbia): outlaw outtakes [r]: B+(***)
  • John Gill's Dixieland Serenaders: Looking for a Little Bluebird (1994 [1996], Stomp Off): trad jazz [r]: A-
  • Harry Reser: Banjo Crackerjax 1922-1930 (1922-30 [1992], Yazoo): banjo ragtime jazz [r]: B+(***)
  • Harry Reser: Harry Reser and the Clicquot Club Eskimos (1951 [2008], Bauer): banjo orchestra [r]: B+(*)
  • Silver Leaf Jazz Band: Streets & Scenes of New Orleans (1993 [1994], Good Time Jazz): New Orleans trad jazz [r]: B+(***)
  • Silver Leaf Jazz Band: Jelly's Last Jam (1993, Good Time Jazz): Jelly Roll Morton tribute [r]: B+(**)
  • Silver Leaf Jazz Band: Great Composers of New Orleans Jazz (1996 [1997], Good Time Jazz): New Orleans trad jazz [r]: B+(***)
  • Chris Tyle's Silver Leaf Jazz Band: Sugar Blues: A Tribute to Joseph "King" Oliver (1995, Stomp Off): King Oliver tribute [r]: A-

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Kris Adams: Longing (Jazzbird)
  • Bobby Avey: Authority Melts From Me (Whirlwind): May 7
  • Andrew Hadro: For Us, the Living (Tone Rogue): April 1
  • Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra: Strength in Numbers (Summit): April 8
  • Ivo Perelman: Book of Sound (Leo): April 15
  • Ivo Perelman: The Other Edge (Leo): April 15
  • Ivo Perelman/Mat Maneri: Two Men Walking (Leo): April 15
  • Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses: Blow (Warrior): June 10
  • Ellen Rowe Quintet: Courage Music (PKO)
  • Jenny Scheinman: The Littlest Prisoner (Masterworks): advance, May 6
  • Brenda Earle Stokes: Right About Now (self-released): advance, June 10
  • David White Jazz Orchestra: The Chase (Mister Shepherd): April 8
  • Michael Wollny Trio: Weltentraum (ACT)
  • Basak Yavuz: Things (Z Music)


  • The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie/Washington Square)
  • Shakira (RCA)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weekend Roundup

I haven't posted anything since last Monday's Music Week. Not sure where all the time has gone, but after Monday's Music Week I should have a books post and a Rhapsody Streamnotes coming pretty quick. Tried to knock out a links post today and didn't get through nearly everything I wanted to look at. Still, a few things to chew on:

  • Tom Engelhardt: In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell: He died on March 25, of cancer, age 70, after a life as one of the one of our most important writers on wars real and potential. His early book on Vietnam, The Village of Ben Suc, was an instant classic. He had wangled some press credentials, dropped in on the war for just a couple weeks, but in that time witnessed an atrocity which turns out to have been remarkably common in that war. (Nick Turse's recent Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam finally gives us a sense of just how common such atrocities really were.) He wrote many eloquent "opinion" pieces, perhaps most notably during the Watergate scandal and in the lead up to the Iraq War. He wrote about nuclear weapons and what war with them would be like (The Fate of the Earth), and in 2003 he wrote a prescient book about how difficult it is to impose new political orders: The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People -- just in time to forecast the horrible failure of the Iraq War and so much more, but more importantly the folly of man's appetite for conquest. The obituaries have focused more on the bestseller, but the latter book is the one I read and will return to. This link touches on much I have mentioned, but from the vantage point of someone who knew and worked with Schell. It also includes an interview Chris Appy did with Schell focusing on the Vietnam War, but even there he winds up cycling back to nuclear war -- where the war we couldn't afford to fight somehow excused the lack of limits when fighting people who didn't have the luxury of nuclear weapons: instead of causing a cascade where the impossibility of big wars ruled out any war, those weapons made small wars all the more vicious. They called it "credibility" back then. Perhaps you've heard that term recently.

    More on Schell:

  • Katrina vanden Heuvel: This Week in 'Nation' History: The Horrific Legacy of the Invasion of Iraq:

    This Monday marks the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq -- a solemn punctuation mark to the steadily increasing violence that has gripped that country over the past two years. Sectarian violence claimed more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013 alone, and this year's toll has already surpassed 2,000. Iraq today is a broken and failing state: the war that many would prefer to believe ended in 2011 continues unabated, with Iraqis continuing to suffer, as much as ever, the fallout from this country's callous lies and avoidable mistakes.

    Vanden Heuvel goes on to cite a number of articles, some old like Jonathan Schell's 2003 editorial, American Tragedy, and some new, like John Feffer: Revisiting the Pottery Barn Rule:

    The real Pottery Barn rule -- the same rule that all retailers have -- is to write off the broken merchandise as a loss. And that is what we have done to Iraq.

    The latest violence in Iraq rivals the levels last seen during wartime. Last year, between 8,000 and 10,000 civilians were killed, the highest number since 2008. According to one recent study, half a million Iraqis have died from war-related causes since the 2003 US invasion, a figure that includes indirect casualties from the breakdown of the country's social structure.

    Most Iraqi deaths since 2003 were the result of sectarian violence between Iraqi shiite and sunni groups, and that violence was the direct result of US invasion policy: specifically the arming of shiite and Kurdish militias to aid the invasion forces. From the very beginning, the US made virtually no effort to restrict killing by "friendly" militias. (Evan Wright's Generation Kill helps provide a time line here, as the troops he was embedded with were locked down at night as soon as they arrived in Baghdad so that shiite bands could rove the streets and exact whatever revenge they felt entitled to.) Later on the US learned to fine tune the sectarian warfare, mostly to prevent any kind of unity that could threaten US occupation (either with war or peace).

  • Alex Pareene: Our Glorious Golden Era of Nepotism: When I read Robert Townsend's Up the Organization, I was a bit surprised to see its brief section slamming nepotism, then I remembered what happened at a printing company I once worked for when the founder became incapacitated and his idiot son took over. When I asked for a raise, the son told me I was already making for max for Wichita, but if I really needed more I should move to a higher wage market, like Tulsa. When I did quit, he coughed up $2/hour more plus free parking, but after a couple months I left anyway and moved to New York City. Next time I checked the company, which when I left still had more than 50 employees, was out of business. Townsend's argument was considerably subtler than nepotism favors morons. It included:

    The fatal fact about nepotism is that the really good people won't go to work for you in the first place or will quit or quit trying for your job when they spot your uncle, brother, nephew, wife, mistress or son on the payroll.

    In other words, ambitious hard-workers will know the organization won't be evaluate them fairly. It also means that the whole incentive scale is skewed, which probably means that the organization is sliding into dysfunctionality. Nepotism has been spreading in recent years -- it's hard to tell whether political dynasties like the Bushes, Romneys, and Gores are a symptom or a cause, but Bush must have set the record for crony appointments (e.g., the sons of Antonin Scalia and Colin Powell). Pareene has a long list of these people, and didn't even think of my examples. The trend is not only toward more of them, but to more prominence of inherited wealth. Moreover, I suspect recent moves against opportunity and mobility, like the ever-increasing debt burden of education, are meant to open up jobs for the excess progeny of the rich. Even among family farmers and small-time businessmen, nepotism attempts to create an air of aristocracy, but that's nothing compared to what the real aristocracy does.

Also, a few links for further study:

  • Bernard Avishai: Truman's Folly?: A lengthy review of John Judis: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (2014, Farrar Straus and Giroux) -- a book I am currently about two-thirds of the way through, which gets the point when Britain decided to withdraw from Palestine and turn responsibility for it back to the United Nations. Avishai starts by hailing the Truman-period section as "a provocative, learned, even masterful book," while arguing that Judis let his moral views slant his treatment of the "prehistory." I actually found his history of the theory and practice of Zionism in Europe, Palestine, and the US to be remarkably well balanced given its succinct length -- the main contention being how exclusivist the various advocates for a Jewish state were at various points in history. Avishai prefers to believe that Israel's founders were less destined to ethnic cleansing than what actually happened, and to that aim he does a fair amount of nitpicking on the latter sections of the book. That is an interesting question, one that is perhaps even urgent in a day when a writer like Ari Shavit can write a book arguing that Israelis should embrace the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda and Ramleh as an essential milestone in Israeli history. But I doubt Judis will go that far. The more likely "lesson for today" is that the US political system is still susceptible to the sort of pressures that led Truman to support policies he didn't think right, and that Israeli politicians are still able to manage US lobbying in ways that prevent them from having to compromise. But even there, Judis would not be drawing an insight from history to explain the present. Rather, he is showing how the current dynamic worked even in the much simpler Truman period.

