Monday, May 31, 2010

memorial day

When it comes to making a Memorial Day post I'm really at a loss for words. So I can do no better than to reproduce the words of Atrios when he says:

Adding to this post, the best thing we can do for the troops is to not send them to pointless fucking wars where a lot of them become the fallen and many more become physical and psychological wrecks.

I'm sure I could've done more, but I tried my best there. Nothing I could've done to compete with Colin Powell's scary vial of white powder I'm afraid.

the only thing

Apparently some of the victims of the Israeli commando attack this morning on the relief convoy headed for Gaza responded to the attackers' violence with counter-violence. Big mistake.

There's always a temptation to answer violence with violence, plus there's a certain amount of what the Mexicans call "macho" at work here -- I don't know what the Arabic word for it is, but I'm sure there is one. The problem is, in order for protests of this sort to work they have to be scrupulously, strictly, and completely non-violent, even in the face of deadly violence. Otherwise, world opinion becomes confused and muddled, and the aggressors are handed an opportunity to muddy the waters of public discourse. When the victims respond passively, such opportunities are not available.

The next relief convoy needs to be twice as large, with twice as many people from twice as many countries on board. It needs to be soon, and it needs to be completely non-violent.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood perfectly the reasons why. Non-violence has a moral component, of course, but its significance as a strategy and a tactic is even more important. It's the only way a weaker and largely disarmed people can prevail against a stronger, heavily-armed opponent, particularly one impelled to action by fear and rage. Acting like a "real man" in the face of violent aggression may be psychologically satisfying, but it's not as important as winning. Coach Vince Lombardi of Green Bay Packers fame knew this, as evidenced by his pithy remark, "Winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing."

smelly dave

A few days ago I read a rumor that there was some loose talk emanating from upper management at BP that the best way and surest way to deal with the Gulf oil spill they caused was to nuke it. I forget where I read that, but it just goes to show that there's no situation so bad that concerted human effort can't make it worse. Case in point: the sad and funny history of Smelly Dave.

The folks in charge have nutty ideas sometimes. The folks in charge of anything, anywhere.

So in 1970, when the Oregon Highway Dept. had to deal with a dead gray whale named Smelly Dave washed up on the beach in the town of Florence, they decided the best way to dispose of Dave's fragrant carcass was to blow it up with 20 cases of dynamite, which they proceeded to do.

The results were disastrous of course; that was a terrible idea. However, the results were also really funny, but only if you weren't there.

They ended up with a worse mess than they started with. It looked like about half of Dave was still lying on the beach after the explosion, and hundred-pound chunks of blubber were spread out over about a mile.

Poor Smelly Dave. May he rest in pieces.

Israeli Terror Attack

In an astonishing act of unprovoked violence this morning, Israeli commandoes attacked the relief flotilla of aid ships heading for Gaza and murdered between 10 and 20 passengers on board.

The commandoes rappelled from helicopters onto the decks of the ships and simply proceeded to start blowing people away.

Incredibly (but predictably), Israel's military and politicians then attempted to shift responsibility for the violence onto the victims.

Turkey has already recalled her ambassador from Israel and appears to be preparing to suspend all relations with the terrorist state.

This may be some sort of turning point, since it appears to me that this terrorist act is not just homicidal, but suicidal as well.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

water, water everywhere

Today is an appropriate time to re-run this post from February, 2009. It's not raining at the moment, even though today is completely overcast, cool, and breezy. But it rained all day yesterday, and really the entire month of May except for a few days near the beginning has been a total washout around here.

According to the weather reports I've seen, it will start raining again tomorrow evening and continue raining for the foreseeable future, right through the first week of June.

Usually May is sunny and pleasant. It marks the beginning of the goofy season in the Puget Sound region, when Seattleites get high on the weather. But not this year, I'm afraid.

My young friend Sol C. says what we're seeing is the world's numerous melted glaciers returning as precipitation. "They've got to go somewhere, man," he says philosophically.

The back water done rolled, Lord and tumbled, drove me down the line.
The back water done rolled and tumbled, drove poor Charlie down the line.
Lord, I'll tell the world the water done struck Drew's town.

Lord the whole round country, Lord creek water is overflowed.
Lord the whole round country, man, is overflowed.
(Aside: You know, I can't stay here, I'm bound to go where it's high, boy.)
I would go to the hilly country, but they got me barred.

Now looky now, in Leland, Lord, river is rising high.
Looky here, boys around Leland tell me river is raging high.
(Aside: Boy, it's rising over there, yeah.)
I'm going over to Greenville, done bought our tickets, good bye.

--Charlie Patton
"High Water Everywhere"

According to a new report in the magazine Science, if the U.S. is still around in a couple of centuries Washington, D.C. might look like Venice. Instead of streets our nation's capital will have canals. The president, assuming there is one, would have to live with his family on the top two floors of the White House and take a boat over to Capitol Island.

The report says sea levels will rise because the Antarctic ice sheet will melt.

