Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best Music of 2008

It is the time of year when children and grown-ups alike are struck with the urge to take an accounting of numerical time. Thusly....

I’m just going to do some rough categories this year of some of the music I listen to most (see also the Best of 2007 here).

I had an odd year in music, filled with a lot of older Asian music – Thai pop; Indonesian gamelan-inflected psychedelic and prog (long live the great Guruh Gypsy’s 1974 masterpiece!); a revisiting of the legendary Cambodian Rocks and new discoveries in wartime garage psych from Cambodia and Vietnam and even Laos; some new Dylanesque folk coming out of China; Nepalese punk; old Chinese show tunes; and Korean and Japanese blues. Reiko Kudo, of the Japanese group Maher Shalal Hash Baz, produced some nice goodies on her own.

The great discovery of the year for me is nearly 40 years old: the Icelandic psych/prog group Óðmenn and their album of the same name from 1970. Awesome.

Latin. There was abundant Latin music on the plate exploring new ways of taking up traditional musical forms. There was the wave of old and new cumbia that washed over the more experimental outskirts of Latin music (check out Chicha Libre’s Sonido Amazonico, and Chancha Vía Circuito’s Rodante). But it came from all over Latin America: the Mexican punk band, Ratas del Vaticano (Mocosos Patéticos); the Venezuelan folk pop of Domingo en Llamas (Fledermaus); the new tango of Natalia Mallo and the Gato Negro Quinteto (Tango EP); the tejano cumbia of Grupo Fantasma (Sonidos Gold); Bronx River Parkway’s latin funk (San Sebastian 152); Banda de Turistas from Argentina (Mágico Corazón Radiofónico); and once again the Argentinean mashup artist Villa Diamante. Un Día by Juana Molina makes the main list – she’s likely to be on the list every year she makes a record. Oh, and the tune "Fala Tanto" by Open Foraina and Jack Quiñónez (from their 7") is one hot dance number - throw this one on and watch what everyone in the room does.

Brazilian. I adore Brazilian music as far back in time as recordings go, but it does seem collectively to go through creative phases. Although I don’t think we’re currently in a waxing phase, there were bits and pieces this year worth exploring further: Marcelo Camelo (Sou); Eddie’s Carnaval No Inferno is one of the best from the country; Márcio Local’s samba soul (Samba Sem Nenhum Problema); Rogério Skylab’s Brazilian rock (Skylab 8); DJ Tudo’s hip hop/house (Garrafada); the indie rockers, Júlia Says (self-titled EP); and the off-center psych-funk instrumentalists, Burro Morto (Varadouro).

French. Although there will be disagreement from the club crowd and from Filles Sourires, France had a slow year overall. The standouts, however, made the main list. Cherbourgienne Françoiz Breut can do no wrong and A l’Aveuglette once again proves it. The equally lovely Marianne Dissard, expatriatedly of Tucson, also produced fine work in L’Entredeux. Barbara Carlotti’s L’Ideal also did it for me. And one of the best-of-the-best is Mathieu BoogaertsI Love You.

Classics. Some of the older crowd came up with terrific, fresh work. The Pretenders (listen to the knockdown “Almost Perfect”), for example, as well as The Legendary Pink Dots, the great Al Green, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and Alejandro Escovedo. And I’m really glad to see the tragic French powerhouse Noir Désir back with a new single and apparently an album to come in 2009.

Pop. Pop was a mixed bag this year and, for me, most of the indie stuff runs together into a murky slosh of musical conformism, however much the music earnestly tries to say otherwise. But… Deerhoof made another fine album with Offend Maggie and they make it onto the list, up near the top in fact. I also agree with the cool kids that Shearwater’s Rook is indeed a great record. Lykke Li made the catchiest pop album of the year in Youth Novels. I even like the much-ballyhooed Santogold and her self-titled record. A number of lesser-known bands show great promise for the coming years: Rocket Surgery; Tame Impala from Australia; Zoo Animal (try the stripped-down “My Lord"); Scotland's Eagleowl; Snake Flower II; the psych folk of Finland's Lau Nau; Spain's Cuchillo; and Colourmusic. On the electronic side of pop, Portugal’s Gala Drop and the Egyptian-Italian breaks of Mutamassik demand serious headphone time.
Miscellaneous. And then for oddities, try Thiaz Itch's stuff (get it free here). Or Ergo Phizmiz's neo-Dadaist Handmade in the Monasteries of Nepal /Eloise My Dolly. And, of course, the masterpiece: the digital 7" via WFMU, People Like Us & Ergo Phizmiz' Music to Run Fast By, which sounds exactly like the title (more freebies here). That'll take care of you.

