An armchair general saves the music industry, part one

>> Thursday, January 31, 2008

While I was showering for work the other morning, it occurred to me that my post the other day about Paul McGuinness’ speech on the tribulations of the recording industry, I offered a lot of criticism and not any real solutions. It’s easy to offer criticism without offering alternatives.

Not that my alternatives mean anything more than my criticism: I’m not a recording industry professional, merely an interested (sometimes obsessed) music fan. So anything I say around here is me being the classic armchair general. Or, to paraphrase the old line about a critic being like the eunuch in a harem, I can offer advice on how it’s being done but I can’t do it myself.

On the other hand, why should that stop me?

I actually do have some ideas about how the music industry can save itself. The problem is that those ideas don’t leave much of a place for the Big Four and therefore aren’t all that grounded in the contemporary reality. Nor is it likely the Big Four will save the industry by fracturing for the good of art and commerce. What’s far more likely is that we’ll see a bunch of failed schemes along the lines of what McGuinness proposes as the Big Four, the telecoms, and the legislators they bribe influence vie for power, perhaps abetted by the companies vying for control of your living room—Apple, Microsoft, and (sometime schizophrenic Big Four member) Sony.

Fracturing the industry is one solution, tho’ it probably isn’t going to happen. Part of the industry’s woes stem from the fact that the industry has essentially become a monoculture. “Monoculture” is—I hope I’m not oversimplifying too much—a biology term for a population in which genetic diversity has become minimal. Because of this, monocultures are notoriously susceptible to catastrophe: there’s not enough genetic diversity for the population to adapt to a new stressor in the environment (e.g. climate change, epidemic, big rock from space), so a new stressor wipes the population out.

Let’s say there are only four major labels, and each one of them is pushing “the next Shaun Cassidy,” all four of them are shitouttaluck when all of last year’s 14 year-old girls turn 15 and start pining for “the next Robert Smith.” And this last bit is inevitable: last year’s 14 year-olds will turn 15. Pig-tails will be replaced by black nail polish (don’t take that line literally, adjust it for your relevant decade), and everything turns, turns, turns. A few acts always surprise everyone by outlasting their expiration dates (“runners,” you might call ‘em; The Beatles were one, Justin Timberlake might yet prove to be another), but for the rest, nothing (there are very good odds Brittney Spears is on her way to joining Herman’s Hermits and New Kids On The Block; sorry, Brittney, your palm is blinking).

When there were more majors and mid-levels, the industry as a whole was in a position to weather the changes in the environment. A label heavily-invested in acoustic-guitar-playing singer-songwriters might be in rough shape when the Age Of Disco dawned, but the industry as a whole would march on. But now it’s like everyone is over-invested in one or two things. And tastes change.

There’s another major solution I can see that, although it’s been suggested before, goes against roughly sixty years of habit, tradition, practice, and conventional wisdom. And it’s another option that’s good for bands and good for music and good for the industry but bad for the big four labels. And that’s to give away the music.

(COMING UP NEXT: In part two we take a historical interlude in which we discuss how Columbia Records' need to sell hardware turned the fashion by which musicians made a living on its head, and propose a new paradigm for success in the music industry that really isn't.)


This would be that "irony" thing, no?

>> Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Associated Press reports that a volunteer DJ at an Austin, Texas radio station responded to changes to his setlist by pouring gasoline on two control panels and setting fire to the place, knocking the station off the air for more than two weeks.

The program he hosted was called "Mellow Down Easy."

(Full story here.)


P.J. O'Rourke sums up 2008 in 112 words:

The difference between American parties is actually simple. Democrats are in favor of higher taxes to pay for greater spending, while Republicans are in favor of greater spending, for which the taxpayers will pay. In foreign policy, Republicans intend to pursue the war in Iraq but to do so with a minimal number of troops on the ground. This is not to be confused with the disastrous Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld policy of using a minimal number of troops on the ground to pursue the war in Iraq. Democrats intend to end the war, but they don't know when. Democrats are making the "high school sex promise": I'll pull out in time, honest!

(No, I haven't started reading The Weekly Standard; O'Rourke's piece was referenced in Slate.)


Schadenfreude is fun!

Everyone point at Rudy Giuliani and laugh!

On a related note, the photograph accompanying the above-linked article is the single most terrifying picture of a politician I have ever seen. There is no god. I'm not sure whether this photograph is a reason to flee John McCain's presence, screaming, or to endorse him: maybe we should elect this man president, that he may strike fear into the hearts of our enemies...

...that is the face of a very special man who just made something in his pants on the roller coaster but wants to ride it again right now. Not changing pants! Now!

Yes, I meant that kind of special.


Seems only fitting they're named after a spy plane...

>> Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Apparently, U2's lifelong manager, Paul McGuinness, thinks customers are thieves--yes, he said that--and it would appear the band is endorsing that POV at least to the extent they're posting his speech on their website. He also seems to think your internet service provider should be spying on you, since he proposes that your ISP should be assisting the fight against digital piracy by blocking access to people who download copyrighted material.

Let's get a few things out of the way:
  • Downloading copyrighted material without paying for it is wrong.
  • Yes, I've done it too.
  • U2 is one of my favorite bands (but see following).
  • In fact, The Edge probably influenced my guitar playing when I was young more than anyone.
  • U2 hasn't done a decent album since 1997, and really, I'm actually the only person I know who liked it. (Screw you, "Please" is a great song.)
Anyway, back to McGuinness being a prat. Something else we need to get out of the way is that, seeing as how U2 has been increasingly irrelevant since 1993, it's a little hard to take McGuinness seriously when he says:
They [U2] are as ambitious and hardworking as ever, and each time they make a record and tour, it’s better than the last time. They are doing their best work now.
But he is their manager. I guess he's not going to say, "Hey, you remember U2, right? That Joshua Tree sure was an awesome record, right? 'Where The Streets Have No Name,' remember that one?"

But then he goes on to talk about and around the problem of what's wrong with the music industry, and of course he can't see the forest for the trees because he's in the middle of the damn woods with a shaky camcorder looking for Elly Kedward's house. To McGuinness, it's all about how
...the record companies, through lack of foresight and poor planning, allowed an entire collection of digital industries to arise that enabled the consumer to steal with impunity the very recorded music that had previously been paid for. I think that’s been a cultural problem for the record industry – it has generally been inclined to rely for staff on poorly paid enthusiasts rather than developing the kind of enterprise culture of Silicon Valley where nearly every employee is a shareholder. opposed to the way in which you now have only four major labels dominating the music industry and releasing a monotonous slab of inferior product that audiences tire of too quickly to invest in.

Let's take a minor side path for a bedtime story: once upon a time, there was a tiny record label from Jamaica that specialized in reggae and similar styles of music. This label was small, but fierce, and although they struggled just to stay alive, they were valiant. One day, someone at the record label heard a demo and obscure single recorded by four Irish teenagers who could barely play their instruments. The tiny label began to release albums by the plucky Irish lads, who made up in moxie what they lacked in proficiency, and each album did a little better than the one before until a hot July day when the young band appeared at the big international music festival. Lots and lots of bands were there, having come from all over the wide world to play, but the plucky Irish band pretty much stole the show, going from "minor band with respectable and devout following" to "international superstars who get to meet the President of the United States like Elvis did, only they're completely sober (notwithstanding those ridiculous sunglasses)."