    Another Nation book review, of Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel: Nadia Hijab: In 'Goliath,' the Past Is Always Present for Palestinians. Several minor problems with the review, starting with the title. The book has relatively little to do with what Israel does to Palestinians -- more so about what right-wing Israelis would like to do, but much more of the book is about the chilling effect the ascendant right-wing is having on democracy and freedom within Israel. Moreover, you soon discover that Israeli Jews are not immune from having to reface the past in the present: indeed, they face constant reminders of the whole history of anti-semitism, always culminating in the Holocaust. Hijab identifies two main themes in the book: the growth in power of the extreme right-wing (certainly the main theme), and "the way in which today's Israel is the logical evolution of the Zionist enterprise from its inception in the late nineteenth century." Blumenthal actually offers very little of the history you'd need to hang that point on, and I suspect that if you pressed him he'd be more inclined to find the roots of today's right-wing in the ongoing process of occupation and settlement building -- along with things like the draft and the thorough propagandizing process known as hasbara -- as opposed to ideology handed down from Pinsker and Herzl. In many ways this is an offshoot of the old "zionism = racism" argument. Historically you can probably find a few individuals who could keep those threads separate, but most Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were significantly racist, and that certainly didn't preclude them from being zionist. Moreover, decades of exposure, misunderstanding, and violent conflict were much more likely to reinforce those prejudices than relieve them. And Israel is currently so severely segregated that few people have any opportunity to learn better, so the practical equivalence of "zionism = racism" is very real, even among the ideologically ignorant.

  • Nick Turse: US Military Averaging More Than a Mission a Day in Africa: The last thing the American people need these days is another war to stop, and the US military certainly doesn't want to provoke any sleeping giants, so AFRICOM tries to keep whatever it is it's doing under the radar. Still, 546 "activities," "a 217% increase in operations, programs, and exercises since the command was established in 2008," suggest there is a daily risk of something small ("airstrikes targeting suspected militants, night raids aimed at kidnapping terror suspects") blowing up into something big. The only way to keep that from happening is to illuminate what they're doing now, and question it.

  • Stephen Zunes: Straight Talk on the US and Ukraine: Useful general perspective on the Ukraine crisis, condemning Russian expansion into Crimea but also point out that the US, by its own longstanding behavior, has little credibility to stand on. What is needed here is application of international law, but to make a persuasive moral case against Russia the US would have to show some respect of its own for international law -- as opposed to just invoking it when it's convenient, as here.

    On the other hand, Americans continue to say really stupid things about Crimea, as in this report: Obama Suggests Russian Annexation of Crimea Is Worse Than Iraq Invasion. (John Glaser comments: "This is perhaps the most aninine thing the president has said in the entirety of his presidency.") There was once a rumor, widely circulated c. 2008, that Obama had opposed Bush's invasion of Iraq, but as Zunes pointed out, Obama has persistently undercut the credit he gained from opposing the Iraq war by appointing supporters of that war to key foreign policy positions (Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden).

    Other links related to Ukraine:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23007 [22967] rated (+40), 593 [599] unrated (-6).

Heavy week for records rated, easily sailing past that 23,000 mark. Some of these showed up in last Wednesday's Rhapsody Streamnotes (Iyer, Serengeti), and once that went up I suffered a little "empty nest" syndrome and rushed to repopulate my draft file. I actually had Eric Revis written up by Wednesday, but held it back because I couldn't find a single cover scan anywhere on the web (or at least Google couldn't). I only had an advance, so couldn't help myself either, but I can show the cover now.

Main reason there are so many album covers is that I noticed Rhapsody has most of the early Vijay Iyer I had missed. With a new record out, it seemed like a good time to look back, but I didn't get them written up by Wednesday's post. I split his first five albums into three A- and two near misses, but more time and space could have resulted in a sweep. Clearly a major talent from the very start, even more so than Jason Moran (whose first four albums I have at A-, but nothing that high since). The rest of Iyer's catalog looks like this:

  • Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd: In What Language? (2003, Pi) A-
  • Vijay Iyer: Reimagining (2004 [2005], Savoy Jazz) A-
  • Fieldwork: Simulated Progress (2005, Pi) A-
  • Vijay Iyer/Rudresh Mahanthappa: Raw Materials (2005 [2006], Savoy Jazz) B
  • Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd: Still Life With Commentator (2006 [2007], Savoy Jazz) A-
  • Vijay Iyer: Tragicomic (2007 [2008], Sunnyside) A
  • Fieldwork: Door (2007 [2008], Pi) A-
  • Vijay Iyer Trio: Historicity (2008-09 [2009], ACT) A-
  • Vijay Iyer: Solo (2010, ACT) B+(***)
  • Vijay Iyer/Prasanna/Nitin Matta: Tirtha (2008 [2011], ACT) B+(***)
  • Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (2011 [2012], ACT) A-
  • Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd: Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project (2013, Pi) B+(**)

I also note A- side-credits with: Burnt Sugar (Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1); Carlo De Rosa (Brain Dance); Steve Lehman (Demian as Posthuman); Rudresh Mahanthappa (Codebook); Wadada Leo Smith (Spiritual Dimensions). Also 17 others rated lower. Remarkable career, and this just up to age 43.

Main thing I've been working on recently is an interview for If you have any questions you'd like to see answered, write me -- or, what the hell, use the underused comments feature -- and I'll see if I can work them in.

New records rated this week:

  • Jaime Affoumado/Alex Blake/Arturo O'Farrill/Bill Ware: The Puppeteers (2013 [2014], Puppet's): piano-vibes quartet [cd]: B+(**)
  • Ariel Alexander & Jon Bremen: Street Cries (2013 [2014], self-released, EP): sax-guitar groove [cd]: B+(*)
  • Mike Bardash Quintet: Polygon (2013 [2014], Rhombus): hard bop [cd]: B+(*)
  • Aloe Blacc: Lift Your Spirit (2014, XIX/Interscope): retro-soul [r]: B+(*)
  • Blaqstarr: The Blaq-Files (2002-06) (2002-06 [2014], Jeffree's/Mad Decent, EP): teen techno treats [r]: B+(*)
  • Mike DiRubbo: Threshold (2013 [2014], Ksanti): hard bop [cd]: A-
  • Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans (2014, ATO): Southern rock [r]: B+(**)
  • Rachel Eckroth: Let Go (2013 [2014], Virgo Sun): singer-songwriter [cd]: B
  • Violeta Ferrer/Raymond Boni: Federico García Lorca (2013 [2014], Fou): spoken poetry + guitar [cd]: B+(*)
  • Erik Friedlander: Nighthawks (2013 [2014], Skipstone): string groove [cd]: B+(***)
  • Billy Hart Quartet: One Is the Other (2013 [2014], ECM): postbop all-stars [dl]: B
  • Tim Hegarty: Tribute (2013 [2014], Miles High): to Jimmy Heath and peers [cd]: B+(***)
  • Hutchinson Andrew Trio: Prairie Modern (2012 [2014], Chronograph): piano trio + Donny McCaslin [cd]: B+(***)
  • Vijay Iyer: Mutations (2013 [2014], ECM): piano + string quartet [dl]: A-
  • Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra: Habitat (2013 [2014], Justin Time): postbop orchestration [cd]: B+
  • Knifefight: Knifefight (2013, Anticon, EP): anti-pop hip-hop [bc]: B+(***)
  • Aaron McEvers/M13: 1 Human, Too Human (2013 [2014], Blujazz): postmodern big band [cd]: B
  • Yvonnick Prene & Padam Swing: Wonderful World (2014, self-released): harmonica-led gypsy jazz [bc]: B+(*)
  • Eric Revis: In Memory of Things Yet Seen (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): postbop swallows Darius Jones [cdr]: A-
  • Akira Sakata/Giovanni Di Domenico: Iruman (2012 [2014], Mbari Musica): avant sax-piano duo [cd]: B+(*)
  • Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron (2014, Interscope): left-field hip-hop [r]: B+(**)
  • Marc Seales: American Songs Volume 2: Blues . . . and Jazz (2012 [2014], Origin): piano-guitar quartet [cd]: B+(*)
  • Serengeti: C.A.B. (2013, Anticon, EP): California dreaming [bc]: A-
  • Kendra Shank & John Stowell: New York Conversations (2011-12 [2014], TCB): singer-guitarist duo [cd]: B+(**)
  • Step Brothers: Lord Steppington (2014, Rhymesayers): left-field hip-hop [r]: B+(*)
  • Tacocat: NVM (2014, Hardly Art): punk-pop [r]: B+(***)
  • Tensnake: Glow (2014, Astralwerks): neo-disco [r]: B+(***)
  • Ken Vandermark/Agustí Fernández: Interacting Fields (2013, Discordian): avant sax-piano duo [bc]: B+(***)
  • Joe Louis Walker: Hornet's Nest (2014, Alligator): guitar-jerk blues [r]: B-
  • Dean Wareham: Dean Wareham (2014, Sonic Cathedral): ex-Luna singer-songwriter [r]: B+(***)
  • Dan Weiss: Fourteen (2012 [2014], Pi): avant-choral [cd]: B-
  • Pharrell Williams: Girl (2014, Columbia): hits [r]: A-

Old records rated this week:

  • Johnny Cash: Happiness Is You (1962-65 [1966], Columbia): folksinger redux [r]: B
  • Fieldwork: Your Life Flashes (2002, Pi): Vijay Iyer + sax and drums [r]: A-
  • Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997 (1986-97 [2014], Strut, 2CD): Chicago acid house beats [r]: B+(***)
  • Vijay Iyer: Memorophilia (1995, Asian Improv): avant-piano jazz [r]: B+(***)
  • Vijay Iyer: Architextures (1996 [1998], Asian Improv): avant-piano trio/octet [r]: A-
  • Vijay Iyer: Panoptic Modes (2000 [2001], Red Giant): avant-piano quartet [r]: B+(***)
  • Vijay Iyer: Blood Sutra (2003, Artists House): piano-sax quartet [r]: A-
  • Roscoe Mitchell & the Note Factory: Song for My Sister (2002, Pi): double rhythm section plus skizzy strings and horns [r]: B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Keith Davis Trio: Still (LoNote)
  • Ross Hammond: Humanity Suite (Prescott): advance, May 6
  • Ideal Bread: Beating the Teens: Songs of Steve Lacy (Cuneiform, 2CD): advance, May 13
  • Jazzbonez: Watch It! (Summit)
  • Krom (self-released)
  • Machine Mass [Tony Bianco/Michel Delville]: Inti (Moonjune)
  • Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce: Complicated Day (Enja/Yellow Bird)
  • Xavi Reija: Resolution (Moonjune)
  • Ken Watters/Ingrid Felts: Watters/Felts Project (Summit)
  • ZZ Quartet: Beyond the Lines (In + Out): May

Friday, March 21, 2014

Daily Log

Looking at 538's March Madness Predictions (caution: requires a lot of scripts). Overall odds look like this (updated after all second-round games played):

  1. 14%: Louisville (38% MW)
  2. 12%: Florida (35% S)
  3. 11%: Arizona (37% W)
  4. 8%: Kansas (26% S)
  5. 7%: MSU (27% E)
  6. 6%: Wichita State (15% MW), Wisconsin (22% W)
  7. 5%: Villanova (21% E), Virginia (21% E)
  8. 4%: Michigan (18% MW)
  9. 3%: Syracuse (15% S), Tennessee (15% MW)
  10. 2%: Creighton (11% W), Iowa State (10% E), Kentucky (10% MW), UCLA (12% S)

In the third round:

  • Louisville (14%) advanced, now 17% (47% MW); next 68% over Kentucky
  • Florida (12%) advanced, now 18% (60% S); next 72% over UCLA
  • Arizona (11%) advanced, now 17% (50% W); next 73% over SD State
  • Kansas (8%) eliminated by Stanford, now
  • MSU (7%) advanced, increasind go 8% (32% E); next 51% over Virginia
  • Wichita State (6%) eliminated by Kentucky, now 4% (17% MW); next 32% under Louisville
  • Wisconsin (6%) advanced, still 6% (23% W); next 59% over Baylor
  • Villanova (5%) eliminated by Connecticut, now 3% (19% E); next 52% over Iowa State
  • Virginia (5%) advanced, now 6% (31% E); next 49% under MSU
  • Michigan (4%) advanced, now 4% (19% MW); next 53% over Tennessee
  • Syracuse (3%) eliminated by Dayton, now <1% (11% S); next 50% vs. Stanford
  • Tennessee (3%) advanced, now 3% (17% MW); next 47% under Michigan
  • Creighton (2%) eliminated by Baylor, now 3% (13% W); next 41% under Wisconsin
  • Iowa State (2%) advanced, now 3% (17% E); next 48% under Connecticut
  • Kentucky (2%) advanced, now 4% (18% MW)
  • UCLA (2%) advanced, now 3% (19% E); next 28% under Florida

Wichita State lost its first game all year (winds up 35-1) on a missed 3-pt shot by Fred Van Vleet at the buzzer. Van Vleet was only 1-4 with 4 points, playing most of second half in foul trouble, so not an impressive performance, but I understand that the only other game all year where WSU was in trouble he scored WSU's last 12 points to tie and win the game in overtime, so arguably he was the goto guy to pull this one out. Other things could have pulled it out, like better foul shooting down the stretch and a bit more rebounding.

Florida pulled ahead of Louisville as the favorite this round. While it helped Louisville to see WSU eliminated, it helped Florida even more to be looking forward to the winner of Dayton-Stanford (two upsets) as opposed to Kansas-Syracuse.

Sporting News college All Americans, first team:

  • Nick Johnson, 6-3 jr guard, Arizona: 16.1 pt/4.0 rb/1.2 st
  • Sean Kilpatrick, 6-4 sr guard, Cincinnati: 20.9 pt/4.3 rb
  • Doug McDermott, 6-8 sr forward, Creighton: 26.5 pt/7.2 rb/44.7% 3-pt
  • Jabari Parker, 6-8 fr forward, Duke: 19.2 pt/9.0 rb
  • Russ Smith, 6-0 sr guard, Louisville: 17.5 pt/4.8 a/39.4% 3-pt

Second team:

  • Shabazz Napier: 6-1 sr guard, Connecticut: 17.8 pt/6.0 rb/5.2 a
  • Marcus Paige: 6-1 so guard, North Carolina: 17.1 pt/4.5 a/39.5% 3-pt
  • Nik Stauskas: 6-6 so guard, Michigan: 17.4 pt/3.4 a/45.8% 3-pt
  • T.J. Warren: 6-8 so forward, North Carolina State: 24.8 pt/7.1 rb
  • Andrew Wiggins: 6-8 fr guard, Kansas: 16.8 pt/5.9 rb/1.2 st

Third team:

  • Kyle Anderson: 6-9 so guard, UCLA: 14.9 pt/8.7 rb/6.6 a
  • Aaron Gordon: 6-8 fr forward, Arizona: 12.3 pt/7.8 rb
  • DeAndre Kane: 6-4 sr guard, Iowa State: 17.1 pt/6.7 rb/5.9 a
  • Fred Van Vleet: 5-11 so guard, Wichita State: 12.1 pt/5.3 a/44.7% 3-pt
  • Scottie Wilbekin: 6-2 sr guard, Florida: 12.9 pt/3.9 a/1.5 st

Wikipedia, based on multiple lists, also names:

  • Cleanthony Early: 6-8 forward, Wichita State
  • Melvin Ejim: 6-6 forward, Iowa State

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rhapsody Streamnotes (March 2014)

Pick up text here.

Daily Log

Fixed dinner last night for Gretchen Eick, Mike Poage, and Janice Bradley. Menu: prawns with feta cheese; potatoes appulian-style; roasted brussel sprouts with bacon; eggplant-red bell pepper salad with yogurt; onion-orange-olive salad. Gretchen brought cookies and strawberries for desert.

One bit of conversation last night led me to look up a paragraph I had recently read in the John Judis book. During the British mandate period in Palestine (1921-47), the British created various commissions to study the problems in Palestine, mostly resulting in publication of various "white papers" which invariably offended one side or the other and proved worthless. One of these was written in 1930 by Lord Passfield (aka Sidney Webb, who despite his title was a lifelong socialist, one of the founders of the Fabian Society and the Labor Porty). His paper was unusual in that it sought a binational solution:

The report called for Arabs and Jews to compromise. It called upon Arabs to recognize the contribution that Jews were making to the country's prosperity. That meant accepting continued Jewish immigration (regulated by the government) and participating in legislative bodies with Jews. And it called upon Jews to include Arabs in the country's economic, social, and political development. "Jewish leaders," the statement said, "needed to make some concessions on their side in regard to the independent and separatist ideals which have been developed in some quarters in connection with the Jewish National Home" and accept that "the general development of the country shall be carried out in such a way that the interests of the Arabs and Jews may each receive adequate consideration."

This moderate proposal was opposed especially by the Zionists. Judis explains:

British Zionists wanted Passfield replaced. Labor Party intellectuals Harold Laski and Pinhas Rotenberg wrote a revealing memo that they circulated among Zionist groups describing a discussion they had with Lord Reading, the historian Louis Namier, and the mathematician Selig Brodetsky. The men described Passfield as "hostile" to Zionism. "He worked for the 'under-dog' all his life and postulates that the poor Arabs have to be helped against the powerful and wealthy Jews," they explained. "He assumed office with the intention to give the Arabs the benefit of representative government . . . he now again seems to be keen on it." Laski, of course, was a well-known Socialist on the Labor Party's left, who had shared the same urge to help the underdog and spread democracy, but he could not countenance this urge being extended to Palestine's Arabs. His commitment to political Zionism blinded him to the inconsistency.

The tie-in to the conversation has to do with blind spots. It's not obvious to me that Passfield was siding with the underdog. I'd say he's looking for a civil reconciliation given that both populations are in the country to stay. The larger question is why did Laski (and so many other leftists) instinctively side with the Zionists against the native population? The too-simple answer has to do with racist, colonial views that were common in Europe, presumably even among the left. I suspect that if you research this you'll find enough counterexamples to make the question problematical, even if majority left opinion didn't become clearly anti-racist and anti-colonial until after WWII (and more so in the 1960s). Several other possibilities: most Jews in Europe were on a liberal-to-left scale, and most anti-semites were far right, so leftists had plenty of reasons, often personal, to identify with one and against the other (assuming Jewish identity in Europe and Palestine, which has turned out to be false, at least politically); the Palestinian opposition was led by notable families and steeped in religion (the latter at least in part due to the British habit of using religion for control -- e.g., they never allowed an Arab parliament, but they did appoint the mufti), which is to say it appeared reactionary; Islam grew up with a special understanding of Europe, and this played on both sides in ways subtle and profound.

