Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

December 19, 2023

[Q] Why isn't Jason Isbell's album listed on the Country-Folk-Americana EOY list? -- William Boyd, Salt Lake City [2023-12-13]

[A] I've always listed him under the broad category of rock, following Drive-By Truckers, and I've never thought about him enough to rethink that. But throwing the 'C' flag was easy enough, so I tried it. Put him in the number 1 spot on the C-F-A list, which I find a little creepy, but happens with genre-crossing. (Do metal fans agree that my top EOY-listed metal albums are real metal? I doubt it.)

Why I threw "Americana" on the end of "Country-Folk" is somewhat mysterious. Probably because my view of Country is broader than the Nashville-Austin axis, and that's where the outliers get slotted, but I wouldn't want the definition to creep into including such Americana-ish rockers as Mellencamp, Springsteen, and Neil Young.

December 03, 2023

[Q] I see two fundamental flaws in your thinking. To equate Hamas with the Palestinian people for starters. At it's core Hamas is essentially a criminal enterprise which made nearly a billion in the last few years. Pornography, drugs and human trafficking. Yet is seems as a 'government' little to none of the money seems to make it's way back to the folks they 'represent'. Add in the concept that Hamas merely acts as a beard for Iran. While Israel may serve as a convenient public target that country is a mere excuse to disrupt the balance(s) of power in the region. Presume that Israel and Hamas represent the options. Where would a left leaning (OR right leaning) American fare better? -- Clifford Ocheltree, New Orleans [2023-11-27]

[A] I seriously doubt that I ever "equate[d] Hamas with the Palestinian people," or that I ever would. That would be a category error, and a particularly grave one, given that's exactly what Israel's leaders are doing when they claim to be fighting Hamas but are actually inflicting collective punishment on Palestinians in Gaza. Perhaps I let my guard down and spoke imprecisely. It would, for instance, have been snappier to just write "Israel" instead of "Israel's leaders" just now, but people don't think and move in unison, even when their state does.

But at least in Israel, there is a sort of democratic process, one that promotes leaders from a broad class of people (limited as it is to Jewish citizens of Israel). Whether it's fair to blame people for the leaders they elect is debatable, but where there is no free, informed choice, how can that be helped? Palestinians have never been able to choose their own leaders: either outsiders picked them (as the British did in picking Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1920), or they fought their way to power (as Hamas did in Gaza in 2006).

I'm no expert on Hamas, but what little I know hasn't made me very sympathetic. But it's hard to think of any Palestinian leaders who have served their people well. Most obviously, they've always been late at conceding points Israel had previously claimed, but by then Israelis, with their relentless pursuit of "facts on the ground," had moved on. Abba Eban famously quipped that Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace," but it's doubtful Israel ever offered any such opportunities. Even when hinted at -- e.g., 1967's "land for peace" promise; 1979's pledge for Palestinian "autonomy"; the 1993 Oslo Accords -- they were never serious, and always found excuses.

You can't really claim much credit for Israeli leaders either. Sure, David Ben-Gurion did a remarkable job of building his power base in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in mandatory Palestine), and raising it to independent statehood. But he wasn't satisfied with Israel's borders in 1950, and he left the country divided and poisoned, leading to a series of expansionist and exclusionary wars, up to the present day.

But to get back to your question, between Hamas and Israel as options, I'd have to the US would be better off dealing with Hamas. It's hard to see how that might work, given that the US is insanely phobic about Hamas, and not just because Israel seems to be able to run Washington as a sock puppet. But a tilt toward Hamas would give Israel pause, which is especially important now that Israel is doing immense damage to its standing in the world by even flirting with genocide. And because chances of negotiation are improved when you give the weaker party a bit more leverage. (And I'm not suggesting that the US give Hamas "blank check" support. Just some legitimacy so it can advance reasonable proposals that Israel could actually agree to.)

Moreover, why shouldn't Americans get a little ticked off by how contemptuously Israel treats us? Including how blatantly Israel interferes in our elections? Maybe if they sensed some risk, they'd act a bit more circumspect.

As for the charges that Hamas is "a criminal enterprise" and "a beard for Iran," sure, that's something some people are saying. For instance, I found an article on NBC that makes those points (not very convincingly, as I discuss in today's Speaking of Which). Iran never had the slightest interest in Palestine, even ten years after the 1979 revolution and the US hostage crisis, until Israel decided it could manage Americans better by playing on their grudge against the Ayatollahs. (Trita Parsi details this in his 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.) Since then, Iran may offer occasional words and support to Hamas, but not much, and Hamas has no reason to toe Tehran's line.

As to the "criminal organization" line, that's true of lots of states, especially ones that aren't democratically elected, but all the more so here because Hamas has literally been outlawed by the US and its allies around the world. Still, trade and capital flows are so tightly regulated around Gaza that they have to hide what they're doing. Still, it's hard to believe that their actual graft amounts to much. If it did, why would they have risked it all by foolishly attacking Israel the way they did?

PS [2023-12-04]: Response, quoted last two lines, adding:

I'm not suggesting 'graft' per se. Hamas functions more akin to any criminal enterprise. Their 'business' is near global with governance as a sideline. There is little to no 'risk' involved. That activity will continue regardless of any outcome. In that sense the idea that Israel can eradicate Hamas is inane. Far easier to sacrifice the pawns (Palestinians) to accomplish Iranian goals.

The gains? The upside for both Hamas and Iran? Destabilization. Some great PR and, in the short term, the attacks certainly derailed any potential Saudi / Israeli agreements.

I have no information confirming any of this, other than the last line: Israel's extreme reaction has been terrible for their public standing, with the Saudi agreement a likely casualty; and given that the main purpose behind the Saudi agreement was for Israel to bless America selling more arms to the Saudis, that's probably gratifying for Iran.