It might not be so bad. If D.C. looked like Venice, think of the tourist possibilities...the picturesque gondolas...submarine tours of the Lincoln Memorial...the alligators.

Scientists contributing to the report believe sea levels will rise by about three feet by the end of this century...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

los san patricios

The Irish folk group The Chieftans have teamed up with American guitarist, composer, and musical preservationist Ry Cooder and issued a disc honoring the San Patricio Battalion, the mostly Irish volunteers who deserted the American expeditionary force which invaded Mexico in 1846-48 and went over to the Mexican side. Numerous other artists got involved in this project as well, including Los Tigres del Norte.

San Patricio is an interesting combination of Celtic and Hispanic themes and instruments, and you can sample the tracks at the Amazon site.

There's also a 1999 Hollywood movie about the Battalion, One Man's Hero, which stars Tom Berenger as the organizer and commander of this ill-fated band of turncoats, John Riley, an adventurer from Galway. I've seen most of it, and it's not bad.

The San Patricios were mostly refugees from the Irish potato famine of the 1830's who ended up in New York and other U.S. cities on or near the eastern seaboard. On arriving in the New World they were met with virulent anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. This was the political age of the Know-Nothings, and "Irish need not apply" signs were everywhere. Some of the men who would become San Patricios were veterans of Europe's Napoleonic wars, and more than just a few were German or Czech Catholics.

Many of these sons of Hibernia saw enlistment in the American expeditionary army invading Mexico in 1846 as a means of escaping discrimination, chronic unemployment or menial work, and religious bigotry. They hoped to win honor and respect through service to their new country, but once in uniform encountered the same prejudice and roadblocks to advancement as they had in civilian life. In Mexico they began to sympathize with the Catholic population, whom they saw as fellow victims of the same bigotry and ethnic hatred that oppressed them. The Mexican government's offer to award free land to deserters from the American cause willing to enlist with Santa Ana supplied incentive as well.

Things ended badly for the San Patricios, and few survived the war. Sam Houston Chamberlain, the most accessible and comprehensive chronicler of our invasion of Mexico (though not always truthful) has supplied us with an exciting version of the tale. His claims to have been an eyewitness of the final chapter of this sad story could not possibly be true, as he was elsewhere at the time. However he did witness a lot of the Mexican War as a U.S. private, and probably heard reliable accounts of the end of the San Patricios from men who were there.

Chamberlain writes: "At one time they numbered over seven hundred men, regular desperados who fought with a rope around their necks. The commander was the notorious Reilly, a former Sergeant in the 4th. Infantry, now holding the commission of a Colonel in the Mexican service. At Contreras the Battalion held the Convent and fortified the walls of a Hacienda, two hours after the Mexicans had run away. Nearly one hundred of the Patricios was captured, tried by a Court Martial, fifty were sentenced to be hanged, the rest to dig the graves of their executed comrades," (and also received 200 lashes and were made to wear an iron yoke -- DB).

(Of those punished with the yoke, 23 were hanged at various places in September, 1847, then) "...thirty more were strung up...fifty in all! The execution of the last number was attended with unusual and unwarranted acts of cruelty. The day selected was the one on which the Fortress of Chapultepec was to be stormed, and the gallows was erected on a rising piece of ground, just outside of the charming little village of Mixcoac, in full view of the attack on the castle."

Thirty ropes dangled from a long beam, and the 30 men were seated on boards laid across wagons, with nooses around their necks. They were read the death order and watched as the American passed by them, moving to the storming of Chapultepec. Some of them during the ensuing battle cheered for "Old Bravo," the castle's commander.

The battle's outcome was in doubt for a time, but eventually "our glorious flag was flung to the breeze from the highest tower of the Castle..." At that moment the colonel presiding gave the order, the wagons lurched forward, "and thirty bodies hung whirling, swinging, kicking, and rubing (sic) against each other...Such was the miserable end of the infamous Legion of San Patricio."

The San Patricios are now nearly forgotten in the U.S., but their actions and legend are still celebrated in Mexico and sometimes in Ireland.

Quoted material is from Samuel Chamberlain, "My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue" (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996), pages 263-264

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

odd musings

Since we call an orange "an orange," why don't we call a banana "a yellow?"

Yesterday I drove offspring girl to Portland. While I was there The Man came home. They hadn't seen each other for about a month, so I spent the night and thought it best to take off early this morning. Coming back the rain was so heavy and wind-driven down by the Columbia that I thought I was going to have to stop. There was so much water on the road the car was hydroplaning and slipping and sliding all over the place. It was scary, and I have no desire to do that again.

I drove through that for about 50 miles and was afraid it would be like that all the way to Seattle, but it started to get better as soon as I was a little ways up out the valley of the Columbia.

The Man and I were sitting and looking at the rain come down. "I wonder why?" I says, "And on May 26th, too."

"It's the glaciers," says The Man. "They have to go somewhere, man."

BP is going to put a five-story-high pipe over the oil gusher and then put heavy fluids in it, and try to smother the geyser. If that doesn't work, they might just nuke it.