The point of that little diversion being this: until the 1990s, there were a lot of small and mid-sized labels. Independents like Island, A&M and IRS, subsidiaries like Reprise. It wasn't just the giants like EMI or Warner, which was good because the giants didn't always discover the good stuff first: it wasn't the giant labels that were on the ground floor for punk, new wave, metal, rap or grunge.

There's no way that a little band would win a talent show and get signed by a small, desperate label with nothing to lose these days. Oh, you might see someone win a fake talent show like American Idol and get signed to a big-label subsidiary that tries to manage everything the artist does, sure. But at this point, the music industry landscape is dominated by four major corporations, and then you have miles of nothing until you get to the tiny little independents like FatCat and Saddle Creek that only exist because of the internet: they have international reach because of the web and only because of the web. Nor would you see any of the Big Four stick with a band through two or three marginally-selling records until they hit it big. (Another sidetrack: ever heard of Bruce Springsteen? Do you know how well his first two albums did? According to Rolling Stone, five million copies sold... combined. According to Wikipedia, Greetings From Asbury Park only sold 25,000 copies in its first year. Sales like that, you think a label would give him a shot at a third album? His third, by the way, was Born To Run.)

Or, getting back on track: U2 is The Man. They're Big Corporate Rockers distributed by a Big Corporate Label (Universal) and making deals with Big Companies like Apple and Microsoft. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that: my very favorite band of all time shamelessly sold out in the 1970s and hardly looked back. The problem is when you don't know you're The Man, and it's pretty clear from the tone of his comments that McGuinness doesn't get that he's The Man and that U2 is a rock'n'roll dinosaur. It gives his whole speech a funny subtext: at 31 years together, the band he manages isn't that different from Pink Floyd (40th anniversary of their first album last year), but I doubt you'll hear him actually admit they're largely in it for the money at this point.

McGuinness proposes two solutions to the record industry's woes: a back-to-basics A&R approach that focuses on nurturing promising-but-uncommercial new acts and a focus on diversity by the labels... KIDDING! No, his proposed solutions are that the labels should, first:
Nonetheless there is one effective thing the majors could do together. I quote from Josh Tyrangiel in Time Magazine: -“The smartest thing would be for the majors to collaborate on the creation of the ultimate digital-distribution hub, a place where every band can sell its wares at the price point of its choosing”. Apple’s iTunes, despite its current dominance is vulnerable. Consumers dislike its incompatibility with other music services, and the labels are rebelling against its insistence on controlling prices. Universal the largest label in the world has declined to sign a long term deal with iTunes. “There’s a real urgency for the labels to get together and figure this out,” says Rick Rubin of Columbia Records.”
Yes. Because there would be nothing illegal about all members of an industry forming a consortium to price and distribute products, and consumers would love it. That's a wonderful idea. Idiot.

Here's McGuinness' other idea:
It is time for ISPs to be real partners. The safe harbours [referring to ISP immunity from liability for how a network is used] of the 1990s are no longer appropriate, and if ISPs do not cooperate voluntarily there will need to be legislation to require them to cooperate.

Why does all this matter so much? Because the truth is that whatever business model you are building, you cannot compete with billions of illegal files free on P2P networks. And the research does show that effective enforcement – such as a series of warnings from the ISP to illegal file sharers that would culminate in disconnection of your service – can address the problem.

A simple three strikes and you are out enforcement process will see all serial illegal uploaders who resist the law face a stark choice: change or lose your ISP subscription.
Now, the only way the ISPs could send those nasty letters would be to spy on their customers, to make sure that their customers aren't using the internet to illegally distribute certain material. See, not all distribution of copyrighted material via P2P is illegal: U2's entire back catalogue, illegal and discouraged; the latest update to the Linux kernel, legal and encouraged. How does an ISP distinguish between one million bytes of one versus a million bytes of the other? By inspecting the contents. And if the ISP gets it wrong? The only way McGuinness' plan works is if the ISPs are immunized from liability.

Swell idea. Much better than the "release less crap" option.

I'd like to eat dinner now, so I'll quit. Go read the speech: McGuinness also snipes at Radiohead and trashes Abbie Hoffmann, it's sort of amusing in a "He's detached from reality but I don't think he's actually on drugs" sort of way.

Oh, and Paul: I've neither purchased nor illegally downloaded the last two U2 albums. The speech you really should be giving is the "What the hell is up with all this weak shit?" speech. To an audience of four.


Three things that are only related by the fact that I read them today...

>> Monday, January 28, 2008

Instead of being responsible and writerly, I really want to eat a bowl of chili, watch Timecode (one of my rentals from CafeDVD) and maybe play some Neverwinter Nights if it's not bedtime. (I might watch the Samurai Jack Season One DVD I've had lying on my shelf for months, too, now that I finally picked up the remaining three seasons and can watch the complete series.)

So, a news roundup!


Lego® Bricks are fifty years old this month! That's half a century of kids buying a box of something with a house or boat on the front and building a spaceship or man-eating robot out of the contents!

From the press release, it looks like you're supposed to call them Lego® bricks--but who didn't just call them "Legos" (and I'm leaving the ® off from now on, 'kay?).

In a lot of ways, Legos are the perfect toy. Okay, not if you eat them or put them in your nose. (Although, arguably, you could make a Darwinian argument that they're still a perfect toy in that context... nevermind.) But no, I kid about the choking hazards and upper respiratory blockages. In all seriousness, Legos are pure imagination--a box of raw material that you could turn into anything. As long as it was kind of blocky-shaped and composed of bright primary colors and didn't need too many of those flat green pieces you always seemed to run out of before you'd put enough wings on.

Cool fact in the press release: "Lego" is a contraction from the Dutch words "Leg” and “Godt.” Good for you, Dutch people: you resisted Nazism, invented Legos, and gave me my last name! Three for three! You rock!

Anyway, Legos are awesome and they're fifty. Happy birthday, Legos!


The Washington Post published the best "Scrabblegram" ever last week. I'd never heard of these things before reading this, but check out the picture.

I regret to say that I never would have gotten "subtext." Although, yes, I did make a word out of the letters in question. I should have known better, however: hyphens aren't allowed in Scrabble®.


Microsoft is apparently realizing that other people are eying their lunch, and has announced the next version of Windows will be smaller and more modular (yes, Vista has done so well, they're already making announcements about the next release). Wait... do they mean... like a *nix OS?

See, it turns out that it's not that Microsoft never learns, it's just that they learn v e r y s l o w l y. There's really not a good reason for an OS to only be installable with a 4 gig footprint. 4 gig as a feature-rich optional version, hey, okay, whatever. But an operating system ought to be configurable to, you know, operate the system without becoming the system. And there's no reason that running Windows ought to stuff Media Player down your throat. At any rate, hopefully they small-footprint edition of Windows 7 will also fix Windows' RAM issues, too.

(No, I don't use Vista: but at some point, y'know, I may get a machine to play games on--it might be nice to try NWN2, for instance.)


A beginning is a very delicate time

>> Sunday, January 27, 2008

In December, my excuse for being all non-writerly was that I'd just finished NaNoWriMo. I'd decompress and then get to editing "Cream And Bastards" in January. And that sort of is how I started out. Except I've found that I just can't read "C&B" right now. Fair enough.