I should unpack that last clause. Islam self-consciously supersedes Christianity, which makes Moslems exceptionally resistant to Christian evangelicalism (unlike the native religions in the sub-Saharan Africa, the America, and Oceania). And Islam was fully political from the start -- it was integral to an expanding empire and connected to a body of law. Then there was the legacy of war between Christian Europe and the Arabs and Turks, notably the Crusades which were turned back. European powers weren't able to make serious inroads into the Moslem world until they learned to present their power as secular (e.g., when Napoleon occupied Egypt, he tried to convince the Islamic ulama that he could be trusted because he, too, wasn't a Christian).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 22967 [22934] rated (+33), 599 [611] unrated (-12).

One more week like last and the ratings count will hit 23,000. I doubt that will happen, but 30+ weeks show I haven't made much progress weaning myself off writing about music, although it is starting to happen. The most common path to a 30+ week is a lot of quickies on Rhapsody (like last week's Johnny Cash orgy), but I'm pleased to note that I've knocked a dozen slots off the unrated list, dipping back below 600.

Exceptional number of A- records this week (seven) but only one arrived at my snail mail box (one more came as a download link from a publicist). I have to credit tracking down recommendations from other critics, and I'm actually a bit surprised that I only came up with seven. For instance, three B+ records here come from Chris Monsen's 2014: Favorites (Made to Break, Matt Bauder, and Lydia Loveless) -- Monsen reads my mind so efficiently I sometimes check his lists to see what I'm thinking, but none of those records quite did it for me. Laura Cantrell was recommended by Tatum and Gubbels. Several records showed up in Seth Colter Walls' monthly jazz picks at Rhapsody. The Mehldau I found while looking for the new one. Budd Johnson just fell out of the sky.

You shouldn't have to wait long to get write-ups: I'll run a Rhapsody Streamnotes column later this week -- possibly as early as Tuesday. Maybe I'll catch a break after that.

New records rated this week:

  • Juhani Aaltonen: To Future Memories (2013 [2014], TUM): tenor sax/flute double threat [cd]: B+(***)
  • Matt Bauder and Day in Pictures: Nightshades (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): edgy postbop [cd]: B+(***)
  • Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here (2013 [2014], Thrift Shop): country melodies [cd]: A-
  • Michael Dessen Trio: Resonating Abstractions (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): avant trombone trio [cd]: B+(**)
  • DKV + Mats Gustafsson/Paal Nilssen-Love/Massimo Pupillo: Schl8hof (2011 [2013], Trost): double avant-sax trio [r]: B+(**)
  • Jean-Marc Foussat: L'Oiseau (2011-12 [2012], Fou): synths + bird chirps [cd]: B
  • Jean-Marc Foussat, Sylvain Guérineau & Joe McPhee: Quod (2010 [2014], Fou): synths + saxes [cd]: B+(*)
  • Jean-Marc Foussat & Ramón Lopez: Ça Barbare, Là! (2012 [2014], Fou): synth + drums [cd]: B+(**)
  • Jean-Marc Foussat/Simon Hénocq: Nopal (2013 [2014], Fou): synth + guitar noise [cd]: B+(**)
  • Tord Gustavsen Quartet: Extended Circle (2013 [2014], ECM): piano trio + tenor sax [cd]: B+(***)
  • John Hollenbeck/Alban Darche/Sébastien Boisseau/Samuel Blaser: JASS (2013 [2014], Yolk): trombone-heavy free jazz quartet [r]: A-
  • Mary Halvorson Trio: Ghost Loop (2012 [2013], ForTune): avant guitar [r]: B+(**)
  • Mary Halvorson/Michael Formanek/Tomas Fujiwara: Thumbscrew (2013 [2014], Cuneiform): avant guitar [r]: A-
  • Randy Ingram: Sky/Lift (2012 [2014], Sunnyside): piano trio + guitar [cd]: B+(**)
  • Stan Kenton Alumni Band: Road Scholars Live (2013 [2014], Summit): gray hairs play modernish [cd]: B
  • Jonas Kullhammar/Torbjörn Zetterberg/Espen Aalberg: Basement Sessions Vol. 2 (2012 [2014], Clean Feed): free sax trio [cd]: A-
  • Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else (2014, Bloodshot): very alt country [r]: B+(**)
  • Made to Break: Cherchez La Femme (2013 [2014], Trost): Vandermark sax + electronics [r]: B+(***)
  • Brad Mehldau Trio: Where Do You Start (2008-11 [2012], Nonesuch): piano trio art [r]: A-
  • Brad Mehldau/Mark Guiliana: Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (2013 [2014], Nonesuch): Keybs-drums fusion [r]: B+(**)
  • Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (2013 [2014], Nonesuch): guitar jazz [r]: B-
  • Roscoe Mitchell: Conversations I (2013 [2014], Wide Hive): avant sax [r]: B
  • Mike Reed's People, Places & Things: Second Cities Volume 1 (2013, 482 Music): Chicago-Amsterdam avant-jazz [r]: A-
  • Ben Stolorow/Ian Carey: Duocracy (2013 [2014], Kabosha): piano-trumpet duets [cd]: B+(**)
  • Tri-Fi [Phil Palombi/Matthew Fries/Keith Hall]: Staring Into the Sun (2013 [2014], self-released): piano trio [cd]: B
  • Javier Vercher/Ferenc Nemeth: Imaginary Realm (2011 [2013], Dreamers Collective): sax-drums duo + piano [r]: B+(**)

Old records rated this week:

  • Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings: Heroes (1984-85 [1986], Columbia): Übermenschen blues [r]: B-
  • Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson: Highwayman (1984 [1985], Columbia): trading fours [r] B
  • Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson: Highwayman 2 (1989 [1990], Columbia): songs that make no difference [r]: B-
  • Budd Johnson & Phil Woods: The Ole Dude & the Fundance Kid (1984 [1985], Uptown): mainstream sax jive [dl]: A-

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Lena Bloch: Feathery (Thirteenth Note)
  • Deena: Rock River (Verbena Music): March 20
  • Dominic J. Marshall Trio: Spirit Speech (Origin): March 18
  • Leslie Pintchik: In the Nature of Things (Pintch Hard): March 25
  • Dave Rempis/Darren Johnston/Larry Ochs: Spectral (Aerophonic): May 6
  • Sara Serpa & André Matos: Primavera (Circle Music): April 25
  • Zan Stewart: The Street Is Making Music (Mobo Dog): March 25
  • Nelda Swiggett Stringtet: Blue-Eyed Painted Lady (Origin)<: March 18/li>
  • Tigran: Shadow Theater (Sunnyside): advance, April 15

Sunday, March 16, 2014

My Oft-Proposed Music Website

It seems like I've written dozens of drafts of sketches of designs for a new music website, with this just one more step in the series. However, events -- admittedly not all that well understood by me -- have conspired to make this a do-or-die proposal. Or more likely, a final, soon-to-be-forgotten, stake in the ground.

In 2001 I built a website for Robert Christgau. By that time he had written three decade-spanning Consumer Guide books based on more than 30 years of more-or-less monthly columns. They totalled over 10,000 short album reviews with letter grades, so the first thing I wanted to do was to collect them into a database that could be queried in various ways: by artist, by title, by label, by release year, by grade, etc. I added to this an archive of Christgau's numerous essays (or "pieces"), grouping them variously by subject or publication. These, too, were indexed in a database, but I never wrote the code for flexible queries of that database, so they were only accessible by browsing directories or using search tools -- one of many unfinished design intents.

As I was working on the Christgau website, I came to recognize various flaws in the design or problematic limits, and started to think about how a Version 2 would address them. One big problem which has confounded me ever since is that my simple artist and label tables were overnormalized: in the real world there were extensive clusters of related artist (and label) names -- just to pick one example, Christgau has reviewed Peter Stampfel records released under eleven different artist name variations. It then becomes very difficult to turn those separate entries back into a coherent listing for Stampfel. (I did eventually come up with a hack for this problem but it isn't a proper solution.)

While I was thinking about the design of a Version 2 of the Christgau website, I was fleshing out a generalization of the same concepts that could be used for other writers to generate websites similar to Christgau's. I called this the Writer's Website Project. If you look at you'll still see a slogan for the project ("Dedicated to making free content on the web cheaper") and a broken link promising further info. That project foundered on some fairly pedestrian technical problems -- e.g., I never got the user management code worked out, which is a basic piece of every CMS package ever developed. But I also didn't get a lot of writers to work with, some who were sympathetic had already tied themselves up with a paywall outfit called Rock's Back Pages, and I was getting increasingly sucked into my own writing.

Parallel to the above, I had been cobbling together my own website. I started in 1998 when I was working for SCO -- they hosted employee pages under the "ocston" disclaimer -- and I turned them into after I was sacked in 2000. One of the first things I did was to take an old file called "records.txt" which listed most of the records I owned and grades as best as I recalled and turn it into a primitive (flat-file) database. I added both new records as I heard them and recommended records from various references sources (the current totals are 48882 records listed and 22955 rated). I also collected my old rock critic writings into an archive. In 2003 I started adding to them by writing Recycled Goods, in 2005 the floodgates opened with Jazz Consumer Guide (and its spinoff Jazz Prospecting), and in 2007 Rhapsody Streamnotes. In the course of those three columns I've probably written over 10000 short reviews -- enough to stuff into my own Christgau-like database, if only I liked that database.