One of my former students had a letter run in a big-city newspaper, and he really writes well. Now that's gratifying.

My favorite song now is "Midnight With the Stars and You," by Ray Noble's Orchestra, sung by Al Bowlly. It was the song emanating from the hotel ballroom in Stanley Kubrick's late-70's movie, "The Shining." I've developed a taste for stuff that's not only old, but corny as hell.

Welcome to The Long Emergency. What are you going to do today to help yourself make the transition?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I've been traveling and stuff, away from the computer. Yesterday I took the boat over to the Peninsula and met my offspring up in Port Townsend, and we took the boat back over to the Seattle side. Today she and I drove down to Portland after I taught class this morning, and now we're sitting watching the rain come down. It's cold and wintry for a 25th of May.

So now it's late in the afternoon, and I turn on my computer for the first time today only to find out it's also looking pretty scary in the macrocosm, where the economy is coming apart at the seams all over the world.

This enormous clusterschnazzle is not over yet, and who knows where it's going to end?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

la granja

When I first heard Los Tigres del Norte, during my teaching days in the little grape-growing town of Delano in south-central California, I didn't think much of them, even though I knew they were more than just a band -- more of a cultural force, really -- for a lot of my students. "Three-chord stuff," I thought at the time. "Nothing special. Kind of like what you'd hear at the local cantina."

I was right -- and wrong. Their elegant simplicity, obvious sincerity, and workers' origins and loyalties make Los Tigres not just musicians, but representatives and spokesmen for the nation of gentes bajos -- underdogs -- which stretches from the borderlands of Texas, Arizona, and California on up to Fresno and Salinas.

They've been working "dances" as they call their gigs (rather than concerts) for over 40 years, but now a new hit song (which has been banned in Mexico), and a laudatory profile in this week's New Yorker have expanded their horizons. This group's appeal is universal, and destined to spread way beyond MexAmerica, to a world-wide audience.

These four brothers and a cousin (the drummer, of course; drummers are always odd-man-out) really are outstanding musicians. When I first heard them the simplicity of their attack -- always three chords rendered norteño style, which is kind of a Mexican polka, deceived me, and I somehow underestimated the trumpet-like, powerful voice and flawless enunciation of leader and lead singer Jorge Hernandez.

"La Granja" (The Farm) is a barnyard fable in the tradition of Reynard the Fox and Orwell's Animal Farm, and like them uses cute, anthropomorphized beasts to lay bare gritty and sordid social realities: the death and devastation unleashed by borderlands narco-wars, the corruption, complacency, and sinister plotting of Mexico's moneyed and political elites, the silly and shallow narratives of ongoing disaster supplied by the clucking chickens of the media, and the fate of the helpless victims of all this -- ordinary Mexican farmers and workers who have no place to turn but northward, only to find a huge, newly-erected barrier blocking their escape.

Los Tigres are a great band, with a fantastic song, effective enough to be suppressed by a frightened government, and a knockout video version, which you can see here.

If your Spanish is as weak as mine and you're curious about the story details (this is an allegorical narrative) David Ortez's political blog has some solid analysis and a full translation. (H/t to my friend Rhett H.)

The New Yorker piece carried the news that Ry Cooder, the American guitarist who has become an international catalyst for re-energizing dormant musical traditions and sometimes bringing disparate cultures together, is now traveling with Los Tigres, which can only bode well for them. Cooder, who was instrumental in the launch of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba, has an unerring instinct for finding and facilitating the world's most happening music, and Los Tigres are definitely happening.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Living with Parkinson's Disease isn't always the same from day to day. It's like the weather; if you don't like what's happening, it'll be different tomorrow. Maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different. So the first thing I do every morning after rolling out of bed is "Just Stop by to See what Condition My Condition is In," as Kenny Rogers sang 40 years ago while fronting his band, the First Edition (that's Kenny sitting on the bed at right, in case you didn't recognize him).

One thing I've noticed lately is that I seem to be gradually getting better. I haven't changed the amount of medication I take, although I have reason to hope that over time I'll be able to take less. Mostly I've been making gradual dietary changes recommended in the book "Natural Therapies for Parkinson's Disease" by Seattle naturopath Laurie K. Mischley.

Dr. Mischley believes that the progression of PD can be slowed, stopped altogether, or even reversed in some cases. I've been incorporating some of her dietary advice into my daily routine, with noticeable results. It's too early to tell whether the improvement is the result of positive thinking, or due to the small but significant changes I've been making in my eating habits, or just a temporary development. However, I reckon all the fish oil (from natural sources, mostly salmon), pinto beans, and daily intake of blueberries are a health benefit, whether they have a direct impact on Parkinson's or not.

All I can tell you is I feel better more of the time than I did at the start of the year. Symptoms, mainly tremor, are less frequent and less severe than before, and there's plenty of room for a lot more of whatever it is I'm getting, wherever I'm getting it from.