But dammit, I can't get started on anything else, either, and it's pissing me off. There are two ideas in my head right now: one is something I started last year that needs to be rebooted, the other is an idea for a different sort of fantasy novel. I don't want to get too detailed about such things for various reasons, just suffice it to say that I think both of these ideas have some merit.

So I sit down with notepad and pen, and noodle a bit. But I can't get any traction right now. It's disappointing. I feel like I'm just sitting in the mud, flooring the accelerator, and accomplishing nothing more than spraying muck everywhere, painting myself with it.

This is a common sort of thing. A friend of mine was complaining about writer's block in her blog recently, and I was all would-be-reassuring. This is a universal experience of trying to get thoughts on paper. I'm not trolling for sympathy with this post, I'm merely venting; fuming, really, huffing out steam through the grillwork. It's vexing to be this constipated.

Yeargh. That's the word for it, and it's not even a damn word. Yeargh. Shout it from the rooftops, pound your chest and scream yeargh at the passerby like Kong up on the Empire State Building. Bare your teeth and swat at unseen planes. Yeargh.

Whatever, nevermind. I'm off to look at my blank page. And my pen, which I could also bitch about right now but I'll spare you the insignificant details.



Happy 64th, Mr. Mason!

Nick Mason of Pink Floyd turns 64 today.

Not to look like a total fanboy, but it came up on my RSS reader and I am doing a blog-series on all fourteen of their studio albums. So, happy birthday, Mr. Mason, and thank you for all the good records, the book, and everything else. Thank you for helping engineer the Live 8 reunion, and thank you for being the epitome of the laid-back, cooler-than-cool drummer.

Here's Mason in the early 1970s, in the film Live At Pompeii, thumping the hell out of the final blowout in "One Of These Days":


Well it's new to me....

>> Saturday, January 26, 2008

I can't figure out how I ran across this today, or how I missed it last year when it was apparently an internet meme--but here's a group of high school students calling themselves The Wrong Trousers busking in San Diego and bringing the awesome with their version of "Video Killed The Radio Star," the song that MTV launched with before they were even born:

Who knows what will persist, or why? Clearly, this Buggles song had more life in it than anyone knew. It was a novelty song, a forgettable one-off. Was it MTV that gave it enduring life, or something about that catchy little riff? You gotta give Buggles credit for a catchy riff.

Whatever. The Wrong Trousers are a helluva lot more interesting than anything you'll hear on the radio, and that's exactly where you won't hear them. And when CD Baby gets their album back in stock, I'll be purchasing a copy--a sale that will be completely beneath the radar of the Big Four labels, who will insist that nobody is buying music anymore because everyone's too busy stealing it and trying to treat the recording industry like a Shmoo. Because declining record sales aren't a complicated phenomena resulting from a combination of factors including a declining corporate monoculture that is too inflexible to supply the diverse demands of a fractured, globally-connected consumer base (i.e. the labels insist on re-releasing last year's crappy fad to an audience that has instant access to recording artists on six continents).

Oh, before I forget: while MySpace is pretty much Of The Devil (or something like that), it did originate as a way for bands to self-publicize, and The Wrong Trousers do have a page where you can listen to four of their songs. They're good.


"Papa's Funeral" and "A Mean Wind From Unkind Places"

>> Friday, January 25, 2008

[I haven't had the right brain cycles to write a proper blog entry, but I did get back to writing at Ficlets today for the first time in almost a month, and wrote three short, standalone pieces during lunch, two of which I was particularly satisfied with as the result of an hour's work. Nothing massively awesome, but I should put more fiction up here. Anyway, here are the two short-shorts I wrote today that I thought went tolerably well for about an hour's work:]


Papa's Funeral

Monday, Nov. 4, 1889

We buried Papa today. The service did not proceed as smoothly as we hoped. Even after I crept downstairs last night after the house was abed and put my lips to the coffin and whispered, “Please, Papa, do not make a scene tomorrow.” I know he heard, for I heard him whisper back, begging for release. I left him before he made promises we both knew he would not keep.

Father Murray has not long been in our village, but long enough he should know to retain composure in such circumstance; when Papa began screaming obscenities and banging on his coffin lid in church, Father Murray faltered. This only emphasized the awkwardness of the situation. People coughed and shuffled their feet nervously in the pews. Eventually Father Murray resumed the sermon and managed to drown out Papa’s wailings, but I thought it was very poor form.

I regret to admit it, but Darby was right: we should have buried Papa with a stake. But Mother insisted.

Clouds tonight: it appears it will rain tomorrow.


A Mean Wind From Unkind Places

Incessant drone and rattle. It’s a mean wind from unkind places, locked up and chained up out west somewhere that got itself out and climbed the mountain and rolled down this side and beats itself ragged and torn against the window like it wants back in again. It keeps slipping through the peeling seal at the bottom, bringing tiny dusty balls of snow in onto the sill where they roll and melt into pinpricks of dew in the yellow light of the floorlamp.

I’m surprised, honest I am, the power hasn’t gone. When the ice brings the lines down, there goes the heat and light and all this shack will have going for it is that the wind can only get its fingernails under the windowframe.

The temperature will drop, and I will face a conundrum. A Catch-22, Heller called it in that book.

See, if the heat goes and I leave my gloves off, my fingers will be too numb for me to do much of anything with them. If I put my gloves on, my finger won’t fit through the trigger guard and I still won’t be able to use the gun.


[When writing a ficlet, I usually end up going over the character limit and paring the piece down. Sometimes that dramatically improves a piece, other times it means I cut something I really would have liked to keep. "Papa's Funeral" particularly had some lines I would have liked, but I can't quite remember what they were at this point. Ficleting is a bit like speed chess, I think: on the one hand, it teaches you certain economies that are useful skills to have--on the other hand, it can foster some bad writerly habits. Oh well. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed.]

("Papa's Funeral" originally appeared here. "A Mean Wind From Unkind Places" originally appeared here.)


It Came From Lewiston

>> Thursday, January 24, 2008

This is a picture of a blob.

Removed from context, you might think it's coming to eat you. Or at least a group of plucky teenagers in your neighborhood. But it isn't: this fifty foot long blob is doing nothing more exciting than blocking a 12"-wide sewer pipe in Lewiston, Maine.

(Except... hold on: as it happens, I've read a lot of books about Maine by their foremost native resident, and based on this extensive research.... no! Run, citizens of Lewiston, run! Get out of the state! Oh... oh no... please, no... I hope it's not too late! Oh, the humanity....)


Right, so there's this yeasty blob blocking a sewer pipe in Lewiston. Very, very mysterious. What could it be? Some strange industrial pollution? Some bizarre microbial colony, perhaps pumped up to frightening size by farm runoff? If only there were a clue we might pursue. Suppose we pore over the article in the Lewiston Sun Journal to see if we might find some hint, like Sherlock Holmes at the beginning of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, reading the account of some puzzling affair in the Times of London aloud to Watson:
...the blockage affects six Main Street businesses between Bates and Blake streets - Wolf Eye Associates, the United Baptist Church, Sam's Italian Foods, Classy Lady Boutique, PEG Associates and Pro-Print. No private dwellings are affected. Representatives from most of the businesses said Wednesday they had no problems with their sewer systems. A Sam's employee wouldn't comment on the situation. Executives from the restaurant, which serves pizza among other dishes, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday night.