Alas, I’m babbling. Time to commit to the best. These are in no particular order since I have no idea how to rank them numerically, and I also can't say that many of the above albums shouldn't also be on this list. Nonetheless, here’s my stab at...

The Best of 2008

This unassuming fellow made one of the best records of the year:

* This is Joose Keskitalo from Finland. The album, which I highly recommend, is Joose Keskitalo ja Kolmas Maailmanpalo, a simple work of gorgeous little folk pop melodies. They're in Suomi. I hope he’s not singing about axe murderers or cheez whiz. Good luck finding the record outside of Finland.

* James Hunter, The Hard Way. The song that has stayed with me much of the year is the Englishman ’s lovely “Carina." I’ve hummed this beautiful piece of northern soul since July and have never once wanted it out of my head. Cheers, James.

* Mathieu Boogaerts, I Love You. Mentioned above, this is a fine work of French pop with a modestly experimental side. Really enjoyable, constantly interesting, and non-coying, despite his goofy imagery.

* Françoiz Breut, A l’Aveuglette. I think it is now clear that Françoiz is the true musical heiress of the beauty and brilliance of Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Fontaine. Françoiz will be touring in the US in 2009 with Marianne Dissard opening. The best of France right there.

* Juana Molina, Un Día. Perhaps an acquired taste, but to acquire it is to adore it. The labels applied to her music don't do it justice. Pop unfolding wintry psychedelic trances.

* Larkin Grimm, Parplar. Anarchist folk, somehow crossing into "a Tolkienian spaghetti western." Maybe. One of the most interesting voices of 2008.

* Pierre Bastien, Visions of Doing. Can we call these jazz compositions? The French composer and his electronic robots create a musical world detached from the known universe. Brilliant and strange. For more, see here.

* Dungen, 4. The Swedish garage-psych rockers create a more melodic album than their previous records. I think it works just fine. It was always going to be difficult to top Ta Det Lugnt, but I've really enjoyed 4.

* Daniel Melingo, Maldito Tango. I'm not big on tango, but when I heard Melingo's skewed Tom Waits-ian take on the tradition, I was ready for long, malbec-fueled dinners with the artist and whoever makes up his inner circle. This is life-grabbing music that adores life-grabbing music.

* Deerhoof, Offend Maggie. One of these days, we might just call Deerhoof one of the great rock bands of our times. Oh, maybe not. But who else would it be?

* Shearwater, Rook. The Austin-based folkish rock indie dabblers something or another (spun off from the band Okkervil River) - toss in an ornithologist - are justifiably praised for this perhaps unintentionally symphonic record.

* Toumani Diabaté, The Mandé Variations. The aging Malian kora player makes another beautiful record, a history of African music and hommage to his peers built into each song. This is Grammy-nominated, which might normally imply that this is insipid "world music." It's not. A nice review from Audiversity here.

* Don Cavalli, Cryland. The Parisian gardener makes a stunning little record of swamp blues filtered through tilted Parisian pop. Oh, happiness.

* Flying Lotus, Los Angeles. This is what post-hip hop looks like. And it turns out to be a fascinatingly complex piece of experimental electronica.

Support and enjoy. Happy New Year.

Israel's Gaza Bombings

Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip has killed twelve Israelis over the past two years (four in the past day in the wake of the first round of Israeli bombings). Israel has killed nearly 360 Palestinians over the past three days. Although the numbers game is pointless, and Palestinian rockets basically suicidal, isn't Israel's assault on Gaza genocidal?

Juan Cole has more on the reactions throughout the Middle East.