Click on the picture of the First Edition for a slightly larger view.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

king dog

In my neighborhood, pets are monarchs. There are a lot of single people and childless couples in Greenwood, and in such households, if there's a dog or maybe a cat or two, the animals pretty much run things.

This is especially true of the dogs, who are much more high-maintenance companions than cats. As often as not around here, the humans' household schedules are determined by king dog's need for frequent walks, outdoor play periods, and so forth.

I saw a number of these regal canines during my morning walk, when the sun was shining brightly on Seattle, before the clouds and rain moved in this afternoon. I made the acquaintance of a couple of them. One was just a puppy -- a nine-months-old (or thereabouts) black lab leashed up outside the Greeenwood Market. He was all tongue and wiggles, and probably would have ended up in my lap if I'd been sitting down.

The other was a more reserved, older fellow, a black-and-white mongrel of some sort, or "mixed breed" animal as we're supposed to call them now. His lady in waiting was kind enough to pause long enough for he and I to acknowledge each other with pats and wags.

That's a little slice of life in Greenwood, Seattle, Washington, where the dog is king.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

our quadrupedal friends

When the staff at St. John's, a parochial school on First Avenue Northwest in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood realized their grounds were overrun with weeds and blackberry bushes, they did a little comparison shopping.

Anybody who has ever spent a day cutting blackberry runners (and I have) knows they're the worst. They're tough; they're incredibly prolific, and they will tear you up. The folks at St. John's considered the cost of bringing in a crew to clear the thorny mess, but in the end called in the ruminants and hired a crew of goats from a local outfit, rent-a-ruminant, whose goats live on Vashon Island.

Goats eagerly devour thistles and thorns that humans regard with dread and try to avoid. They then leave behind little piles of uniform-sized pellets which can be gathered and used either as fertilizer or fuel, although not many Americans burn goat droppings to stay warm. At least not yet.

The goats will remain at the school for a few days, taking their time and doing a good job, I'm sure.

Consider the benefits we derive from our friends, the gentle ruminants. They clear our yards and fields and give us milk and cheese. Then, if we haven't grown too attached and affectionate toward them, we can eat them. Our lives were better when we lived intimately and in harmony with such beneficent animals as these, who ask little and give us a great deal in return.

Hat tip to the Phinneywood blog.

Monday, May 17, 2010

class wars

"Something snapped in the world last week" Jim Kunstler declares this morning, "and a lot of people around the world sensed it -- especially in the organs of news and opinion -- but this ominous twang was not very clearly identified. It was, in fact, the sound of the financial becoming political. The macro-swindle of a worldwide Ponzi orgy now stands revealed and the vacuum left in its place is about to suck everything familiar into it -- standards-of-living, hopes, dreams, not to mention lives."

The emphasis is mine, and the point needs to be emphasized, as it was yesterday and again this morning in D.C.

As if acting on Kunstler's cue, crowds described by Reuters as "huge" and "raucous" gathered outside the Washington D.C. home of Bank of America's top lawyer Gregory Baer yesterday, demanding that B of A stop lobbying against the financial reform bill currently working its way through Congress. Led by the Chicago-based grassroots organization National People's Action, the mob reassembled this morning, augmented by members of the Service Employees International Union and "stormed a Bank of America branch near the U.S. Capitol on Monday, forcing the bank to close down as confused customers looked on and tellers retreated to an interior room."

In addition, "Other groups from SEIU and National People's Action were set to stage protests at BofA's and JPMorgan Chase's lobby shops downtown as part of a daylong anti-K Street extravaganza," the story at Huffington Post reported.

What's causing this sudden uptick in workers' messy confrontations with the owning class, practically unknown in recent times? BP's greasy disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which now (in the words of Kunstler, again) "lies quivering in deep waters off the Gulf coast, like some awful amorphous Moby Dick full of malice waiting to sink Pequod America" is surely playing some part. So did the tongue-tied responses of Goldman's top executives in front of a Senatorial committee that roasted them alive on national TV a couple weeks ago.

But contributing even more to the ignition of noisy public discontent is the growing awareness of the increasingly bifurcated condition of American society, acknowledged this morning by sources deep within the belly of the whale: a former Federal Reserve official quoted by the Bloomberg News Service.

The U.S. economy may return to its pre-crisis peak next quarter after a recovery former Federal Reserve official Peter Hooper calls “surprisingly strong, historically weak,” which has seen corporations and the rich prosper while small companies and the unemployed struggle.


Unemployment, at 9.9 percent, is near a 27-year high as employers have cut payrolls by eight million since July 2007. The rate is more than twice the 4.7 percent reported by the Labor Department prior to the start of the recession in December 2007.

“It’s not just about Wall Street vs. Main Street,” said Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer of Pacific Investment Management Co., the Newport Beach, California-based manager of the world’s largest bond fund. “It’s about large companies versus small companies and wealthy households versus those less well off.”

Yep. Us versus them. It's been that way for a long time now, and class warfare is finally coming out into the open.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

parchman farm

Down South if you do anything that's wrong,
They'll sure put you down on Parchman Farm.