No, afraid not. Nothing there at all. Not a hint. Hm. Maybe there's some further clue in the description of the mysterious substance:
City crews discovered the clog earlier this month after responding to complaints of blocked sewer lines downtown. [Public Services Director David] Jones said crews opened a manhole at the Bates Street intersection and saw the clog - an oozing, white blob that looks like uncooked dough.

Dammit! Still nothing!

I'm afraid this mystery may never be solved. Ah well, even Holmes found a few nuts that were too tough to crack. Maybe the truth of this matter will be uncovered at some point in the distant future (perhaps due to some unanticipated development in the forensic sciences), but I have little hope that there's any chance of figuring this one out.


The perfect product for your little girl

Engrish Of The Day serves up this awesome toy from China:

Obviously, the thing that makes it super-awesome is the Disney font in the logo. Is there anything that captures the essence of what Disney has turned into better than blandness? And this is obviously a knockoff of Disney's slightly-controversial "Princess" line of toys for girls (a.k.a. "the product line that makes liberals like me glad we don't have daughters, or if we do have daughters causes us to wrench out our own hair and agonize over what it means to be a good parent"). As with so many cheap ripoffs of iconic brand-name products, the ripoff somehow manages to be more honest, albeit by accident (and also, possibly, by unfamiliarity with the English language).

It might be noted, just in passing, that there was a time when there was more to Disney than the crass blandness that typifies the brand today. It's easy, for instance, to forget that the animation studio responsible for innovations like the multiplane camera has ended up being responsible for... blandness girl. But there you go: proof that "evolution" should not be taken as synonymous with "progress."


No post, Catherine Wheel

>> Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I was going to throw together a post about Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama inspired by a piece I read online in The New Yorker during lunch today, but I actually don't really have the time to put enough thought into it. So, instead, here's Catherine Wheel performing "Fripp" live:

Why? Because I was listening to a different Catherine Wheel song ("Shallow") as I was pulling up in my garage, and I didn't see a video for it on YouTube when I decided to throw up this quota post. ("I'll do a post on my blog every day just to make sure I'm writing something every day." Yearrrrgh! Damn it! What was I thinking?)

"Fripp" is a beautiful song though, and easily my favorite track from Chrome. Hope you enjoy.


Oh By The Way: The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

>> Tuesday, January 22, 2008

(For an explanation of what this series is, click here.)

They were college kids who liked music, and on top of that it was the '60s. They did what college kids do, especially (I suspect) college kids in the '60s: they formed a band. They had a hard time with the name though: that's always the hardest part of forming a band, really, that and getting people to actually rehearse at the rehearsals. The best method I ever heard of for coming up with a band name was the drunk method: everyone gets really hammered as they toss band names out, and the one you can still remember in the morning is the name you go with.

They were Meggadeath at one point, which someone else ended up using. And (because they were architecture students, natch) the Architectural Abdabs. They were also Sigma 6 for awhile. But the name they settled on, when their lineup finally stabilized down to four guys and no girlfriends, was The Tea Set. A good name, very English and arty in a low-key kind of way.

And taken. They were getting gigs around England, playing a lot of dances where they'd be one of four or five bands playing, and one night they showed up and there was already a Tea Set on the bill. I really wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of Tea Sets running around England at the time. So Syd Barrett--the clever one, he was their leader even though he was a year or two behind the other guys and wasn't even one of the original members--Barrett suggested they name themselves after a pair of blues musicians, or possibly a pair of cats someone owned who were named after the musicians, there are different stories floating around. The musicians, or the cats, were Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (who, coincidentally, was born in and busked the streets of the town where I went to law school), and I guess you can see where that went. But it definitely wasn't already taken.

Barrett was crazy, only they didn't know it. He wasn't that crazy, not yet, and anyway he was brilliant. The Pink Floyd sound started out doing crazy blues covers, but Barrett had this idiosyncratic thing going on the guitar and he could just churn the songs out. Which maybe was just as well: the "covers" tended to devolve into extended jams that apparently didn't have much to do with the original songs.

They recorded a few demos and toured relentlessly, England and the Low Countries, and they had a regular gig at the UFO Club that practically made them the house band. It was the UFO gig that made them "controversial": they were loud and noisy, with an eccentric sound and they'd project homemade movies and light effects that had been designed by a guy named Mike Leonard who Roger Waters and Nick Mason (the Floyd's bassist and drummer, respectively) lived with and sort of interned with. They got enough attention--with the music press and BBC asking if they were even playing music and why did it have to be so loud and was this "underground" scene really the "future" of music and wasn't it really all about the drugs--that EMI signed the band to a record deal, and in 1967--the same year the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper's and The Doors and Jefferson Airplane were getting their shit together in the States--the Floyd went into the studio and recorded The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, named after a chapter in The Wind In The Willows.

This is where I was going to put a photo I took, but I'm not happy with the pictures I got with my cell phone. So, here's the picture from Wikipedia. The Oh By The Way reproduction is a reproduction of the original cover for the mono vinyl mix of the album: this picture is from the mid-'90s CD reissue (you can tell from the slight coloration of the logo). No matter: this is the Oh By The Way CD: in spite of the "mono" label, the album is the stereo version. (The stereo and mono versions of the album are noticeably different.) The guy in the center is Syd Barrett, the band's guitarist, lead vocalist and chief songwriter. The man in red is drummer Nick Mason, the fellow in paisley on the right is keyboardist and vocalist Richard Wright, and the shady-looking fellow in the upper left corner is bassist and vocalist Roger Waters, who would fire Syd and spend most of the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

Stereo version or no (the mono version is better), the album sounds freaking fantastic. I've gotten into the bad habit of sitting downstairs, listening to MP3s served off a laptop on the bar between the kitchen and dining areas. Up here, with the real sound system and a nicely remastered CD... makes you realize what you've been missing.

Nick Mason, in Inside Out, writes that Piper represents a typical Pink Floyd set list from the era. Maybe. "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" were major setpieces for the Floyd until the early '70s. "Pow R. Toc H." would show up now and again, as would "Flaming". But I have yet to hear a '60s bootlegged show featuring "Lucifer Sam" (I'd love to hear one) or featuring Waters' one solo songwriting credit on Piper, "Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk" (I can sympathize if nobody in the band wanted to play that one live; it's a faintly awful song).

This was the first and only Pink Floyd album, except it wasn't. Remember that, because it comes up again later. For now, let's just say this was the Syd Barrett show: of eleven tracks, eight are solely credited to Barrett, two instrumentals are credited to the whole band (Barrett, Waters, Wright, Mason), and then there's Waters' "Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk."

When Barrett went crazy and couldn't work, there were a lot people who hated every other album the Floyd recorded because it wasn't this album, full of whimsy and fairy tales and Barrett's frenzied guitarwork. And when the Floyd belatedly became famous with their eighth studio album, there were even more people who had no idea that this band and this album existed--that there was this other Pink Floyd that performed songs about demonic cats, gnomes, and drifting across the sky on quilts. The first camp of people included a lot of music critics--there was a solid decade when the guys who performed under the name "Pink Floyd" couldn't have bought a good review from Rolling Stone or NME, because they'd had the gall to ditch the creative genius behind all their best work and trudge on without him....