Freddie Hubbard

Freddie Hubbard died yesterday. The recordings I think are worth seeking out are his early Blue Note bop sessions, rather than his later fusion works with CTI (for which he's probably most famous). Hubbard played with most of the great jazz musicians on some of their most important records of the late 1950s and 1960s (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, etc.). But Open Sesame (1960), Reddie for Freddie (1961), and Hubtones (1962), all on Blue Note, are great records as a leader. I'm fond of one of his rarer records, 1969's The Hub of Hubbard, originally only a German pressing (MPS Records). It's a fine piece of retro-bop through the lens of the free jazz experimentation of the 1960s. Accessible and wise at the same time.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Philosophy of Bar Identity

Photo: David Goldman, NY Times

If a familiar bar moves to a new location, does it retain any of its identity from its prior incarnation? The NY Times asks a philosophical question this morning.
But if drinking and dining have always been a moveable feast in New York, is charisma cartable? Can the character of everything from venerable pubs to palatial eateries migrate with their names and owners? This portability issue has gained new urgency in a season of economic disarray, when property owners are less willing to extend the leases of even the most beloved old-timers.
Setting aside the important cultural ramifications to the current economy, I think it's a set of questions with a fairly clear answer. A bar or pub is not solely its food and drink menu, its ownership and employees, and its clientele. It's also the place itself. Good bars become habituated and build a history of this habituation over time - that's their talent. Much of this history is physically manifested. Right? It seems that, once the basic requirements of food and drink are taken care of, it's the physical place itself and how its habitués have worn into the place over time that matters most to bar identity.

But, on the other hand, if a friendly and familiar bar, while remaining in the same physical place, suddenly took on a completely different clientele - say, shifting from a clientele of academics and artists and musicians to a clientele of club kids, or from long-term locals to the latest wave of hipsters - would we still say that it has retained its identity?

Maybe it's that the physical place must also have a relatively non-transitory clientele, at least in part, and that this combination of place and regularity gives the bar the core of its identity?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Guantánamo Detainees

Brookings does something interesting. Two researchers attempt to document and describe the individual detainees at Guantánamo.

21st Century Slavery

This quick piece in Foreign Policy about contemporary slavery is really worth a read.
Human rights activists may call $1-an-hour sweatshop laborers slaves, regardless of the fact that they are paid and can often walk away from the job. But the reality of slavery is far different. Slavery exists today on an unprecedented scale. In Africa, tens of thousands are chattel slaves, seized in war or tucked away for generations. Across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, traffickers have forced as many as 2 million into prostitution or labor. In South Asia, which has the highest concentration of slaves on the planet, nearly 10 million languish in bondage, unable to leave their captors until they pay off “debts,” legal fictions that in many cases are generations old.

One Man, One Wolfman

The Onion:
SACRAMENTO, CA—Activists on both sides of the gay marriage debate were shocked this November, when a typographical error in California's Proposition 8 changed the state constitution to restrict marriage to a union between "one man and one wolfman," instantly nullifying every marriage except those comprised of an adult male and his lycanthrope partner. "The people of California made their voices heard today, and reaffirmed our age-old belief that the only union sanctioned in God's eyes is the union between a man and another man possessed by an ungodly lupine curse," state Sen. Tim McClintock said at a hastily organized rally celebrating passage of the new law. But opponents, including Bakersfield resident Patricia Millard—who is now legally banned from marrying her boyfriend, a human, non-wolfman male—claim it infringes on their civil liberties. "I love James just as much as a wolfman loves his husband," Millard said. "We deserve the same rights as any horrifying mythical abomination." On the heels of the historic typo, voters in Utah passed a similar referendum a week later, defining marriage as between one man and 23 wolfmen.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Surinam Cherries

Your Papers, Please

Send me all of your papers. Now. I have a new status and that is paper grader into infinity. If you send me your paper now, I can probably grade it by October 2010. Don't bother to spell-check or proofread or anything like that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bruce Lee plays ping pong with a nunchuk

Via T.S. at All Intensive Purposes

Infernal Return

Karl Rove, who refused to answer questions for years on the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA official, criticized Barack Obama on Monday for not being more forthcoming in the Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) scandal.

Rove, a former top White House adviser to President Bush, said on Fox News, “[Obama] should have, right from the beginning, been more forthcoming.”