They'll put you under a man named Captain Jack;
He'll write his name all up and down your back.

--Son House
Parchman Farm Blues

Between 1895 and 1901 the Mississippi state prison at Parchman was re-designed as a plantation, and thereafter functioned as part of the system of forced, mostly black labor that prevailed throughout the south up until World War II, and is documented by Douglas Blackmon in his book "Slavery by Another Name."

The folklorist Alan Lomax recorded work gang songs there and at the infamous Louisiana state prison at Angola in 1947, As you listen to a Parchman field crew singing "Early in the Morning," you may be struck, as I was, by the contrast between the emotionally neutral lyrics and the unmistakable expression of anguish in the tone of the singers.

Lomax wrote in his liner notes for the resulting album, "Prison Songs," that "These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River. They were born out of the very rock and earth of this country, as black hands broke the soil, moved, reformed it, and rivers of stinging sweat poured upon the land under the blazing heat of Southern skies, and are mounted upon the passion that this struggle with nature brought forth. They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen."

Parchman, strange to say, was not all bad. It had one of the most liberal family visitation policies in the country, which included allowing for conjugal visits of up to two hours a couple times a month. Prison officials credited that policy with keeping jailhouse homosexuality at Parchman Farm, and the violence and predatory behavior that arise from it, at low levels.

And while Parchman's inmates were mostly black, it was not strictly speaking a segregated facility. One of Elvis Presley's earliest memories was of the three-year sentence his father served there for forgery, and we can safely assume that Vernon Presley labored alongside the negro inmates "down in a ditch with a great long spade," as Son House, who himself did time in Parchman, describes the experience.

What went on at Parchman, Angola, and elsewhere in the south in the first part of the last century is an important facet of American history, mostly overlooked until Blackmon's book appeared a couple years ago. I wonder if the Texas State Board of Education is planning to include this information in the revised U.S. history texts they are mandating for the state's public schools.

Friday, May 14, 2010

tin shack nation

In Coconiño County they did dwell;
In Coconiño County, known full well...

--The Ballad of Krazy Kat

On a political discussion board I frequent there's a thread called "Boycotting Arizona," and every time I see it it I'm reminded of that movie with Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter, "Raising Arizona," which makes me smile. But the real Arizona does not make me smile.

Arizona is full of old people with aches and pains and lots of complaints. About everything. A lot of them live in vinyl huts in retirement trailer parks, where everyone else is codgers like themselves. They play bingo and hate the government.

I lived in a retirement trailer park in SoCal for a while. It's kind of like living in the Greyhound bus depot. They're all very similar.

Seething hotbeds of political radicalism, rigid religious fundamentalism, macaroni-and-cheese potlucks, and hot tubs.

That's Arizona for you. Not everybody in Arizona is like what I've described, but an atypically large proportion of Arizonans are just like that.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Las Sheriffas

Time Magazine's cover story this week is ahead of the curve for a change. Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, Mary Schapiro who chairs the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Elizabeth Warren, overseer of the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, share the limelight this week and for good reason. All three are committed to substantive reforms in the financial system, and they have begun working together to achieve their common goal. From the article by Michael Scherer:

Unlike many of the men they oversee, the new sheriffs of Wall Street never aspired to eight-figure compensation packages or corporate suites. Bair, Schapiro and Warren all made their careers far from Manhattan, taking on new jobs during pregnancies and outhustling the men around them. But it is their willingness to break ranks and challenge the status quo that makes these increasingly powerful women different from their predecessors.

Scherer's piece concludes: "There are lots more women at the table now," Schapiro says. And the women have learned how to work together better. Around Washington, women call this "amplification," the extra juice that comes when powerful figures join forces to speak up against entrenched interests. As chairs of their commissions, both Bair and Schapiro have independently consulted with Warren in recent months for advice on consumer rights. They have largely spoken with a united voice on financial reform, and when they gathered in late April for a TIME photo shoot, they promptly huddled to strategize on arguments to head off bank lobbyists' efforts against the new derivatives regulation moving through the Senate. The measure, believed to be dead a few months ago, now looks likely to pass by the end of the month. The only question is whether it will have the teeth to prevent a repeat of the crisis of 2008. "Do you know how many little changes could be made in that statute to just cut the legs out from underneath it?" Warren asks.

Unfortunately, from harsh experience, we do know. But now we're better off, having seen some of the enemy's most devious tricks, and with a team in place that we have reason to hope will be able to nail down some real reform for a change.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

political prisoners

The Brown-Kaufman amendment would have placed a legal limit on the total amount of assets a bank could hold. Its purpose would have been limit the size of banks, and by eliminating banks that are "too big to fail," put an end to the banksters being able to hold the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. economy hostage.

The amendment was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 61-33, and among the 61 Senators voting against it 27 were Democrats. This vote tells you who's buttering the bread of those particular Democrats, and it also shows that our government's inability to deal with the country's most serious problems is not a matter of donkeys vs. elephants.