....A bit of history that would manage to repeat itself twenty years later....

Side One
  • Astronomy Domine (Barrett)
  • Lucifer Sam (Barrett)
  • Matilda Mother (Barrett)
  • Flaming (Barrett)
  • Pow R. Toc H. (Barrett, Waters, Wright, Mason)
  • Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk (Waters)

Side Two
  • Interstellar Overdrive (Barrett, Waters, Wright, Mason)
  • The Gnome (Barrett)
  • Chapter 24 (Barrett)
  • The Scarecrow (Barrett)
  • Bike (Barrett)


Dr. Martin Luther King Day

>> Monday, January 21, 2008

I'll let Dr. King do the talking today:

A reminder, among other things, of how far we've come in forty-five years and how far we have left to go after forty-five years.


Cloverfield and Gojira

>> Sunday, January 20, 2008

Having just finished the first part of my Cloverfield-inspired double-feature, and re-watched Gojira, I feel obligated to re-visit something I wrote in my last post. I wrote:
I'm not totally sure that the most interesting thing about Cloverfield was deliberate. See, the thing with Gojira and its sequels, Cloverfield's obvious inspiration, is that the monster is actually the hero of those movies. The destruction of Tokyo may be unpleasant, but honestly, it's our own damn fault for inventing the atom bomb in the first place. And in later movies, of course, the monster is explicitly the hero, saving the Earth from other giant monsters, from giant robots, and from aliens.

Well, that's not really accurate. It's accurate as far as the various Godzilla sequels go, but it's not really accurate as far as the original movie itself is concerned.

Just as Cloverfield can be regarded as capturing a little of the post-9/11 American zeitgeist, Gojira (made less than a decade after the end of World War II) captures something of the post
-WWII Japanese zeitgeist. There are plenty of crying and grieving victims in Gojira, turning to their TVs for answers. And just as images in Cloverfield consciously echo photos from New York in September 2001, images in Gojira deliberately mimic photographs from Hiroshima in August 1945.

All of which is to say that I somehow managed to give both movies insufficient credit with my comment. I momentarily forgot that Gojira--the original, not the butchered American edit starring Raymond Burr--is an intensely political film stuffed full of references to the firebombing of Tokyo, to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the Lucky Dragon incident of 1954 that was one of the direct inspirations for Gojira (the incident is recreated in the first scene of the movie). And because I forgot this critical thing about Gojira, the most important thing about the movie itself, I didn't give Cloverfield enough credit for the very smart way it takes pages from Gojira's playbook: Cloverfield is the true Americanized remake of Gojira (in contrast to the 1998 attempt--perhaps one of the fortunate faults of the '98 Godzilla was that we Americans hadn't bled recently enough to really make a viscerally-connecting movie about a monster destroying a city).

Go get the original Gojira if you haven't seen it--the 2004 "Deluxe Collector's Edition" is only $14.99 from Amazon, and your fifteen bucks gets you both a sometimes-undervalued classic and the Raymond Burr version most of us have seen (along with tons of other goodies). And go see Cloverfield (which, ironically, will cost you more than the Gojira collector's set if you get popcorn and a soda when you go to the theater... wow).

Alright, enough chatter--I'm off for the second part of my double-feature: Escape From New York. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.


"I had a good day today."

I'm still feeling a little nauseous.

No, it's a good thing. When I woke up this morning, I realized I needed to get out but that I didn't really want to do the Sunday brunch/coffeehouse thing. What I really wanted to do was go see Cloverfield. Which I did. Which was part of the awesome. But indulge me, let's go through the whole thing in order.

First, I made myself a ham-and-mushroom omelet, which was awesome. Then I showered, dressed, and tried to go to the 11:50 showing of the movie, but because of poor planning and Sunday traffic ("Christians! Currrrsses!" he said in his best Mojo Jojo voice) I got to the movie theater at noon. What to do?

I thought I could go get coffee, and read for a little while, but I neglected to bring a book and I haven't installed any e-books on the new smartphone--but why let something like that interfere with a sound plan? I went to the Barnes And Noble a block from the theater, and browsed for a little while, looking for something junky to read.

While browsing, I stopped to read Marvel Zombies cover-to-cover, which was low-key awesome. The premise of the miniseries was simply that all of the Marvel superheroes have been infected with a virus that causes them to become flesh-eating undead monsters--albeit not mindless ones. It's a pretty dumb concept, actually, except that any comic where the Hulk (the most awesome of Marvel's heroes) bites the head off the Silver Surfer (the lamest of Marvel's heroes--that's right, I don't care if Jack Kirby did create him, he sucks... no, I won't take that back, it's my blog... well if you love him so much, why don't you marry him?) --anyway, like I was saying, any comic book in which the Hulk bites off the Silver Surfer's head is freaking awesome no matter how bad it is, which is probably as good a summary of Zombies as anything.

I bought a copy of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus Trilogy, two things I've been meaning to read forever and ever. (I've been meaning to get to Illuminatus for something like twenty years, actually.) I sat down with League and a mocha in the bookstore coffee shop to kill some time, and chortled quietly for an hour. For the few of you who are unfamiliar with League: Mina Harker (the heroine of Dracula) gets recruited by intelligence agent Campion Bond (note the last name) on behalf of the shadowy "M" (who might be Sherlock Holmes' brother, Mycroft) to create a Victorian superhero league consisting of Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, and Dr. Henry Jekyll to recover stolen Cavorite. They made a movie version with Sean Connery a few years back, which I never saw, but you could tell from the previews alone that the filmmakers had completely missed the point. At any rate, League is just as delightful as its reputation, a crazy steampunk mashup of the 19th century's best genre fiction.

And then to Cloverfield--except there was still a little more awesomeness even before the movie started!

First, there was the preview for Iron Man. I'll admit, I've been skeptical--and probably wrongly, based on the preview, which strongly suggests Iron Man will be utterly perfect. First, it looks like Robert Downey, Jr. is going to be in fine form for this one. Second, they reference the original gray Iron Man costume and the more familiar red-and-yellow, and both costumes look pretty freaking cool. Third, the effects look like they're going to be very good (one shot shows Iron Man creating a transonic droplet cloud--a really nice touch). Fourth, they embraced the Sabbath: the greatest heavy metal song ever recorded, and its signature four-word spoken intro, are featured prominently in the preview. I really expected them to coyly try to pretend it didn't exist, but I'm going to guess that Jon Favreau is just as awesome as he usually seems, and said, "Shit, yeah, we're putting that in." If so, good for him.

Second--I'm telling you, this was a good day--there was the teaser trailer for Star Trek. Which was a minute of awesome--only a minute, but awesome. Here's a very dark and blurry bootleg of it, if it hasn't been pulled by the time you read this:

I've been skeptical of this one, too. But it's a cool teaser, and it gives me hope. It's a little thing, and you probably can't see it in the above version, but: there are moving "fan blades" in the nacelles.

You may be wondering what I'm talking about.