But in the absence of information to the contrary, the best I can do is work from my understanding of how people and nations operate. So at this point all I can say is that I don't buy that Hamas and Iran are operating as you describe, mostly because it doesn't make sense to me that they would. I'm not so naive that I can exclude the possibility, and I'd even grant that it is probable that there are some bad actors on all sides. But it is also the case that Israel and their allies are producing enormous amounts of propaganda, something we should be very skeptical of. Especially when the intent is to distract from the core issue of the moment: genocide.

[Q] Hello Tom, keep up the great work. I always look forward to Monday's edition of Music Week to see what you've been listening to. It's one of the things that keeps me going, so thanks and please don't stop!

No one's posted a question in bit, so, since you know more about jazz than anyone I know of, I thought I'd ask, as I continue to explore Ornette's catalog: Have you noticed that K. Leander Williams gave Ornette's work on the Naked Lunch soundtrack [Milan, 1992] a 9 in the Spin guide, which is obviously a very high grade? You seem to have never listened to it, even though it's on Spotify. It's basically Ornette occasionally soloing over some pretty standard-sounding string/piano soundtrack arrangements, which I personally find a little bland and grit my teeth to get through until Ornette comes in. But I wonder if the Ornette parts are somehow great enough to justify the grade? They don't seem so to me, but I don't trust my own judgment with jazz. Anyway, probably more attention than the album deserves. Really just an excuse to check in, thank you, and wish you well! -- David, Washington, DC [2023-10-07]

[A] Thanks for the concern. And questions have been scarce lately, so thanks for that, too. But no one needs me to tell you what to think about music you've already heard. Taste is way too variable to trust anyone's but your own. But I did belatedly check out the album, and wrote it up. Long story short, about a fourth of the album is Ornette, and it's instantly recognizable as such, brilliant here but scarcely noticeable had it been embedded in any of his dozen-or-more best albums. As for Howard Shore's soundtrack music, I don't recall complaining about it many years ago when I saw the movie, but I hardly ever find soundtrack music worthwhile on its own.

August 22, 2023

[Q] I've always found it fascinating how you have a degree in Sociology but worked for a long time in the technology industry as a programmer. I'm making a similar career switch. Do you have any tips? -- David Akalugo, Nigeria [2023-08-03]

[A] First, I should clear up the biographical details. I majored in sociology for two years at Washington University, after transferring from Wichita State, where my major was philosophy. I never got a degree, and never did any work in sociology, social work, or anything remotely close. My actual interest was critical theory, so my approach to academic sociology was rather, well, critical.

I worked as a typesetter for several years after that. As I got more interested in computers, I got a job in software engineering at a company that made typesetting equipment. I had natural curiosity about how that equipment worked, and took advantage of opportunities to tackle increasingly technical jobs. This was the early 1980s, when hardly anyone had CS degrees, so most people were self-taught. That's probably changed, but back in my day people who studied CS carried IBM card stacks to be batch processed, and were pretty useless around microprocessors or any kind of hardware.

Still, I suspect a couple tips are still valid. First, read as much good code as possible. Second, find people who are really smart, and make yourself useful to them. They will, in turn, share much of what they know, and possibly open some doors for you. Your education will be obsolete a year or two after you start working, so you have to keep learning. I started working in a shop that had a UNIX source code license, so I could read everything, and my mentors included one of the architects of GECOS (which was a joint venture between GE and Bell Labs). It should be much easier to get breaks like that now: just find some free software to work on. Dig in, find and fix bugs, document and clean up code, come up with ideas to make it better, have them batted around (and often shot down), go back and repeat.

It helps to study the history and lore -- especially things like quality control and project management. You won't have to start as low down as I did -- even chip designers don't have to know how adders work these days -- but it helps to have a sense of the building blocks, how they interface, and where they break. Learn to debug, and not to fear it. I'm not great on that count, but the people who do it best are the best. I imagine AI is going to have a big impact on all this, but the only thing I am certain of is that it's going to create a lot of need for debuggers.

In the long run, I found I could apply insights I had learned in engineering to the study of societies and of political policies, but only if I fully appreciated the complexity of the subjects -- something I must have learned in my initial study of philosophy and sociology. Of course, it's impossible to tell whether my insights are right, because I'm in no position to test them, but it feels like the two worldviews complement each other.

January 31, 2023

[Q] A quick question: has author/radio host/performer Henry Rollins ever been sent a ballot to vote in the annual poll? He's a huge jazz fan and very knowledgeable. -- Jim Johnson, Alabama [2022-12-17]

[A] Probably not. Francis Davis has invited a couple dozen "broadcast journalists," so Rollins might be eligible on those grounds, but I have no way of vetting them: I never listen to radio, and even if I did my exposure would be local in a small market. I did add a couple of invites this year based purely on recommendations from other voters. Both Davis and I have solicited voter proposals, but we've rarely gotten anything from the public.

I think there's a general reluctance to invite musicians to participate. There have been a couple exceptions over the years (Duck Baker is probably the best known, but didn't vote this year; John Pietaro is the only one I recall who voted this year). Rollins seems like an outlier, but I don't doubt that there are dozens or maybe hundreds of non-jazz musicians who could be described that way.

I have little doubt that there are hundreds of fans out there who are as knowledgeable as our critics, and who could make a real contribution to the Poll. However, I'm stuck with the concept of a Critics Poll, as Davis originally defined it.

October 31, 2022

[Q] I came across your extremely impressive (exhaustive!) website and blog while beginning my annual search for new Christmas/holiday jazz, which -- this year -- is unusually bereft of new releases. I realize it's still a bit early, but labels obviously must know what's upcoming for the fourth-quarter.