It seems to me that the Democratic Party is going to have to split at some point. It would be better from a progressive point of view to belong to a minority party we could believe in rather than a majority party we can't live with.

Anyway, being part of a distinct minority isn't the end of the world. Look what's happening in England right now, with the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg. Although they're very much in the minority, the Lib Dems are now going to be able to pressure Parliament into agreeing to substantial electoral reforms, and Clegg is on the verge of being named deputy prime minister.

Here's the Democrats' wall of shame: the 27 who voted against Brown-Kaufman. I've noted with pleasure that neither of the Senators from my own state of Washington, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, has her name on this list.

Akaka (D-HI)
Baucus (D-MT)
Bayh (D-IN)
Bennet (D-CO)
Carper (D-DE)
Conrad (D-ND)
Dodd (D-CT)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Hagan (D-NC)
Inouye (D-HI)
Johnson (D-SD)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Kohl (D-WI)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson (D-NE)
Reed (D-RI)
Schumer (D-NY)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Tester (D-MT)
Udall (D-CO)
Warner (D-VA)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

the only way to be

I want to be anarchy...

--Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, 1976

Watching John Lydon as Johnny Rotten performing "Anarchy in the UK" with the Sex Pistols back in 1976 almost calls up nostalgic and sentimental feelings. Not quite, though.

It's strange now to remember how much the Pistols scared people back then. All the folks out there in TVland watched in horror as images of these twitching, thuggish, dope-fiend cockney teen-agers rudely invaded their living rooms. They feared that Sid Vicious would become a role model for the little ones growing and fermenting under their own roofs, but Sid didn't live long enough for that, and Lydon's turn as Johnny Rotten was likewise short lived.

Watching the Pistols today they don't seem so scary, but they remain just as loud, screechy, nasty, and anti-social as they were in the 70's, and their competently played, adamantly crude garage-band sound, full of one-note/one-chord interludes, is the perfect vehicle to convey the band's message, which remains appropriate even today. How else are adolescents supposed to react to coming of age and simultaneously realizing they're trapped inside a civilization that's coming apart at the seams?

The mid-seventies was a turbulent time, as much so in its way as were the sixties, and there were several noteworthy and lasting cultural expressions of extraordinary feelings of fear and outrage. Besides the Sex Pistols there was the American splatter movie "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," possibly the greatest horror film of all time, and the one that most effectively conveys a sensation of stark terror from beginning to end.

The Wikipedia article on "Texas Chainsaw" relates that In discussing influences on the film, (director and writer Tobe) Hooper cites the impact of changes in the cultural and political landscape. He directly correlates the intentional misinformation that the "film you are about to see is true" as a response to being "lied to by the government about things that were going on all over the world", including Watergate, the gasoline crisis, and "the massacres and atrocities in the Vietnam War". The additional "lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things" that Hooper noticed in watching the local news — whose coverage was graphic, "showing brains spilled all over the road" — led to his belief "that man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film."

Looking back from today, as oil gushes into the gulf of Mexico and the functioning of the New York Stock Exchange is threatened by a generation of Frankenstein's-monster computer programs, it's easy to understand why in the mid-seventies, the most cutting-edge music and film expressed hopelessness. The same response would still be justified today, but most of us have now adopted the attitude that despair isn't appropriate to our situation.

Enjoy yourself. It's probably later than we think.

Saturday, May 08, 2010


When the Dow Jones Average melted down this past Thursday and dropped nearly a thousand points in half an hour, what we were seeing is something that's been predicted by science fiction writers and some general literature authors for decades, namely a facet of the war between humans and machines.

We have become enslaved by our own machines, especially computers and certain kinds of computer programs such as the ones that set off Thursday's Dow Jones meltdown. The so-called "Defense" Department is also running lots computer programs, some of which endanger the entire world.

The fall of stock prices on Thursday didn't play out as the kind of diagonal line we usually see on graphs. It was a vertical drop. This could only have been accomplished by computer automation.

In his 1927 novel Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse's protagonist Harry Haller dreams of the coming war of people vs. machines: "Cars, some of them armored, were run through the streets chasing the pedestrians. They ran them down and either left them mangled on the ground or crushed them to death against the walls of the houses. I saw at once that it was the long-prepared, long-awaited and long-feared war between men and machines, now at last broken out."

Now what Hesse and many others predicted has come to pass, and it's scary as hell.

In the 1963 movie "Dr. Strangelove," a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is set off by a lunatic American Air Force general named Jack D. Ripper. But Kubrick and his screenwriters got it wrong. It's not crazy people we need to be afraid of, but the fact that crazy people now have crazy machines they've built and programmed to function in insane ways, and have become enslaved to them.

Government, commerce, and war are all now the functions of machines rather than human agency, and the machines are out of control.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

panic on wall street

It was a very scary day at the dog track, as Atrios calls the New York Stock Exchange. About 90 minutes before the end of today's session the Dow Jones average fell almost a thousand points in roughly half an hour. A rumor began circulating on the floor that what traders were seeing was a panic stampede set off by growing anxieties over the Greek debt situation.