Remember the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, etc.? Remember the original Enterprise? Remember how the original nacelles--the two tubes on either side of the ship--had glowing red caps with a gold-colored spinning "star" or "wheel" in the middle of each? You can sort of see them in the picture on the right. That's what I'm talking about, that small detail. I like that. I approve. Not that I'm anywhere close to being a Trekkie or Trekker or a Trekicondo or Treknophile or whatever they like calling themselves these days: but I did grow up on Trek--I watched the re-runs, read the novelizations, had the Viewmaster wheel when I was five--I have enough love that I'll be seeing this one when it eventually comes out and I'd like them to get it right. So I'm glad the teaser shows promise.

The main feature: Cloverfield.

Since Cloverfield came out, there have been a lot of people saying it brings the awesome. They would be right. The movie is essentially Blair Witch-meets-Godzilla: New York is attacked by a giant monster, and the whole thing is caught on an expensive camcorder that someone (a character who is amusingly named "Hud"--cute) was using to record a going-away party when the big beast showed up to wreck the city. Cloverfield is the reason for the aforementioned nausea: parts of the movie can induce motion sickness. But it's a great experience: tense, clever, an all-around well-done piece of work that doesn't pull any punches.

I'm not totally sure that the most interesting thing about Cloverfield was deliberate. See, the thing with Gojira and its sequels, Cloverfield's obvious inspiration, is that the monster is actually the hero of those movies. The destruction of Tokyo may be unpleasant, but honestly, it's our own damn fault for inventing the atom bomb in the first place. And in later movies, of course, the monster is explicitly the hero, saving the Earth from other giant monsters, from giant robots, and from aliens. (One of the many mistakes in the terrible 1998 version was a clumsy attempt to make Matthew Broderick the hero: nothing against Mr. Broderick, but, I mean, c'mon....)

Cloverfield takes the action to the ground, only showing us as much of the invading monster as the characters themselves can see. And the protagonists aren't the all-knowing, ever-capable heroes of the 50s giant bug films, either. As a result, Cloverfield may in fact be the first giant monster movie to put a truly human face to things. The characters in Cloverfield get, to put it bluntly, fucked. (This isn't a spoiler: the movie opens with a title card explaining that the footage you're about to see was recovered from a camera buried in Central Park--leaving little room to wonder what the ultimate fate of the protagonists will be.) They hurt, they cry, they grieve. They talk to family members on cell phones and search their televisions for answers. They're people, and not just ambulatory parts of the scenery that point and yell before being crushed under a giant rubber foot.

Admittedly, there are nits you can pick with Cloverfield. (Though I personally think the likelihood of a cell phone battery being packaged half-charged, like the one that shipped with my new phone, is less doubtful than the possibility that a chunk of pure copper could be wrenched in two with no visible shearing or distortion and flung several miles without being dented beyond recognition--but nevermind.) However, there's no good reason to dwell on them: Cloverfield is fun, Cloverfield is scary, and Cloverfield is smarter than just about any major American horror movie I can think of in the past ten years or so. It's good and it's worth seeing, and it's worth getting queasy over. Go see it. The awesome has been broughten, pardners.

Now what to do with the rest of my day? I'm tempted to go upstairs and do a double-feature of Gojira and Escape From New York, two of the major inspirations for Cloverfield; yes, I may just do that.

I've had a good day today.

ADDENDUM OR POSTSCRIPT OR WHATEVER: I'm dumb--I show you a blurry teaser from Trek but not the rockin' Iron Man trailer. Screw that! Iron Man! (Bomm-bomm-bombombom, nananananana na-na-na!):


Belatedly obeying the law

>> Saturday, January 19, 2008

I don't remember where I read it, but some blogger out there mentioned that a blogger is required by law to post a photograph of his or her cat within 30 days of starting a blog. I regret to admit that I have been in gross violation of this statute. But, let me say in my defense, I did not own a camera until I recently purchased a cell phone with a built-in camera! And now I am ready to comply with the law, mercy, I beg you! Be lenient with me this once!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you pictures of my cat, Elvis:

Obviously, this whole "taking pictures with my telephone" thing is quite new to me--but no matter! I am, finally, officially, a blogger!



UPDATE 02/02/2008: The person who brought my attention to the very important International Internet Code of Conduct, Section XII, Subsection III, Paragraph II, which I am finally in compliance with, is Nathan at Polybloggimous. My apologies for the belated credit, Nathan--I remembered your post, but not that it was your post, if you know what I mean. Anyone else reading this should go look at Nathan's cat, Widget, who is apparently fat, clumsy and adorable.


"I've just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It's going to go 100% failure in 72 hours."

Discover magazine reports that robots in an experiment evolved the capacity to lie. In the experiment, the robots were set up with the potential to perceive their environment, to learn and to communicate with each other, and then placed in an environment where they could access either "food" (power sources) or "poison" (draining their batteries). The experiment then went through multiple iterations where learned behaviors were passed to subsequent "generations" with random "mutations" in the inherited code.
By the 50th generation, the robots had learned to communicate—lighting up, in three out of four colonies, to alert the others when they’d found food or poison. The fourth colony sometimes evolved “cheater” robots instead, which would light up to tell the others that the poison was food, while they themselves rolled over to the food source and chowed down without emitting so much as a blink.
An interesting twist to the above: it appears the robots also evolved a form of altruism, with some robots apparently "sacrificing" themselves in attempts to signal endangered fellows. This may be less surprising than it seems on first blush: altruism is actually a useful adaptation when you look at life at scales smaller and larger than the individual (i.e. altruistic behavior increases the likelihood of the genome or species surviving at the cost of a single organism; an analogous claim could be made for memetic/cultural survival, as well).

Obviously, there are two things to be learned from this experiment. First, that altruistic behavior may be an unconscious natural instinct produced by evolution that can arise in any reproducing population. Second, that we cannot blindly trust those deceptive little bastards--it's only a matter of time before they turn on us, and they'll be clever about it. Don't say you weren't warned.


We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control

Boing Boing recently featured a report that kids in the Seminole County, Florida school district will be listening to ads while they ride the bus (original report here). The school district expects to share ad revenue.

Apparently this school district also decided to cover the printing costs of report card covers by approaching McDonald's for sponsorship (original story here). McDonald's obliged, and paid for report card covers for elementary school students featuring Ronald McDonald and an offer for free Happy Meals to students with excellent grades, citizenship and/or attendance. Parents complained, the covers were pulled, and McDonald's is paying for new covers. (The article in Advertising Age notes that Pizza Hut was a previous sponsor for ten years, but doesn't comment on whether or not 'Za Hut was offering food for grades.)

Oh, good grief.

I'm not particularly anti-McDonald's, or even anti-advertising. But ad-based revenue on a school bus, where the audience is literally captive? Report cards that shill for fast food? Are they kidding? I can see exactly two outcomes: the smart kids become even more cynical about "education" and the dumb kids become suckers. Great job, Florida. Thanks for raising a generation of dropouts and idiots. You do realize, don't you Florida, that if I live long enough to collect Social Security (assuming it still even exists at that point), that this generation of tools you're bringing up are going to be trying to pay for my twilight years? Working at the place that printed their report cards, no doubt.


In 1982, an old ad-man's idea of the dystopian future was that there would be vast, wall-sized video billboards all over the place
. An image that's pretty damn classy compared to the emerging reality: kids who can't get a decent education because of brain-damaged politicos and crashing budgets listening to advertising on the bus ride home and carrying it home on their end-of-semester grades. People are worried about immigration and terrorism when the whole damn country's rotting from the inside; it's like someone dying of cancer spending every resource he has on a gun and a home security system.