Do you have any insight or suggestions? Or am I correct, and 2022 is indeed an unexpectedly thin year? -- Derrick Bang [2022-10-05]

[A] Strange question for me, as I'm on record approximately 100% of the time the subject has come up as declaring that I hate/despise/can't stand Christmas music. I've probably graded 100 of the things, as I try to review everything concrete publicists send me (downloads are a different story), but most of the reviews start with such a declaration, and the grades drive home the point.

That said, I haven't received any Christmas music promos so far this year, which is probably the first year in the last 20. Perhaps that means that publicists are wising up to me, or perhaps it's a side-effect of the decline of promo budgets, or perhaps you're right. My first thought was to check Discogs, but they don't offer Christmas music as a genre or style. So I tried searching for "christmas music," then narrowed the search by decade and year. Just eyeballing a table of numbers, it looks like there's been a fairly steady decline from 1029 in 2014 to 860 in 2020. That continues to 737 in 2021 and 229 in 2022, but I suspect those numbers (especially 2022) reflect the delay in adding entries to the system. I consult Discogs often for new jazz releases, and a 2-3 month delay isn't uncommon. From 2000 to 2014, the lowest year is 940 (2012), and the max is 1273 (2003), with the average about 1100. I didn't table up the 1990s, but the average is comparable to the 2000s (1148 vs. 1130).

I can think of a half-dozen reasons for this long-term decline -- if, indeed, that's what it is, as I can also think of reasons the statistics might be skewed (e.g., maybe Discogs editors are becoming less vigilant?). I'll leave that to you, because I really don't care.

[Q] I listened to Keith Jarrett's Sun Bear Concerts (1978, ECM) recently and liked it very much. Couldn't find it in your grade list. Have you listened to it? Would you like to? -- Siddhartha Kanungo, CA [2022-08-14]

[A] I was aware of it when released, but I've never been that much into Jarrett's solo piano albums, and it seemed prohibitive at the time (I remembered long, but 10-LP is really over the top; I see it's now out in 6-CD, totaling 6:37:46). I did buy the 2-LP version of The Köln Concert, but never got into it until I bought a CD and was able to hear it straight through (66:07), at which point I was impressed enough to give it an A-. There are at least 20 solo Jarrett titles out, maybe more like 30. I've listened to a bunch of them, including 1971's Facing You. Aside from Köln, they're all various shades of B+: he's a really great pianist, even when I don't feel like listening to piano, which almost always happens before they're over.

There's probably some early Jarrett I'd like to catch up with, but I would deprioritize anything solo, and I don't think I could keep it together long enough to do justice to Sunbear. I'm starting to realize that my patience and inquisitiveness has limits, and this is probably one of them.

[Q] Comment on Speaking of Which: re: US as a spent force

Peter Zeihan's new book, The End of the World Is Just Beginning, makes the point that the US is no longer willing/able to maintain globalization like it has since WWII e.g. keeping shipping lanes mostly trouble free. While North America can be more self-sufficient, this may [be] devastating for other countries, especially in the context of de-population. -- Robert Gable, Menlo Park, CA [2022-07-25]

[A] I noticed Zeihan's book, but didn't look very closely at it. He has a previous book with several red flags in the title -- The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder (2014) -- and he runs a consulting firm, so he's not just in the business of diagnosing problems but also of peddling solutions. To describe the U.S. as an "accidental superpower" requires that one ignore a lot of evidence to the contrary (Stephen Wertheim: Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy is a recent example, although there are many more, including the Kolko books). Even before Pearl Harbor, there were prominent Americans angling to get into WWII and come out on top. Of course, it wasn't as easy as they imagined, but as long as the U.S. was willing to pay for alliances, most other countries were happy to follow.

Trump, with his insistence that NATO pay not just its own way but tribute, threatened to end that game, but America's will as well as its means has long been in decline, at least as far back as Nixon-Kissinger's gambits to prop up Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan as proxy powers (in short order, I might add, losing control of each; in Trump's day, the first two are tails wagging the dog, the others flaunting their independence and flirting with China).

Zeihan's new book is his fourth, following and recapitulating The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America (2017) and Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World (2020). The argument seems to be that with global order collapsing (because the U.S. can't sustain it, and no one else can step up) trade will decline and self-sufficiency and -defense will become more critical, which should be advantageous for Americans, if not for the rest of the world. And, of course, in the turbulence such changes create, it helps to have a global strategist to consult.

I can see some value in this analysis -- I think it's more accurate to start from the impossibility of world governance than to see world order as a contest for would-be superpowers -- but I also suspect there's quite a bit of bullshit, and an ulterior motive I don't much like. No doubt the devil's in the details. For instance, clearing shipping lanes isn't a big deal, unless you also want to use that power to limit a supposed enemy like Russia (or China), in which case it turns into something both difficult and dangerous. I have no idea where the line about "de-population" comes from, or why it matters, but it's the sort of thing a "global strategist" might drop into a PowerPoint slide.

By the way, the "shale revolution" of the 2nd book subtitle refers to how shale oil and gas allowed the U.S. to reach "energy independence" in recent years. The idea that once established that will remain the case is plainly ridiculous. At most, it buys you a stretch of time in which to replace oil and gas with renewable energy sources, so that as reserves are exhausted you won't need to find more.

June 28, 2022

[Q] The biggest driver of inflation now is skyrocketing energy prices*, which lie directly at the feet of Clueless Joe Biden, whose sanctions on RUS have blown up spectacularly in his face, and, in those of the world.

We didn't vote for WWIII

FFS, why doesn't any of the Anglo media take him to task on the above?