If the pendulum had stayed there, it would have been the biggest one-day stock market loss in history. But the panic was followed by an upswing, and the average ended the day down 347 points.

The explanation we're now hearing is that the hysteria was set off when a trader made a data entry error on a sell order for a very large block of stock and typed "billion" instead of "million."

As the average began falling like a sack of coal, automatic computerized features built into the market's transactional system were activated, magnifying the panic. The AP article covering this clusterschnazzle explains that "Computer trading intensified the losses as programs designed to sell stocks at a specified level kicked in. Traders use those programs to try to limit their losses when the market is falling. And the selling only led to more selling as prices fell," then adds almost anti-climactically, "The selling was furious."

It's frightening to think that our economic well being, yours, mine, and everybody else's, is at least partially dependent on the vagaries of such an irrational, out-of-control, partially automated and totally abstract seven-horned beast as the New York Stock Exchange.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

faisal shahzad

The young man now in custody and charged with attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square is the son of a former Pakistani air force vice marshall, Baharul Haq, and was born into Pakistan's uppermost social class. His birth into wealth and privilege meant he was entitled to a top-tier education, career connections, and a lifestyle which few in this world are able to enjoy. Faisal Shahzad is very similar in a lot of ways to the Christmas Day underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the son of a rich, upper-class Nigerian banker.

What could possibly have motivated these young men to give up their lives of ease and privilege and strike out blindly against the U.S. and its people?

Since 2004, the U.S. has carried out 129 acknowledged predator drone strikes in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. These have killed between 889 and 1,136 people, a third of whom were civilians.

As a strategy for dealing with terrorism, is bombing people in a country we're not at war with, and which is theoretically allied with us, an effective policy? Is the policy working for us, or putting us in greater danger? And why is it that people resent someone dropping bombs on them?

Are these predator drone strikes acts of terrorism?

I would, for about the thousandth time, encourage Americans to think for a change about what the word "terrorism" actually means, rather than just mindlessly parroting U.S. government, Pentagon, and law enforcement talking points and propaganda. What defines who is a terrorist? Was Faisal Shahzad's attempting bombing in Times Square an act of terrorism, or counter-terrorism?

If the richest and most privileged children of our allies want to kill us, is our strategy working? And why is it that when they bomb us, it's terrorism, but when we bomb them, it's warfare? Are our lives more valuable and legitimate than theirs?

Don't get me wrong -- I believe killing civilians is always wrong, and I'm glad the Times Square bomb fizzled. But at what point are we going to start seriously thinking about what we're doing? When will we acknowledge that we're not exceptional, and that God is not on our "side?" We're no different than the rest of the world's seven billion humans, whose actions always have predictable consequences.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

sliding delta

Old blues tunes can be cryptic and mysterious. Sometimes the meanings of certain words or phrases is forgotten over time, and such is the case with the song Sliding Delta.

There are a currently a couple interpretations circulating that deal with the possible meaning of the phrase. One is that it dates from the time of the great flood of 1927, the worst water disaster the gulf states endured in modern times up until Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2006. Another theory is that Sliding Delta was a local name for a train that ran near the small town of Avalon, Mississippi, and that the song originated with John Hurt, an Avalon farmer who recorded it in 1928, during the one and only recording session of his youth. (He recorded again in the 1960's as Mississippi John Hurt after he was "rediscovered" by blues researchers.) The lyrics of Hurt's version support this second theory regarding the origins of the term.

The sliding delta runs right by my door;
I'm going up the country, baby, don't you want to go?

My suitcase is packed, and my trunk's already gone,
I can't sleep, baby, and the world is waiting on.

When Tommy Johnson covered the song the following year, his version was vague and the lyrics extremely generic and all-purpose, in that special way that only certain kinds of blues lyrics can be. But Sliding Delta is one of Johnson's masterpieces all the same, and all the elements that made him memorable are there -- the resonant and perfectly-intoned voice, the extremely clean and precise fingerpicking, the ghostly falsetto, and the dovetailed interplay between the sung and picked parts, which gives the listener the impression that Johnson uses the instrument as an extension of his voice.

As with most of Tommy Johnson's songs, the words are difficult to understand. However, this music is about the sound, and not the sense. As Lewis Carroll wrote, "Take care of the sounds, and the sense will take care of itself."

Tommy Johnson was one of the genre's flawed geniuses, a tragic figure who was snared by that old devil alcohol early in life and never got free of it. Among the Great Old Ones (as I like to call the blues masters of the 20's and 30's), he had the most notorious reputation of anyone among this fraternity of mostly hard drinkers, and one of his favorite refreshments was the methanol -- the "juice" -- found in the cooking fuel Sterno. His habit of drinking Sterno inspired his most famous song, Canned Heat, and the song lent its name to one of the best-known of the San Francisco rock bands of the '60's.

Cryin' canned heat, mama, cryin' sure, Lord, killin' me;
Canned heat don't kill me, I may never die."