Several reasons I haven't done that yet. One is that while it would be handy for me personally to have such a database, I've become convinced that what the world needs is a music website where many people can come together to share their knowledge and opinions about music. Rather than doing something personal -- or, as the Writers Website Project proposed, having lots of people do something personal -- I would rather contribute my data as a seed for something other people can build on. One thing that has become clear to me is that while tracking individual critics has a distinct advantage in coherency, no single critic can cover a broad enough range to satisfy many other people.

On the other hand, I'm not looking to cover everything (like All Music Guide) or to take a neutral position (like Wikipedia). I'm looking at least for the coherency of a tribe -- a group of people who approach music in sufficiently similar ways that their opinions are likely to be of interest to each other. Who these people has never seemed like much of a problem -- I know dozens of obvious candidates -- not that getting them to work (and to work together) is easy. But it's long seemed to me that the basic principle of "build it and they will come" applies here. The problem has always been building it.

The following section is a brief sketch of his I imagined doing that:

When I built the Christgau website, I used the basic free software platforms of the time and coded the entire site from scratch. I used PHP as the coding language, and stored the data in a MySQL database (plus the file system). The web server itself was Apache, although I hardly did anything at that level. My first inclination has always been to follow that same approach, which meant expanding the website by developing an increasingly sophisticated data model. Indeed, most large music websites (e.g., All Music Guide, Discogs) are so closely bound to their data models that you practically reverse engineer them by looking at how the pages are organized. The major exception to this is Wikipedia, which has a vast amount of music information without any specialized data structures at all.

I ultimately decided that there are three main problems with the hard-coded "from scratch" development model:

  1. The data model is really hard to design and get right.
  2. The bigger a "from scratch" system gets the harder it is to maintain and evolve -- to add new features, etc.
  3. When working "from scratch" you wind up having to write a lot of extra support code (e.g., for common tasks like user roles) that is readily available in kit form.

Since I built the Christgau site, a lot of people have written, using the same free software tools, more general "content management systems" that can be used and then customized for a wide range of websites. I've used several such packages over the years, and they vary depending on what sort of interactions they support, how much collaboration, and how easy they are to customize. I did an extensive search and review of these packages 5-7 years ago, picked out a couple, and unfortunately they didn't work very well -- a setback. At this point I'm hopeful that two packages I don't yet have much experience with will work out better: Mediawiki and WordPress.

Mediawiki is the software used to implement Wikipedia, and web's vast online encyclopedia to everything. The main purpose of the music website is to provide a reference resource: an encyclopedic guide to all worthwhile (in the tribe's opinion) music. Mediawiki imposes no fixed structure on this, although it leans toward atomicity: one page per album, one page per artist with links to each album. Index pages can be grouped any way that makes sense: a list of albums under labels, a list of artists under genres, lists by year or period. One feature I regard as particularly important is recommended album lists, which again are just hand-edited lists. Adding a new feature, like a section on music books, is as simple as doing it.

Mediawiki is focused on collaboration, and by default allows anyone to edit pages (although this can be restricted). As protection against sabotage, it provides strong revision control. Each page has a discussion page, so you can keep a running log of notes about proposals for editing pages. It has useful templating features: it's very easy to create "stub" pages (e.g., when you need to add a musician or album) and it's easy to identify stub pages needing further revision. One could, for instance, start by generating stub pages and dumping my review data onto the discussion pages, relatively quickly creating a substantial start.

I have other questions about how to use Mediawiki: in particular, how to extend it. One essential part of the website is a rating system, combining the ratings of dozens or hundreds (or potentially thousands) of contributors. To do this we need a special database which has album information, grader information, and grades. The main complication to album data is release info, which sometimes matters for graders and often doesn't. I'm inclined to limit qualified graders to people who fill out a fairly extensive profile (not all of which need be public) and who are able to grade a substantial number of albums (at least 1000, maybe more). We would need hand-coded pages to maintain the database, and some code which can be embedded on Mediawiki pages to pull out the current grading summary. Also pages of links sorted by ratings data. From a development standpoint, the ratings database could be developed separately and merged at some future point.

We should also give some thought to licensing. I'm inclined to use a license compatible with Wikipedia to make it easy to move data back and forth, helping both websites.

Mediawiki provides fairly minimal tools for identifying recent changes, but they would make for a very dry news source. Accordingly, I suggest using WordPress in a blog mode for providing a news feed -- both about the reference site and on current music news. (I assume this would be more reviews than gossip or download links, but that may just be me. It could also have a non-review focus like Odyshape.) It looks to me like the front page of a WordPress site could present multiple streams (virtual blogs), so these could be blocked out with a reviews stream, one for news, one for reference site change activity, one for new ratings data, and so forth. Several of these may require custom code to be written to create custom plugins. (I haven't looked at the plugin interface, but there are several thousand plugins readily available, so how hard can they be?)

It's not clear to me whether there are any incompatibilities to running two CMS systems on one website: the packages are designed to install each in its own directory, both use MySQL but each picks a distinct table prefix so they can share the same database. The user systems would be distinct, resulting in the inconvenience of having two login names and passwords (but only if you work on both parts). Links from one part to the other may be a bit trickier, but no more so than linking to external websites.

I currently lease a fairly low-end dedicated server, so I assumed this site could be built there. And I own a usable domain name,, so there would be very little cost (work is another story) to setting up something. I never tried putting a business plan together, because I've never had a sense of how to raise money off such a website. One could, presumably, beg more money to buy more bandwidth if that becomes an issue, but funding staff (and freelance writers) is not something I personally worry about: while nice for those receiving, I'm not sure that it really helps much.

But then that may be one reason I'm just throwing this out, and expecting nothing to come of it.

After MSN dropped Robert Christgau's Expert Witness blog, I promised to write something about what I thought it would take in a music website for people of similar tastes to move forward in a post-Christgau world. This is (more or less) the post I had expected to write, but much water has passed under the bridge since then, including some things that may (or may not) be confidential (but that I don't understand well enough anyway). The stuff I do best understand is that I've dropped my Jazz Prospecting and Recycled Goods columns, so I've started to back peddle as a music critic, and will before long become as washed up as anyone else. (In the meantime, I have moved part of those efforts into Rhapsody Streamnotes, and have what I think is a very nice and possibly even useful column coming out next week.) So my personal desire to keep the world informed on new music has started to wane.

On the other hand, I am leaning towards doing more technical website work. I'm looking at WordPress for a couple very different applications. I'm also likely to do more programming, so I'm shifting focus a bit, and that's led me to described the website above more in terms of tools than content.

About two years ago several acquaintances asked me to put together some sort of webzine. We had, at the time, a mailing list with about a dozen names on it, but it gradually became inactive through nothing like a conscious decision. That could easily be resurrected to talk about this. As I said, I'd be willing to contribute some technical resources and coding skills (although possibly not up to the entire job) and a lot of data if other people would take it over and drive it forward. Nor am I terribly rigid about any aspect of this -- not that I haven't spent a lot more time thinking about this than the few hours it's taken to throw this post together.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Midweek Roundup

Meant to pull one of these together last Sunday, but I got sidetracked on the many horrors of gun mishaps.

  • Brad DeLong: The "Bush Boom" and the Obama Stagnation: Big chart contrasts the very different "recoveries" from the tech crash in 2000 and the housing/banking crash in 2008. The Bush period was slightly more productive than the Obama (3.2% vs. 2.8%), but both barely qualify as recoveries, and if you looked closer you'd find that virtually none of the gains trickled down to the majority of workers. But DeLong is more focused on component sectors, which show two things: the Obama period has actually been much more favorable for business than the Bush one -- exports and nonresidential investment are up, whereas all Bush had going was deficit war spending and a housing boom largely based on fraud; but what killed Obama has been the poltiically imposed austerity that not only kept government from compensating for the crash but actually added to it. DeLong concludes:

    When the economic history of 2002-2020 comes to be written, it will be all about at least three extraordinary self-inflicted economic disasters: the deregulation of housing and high finance and the consequent Greater Crash of 2007-2009; the failure to nationalize and then rationalize housing finance and so restore the housing credit channel at any point starting in 2009; and the extraordinary counterproductive wave of short-term austerity beginning in late 2010.

  • Paul Krugman: Nation of CRINOs: Links to John Sides, quotes, and adds:

    Sides surmises that when people call themselves conservative, they're talking about lifestyle choices -- and we're talking about their personal lifestyles, not necessarily their desire to impose their choices on others. Americans who go to church, and/or are faithful to their spouses, and/or are devoted to their children, say that they are conservative -- but more often than not also favor a higher minimum wage and stronger social safety net programs.

    Basically, economic conservatism has very little popular constituency. If it has often dominated policy nonetheless, that has to do with the power of organized money and the popularity of conservative ideas among the political elite.

    I'll add that a lot of Ronald Reagan's popularity among white middle class folk was because the feel-good rhetoric hadn't yet impacted their bottom lines. Also that the triumph of right-wing policy usually occurs behind closed doors, due to the easy corruptibility of our political system.

  • Joseph E Stiglitz: Stagnation by Design: One of the odder terms to have emerged in economic discourse lately is "secular stagnation" -- Larry Summers' term for a lengthy period of post-recession slow growth, much as Japan suffered after its real estate bubble burst in the 1980s.