* not supply chain disruptions -- Crocodile Chuck, Sydney, Australia [2022-06-26]

[A] Well, energy prices are baked into everything manufactured, grown, and/or processed, as well as transportation, and oil and gas are still the largest source of energy, so sure, that's an easy explanation. And Biden's sanctions against Russia are meant to take one of the big three oil producers off the market, so they are the most obvious reason for supply falling short of demand, and that spells higher prices. But how effective have they really been? China and India are still buying lots of Russian oil, and the flow of gas to Europe never really stopped. Sure, there was a price bump when the war started, when speculators were encouraged to run up prices, but that has largely returned to normal. Then there's the problem that prices were already rising before Russia invaded Ukraine and the sanctions kicked in. During the pandemic, demand fell, so suppliers cut back on production -- something that happened all across the board, contributing to the supply chain problems we've seen as the economy has snapped back toward pre-pandemic levels. This rapid sequence of contraction then expansion created the perfect breeding ground for inflation everywhere. One notable example is rent, which has no direct relationship to energy prices. Rents were suppressed during the pandemic, creating a pent-up pressure to raise them as soon as demand increased.

And that's basically what's been happening. Companies aren't obligated to increase supply when demand increases. They only do so when they see an opportunity to profit more by making more, but as long as supply shortages are rewarded with higher prices (and profits), they really have little incentive to do anything else. (In this, OPEC is acting much as a company would.) We like to think markets are self-correcting, but they don't react all that quickly, especially when competition has been limited -- and if you've been following the renewed interest in antitrust lately (Barry C. Lynn's 2010 book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction is a good place to start; a more recent book is David Dayen's Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power, from 2020), this will be obvious. We've created a perverse system where capitalists easily fail upwards.

But what does "Clueless Joe Biden" have to do with this? Mostly, the pandemic relief and post-pandemic stimulus programs left many people with increased savings (and staved off disaster for many more people), and that created a good deal of post-pandemic demand, which has been driving prices upwards. The programs also helped strengthen the labor market, which helped bolster wages (probably more than any time since 1980, which I'd count as a good thing even if it does contribute a bit to inflation). Some sort of recovery would have happened without Biden -- just one more skewed toward the rich, and consequently less robust, but given the framework I noted above, any recovery would have allowed prices to rise.

Where Biden is more culpable was in the run up to Putin's attack on Ukraine. I've argued elsewhere that the whole string of US presidents going back to Clinton have made sport of degrading and provoking Russia, and Biden probably looked worse than any of them because he hoped to rebuild US commitments to Europe that Trump had hadn't actually abandoned but had made a confused mess of. Chances are, Biden's closer embrace of Ukraine encouraged Zelensky to be more recalcitrant and ambitious over Donbas and Crimea, and Putin reacted as he did. The sanctions were a foregone response that any US president (even Trump) would have signed off on. The military aid was less certain, but once Russia's offensive stalled, the temptation was hard to resist. As a long-time critic of American foreign policy, this is not a course of policy I'm in favor of, but within the practical limits of our existing two-party system, I don't want to single Biden out for special condemnation -- although I have broken party ranks with LBJ over Vietnam, with Clinton over Iraq, and with Obama over Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria). The one thing I do fault Biden on is not stressing enough the need for a cease fire and conflict-ending agreement, although as far as I can tell, he's not personally on the more hawkish side of his administration.

Of course, I'm also critical of Biden for continuing his predecessors' hostile policies toward Iran and Venezuela -- perhaps least importantly because they've increased oil prices for American and allied consumers, although at the moment if one did want to flood the market quickly, the easiest (and perhaps only) way would be to suspend their sanctions (and/or end the war with Russia). The "tax holiday" scheme is too little, and not likely to help customers. Even worse are schemes to incentivize companies to increase drilling and refining -- a long-term solution counter to needs on climate change. It would be better to just give people more money to help out on inflation (e.g, you could advance the COLA on Social Security).

I've long been skeptical about the efficacy as well as the politics and morality of US sanctions, so I'm not surprised that they seem to be hurting us and our friends as much or more than they're influencing Russia. The best you can say for them is that they let us feel like we're doing something short of direct military engagement. Still, the notion that you can overcome their shortcomings by making them harsher and more resolute is a natural delusion. The longer the war drags on, the more likely both sides are to do really stupid things.

I don't know what you mean by "Anglo media." The American media is pretty relentlessly critical of Biden, especially on inflation, where he is damned for not anticipating it, damned doubly for not fixing it, and blamed for all sorts of imaginary causes and consequences (well, except for the war, which the media are typically unquestioning of). One favorite Republican talking point is to blame high gas prices on "Biden's Green New Deal," which never got passed, and wasn't Biden's in the first place. (Although note that while electricity prices are up, that's only about half as much as natural gas, thanks to all of the renewable capacity installed over the last 10-20 years.) But aside from Fox, it doesn't even seem that the media picking on Biden is ideological. They just like to watch him squirm.

One more point while we're at it. I'm seeing a lot of articles that purport to "fact check" or otherwise refute the charge that high gas prices are due to corporate greed. They're so common I suspect that industry PR flacks are orchestrating them. (Given the state of the media, that's not what you'd call unlikely.) The usual answer is to offer some other explanation -- many, like sanctions against Russia, aren't untrue -- as if greed only works as an answer once every other explanation is ruled out. But isn't it more like this: greed ensures that every possible excuse to raise profits will be jumped on? The way capitalism works is that every company is as greedy as possible. If a company's management isn't greedy enough, shareholders will rise up and replace those managers with greedier bastards. Still, it's kind of touching they feel the need to lie and obfuscate about such an obvious point. Perhaps it doesn't mean that they're ashamed, but suspect that they should be. And that they don't trust ordinary consumers to salute as they're being fucked over.