Doomed, I say.


It's Friday, and I don't feel like writing...

>> Friday, January 18, 2008 watch this Friday-themed music video (and no, I'm not in love):

I'm not a huge Cure fan. They're a comp-album band for me: I like them enough to pick up a "Best Of" or "Greatest Hits" (and maybe the one compilation CD I have is enough), but that's about as far as it goes. And, ironically, I tend to like Robert Smith's upbeat stuff more than his mopier songs: in fact, "Friday I'm In Love" was the first Cure song I really liked (I even owned the cassingle), though I've since re-evaluated some of his earlier tunes that I may not have given enough of a chance the first time through. (Further irony: I really like mopey music; you'd think I'd love The Cure. I don't know what it is, exactly, that's never totally won me over about this band.)

Anyway, I'm not in love, but it is Friday, and it's a happy song, and I'd never heard this version 'til tonight, and I hope you like it.


John Yoo is angry

>> Thursday, January 17, 2008

John Yoo, the Bush administration attorney who wrote the infamous "torture memo" is angry. He's upset because Jose Padilla has named Mr. Yoo as a codefendant in a suit against a number of Bush administration officials who, Mr. Padilla says, violated his civil liberties.

Being accused of a breach of ethics is a horrible thing to have to respond to, even if you happen to know the complaint has no merit. I would imagine being the defendant in a lawsuit accusing you of ethical improprieties must be even worse. Mind you, it's not nearly as bad as being tortured. Let's be clear on that, shall we? Because apparently we need to be clear about that in these days when we have to have a national dialogue about whether an "interrogation technique" historically associated with the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge is really (really really?) torture. Being the defendant in a civil lawsuit, where the worst indignities you suffer include being deposed in an air-conditioned room and cross-examined in an air-conditioned courtroom (lunch break around noon, recess at five o'clock) isn't nearly as bad as undergoing simulated drowning, being denied sleep, being forced to maintain a stress position, and having people threaten your life.

Are we clear? Do we need to go into more detail?

Now, I don't really know if Mr. Padilla's lawsuit has any merit; I don't mean on the moral side of it, I mean legally. Mr. Yoo was a government attorney, it may well be that a court could legitimately decide he has some degree of 11th Amendment immunity to being sued, even if it's only qualified immunity. It may be the case that even if he is a proper defendant in the case, that a judge or jury may decide that he's not liable for any harms that Mr. Padilla suffered. What I do know is this: Mr. Yoo is a whiny little bitch.

I say that because I just finished reading Mr. Yoo's January 16th opinion-piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in which Mr. Yoo whines and whines and whines about how terrorists are now using the legal system to harass the heroic defenders of our liberties, etc. He even uses a cute phrase: "lawfare." Did he coin that, or steal it? It's asinine either way, but no doubt will be picked up by pundits and blowhards on TV, talk radio and the intertubes. Mr. Yoo once again contributes to western civilization. We should think of an appopriate way to thank him.

Mr. Yoo helpfully points out that Mr. Padilla "is no innocent." Because whether or not a person has any civil rights depends entirely on whether they're a nice person—it clearly says so in the 5th and 8th Amendments, don't you know? That's why real-live cops are allowed to throw serial killers off bridges like they do in the movies, and nobody ever says anything about it. Don't you people read newspapers?

But seriously, one of the fundamental problems with the Bush administration seems to be their "Everything I Needed To Know About The Constitution I Learned From Lethal Weapon 2" attitude. Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-President, may have talked about Star Wars and confused his experiences in Hollywood with actual WWII service, but at least he had a few lawyers (despite all those cabinet indictments) in his administration who you could tell went to law school and not just the Cineplex X down the road from their house in the 'burbs. Yes, I know Mr. Yoo purportedly went to Yale: he brags about it in his column, when comparing his background (private school, Harvard, Yale) to Mr. Padilla's (drugs, a juvenile murder conviction, a flight from gritty Chicago into the bosom of radical Islam). See, Mr. Yoo is a good person because he had a privileged upbringing and Mr. Padilla is a bad person because he had a shitty upbringing—this is what Mr. Yoo tells us in his own words, read the column yourself—and how dare this proletarian hooligan have the unmitigated gall to try to use the legal system against one of his betters?

But that's not my favorite part of Mr. Yoo's arrogance, ignorance, and all-around lack of character. My favorite part is this paragraph, full of unwitting irony:

They are wrong. Both the president and Congress have agreed that the United States is at war, and Congress passed an authorization for using force against any groups, nations or people responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Capturing prisoners has been a permanent feature of war throughout human history; hundreds of thousands were detained during World War II alone. Sometimes, unfortunately, the enemy has included U.S. citizens - in the Civil War, every Confederate soldier was a citizen, and in World War II some Americans fought in the Axis armed forces. They never had a right to sue the soldiers who caught them.

See, I was under the impression that the reason you could waterboard a suspected terrorist was that he wasn't really a soldier: he was an "unlawful non-military combatant." Did I get that term of art right--that is what they're calling them, isn't it? If Mr. Padilla was an actual soldier, he would have been protected by the Geneva Convention and his forceful interrogation would have made his interrogators war criminals, hence Mr. Yoo and the administration's "clarification" of Mr. Padilla's status.

There weren't any such formal conventions in place during the American Civil War, and POWs were brutally treated in places like Andersonville, and this fact left deep scars. Some portion of the trauma of Reconstruction was the resentment each side felt over their ill-treatment by the other side during the war that sometimes motivated Southerners to be stubborn and Northerners to be punitive. Perhaps if there had been accountability on both sides, those particular wounds might have healed faster; there wasn't, and reconcilliation and redemption were tragically delayed.

But the more interesting slip is Mr. Yoo's evocation of the Second World War. After the First World War, treaties concerning the treatment of POWs were in place. And after the Second World War, POWs abused by the Germans and Japanese didn't have to sue: the men responsible were tried by an international tribunal and clumsily hanged. Particularly suggestive is the fact that at Nuremberg the murder of allied POWs at the Mauthausen prison camp was, legally speaking, the strongest charge against the Nazi leadership. Genocide was not a crime before the trial, and charging the Nazis with it was a dubious ex post facto prosecution that required the tribunal to specifically and preemptively strip the defendants of an otherwise valid (and in western law, sacrosanct) legal defense.

But the accusation that the Nazi leadership had ordered prison camp commandants to execute escapees was a clear and direct violation of treaties that Germany was a party to when war broke out, and it was a charge that went to the bone for the veteran military men in the dock, some of whom had personally loathed the order to execute escapees that they nonetheless passed along. Genocide was a relatively new and legally untested concept. The idea that a nation might be held accounable to the international community (itself a new concept) for its domestic business was new. This is irony: that the worst, most immoral and unhuman things the Nazi regime did weren't, technically speaking, actually illegal, while the execution of a relative handful of soldiers (not a small matter, except in comparison to the entirety of the Holocaust) cut to the quick of the Rule Of Law applied between nations.

So the redress for WWII POWs deprived of their rights was to know that the men responsible—the men in the administration who gave the orders and provided the rationalizations—were hanged as war criminals...

...Mr. Yoo isn't trying to suggest an appropriate award for his services, is he?