    This time is no different, but in some ways it could be worse: the sectors that should be growing, reflecting the needs and desires of citizens, are services like education and health, which traditionally have been publicly financed, and for good reason. But, rather than government facilitating the transition, austerity is inhibiting it.

    Malaise is better than a recession, and a recession is better than a depression. But the difficulties that we are facing now are not the result of the inexorable laws of economics, to which we simply must adjust, as we would to a natural disaster, like an earthquake or tsunami. They are not even a kind of penance that we have to pay for past sins -- though, to be sure, the neoliberal policies that have prevailed for the past three decades have much to do with our current predicament.

    Instead, our current difficulties are the result of flawed policies. There are alternatives. But we will not find them in the self-satisfied complacency of the elites, whose incomes and stock portfolios are once again soaring. Only some people, it seems, must adjust to a permanently lower standard of living. Unfortunately, those people happen to be most people.

Also, a few links for further study:

  • David Bromwich: The Leader Obama Wanted to Become and What Became of Him. A rather vague article poking around but never quite settling the basic evasiveness of Obama's presidency. The only sense you get of "the leader Obama wanted to become" is that there wasn't any. Backtracking through his previous posts you find a wily figure who prefers to be a tabula rasa onto which both friend and foe can project their hopes and fears, knowing that while he will never satisfy he'll never prove you wrong either. One representative paragraph (plus):

    Perhaps the thin connection between Obama's words and his actions does not support the use of the word "conviction" at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions -- and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in "this war we're in" (which he declines to call "the war on terror") was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama's belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing. [ . . . ]

    He cares far less about doing everything possible to uphold the Constitution (a word that seldom occurs in his speeches or writings). Nevertheless, if you ask him, he will be happy to declare his preference for a return to the state of civil liberties we enjoyed in the pre-2001 era. In the same way, he will order drone killings in secret and then give a speech in which he informs us that eventually this kind of killing must stop.

  • Ryan Gallagher/Glenn Greenwald: How the NSA Plans to Infect 'Millions" of Computers with Malware: A pretty detailed summary of NSA efforts to hack into computers, initially with "hundreds" of targets but increasingly aiming for "millions" -- the typical approach being to infect those target machines with malware, mostly to snoop but sometimes to damage them. The inside info comes from Edward Snowden's leaks, and if this is true it shows a government organization that has completely gone off the rails. Very scary stuff. And while I note that the picture at the top only shows the NSA attacks targeting the rest of the world, I can take no comfort from that. Among other things, the US is establishing a world norm where unbridled cyberwarfare is the order of the day -- a standard which practically begs Russia, China, and others to do the same unto us. We are already plagued with spambots and viral mischief coming out of those countries, something the US government should be working with others to suppress. Instead, the NSA is working to make the cyberworld a Hobbesian hell, and doing it in secret where most Americans never get the chance to second guess them.

  • Kathleen Geier: How Economic Inequality Kills: Reviews a recent book by Göran Therborn, The Killing Fields of Inequality (2013, Polity Press). Therborn sees inequalities as "multidimensional barriers to human functioning in the world," which makes them "violations of human rights" -- "human rights" being one of the quintessential equality definitions (something that most of us believe everyone should be equal in).

  • Farhad Manjoo: T-Mobile Turns an Industry on Its Ear: The cell phone industry, like cable TV, has always been a pursuit for monopoly profits, but having failed to get antitrust permission to merge, T-Mobile suddenly decided to compete and drive prices down. Especially since Bush became president (although to a large extent even before then) the government has made little effort to enforce antitrust law, let alone to take an active role in fostering competitive markets, so this is a most welcome example.

  • Josh Ruebner: Overcoming the "Manufactured Crisis" with Iran: A review of Gareth Porter important new book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. No surprise that the picture on the cover is that of Benjamin Netanyahu with a ticking bomb graphic. Trita Parsi has written two earlier books on Israel's obsession with Iran (Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States in 2007, then A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran in 2012), but this book brings the conflict -- perhaps the most dangerous in the world today -- up to date. As Ruebner writes:

    Porter unravels a complicated, sordid tale in which the United States and Israel -- sometimes separately and sometimes symbiotically -- act to ensure the perpetuation, rather than the resolution, of outstanding concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

  • Jerome Slater: On John Judis's 'Genesis,' and its critics: Next on my reading list is John Judis' new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. This is less a review of the book than a review of the usual negative reviews, including ones by Leon Wieseltier, Bernard Wasserstein, and Ronald Radosh (whose own book on Truman and Israel basically cast Truman as a pro-Israel saint, when in fact there was a great deal of ambivalence throughout Truman's administration). I personally expect to find the origins of conflict much earlier -- I'm rather partial to Amy Dockser Marcus' Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, which not only specifies that early date but makes clear that it was decided in Vienna and not in Palestine -- but the 1945-49 period does appear to be the crucial one for the formation of the Zionist lobby in America. For more on Judis' book, see Heather Hurlburt: Broken Promised Land. And for more on Wieseltier, albeit in a different theater of warmongering, see Jim Sleeper: Leon Wieseltier's Moral Posturing on Crimea Suggests He Learned Nothing From his Moral Posturing on Iraq.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 22934 [22882] rated (+52), 611 [614] unrated (-3).

I can't say that I'm fully recovered from the Florida trip. For one thing, I still have in front of me a large pile of notes, maps, and bills from which I meant to reconstruct an itinerary of the trip. I also meant to finally unpack the CD cases so that next trip, for the first time in five years or so, I can start out fresh. Since I got back the weather has been crazy up and down, ranging from sub-zero to today's 72F. The initial blizzard when I returned made me want to hibernate, but a couple days ago it was warm enough I finally washed the car, then it got cold again, now warm again.

This week's rated count is way over the top, but most of it comes from an in-depth exploration of Johnny Cash's Columbia albums. I've wanted to do Cash for a long time. I put his name on my request list for the New Rolling Stone Album Guide but someone else grabbed him. (I wound up with George Jones and Willie Nelson.) Back in 2012 I begged Legacy for a review copy of Cash's 63-CD Complete Columbia Collection, to no avail. Then last week, while trolling through Rhapsody's "new country" list, I noticed a bunch of reissued Cash, so figured this might be the time to dig in. I had, after all, played quite a bit of Cash on the Florida trip -- including all four discs of The Legend. I tried to take the albums in chronological order, skipping compilations and some of the gospel. And they went fast: aside from the live albums, I doubt that more than five 1958-85 albums cracked 30 minutes, even near the end when the under-2-minute songs of the 1950s had gone extinct. Not everything is on Rhapsody yet, but most of it is there. I didn't bother with the Sun or Mercury albums, or his final act with Rick Rubin -- all of the latter and most of the others are in the ratings database already. Full report in the next Rhapsody Streamnotes (probably mid-month, given how fast they're piling up).

Still not finding many 2014 releases of note, other than among the jazz releases that are still finding me. With no metacritic file this year, I've started a much simpler tracking list to remind myself of what's out there. Thus far it's mostly assembled from AMG and Metacritic, certainly not the most reliable sources out there. Nothing there that I've already rated, so it's not likely to be that useful to you.

One more point worth noting: I keep running into people who recommend WordPress as a web publishing platforms, so I'm finally taking a serious look at it, in the context of several projects, including the currently stalled Terminal Zone and Notes on Everyday Life, and perhaps most urgently for Wichita Peace. Most projects need both a news series (last-in first-out, like a blog) and a cluster of static pages. WordPress is commonly used as a blog, so I need to explore how viable it is for reference pages. (For the music site, my thinking is that Mediawiki is the superior tool, but overkill for a less expansive site.) I'll also need to look into the plugin interface and possibly build something (especially for the music site). I also need to look at the commenting system. I've been using Serendipity for my blog (and several others), and its handling of comments has been pretty close to useless. If anyone has much experience with WordPress, especially going beyond the ordinary, I'd be interested in hearing from you.