June 22, 2022

[Q] Buck 65 has a new record on bandcamp titled 'King of Drums'. Just a heads up. -- Regular Reader, NG [2022-06-10]

[A] I reviewed it here. I had seen a couple other notices, but I wasn't aware that I'd find five more albums I hadn't reviewed (same link).

[Q] As you are likely aware my leanings are more right than left. (My brother and brothers-in law feel I'm too liberal but..) I tend to read your writings on politics with great interest. I may not agree all the time but always learn something. But I note in today's piece you use the term "equitable society" which seems to have come into vogue over the last year or so. WHY? Isn't the goal of government (our government) "equality" not "equity"? Don't feel it is unreasonable to strive for a level of equity but that is removed from human nature and certainly outside the purview of a democratic government. Why the shift in language? -- Cliff Ocheltree, NOLA [2022-06-05]

[A] My first thought was that I'm probably playing fast and loose with language, trying to mix it up a bit. But "equal" and "equitable" are mostly synonyms: the first definition of the latter is "fairness; impartiality; justice," which in a social or political context is about all you can hope for from equality. True, "equal" has a more precise meaning in mathematics and logic, where it is closer to identical than "equivalent." That use risks suggesting that an "equal society" is much more precisely balanced that seems actually possible. "Equitable" suggests a fair and reasonable distribution of resources and rights, which is a more practicable aim. "Equity" also has a second meaning tied to property (stock shares, net assets) and that suggests a way to achieve a more equitable society: through a more equal distribution of assets. One of my pet ideas is that all companies, at least beyond the initial founders shares, should be owned by their employees.

Needless to say, I think inequality is a very big problem in America today, and throughout the world. I'd go so far as to say that a lot of problems are rooted in inequality, and are worsened as inequality increases (as has been nearly constant since 1980 -- a convenient political marker, but while Republicans have done most to increase inequality, Democrats have often helped them, and rarely done anything to lessen much less reverse the trend). All I want to add here is that there are two approaches to more equality: one is to reduce the disparity in wealth and income; the other is to reduce the impact of inequality, especially by carving out areas (like health care and education) where everyone has the same rights for equal treatment.

As for the wording, I did a quick scan through my notebook so far this year, and found that I used "equitable" 3 times (once in "equitable society" and twice in "equitable and generous country"; in 2021, I used "equitable" twice, neither with "society," both qualified by "more"). "Equity" appears once (in quotes), and "inequities" twice. On the other hand, "equality" appears 8 times, "equal" 9 (with "rights" 5 times, and once each with "claims," "opportunity," "prices," and "vote"). "Inequality" appears 17 times, "inequal" (with "societies") once. I'm not surprised that I talk more about what's wrong than what would be right: the wrong is both more obvious and more urgent. However, I doubt that "equitable society" is a new term. Sometimes we need a word for where we want to go. But most likely I'll keep qualifying it with "more," as long as the direction matters more than the destination.

[Q] Hallo Tom, maybe you would like to review an album of interest . . . Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's Ghost Trance Septet Plays Anthony Braxton -- roge verstraete, gent, oost-vlaanderen,belgium [2022-06-01]

[A] Sure, but Bandcamp only has 1 track (of 4) available, and I'm at a stage in my life (old and retired) when I no longer buy albums on spec. I should note that while I've listened to a fair amount of Braxton and written about him at some length, thus far I've missed out on his "Ghost Trance Music" (at least the 2001 4-CD on Rastascan, the 2003 2x2-CD on Leo, the 2006 4-CD on Important, the 2007 9-CD on Firehouse 12, and the 2017 12-CD on New Braxton House, and I'm sure there are more -- I've counted 6 more CDs, not including the GTM (Iridium) 2007 sets, which look like New Braxton House reissues of the Firehouse 12 box). The sheer numbers are daunting, especially glommed together as they are when streaming. [PS: Got a download code, so it's in the queue.]

April 24, 2022

[Q] 15,000 words & you omit completely any mention of the US State Dept f _ cking around in UKR for the last two decades, the billions of $ of weapons the US has poured into the country and the depredations of Victoria Nuland.

Aside from the total cr _ p Agitprop in the US media, this is the most feeble thing I've read on the topic.

Look at a map. UKR is a buffer state. Rule No. 1 of buffer states: to placate its larger neighbours. Zelensky is an abject failure at this.

A solid 'F'. -- Crocodile Chuck [2022-04-22]

[A] This is sad, especially the notion that smaller states should roll over and play dead to appease or amuse their bullying neighbors. No doubt it happens more often than not, as it's easier to notice the exceptions than the rule: Cuba defying the US since 1959, or Vietnam turning China back in 1979. Ukraine is paying a high price for defying Russia, but those who submit to more powerful neighbors pay a price too. Belarus is an example: a country which defers to Russia, run by a compatible kleptocrat. Of course, you could substitute a bunch of examples in Latin America.

Zelensky is open to second guessing on a number of counts, but he was only elected after Russia had taken a couple bites out of Ukraine, and was threatening more. It would have been prudent to negotiate a partition with Russia, but it's not clear that Putin would have accepted such a deal. So he set about trying to line up some leverage, appealing to the US and EU in terms that further agitated Russia. Still, in the final days before the invasion, it was not Zelensky who was taunting Putin; it was the US, with its leaked intelligence reports, and threats of sanctions (but no armed resistance, which Putin could have misread as an invite).