(Via Balloon Juice)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Half-way House Reality TV

Somebody has probably suggested something like this in the form of a joke, but I'm not sure it isn't a good idea: Half-way House Reality TV. Or Reality WebTV with ads. This would be capitalism-meets-voyeurism-meets-exhibitionism being used to recruit and pay for group-therapy-meets-drama-therapy-meets-self-help as an alternative social assistance program. Not to mention the community building, public education and prevention that might come out of it. What's not to like?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mp3 Discovery of the Day

Maus Haus produces a fun, unique combination of punk, psychedelic, and electro operating at the fringes of what counts as pop. That is, they almost make you want to dance, but not really (or you can't without looking like Elaine Benes). Pick up a couple of mp3s at RCRDLBL from their new album, Lark Marvels. The SF Weekly describes them nutshellfully,
Everything feels unhinged on Lark Marvels; there's a jokey nonchalance to the vocals, and the percussion often manifests as a confined clatter. This is pop bent through the surreal lens of krautrock and cosmic psych.

Report on Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody

Here's the link to the Report on Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, released on Thursday. It's not much, really, in the larger scheme of things. It's rather late. And it was released at the end of a week not far from the holidays. For now, perhaps the report's most significant message is this,
The abuses at Abu Ghraib, GTMO and elsewhere cannot be chalked up to the actions of a few bad apples. Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable. The message from top officials was clear; it was acceptable to use degrading and abusive techniques against detainees.
But this is only really significant if we assume that context in which some rather uncomfortable actors - much of the media, Congress, and the Bush administration - all agree to pretend that we're getting to the bottom of some difficult topic where we first have to figure out (deliberately - we'll get to the bottom of this!) the terms of debate and the language of investigation. Again, those terms are not really in dispute at all in the real world. Just for reminders, here's Mary Ellen O’Connell in an interview with Scott Horton, discussing the real context:
The prohibition on torture is absolute in all circumstances—it is a jus cogens or peremptory norm of international law. There are no exceptions to the prohibition. This is clear in the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Civil and Political Rights Covenant. The United States is a party to all three. It is true that Israel’s Supreme Court in a very powerful decision upholding the prohibition on torture and cruel treatment did suggest that an individual interrogator might be able to mount a defense of necessity, but this part of the decision is against the clear weight of authority. It clashes with the fundamental reason for drafting the 1984 Convention Against Torture (CAT)–at that time no one doubted that torture as sport or cruelty was prohibited. The CAT was intended to clear away any last doubts that governments had the right to use torture or cruel measures to seek information for national security or to combat crime.

Gore Wins!

The Onion:
In an unexpected judicial turnaround, the Supreme Court this week reversed its 2000 ruling in the landmark case of Bush v. Gore, stripping George W. Bush of his earlier political victory, and declaring Albert Arnold Gore the 43rd president of the United States of America.

The court, which called its original decision to halt manual recounts in Florida "a ruling made in haste," voted unanimously on Wednesday in favor of the 2000 Democratic nominee.

Gore will serve as commander in chief from Dec. 10 to Jan. 20.

"Allowing this flaw in judgment to stand would set an unworkable precedent for future elections and cause irreparable harm to the impartiality of this court," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts in his majority opinion. "Furthermore, let me be the first to personally congratulate President Gore on his remarkable come-from-behind victory. May he guide us wisely into this new millennium."

Added Roberts, "The system works."

Water Berries

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Australians say Christmas belongs around summer, not winter solstice

SYDNEY , Dec. 9 (UPI) -- An Australian astronomer says the Christmas star that led the three Wise Men to Jesus appeared in June, not December.

Dave Reneke, former chief lecturer at the Port Macquarie Observatory in New South Wales who now is news editor of Sky and Space magazine, said complex computer software was used to map the night sky as it would have appeared over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.The research pinpoints the date of Christ's birth as June 17 rather than Dec. 25, The Times of London reported Tuesday.

"Venus and Jupiter became very close in the the year 2 B.C. and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light," he said. "We are not saying this was definitely the Christmas star -- but it is the strongest explanation for it of any I have seen so far."