New records rated this week:

  • Jeff Ballard Trio: Time's Tales (2013 [2014], Okeh): postmodern guitar-sax-drums [cd]: B+(***)
  • Raoul Björkenheim: Ecstasy (2012 [2014], Cuneiform): free-fusion guitar-sax quartet [dl]: B+(***)
  • Regina Carter: Southern Comfort (2013 [2014], Sony Masterworks): southern fiddle jazz [cd]: A-
  • Kris Davis Trio: Waiting for You to Grow (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): avant piano trio [cd]: A-
  • Scott Hamilton Quartet: Dean Street Nights (2012 [2014], Woodville): retro-swing [r]: B+(**)
  • Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Wig Out at Jagbags (2014, Matador): post-Pavement singer-songwriter [r]: B+(**)
  • Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All (2014, Run for Cover): alt/indie rock [r]: B+(***)
  • The Jim Olsen Ensemble: We See Stars (2013 [2014], OA2): smallish big band [cd]: B+(**)
  • Ark Ovrutski: 44:33 (2013 [2014], Zoho): bassist-led postbop [cd]: B+(*)
  • Ulysses Owens Jr.: Onward & Upward (2013 [2014], D Clef): postbop [cd]: B+(*)
  • Chris Parker: Full Circle (OA2): postbop quintet [cd]: B+(**)
  • Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia: Devil's Tale (2013 [2014], Asphalt Tango): gypsy guitar and Balkan brass [dl]: B+(***)
  • The Souljazz Orchestra: Inner Fire (2014, Strut): Latin funk Canadian style [r]: B+(*)

Old records rated this week:

  • Johnny Cash: Songs of Our Soil (1958-59 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): dirt-poor folk songs [r]: A-
  • Johnny Cash: Ride This Train (1959-60 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): "a stirring travelogue of America" [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: The Sound of Johnny Cash (1961-62 [1962], Columbia): covers mostly, hooked to that sound [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Blood, Sweat and Tears (1962 [1963], Columbia): working songs [r]: B+(***)
  • Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1958-63 [1963], Columbia): odds and sods [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964, Columbia): bitter history [r]: A-
  • Johnny Cash: Orange Blossom Special (1964 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): when Cash discovered Dylan [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West (1959-65 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): frontier songs [r]: B+(***)
  • Johnny Cash: Everybody Loves a Nut (1965-66 [1966], Columbia): but not all nuts are funny [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash & June Carter: Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter (1967 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): gettin' married [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: The Johnny Cash Show (1970, Columbia): live with strings [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: I Walk the Line [Soundtrack] (1970, Columbia): arty soundtrack [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: Little Fauss and Big Halsy [Soundtrack] (1971, Columbia): folkie soundtrack [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Man in Black (1971, Columbia): solidarity with the downtrodden [r]: B+(***)
  • Johnny Cash: A Thing Called Love (1972, Columbia): typical fare [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash På Österåker (1972 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): live in a Swedish jail [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: Any Old Wind That Blows (1973, Columbia): "Oney" and more [r]: A-
  • Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash: Johnny Cash and His Woman (1973, Columbia): spotlight for a backing singer [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: Ragged Old Flag (1974, Columbia): worried man [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories (1975, Columbia): gross gospel [r]: C-
  • Johnny Cash: John R. Cash (1975, Columbia): operation mersh backfires [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: Look at Them Beans (1975, Columbia): back to ordinary [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Strawberry Cake (1975 [1976], Columbia): live in London [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: One Piece at a Time (1976, Columbia): factory perks [r]: B+(***)
  • Johnny Cash: The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976 [1977], Columbia): western and country [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: The Rambler (1976-77 [1977], Columbia): the road goes on forever [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: I Would Like to See You Again (1976-77 [1978], Columbia): from Gene Autry to Waylon Jenings [r]: B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: Silver (1979 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): along came Jones [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Rockabilly Blues (1979-80 [1980], Columbia): losing his sound [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: The Baron (1980-81 [1981], Columbia): Cash goes countrypolitan [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash/Jerry Lee Lewis/Carl Perkins: The Survivors Live (1981 [1982], Columbia): rockabilly revival [r]: B
  • Johnny Cash: The Adventures of Johnny Cash (1981-82 [1982], Columbia): cranking out solid product [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Johnny 99 (1983, Columbia): Cash discovers Springsteen [r]: B+(*)
  • Johnny Cash: Rainbow (1984-85 [1985], Columbia): into the rut [r]: B-
  • Gene Ludwig-Pat Martino Trio: Young Guns (1968-69 [2014], High Note): organ trio overdrive [cd]: A-

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Guns: The Laundry List

I was looking for links for a Weekend Roundup post tomorrow, and came across one in Talking Points Memo about a woman who was killed while doing laundry: a gun fell out of a sock and fired, hitting her. I know TPM has run a number of similar items over the years. I particularly remembered one where a 4-year-old killed his father, a veteran. I linked to that item and quipped that if the father had only had his own gun, he could have defended himself. Of course, that's ridiculous, but the notion that having a gun will let you defend yourself is at best a very slender hope, depending on perceptions and skills that few if any people have, and more than a little good luck. In particular, you can't defend against accidents. All you can really do is to prevent them, which in the case of guns usually means keeping them locked up and/or unloaded -- or not having them around in the first place.

I'm not much interested in making a policy argument regarding gun control, at least not here. But I'm pretty sure there's a lot of faulty thinking on the subject. In particular, many people -- at least on the pro-gun side -- overestimate the utility and underestimate the risks of guns. Looking around I'm finding it impossible to find good statistical data, but TPM has been active -- how thorough cannot be clear without more data -- in noting anecdotal evidence of gun "accidents," especially involving children. I thought it might be useful to compile a few links to TPM articles on gun-related accidents. I limited my search, going back no further than January 2013, and came up with about 50 incidents, as follows:

One more TPM link: I Have No Words, a letter from a reader who at age 15 accidentally shot and killed his best friend.

I'll add a personal note. When I was a teenager, one of my closest friends shot himself in the foot. And one of my first wife's closest friends shot himself in the leg, resulting in permanent disability. That, to say the least, is an eerie coincidence for such an allegedly rare event.

Some notes on my (admittedly brief) efforts to dig up data:

  • Just Facts has a page relating to "gun control" issues. There is useful data here and the presentation is studiously neutral, but the data sources are very selective, many of them quite old. For instance, based on a 1993 study they estimate that "0.5% of households had members who had used a gun for defense during a situation in which they thought someone 'almost certainly would have been killed' if they 'had not used a gun for protection.'" Multiplying this against the current US population, they estimate that there are 162,000 such incidents per year (excluding military, police, and security guards). There are about 11,000 murders with firearms each year, so they are asserting that citizens with firearms defended against 15 potential murders for each one actually committed. That doesn't strike me as a credible multiplier. There are many other examples. Elsewhere the people running the website admit to a "conservative/libertarian" bias.
  • Real Clear Policy has a piece on "How Common Are Child Gun Accidents by Robert VerBruggen (who also writes for National Review, so you know what his agenda is). He comes up with an estimate of 124 child fatalities per year from gun accidents, and then seeks to trivialize that number ("a swimming pool on your property is 100 times more likely than a gun to kill your child by accident . . . and swimming pools don't pose the constitutional and self-defense tradeoffs that guns do." (Maybe this is just me, but as best I recall as a child and adolescent I used swimming pools about a hundred times more often than I did guns -- and I grew up in a house with no shortage of guns, and I did go hunting and shoot guns once I was in my teens. Had we had our own swimming pool the ratio would have been even greater.)
  • The New York Times has a piece published in September 2013 called "Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll" which shows that CDC counts of child deaths due to gun accidents are undercounted.
  • MomLogic ("what moms are talking about") states that "more than 500 children die annually from accidental gunshots." I don't see where that number comes from, but we might take it provisionally as an upper bound. I didn't count how many of TPM's examples involve children, but if half, say, they managed to report on about 20% of the lower (124) number, or 5% of the higher number.

I will note that given how many guns there are in the US, most owners do appear to take responsible precautions against accidents, otherwise we'd be seeing many, many more horrific "accidents" -- although each and every example above cries out for more assessment of the risks and more diligence over safety measures. (I don't see any example above that could not have been prevented by someone acting with due diligence and caution.) The bigger question for me is the positive utility of having those guns. I don't have that question about automobiles or swimming pools: sure, they entail risks that have to be taken very seriously, but on balance they are very worthwhile and desirable things. It's not clear to me that guns are.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Ukraine Cauldron

I rarely pay any attention to news when I travel, and my recent trip to Florida was no exception. When I left I was vaguely aware of violently repressed anti-Russian (aka "pro-West") protesters in Ukraine, but when I got back to Wichita the table had flipped with Ukraine's Prime Minister (democratically elected, as best I recall) ousted and exiled to Russia, while a new "caretaker" government had taken over and was, in turn, violently repressing pro-Russian (aka "anti-West") protesters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, had become very upset, and intervened militarily taking control of the Crimean peninsula -- with an invite from the regional government there, and aided by the fact that Russia already had a substantial military presence in Crimea.

As usual, outsiders see events like this through their pre-existing lenses, which in the US mostly means the relics of the "Cold War" -- the anti-Communist ideology that drove America's security state to seek worldwide hegemony. The issue is no longer economic: Russia adopted a particularly brutal form of privatized capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but remained more/less isolated from the neoliberal international system, and after Putin came to power resumed thinking of itself as an autonomous regional (if not world) power. Meanwhile, neocons in the US shifted their focus from economic to military hegemony, seeking to contain and marginalize any nation that had not aligned itself under US military command.

As such, they were more focused in extending NATO -- which with the end of the Cold War seemed to have no reason for continued existence -- through eastern Europe to the former SSRs than they were interested in pushing economic integration. Russia, quite reasonably, regarded such efforts to expand NATO as a challenge to its own autonomy. The Ukraine has turned out to be a focal point in this US-Russia struggle because popular opinion there is closely divided between pro- and anti-Russian factions, with each able to draw in foreign alliances by catering to the prejudices of Moscow and Washington. That, in turn, results in overreactions by all parties.