In great power rivalries, it's not unusual for local proxies to go rogue, to provoke atroities and sabotage efforts at negotiation -- a lesson we should recall from Vietnam and Afghanistan. Zelensky is less obviously a stooge, but he's been so effective at rallying American and European support that his backers have let him run the show. It isn't clear how he'll handle negotiations, and won't be until Putin is ready. In the long run, we may wind up judging him more harshly for letting the war happens and not ending it sooner, but for now his ability to stand up against Russia's imperial conceits is simply admirable.

I don't know a lot about covert US interference in Ukraine politics, but I've hardly neglected more general anti-Russian propaganda since 1991. Even if it wasn't official policy, the US security apparatus was purged of benign internationalists in the late 1940s, and restocked with ardent cold warriors, many of them with deep backgrounds full of anti-Russian loathing (e.g., Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezenski, and Madeline Albright, but there have been many more). These people never had any qualms about kicking Russia when it was down, and they rarely failed to seize upon opportunities to flip a country against Russia. The 2004 and 2014 "revolutions" in Ukraine are examples. I have no idea how much the CIA did to foment those events, but I don't doubt for a minute that they fed and nurtured them, and celebrated in their success. On the other hand, I suspect that there were other outside resources, coming from the EU, from the private sector, even from "philanthropists" like Soros. In particular, various NGOs that purport to promote democracy have, at least historically, been staged as political fronts. Conversely, I have no doubt that there is an extensive network of Russian agents operating in Ukraine, and that they played an outsized role in the separatist movements of 2014. But it's hard to tell how much of each external influence there was, and how effective it was, so I preferred not to dwell on it. But also, it makes sense to me that Ukraine should harbor both pro- and anti-Russian constituencies, and that the shifts toward Europe or Russia reflect popular wishes, as one would expect in a democracy.

It's true that I didn't mention Victoria Nuland in my pieces. She is a prominent neocon, with Ukrainian ancestry and a degree in Russia studies. She rose to prominence in the GW Bush administration, continued with Obama, skipped Trump but was hired back by Biden (Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs) -- a clear signal that Biden intended to push arms into Ukraine as soon as he took office. She is best known for a leaked phone conversation where she seemed to be picking/vetoing possible Ukrainian office holders. Wikipedia has a picture of her and Kerry meeting with "Ukrainian opposition leaders" before Yanukovych was impeached, and before her preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, became prime minister. This tape is often cited as "smoking gun" proof that the US was running Ukraine and using it as a wedge against Russia. That interpretation would be consistent with her history. Also worth noting that her husband is Robert Kagan, a co-founder of Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which started scheming for the Iraq War back in 1997. He was appointed to the State Department Foreign Affairs Policy Board in 2011. His father, Donald Kagan, was born in Lithuania, and has long been a promiment warmonger. Both left the Republican Party to support Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they supported Biden in 2020.

I suspect that the more we learn about the rapport between the Biden administration and Zelensky from Inauguration 2021 all the way to the invasion, the more evident it will become that Russia was being pushed into a corner with no respectable exit. As far as I'm concerned, none of that excuses Putin's invasion, or makes me at all sympathetic to his predicament. But it does show that many of the basic assumptions Washington makes about security and foreign policy are deeply and dangerously flawed.

I've written tons and tons over the years about the malign influence of neocon warmongers and their "humanitarian interventionist" helpers, so I'm surprised that someone who has read me regularly for such a long time wouldn't have noticed that thread in my Ukraine writings.

[Q] I may have missed it in your 23 theses -- eyes are a limiting factor. Sorry if I did in fact pass it over. If not, how do you see the (for USSR) disastrous and certainly motivated "delay" in the invasion of Western Europe as Stalin begged and 5 million(?) Russians died while the west waited to see if the Germans and Russians might neutralize themselves? Individual and Jungian memories of the Great Patriotic War/.. -- Barry Layton, Cleveland [2022-04-20]

[A] I don't know the answer to this, but I'm skeptical that Americans in a position to do something about it failed to see the importance of helping Russia defeat Germany. Sure, Stalin wanted the US/UK to open up a second front in Western Europe earlier than they did, but even after D-Day the overwhelming majority of German forces was aimed at Russia. At least, the US started providing Lend-Lease aid to the USSR even before the US declared war on Germany in December, 1941, which was probably a bigger help than an earlier second front would have been. I'm not sure why Eisenhower waited on D-Day as long as he did, but I doubt any of the major US policy makers were intent on sabotaging Russia. Not that there weren't Americans who hated Communism enough to propose allying with Germany against Russia -- there just weren't many of them. What did happen was that after the war, as the US no longer needed Russia to do the heavy fighting, the alliance fractured and anti-Communists became increasingly prominent, with the US doing all sorts of things Russians would grow to resent. Slighting or forgetting Russia's primary role in defeating Germany was a big one. But as I noted, Russia had a long history of feeling slighted by the West, and the Cold War added thousands of tiny cuts. Perhaps worse, it didn't end there.

[Q] Interesting point. I hadn't thought about that. I would say that both Napoleon and Hitler took the war to Russian soil. They just couldn't sustain it and lost. Would Ukraine even have the capability to actually attack in Russian or are they fundamentally just a small, defensive force? -- Robert Gable, Menlo Park, CA [2022-04-18]

[A] My point was that Russia cannot be invaded and occupied -- even by arguably superior forces, as proven by Napoleon and Hitler. No one thinks that Ukraine could even begin to mount a counter-invasion. There probably are people who think that if Ukraine can continue to inflict serious losses on Russia, confidence in Putin may fade, leading to some kind of coup. That was how Germany defeated Russia in WWI, but the odds of that happening now are very small, for a long list of reasons. The only way out is a negotiated settlement.