Johnson's work is narrow in scope, as he was limited to maybe half a dozen song types, or templates. A listener familiar with old blues soon recognizes the small number of song patterns circulating within this mostly orally-transmitted tradition, and the tendency of singers to recycle the patterns in which they were most fluent and retrofit them with new lyrics. So while Tommy Johnson left few songs, most of them are outstanding examples of the genre at its best.

He was the first blues musician to claim to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the flawless guitar technique he exhibited drunk or sober, a brag later reincarnated by Robert Johnson (no relation), but I've always suspected the Devil took possession of poor Tommy earlier than the contract specified. He recorded only twice, cutting seven sides for Victor in Memphis in 1928, and nine more for Paramount the following year for Paramount at the company's studio in Grafton, Wisconsin. He might have recorded more but mistakenly believed that he had signed away his right to do so, when in reality he had signed a copyright settlement with the trio the Mississippi Sheiks allowing them to use one of his melodies for a recorded set of lyrics of their own. However, he was too intoxicated at the time to fully understand the nature of what he had signed, and went through the rest of his short life unaware of the oversight.

There's a rough version of Sliding Delta posted on YouTube, but it contains all flaws of the original recording made by Paramount, a bargain-basement label which used outmoded equipment and technology (the diaphragm method) long after all the big recording firms had begun using electricity. A much better version of the song is on Yazoo Records' two-CD collection, "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of," consisting of transcribed, extremely rare and seldom-heard 78 rpm discs. It includes blues, gospel, and string band barn dance-style country music, all mingled together and all lovingly re-mastered by Yazoo's cadre of expert and dedicated engineers. If you don't want to buy the whole enchilada, you can hear a 29-second snippet of Sliding Delta as well as a lot of other good stuff at Amazon.

Even better yet, you can listen to the entire Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of version of the song on MP3 at

Sunday, May 02, 2010

one more time

A Christian evangelist group from China recently announced that they found the remains of Noah's Ark on a mountaintop in Turkey. This means that a thousand-year search for the vessel is finally over -- again.

If you've got a fairly long memory you'll recall that this happens every few years. A well-funded group of Christian fundamentalist amateur archaeologists goes out looking for the remains of Noah's Ark, or the Ark of the Covenant, or the true cross, and -- surprise! --they find exactly what they're looking for. For many years, these pious hoaxes, engineered by the credulous and aimed at the gullible, cropped up from time to time and went mostly unanswered by the community of professional and scholastically reputable archaeologists. But no more.

Now, as discoverers of Jesus's tomb or amateur ark-aeologists sell their stories to newspapers and magazines and make the rounds of the daytime TV talk shows, they're finding themselves more and more often under fire from people who know a great deal more than they do, and have the credentials to prove it.

(I)t was word of two previous ark expeditions that helped prompt the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading professional organization of American Middle Eastern archaeologists, to take action.

Fed up with the exposure these types of stories were getting in the media, the group last year launched a committee tasked with taking aim at archaeological frauds.

"We really just decided that it was time to take back our field," says Eric Cline, a George Washington University archaeologist. He and (Robert) Cargill (a professor of Near Eastern languages and literature at UCLA) co-chair the committee, whose membership also includes the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society of Biblical Literature.

The study of history, much like the current American political scene, now seems divided into two separate and distinct spheres. On one side are the birthers, the people who believe Obama is taking his orders directly from Moscow or Havana or Mecca or somewhere, who are certain that Jesus rode a dinosaur in the Garden of Eden, and that Noah's Ark was a real, historical vessel whose remains are out there on a mountaintop somewhere just waiting to be discovered, if they haven't been already. On the other are the people who know the difference between a fact and an opinion, and believe in evidence.

Possibly, we've entered another Dark Age, in which the great mass of humanity is condemned by their illiteracy and gross ignorance to suffer the fears and dread born of superstition, and the conviction that archaic and impossible myths are literally, historically true, while real knowledge and understanding become the exclusive possessions of an educated and sophisticated elite. So much for democracy.

When they "publish by press conference," Cargill says, the ark hunters betray their real motive: cash. "Noah's Ark quests are always about the money -- always," he argues. "This group was put together to do one thing and one thing only: make money and spread ideology by pimping both archaeology and religion."

He points out that one member of the recent expedition, Yeung Wing-Cheung, has directed a documentary about the hunt for the ark and is selling the DVD online. The Media Evangelism Ltd., meanwhile, operates a Noah's Ark theme park that needs to sell tickets.

The magic words: "theme park." These days those two words are the natural companions of two others: "suspicions confirmed."

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Mystery Woman

Do you know who this is? I never would have guessed in a hundred years.

It's somebody you're familiar with; that's all I'll tell you. Her name is a household word.

The picture is nearly 50 years old, and proves once again, as if we needed any proof, that our appearances change drastically over a number of decades.

I don't know what the first person to guess the correct answer will get. Probably just the satisfaction of being right. I'd like to offer an all-expenses-paid weekend for two in Bakersfield, but even that modest holiday is beyond my means.