I was thinking about doing a piece collecting various links, but one article stands out: Anatol Lieven: Why Obama Shouldn't Fall for Putin's Ukrainian Folly [March 2]:

We're now witnessing the consequences of how grossly both Russia and the West have overplayed their hands in Ukraine. It is urgently necessary that both should find ways of withdrawing from some of the positions that they have taken. Otherwise, the result could very easily be civil war, Russian invasion, the partition of Ukraine, and a conflict that will haunt Europe for generations to come. [ . . . ]

During George W. Bush's second term as president, the U.S., Britain, and other NATO countries made a morally criminal attempt to force this choice by the offer of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine (despite the fact that repeated opinion polls had shown around two-thirds of Ukrainians opposed to NATO membership). French and German opposition delayed this ill-advised gambit, and after August 2008, it was quietly abandoned. The Georgian-Russian war in that month had made clear both the extreme dangers of further NATO expansion, and that the United States would not in fact fight to defend its allies in the former Soviet Union. [ . . . ]

Over the past year, both Russia and the European Union tried to force Ukraine to make a clear choice between them -- and the entirely predictable result has been to tear the country apart. Russia attempted to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Customs Union by offering a massive financial bailout and heavily subsidized gas supplies. The European Union then tried to block this by offering an association agreement, though (initially) with no major financial aid attached. Neither Russia nor the EU made any serious effort to talk to each other about whether a compromise might be reached that would allow Ukraine somehow to combine the two agreements, to avoid having to choose sides.

President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of the EU offer led to an uprising in Kiev and the western and central parts of Ukraine, and to his own flight from Kiev, together with many of his supporters in the Ukrainian parliament. This marks a very serious geopolitical defeat for Russia.

Many Americans are so fond of zero-sum games that they assume any "serious geopolitical defeat for Russia" is a net gain for the US -- a sense reinforced by sixty years of unrelenting Cold War propaganda. That's very foolish: a crippled Russia is more desperate and dangerous, more estranged from international norms, and more likely to provoke worse behavior from the US -- a superpower with a notoriously weak sense of international law, scant appreciation that such law holds the key to a stable future, and none that Americans might actually benefit from some constraints.

The neocon notion that a superpower can impose its vision of how political economies should work on foreign peoples has proven to be a disaster, most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US spent so many billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of soldiers. That lesson hasn't sunk in, least of all for morons like John McCain, who was so eager to send troops to defend Georgia in 2008, but at least those currently in control recognize that American power is limited -- in particular, an army that can't manage a few thousand Taliban has no itch to take on nuclear-armed Russia or China.

Still, the Obama administration hasn't done much to reassure us of its sanity. They've moved token armed forces into position close to Russia. Secretary of State Kerry has pushed for economic sanctions against Russia -- "war by other means" but still hostile with an aim toward crippling -- while his predecessor, probable future president Hillary Clinton, has absent-mindedly likened Putin to Adolph Hitler. (The problem isn't just historical. The US waged total war against Hitler, insisting on nothing short of unconditional surrender. When Bush I painted Saddam Hussein as "just like Hitler" he set up an expectation for victory that his 1991 Gulf War couldn't deliver, a shortsightedness that Bush II felt the need to remedy in 2003.)

One more point: intervention, and its ill effects, didn't start with Putin seizing Crimea. It goes back to when the Ukraine became independent, split off from the Soviet Union, with NATO expansion a particularly aggressive move by the US. Moreover, apprehension and bad blood wasn't inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main ways the US irritated Putin was the program to install a US-controlled anti-missile defense network in Poland during the Bush II years. This should remind us all once again: conflicts don't begin with war; rather, war is the shameful and disastrous failure of parties to solve conflicts before they get out of hand.

More links:

  • Uri Avnery: Israel and Ukraine: More luck for Netanyahu as Ukraine provides yet another distraction for Kerry's "peace mission" -- indeed, the crisis has not only sapped Kerry's attention, it's turned him into a blathering neocon posturing against the only statesman who could have helped with the now-forgotten Syrian crisis. Avnery includes a useful historical survey, which doesn't leave anyone wearing white hats.
  • William Boardman: US Provokes Russia, Acts Surprised to Get Nasty Reaction: Covers most aspects of the crisis, including the fact that Russia didn't have to invade Crimea: they already had troops stationed there, by long-standing agreement with Ukraine, much as the US has troops in Germany and Japan.
  • Patrick J Buchanan: Hillary, Hitler, and Cold War II: Gives Hillary more credit than I would, but that's because Buchanan's more sympathetic to Hitler. I'd be inclined to downplay Putin's concerns "as protector of the ethnic Russians left behind when the Soviet Union came apart" because I don't see him as a racist or ethnic bigot, unlike Hitler (or even Buchanan). There are, after all, ethnic Russians scattered all over the former SSRs (and there are many non-Russians left in Russia). Rather, his concern is with the economic and political power of the Russian state. The Ukraine matters to Putin not because there are lots of ethnic Russians living there but because the Ukraine is one of Russia's largest trading partners, and because Russia's security is tied to its Crimean naval bases.
  • Chris Floyd: Oligarchs Triumphant: Ukraine, Omidyar and the Neo-Liberal Agenda: More background on the pressure the west introduced to provoke the crisis and the coup against Yanukovich. Floyd identifiers E-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar as one of the key oligarchs here -- we're not really used to private individuals acting on a geopolitical scale, but I readily recall examples like Sanford Dole in Hawaii and United Front in Guatemala.
  • John Glaser: Kissinger: Leave Ukrain to Ukrainians: An intro to the infamous war criminal's Washington Post op-ed on the crisis, which is distinguished by a deeper understanding of the relevant history and of diplomatic nuance than is common among "experts" today. Key line: "the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one." Recommendations are reasonable too.
  • Jim Lobe: US Hawks Take Flight Over Ukraine: A useful summary of neocon blathering over Ukraine, although you get the sense that they are happier slamming Obama for weakness and incompetence than they would be if he actually did something, not least something that they themselves recommended. Moreover, they are less concerned with rolling back Russia's position than they are with setting an example reinforcing the world's perception of American recklessness and lawlessness.
  • John Feffer: Ukraine: The Clash of Partnerships: Argues that the stakes here are not just whether Ukraine leans east or west but whether Russia joins the worldwide trend toward liberal democracy or is further isolated. He might have added "like the Soviet Union" -- unreconstructed cold warriors (like McCain) argue that the Cold War never ended, but through their rhetoric and acts what they are doing is constructing another one.
  • Andrew Wilson: Tatar Sunni Muslims pose a threat to Russia's occupation of Crimea: The Tatar minority is only 13% of Crimea's population, but has been there longer than any of the others, formerly ruled the Crimean Tatar Khanate (1441-1783), and recall being treated particularly badly by Stalin.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


Started writing this on March 2, but didn't get it worked out. Wrote the last paragraph fragment on March 6.

One thing that tends to happen when I'm on the road is that I pay virtually no attention to news. My internet access is limited, I play CDs instead of listening to the radio, and I almost never consider turning a TV on. One exceptional example was the weeks or I spent in Detroit in September-October 2008 working on my sister-in-law's house: at some point I happened to glance at a TV while I was waiting for some takeout BBQ and was shocked to notice that the stock market index had dropped more 3,000 points since I'd last noticed: the post-Lehman economy had collapsed and I hadn't even noticed it.

During the last couple weeks I've been only vaguely aware that anything was happening in the Ukraine. (That I was aware at all was because I spent the middle week with my wife, who never ever takes a break from the news. Indeed, it seems like she spent most of the time I was driving and birdwatching studying her twitter feeds and reading me most of Billmon's tweets.) What I do know is that there has been a period of anti-government protests that have often been met with police brutality, that the nation's elected president was ultimately deposed and later surfaced in Russia, and that Russia had intervened by taking military control of the majority-Russian Crimean peninsula. This has in turn spurred the US government to cajole and threaten Russia -- including State Secretary Kerry's insistence that all options are on the table -- while the usual warmongers like Lindsey Graham and John McCain blame Obama's wimpiness and are itching to turn this into a shooting war.

I don't have any real insights to offer about the Ukraine, nor even much that I am certain of regarding Putin's designs or intentions. But I do have an opinion on the following comment by Paul Woodward:

I guess Russia's move will render most of the anti-interventionists mute since the only interventions anyone feels moved to speak out against are those backed by the United States. "Down with American intervention!" "Intervention by anyone else -- who cares?"

I suppose I can be counted as an "anti-interventionist" who focuses on opposing American interventions, although I certainly don't subscribe to "who cares" when nations other than the US intervene in the affairs of other countries. I'm hard pressed to give any examples where foreign intervention has been a good thing. (As I recall, Chomsky regards India's 1971 intervention in support of independence for Bangla Desh as one such case, but that was extremely unusual and certainly can't be credited to good intentions: India saw its move as a way to cripple Pakistan.) There are a number of reasons why intervention is almost never helpful. Notably, it's almost impossible to launch an intervention without a selfish agenda -- democratic, neutral, and benign nations rarely have the capability much less the will to intervene. And even if one's intentions are laudable, the use of force inevitably tarnishes the action, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences.

The reason the US gets singled out is that the US intervenes more often and more powerfully than any other nation, and that the US often has an explicitly hegemonic and ideological agenda, and those goals require more coercion and manipulation than is necessary to simply establish civil order and popular government. But the US is hardly alone in that regard. Russia has a similarly long history of sending troops into neighbouring countries, notably its 18th- and 19th-century efforts against the Ottomans, Poles, Balts and Finns, not to mention the "Great Game" along the Asian border with the British Empire.

   Mar 2001