It is, of course, possible for Ukraine to attack points in Russia over the border, as has happened at least once so far (an attack on a fuel depot). Doing so could provoke Russia into escalating the war further, and certainly would stiffen Russian morale while making Ukraine look bad. The only way out of that quandry is to negotiate a resolution. The sooner the better.

January 09, 2022

[Q] I notice a few discrepancies in the grades for some albums; for instance, in the "Grade List Search" under Sonic Youth, I find

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC, July 4th 2008 (2008 [2019], Matador) B+(***)

whereas, in the "Rhapsody Streamnotes" I find

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC, July 4th 2008 (2008 [2019], Matador) A−

In this case, the album was originally graded B+(***) and later revised to A-. Somehow, the later change is not reflected in the "Grade List Search" section. -- Siddhartha Kanungo [2021-12-27]

[A] I've noticed a few such discrepancies myself, and don't doubt that there are more lurking unnoticed. It's the result of poor design -- I have multiple places where the same grade is stored separately -- and sloppy execution. Computer science has a process called normalization, where redundant copies of data are replaced by calls to a single source. It's a good idea, but it requires a lot of forethought to implement, and is usually more work to maintain -- unless you count up all the time finding and repairing all the slip-ups.

As it is, when I change a grade, I should have to change it in 4-8 places: the review file, the notebook backup, the year file, the year tracking file, the "md" (music database) file, previous review/notebook files, the indexes (year and artist) to the review files, possibly an EOY file and a metacritic/aggregate file. Of those the review file is the most accurate, but the "md" file is the only one you can readily look up. Unfortunately, the "md" file is usually the one I forget. Some of the others I consider obsolete and rarely bother with. It's messy, but at this point the work to redo it is even more daunting.

When you do find discrepancies like this (i.e., between the Streamnotes grade and the music database), please report them to me.

[Q] Do you still listen to vinyl?

I just started collecting recently, and the experience + sound + physical format is a revelation! -- Piotr, O-side [2021-11-11]

[A] Not if I can help it. I moved all of my vinyl from Boston to New Jersey when I had a job change that paid for it, but most of it remained in boxes in the basement, and a lot of it got water-damaged. I salvaged what I could from that, but when I contemplated moving to Wichita on my own dime, I decided to unload most of what I had. This was 1999, and I got damn little for it, but I saved at least $1000 in moving costs. I think I kept about 300 pieces, and have them nicely shelved, but I hardly ever play any of them. My beloved B&O turntable died after we got here, and I reverted to an even older (and much cheaper) Technics that my wife had before she met me (about 35 years ago), so it's not what you'd call a quality setup. A couple times a year I get vinyl promos, so it works for that.

I've never been much of an audiophile, although my now ancient speakers were pretty good when I bought them, as were my components, but recent replacements (mostly CD changers and computer speakers) are nothing special. I don't doubt that I'd be dazzled by better quality sound, but this setup works fine for what I do (especially given I play everything at low volume, which thankfully my ears can still detect).

[Q] I was getting caught up on your blog posts and found myself lowering my eyes and sighing deeply at your "all tyrants and would be tyrants are on the right" reaction. It seemed almost nostalgic to me. Pretty much my whole life I've shared a similar outlook but take it from this lifelong left wing liberal Democrat that even just a short time in the Seattle/Portland areas would force you to reconcile this belief against the hundreds and hundreds of hard left "activists" rabidly trying to get you fired from your job by attacking you through your employer or shut down your small business through accusations and bad reviews. They'll steal personal photos from social media and deface them in the most humiliating ways they can think of. They attack children via online school groups hoping to shame families into moving. They'll organize a march to a business or residence and destroy property. They'll block a highway. They'll cut of access. All in the name of equity, justice, mutual respect and tolerance. This is all done based on the way something may appear to be in a photo, or because of an out of context partial quote, or even a complete fabrication supplied by one of the dozens of bloggers acting as journalists promoting themselves through confirmation bias. City Council members have no qualms about lying to the media to further the narrative. They hire their own family members and cronies and appoint like minded people to city, county, and state posts where they can officially declare anyone with differing points of view "hate groups" or a "terrorist organization." Almost none of this gets any attention from local (or national) media as they operate in fear of the social justice warriors.

The big lesson of the Trump presidency for me was that the hard right and the hard left are identical mirror images.

As you can probably tell I speak from first hand knowledge so if you should reference any of this in a blog post I kindly ask that you please withhold my name. -- [name withheld] [2021-12-12]

[A] I'm shocked and saddened at your conclusion, and don't see how any fair and reasonable observer could arrive at it, even from spotty and selective anecdotal evidence. Even if the "hard left" were guilty as charged, that doesn't come close to the level of threat and malice routinely voiced and all-too-often practiced by the right (and I'm not just talking about the "hard" cases of avowed white supremacists and ultra-macho militias). And even if it did, I'd still reject your "mirror image" claim due to core principles: the right believes that order depends on a social hierarchy, where some people are privileged to rule over others, and that it's justified to enforce that order with force and deceit; the left believes that all people are equal, and that none has the right to dominate and dictate to others.

After receiving your letter, I wrote to friends in Seattle and Portland to see if they could corroborate your charges. They didn't. One allowed this much: "The hard right in Portland is the cops who kill unarmed homeless people and get a raise. The hard left yells at people about pronouns. It's not the same thing." Another friend, from Berkeley, did acknowledge several instances of "ultra leftist ideological bullying and excluding." As tactics, that sort of thing is counterproductive, but that doesn't vindicate the right. At most, it shows that some of the bad habits of the right have been picked up by people who identify on the left.