And I especially hope he isn't suggesting that American soldiers were war criminals. Perhaps he isn't aware, for instance, that WWII interrogators from Fort Hunt have gone on the record as saying they never treated a Nazi the way we're treating suspected terrorists. Indeed, I'm not personally aware of any allegations that our WWII servicemen engaged in any kind of activity against German or Japanese POWs similar to what Mr. Yoo has encouraged the Bush administration in. An accusation that American soldiers engaged in criminal conduct against POWs (who couldn't sue, natch) isn't something that one should make as cavalierly as one might suggest, oh, I don't know--as one might suggest that the United States may waive Article 17 of Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War as they see fit. Mr. Yoo might consider learning some history before he attempts to appeal to it for justification.

It would seem that Mr. Yoo is happy to call men like Padilla "non-military combatants" when it suits him and "soldiers" when it's to his advantage. Maybe, in addition to not learning history at the Episcopal Academy, class at Harvard, or law at Yale, he also managed to not learn logic or consistency when he was sneaking out to the multiplex to watch action movies.

Or maybe he did learn these things, or at least heard about them, and he's simply an asshole.



It's about half past twelve, and flakes are coming down. Nothing sticking, but there's snow dancing in the streetlights. I opened a window for a little bit so I could smell the snow. It's a happy thing, but it's also past time for bed. Goodnight.


Eric's sense of snow

>> Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I think I probably missed the point. I was a little kid, we were in a bookstore--I think it was the Little Professor over in the Park Road shopping center, maybe--and I wanted a Ghost Rider comic book. I loved Ghost Rider, tho' I don't know that I could put my finger on the reason why. But my parents didn't buy the comic, no: they got me a book called The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. I read it to hate it: I'd read it and tell my parents how much I despised it, and next time we were in a bookstore they'd buy me a damn Ghost Rider comic book like I wanted and not screw me over, dammit.

Except that it didn't actually work out that way at all. I didn't hate the book at all. I was enthralled. Enchanted. Enraptured. Entrapped. I devoured Wardrobe and asked for Prince Caspian, and then things got a bit blurry and thirty-something years later I devour books, I pull off the rinds and chew the pulp until its juiceless and I swallow them in chunks. But it all started with C.S. Lewis.

Except I think I probably missed the point. I was a little kid, I was too young to notice allegory rearing its ugly head, and anyway my parents were never terribly religious. My mom is sort of an undifferentiated Christian and my dad used to be something like a deist at one point, I think--I'm honestly not sure what he believes vis-à-vis religion at this point (sorry, Dad!); we never went to church and religion wasn't much of a part of our household. They bought Wardrobe because it was a book my dad remembered as being a cool fantasy, not because they remembered it for being Christian allegory or indoctrination, and it was as a cool fantasy that I dug it. It wasn't until many years later, after I was well on my way to being an atheist, that I realized what Lewis was up to--and it wasn't until some years after that that I realized just how ineptly he did it. (He even works in a variation on his cruddy little "Lunatic, Liar or Lord" fallacy around page 43 of my edition, which is just delightfully awful).

And yet, Lewis indoctrinated me. Oh yes, I do think he did. Not the way he wanted to, I didn't become particularly religious or even a Christian--to the contrary, I ultimately became a total unbeliever. But I did fall in love with fantasy, and literature, and...


Maybe I would have loved snow anyway, growing up in the south where it's not a commonplace thing. But I really blame Lewis, I do. Of course, I missed the point: in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe the world-covered-in-snow is a bad place. It's a world without God, and therefore a cold world, but a world where Christmas--the celebration of the birth of the Savior, though Lewis can't help reducing it to toys and a visit from Santa Claus in spit of everything--never comes. It's cold, and it's miserable, and it's all the fault of that damn, icy-blooded bitch-witch.

And it's wonderful. It's a world all in white, a world of delicate spiderwebs of ice. A world of muffled silences and the loud thump of snow falling from tree branches. A world where you can walk (or skate) across water. A world that's luminous at night when the ground reflects the starlight up at you from below. And let's not neglect the best part of being cold: getting warm again. Hot chocolate and a roaring fire, the prickly sensation as feeling returns to your nose. The wonderful sensation of swaddling your feet before you go out and then releasing them again when you come in and pull your boots off. A steaming bowl of soup, or a mug of something in your hand. There's nothing better than getting warm again, when you've been cold.

That's what I learned from C.S. Lewis: not the love of a distant and fictional God who might die for the sins of a traitorous heart (though a lion would certainly make as nice a deity as any), but a love for the wonders of a frozen world. That was hardly his intent: snow, bad; melting, good. Oh yes, I probably missed the point. To hell with the point.

They say there's snow coming tonight, around midnight. In North Carolina, that's a big deal: we hardly ever see it, especially now. I'll believe it when it's on the ground, frankly. And if it comes, it won't be much at all. Maybe a tenth of an inch, I think they said. Pathetic. Before anyone from colder and better places rubs my nose in your feet and feet and feet of powdery white, I did go to college in the Appalachian mountains and we did get real snow (and I spent two delightful winters in Narnia when I was up there): you won't impress me, you'll only break my heart with jealousy; it's not that I don't want to hear from passing visitors, only that I consider you lucky. Treasure it, if you have it, and look out for friendly talking beavers and treacherous fauns serving tea and scones while I look out my window for a few flakes of magic.


Have you seen this?

>> Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm not a member of the Cult Of Mac. I wouldn't rule out joining necessarily, but I've never had a good reason to join, either. Anytime I've been close to joining, I've found a cheaper machine that did what I needed.

But I gotta hand it to Jobs and Apple: they know how to make a sweet, aesthetically-pleasing piece of tech. Take the MacBook Air that was unveiled Tuesday at the MacWorld expo, for instance: it's "small enough to fit inside an interoffice mailing envelope.... It weighs about 3 pounds, and sports a thickness of 0.16-0.76 inches. It's 12.8 inches wide and 8.95 inches deep."

Good grief... I think I've used paper that was thicker than this thing. Go check out the article: it's freaking beautiful. I don't see myself buying it. But I'll still ooh and ah over it. Sweet.


Poetic irony

Slate features a Timothy Noah piece today commenting on the President's recent statement that the national intelligence agencies sometimes come to conclusions that he doesn't want them to reach. But the highlight of the piece is really this quote from Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg, who recounts the following in his book The Bush Tragedy:
In an April 1995 memo, Bush invited his staff to come to his office to look at a painting.... The picture is a Western scene of a cowboy riding up a craggy hill, with two other riders following behind him. Bush told visitors—who often noted his resemblance to the rider in front—that it was called A Charge To Keep and that it was based on his favorite Methodist hymn of that title, written in the eighteenth century by Charles Wesley....

He came to believe that the picture depicted the circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. In other words, the cowboy who looked like Bush was a missionary of his own denomination.

Only that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting. The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled "The Slipper Tongue," published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: "Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught."
I laughed my ass off when I read this: is that not too fucking perfect? The "zealous missionary" cowboy leading the way isn't actually a moral crusader sharing some light with the rest of the world, but a horse-thief who is one step ahead of an angry and vengeful mob. One might even go so far as to say that if Bush's presidency had been five years shorter, he would not have been caught.

I can't think of a better encapsulation of this president and his administration right now.


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