I do believe that leftists need to consider tactics carefully, and become more conscious of how their arguments and demonstrations play in the wider world. The left message promotes peace, justice, equity, honesty, openness, cooperation, and public-spiritedness, and our tactics should be consistent with those principles. But it's hard, because the right controls most of the world's wealth and power, and has no scruples about using them to misinform and manipulate, to obscure and confuse issues, and to deflect their own culpability for their intrinsic inability to cope with many of the world's most pressing problems. We need a politically viable left more than ever. And while not everyone on the left may live up to our ideals, they're the only hope we have. So enough with this "both sides" nonsense.

Needless to say, I could write on this at much more depth. I've been thinking of knocking out an outline of a book I'm unlikely to ever write (but someone should). This would start by rehashing my four-era framework for American politics (Jefferson-to-Buchanan, Lincoln-to-Hoover, Roosevelt-to-Carter, Reagan-to-Trump), then add three more detailed sections:

  1. Why the fourth (Reagan-to-Trump) era is anomalous, from its founding on principles opposite of America's liberal tradition and promise, to its degeneration into a party of lies, self-deceptions, incoherence, and incompetence.
  2. A section on how the world works: the major problems facing us in the near- and mid-term future, to figure out what sorts of solutions work and what don't.
  3. A final section on how Democrats can and should campaign, given the real problems we face and the obstacles and enemy they will have to overcome.

This final section should answer this particular question more thoroughly (or hopefully bury it). Democrats need strategy and tactics which broaden their political support, not by compromising or shying away from principles but by advancing them in ways that show their general worth and necessity.

November 19, 2021

[Q] I read your reviews every week and enjoy them, particularly the jazz reviews. Im curious what you think about the job Biden has done so far. I couldnt stand Trump and was happy the Dems took over but i have to say im disappointed in Biden so far. Based on his experience i expected more. Thanks. -- Bob Moeller, Belvidere Il [2021-11-16]

[A] My wife frequently gripes about Biden, but I for one am quite delighted with what he's done so far. For someone who had spent 40-50 years in thrall to Reagan-era orthodoxy, he seems to have emerged with humanity intact, recognizing the need for new ideas and necessary change. He's never been much as a thinker, let alone orator, so he's not especially good at explaining what needs to be done to other people, but he has shown himself to be open and flexible, and forceful when he's needed to -- most importantly during the troublesome Afghanistan exit. Much of this may be attributed to the people he's surrounded himself with -- and I certainly wish he had better picks on foreign policy -- but in the end presidents do pretty much what they want to do, so give him some credit. He's scored a couple of big legislative wins, against long odds, and he's done a lot of good things through executive orders. And while the post-pandemic economic rebound was likely to happen anyway, this one has two key features thanks to Democrats' broader priorities in the recover and stimulus bills (including the first one under Trump, which given Trump's panic over Wall Street was largely crafted by Schumer and Pelosi): wage increases, especially at the bottom of the scale, and increased savings during the pandemic, which are currently driving more consumer spending.

Unfortunately, the Republican propaganda barrage has eroded Biden's public standing, leading the ever-fickle mainstream media astray, not least in their obsession over "inflation" and "supply chain issues," as well as the perennial that government spending leads to crippling debt. Most of this is bullshit, but Democrats haven't done anywhere near an adequate job of getting out in public and explaining that in terms people (and reporters) can understand. I wrote a bit about this in a Notes on Everyday Life post on the Virginia/New Jersey elections. One might argue that the Republican margins in Virginia were largely due to how well they distanced their candidates from the derangement exhibited by Trump and most of the party, what needs to happen is for Democrats to drive home the point that no Republicans can be trusted to address and solve the nation's increasingly dire problems. That's been totally obvious to me for a long time now, but public figures, including a shameful number of Democrats, let that slip by. In this atmosphere, I no interest whatsoever in ragging on Biden. I don't even care to criticize Manchin and Sinema, although if I had the opportunity I'd point out to them that their public disputes and ultimatums are hurting their party and their supporters, and I'd try to reason with them to get to constructive compromises. I recall many occasions where Reagan cited "the 11th commandment," that thou should never speak ill of another Republican. Democrats should pay attention, especially when the media is so stacked against them.

[Q] I was wondering if you've heard the Rubinoos and what your views are if their albums -- Neil Sidebotham, Belconnen ACT Australia [2021-11-03]

[A] I recall the name, and thought I had at least heard their 1977 debut album, but couldn't find any evidence of it. What I definitely did hear was Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 (1975), which includes their cover of "Gorilla," but when I streamed their debut, I also recognized their cover of "I Think We're Alone Now" (and not just the Tommy James & the Shondells hit, which I must have heard but wouldn't have placed). I wasn't aware that the band kept going on forever (at least through 2019), and haven't followed up. My general impression is that their originals were meant to sound like obscure covers but more often were merely forgetable.

In the mid-1970s, my circle of friends who collaborated on the first Terminal Zone were especially into what we might call rock revivalism, the broader tendency behind pub rock and power pop. We dated this to Supersnazz, the Flamin' Groovies album from 1969, and to Dave Edmunds' 1970 cover of "I Hear You Knocking." Greg Shaw's Who Put the Bomp? fanzine focused on our interests, although I leaned more toward the UK pub rock of Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, as well as the post-Velvets glam bands: both seemed to sense to need to restore what was lost when rock and roll contracted to rock. Beserkley was a blip on that scene, remembered (if at all) for securing the shelved 1972 tapes of the Modern Lovers. Stiff played a similar role in the UK, but the real breakthrough only came with punk, which revived not the form of early rock and roll but its spirit. And while 1970s punk led to more brutalist hardcore bands in the 1980s, it also cracked the ice, allowing revivalists to break into the mainstream without getting tagged as nostalgiacs -- Bruce Springsteen and ZZ Top are examples. Thus postmodernism came to popular music.

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