Probably we should wait for the equatorial astronomers weigh in on this one.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Common Descent of All World Nukes

All nuclear explosives owe their origins to know-how and materials passed down from the multinational effort that was the Manhattan Project, according to two new books reviewed in Tuesday's Science Times section of the NY Times. William J Broad relates a few of the eye-widening tidbits that the authors reveal about how the current distribution of nuclear technology came to pass, and about who and what really ought to worry you. A.Q. Khan? The man's a "used-car dealer"--clients of his will be lucky to make it around the block with what he gives them. Former Soviet scientists? No wanderlust. Wait until you hear about the Afrikaners. But have you been kept awake by the likelihood of some Boy Scout in Yemen working out how to make an H-bomb from materials at hand? For you this looks to be soothing reading.

Remember H.M.

In 1953, he underwent an experimental brain operation...only to emerge from it fundamentally and irreparably changed.


For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend...it was as if for the first time.

And for those five decades, he was recognized as the most important patient in the history of brain science.

- NY Times

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Life Photos

Photo: Bernard Hoffman, 1948
Very cool images from Life Magazine now online, courtesy of Google. WFMU links.

Nigeria and India

(Via Blattman) Kate Cronin-Furman notes that local conflict in Nigeria killed 400 people last week, and nobody in the West noticed.
...preliminary election results in Plateau State, Nigeria led to clashes on Friday between Muslim and Christian communities in and around the provincial capital, Jos. The city sits in Nigeria's "middle belt" at the point of contact between the Muslim north and the Christian / animist south. It had apparently been doing a good job living up to its nickname "the Home of Peace of Tourism" for the last few years, following riots in 2001 during which over 1000 people were killed. (Guess they'll have to reset the "Jos: 2630 days without religious violence" counter...)

Last week's rioting began after rumors spread that the largely Christian-backed People's Democratic Party had defeated the Muslim-supported All Nigeria People's Party in state elections. Several hundred people, some of whom were probably even the parents of young children, were killed and several thousand were displaced in the ensuing violence.

The gangs also burned down homes, schools, and religious buildings, demonstrating once again the universal truth that angry mobs - no matter their race, religion, or creed - love to set shit on fire. Isn't it nice to know that deep down we ARE all the same?

The Magic of Money

Chris Blattman and commenters discuss why some African countries do not accept US currency from certain dates (and certain denominations). It's actually a bit of a mystery, and an interesting one since it seems to be partially a matter of rumors hypostatized in the form of bills. That's pretty much what we do with money anyway, as Marx pointed out, lending profound social significance to what is essentially paper or metal with some images and numbers on them.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How far is Pune from Mumbai?

Our household is preparing for a move next year to Pune, India -- in Maharashtra state, about 90 miles from Mumbai (I'm working on the Hindi for "barba de chiva"). Naturally, we've talked to many friends, family members, and colleagues about the Mumbai attacks last week. That many of them knew that the lady de chiva had been at the Taj Palace -- albeit not as a guest -- just a week or so before the attacks only added to their concern. I keep answering the same questions: aren't you afraid, now? Don't you all regret the decision to move to India? No, no.

But above all, people have repeatedly asked -- and people I love and respect, so I mean no criticism in making a trope of the question -- "How far is Pune from Mumbai?" It's about 90 miles, a three-to-four-hour drive, I say. I say "four hour drive," making it clear that an inflatable dinghy probably wouldn't quite cut it. But that question -- how far will you be from the site of these attacks -- doesn't fit the problem. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I've been reading the excellent recent translation of War and Peace, but the "how far" hasn't been the right question for a long time. I mean, it mattered how far Smolensk was from Moscow. Such things mattered to so many people for so long that the question probably comes to us from some Jungian depth. But a small group of trained attackers exploiting security holes one could find practically anywhere in the world is not an invading army. Mumbai is not itself a hot zone of ethnic or religious conflict; it's pretty much the opposite of that. It's just a great big city on the edge of a great big country.

So, over the past few days, what I have been saying is that what matters, what we're watching closely as we pack our things, is how India decides to address what happened: clearly, the attackers and their sponsors dislike the growing cooperation and commitment to dialogue between India and Pakistan. Will this attack derail that? Worse still, will it manage to provoke India into a state vs. state response against Pakistan? Can the Congress Party avoid taking "a tough stance" in the face of BJP criticism with elections approaching? Can India prove that it knows -- unlike the Bush administration -- that this is the twenty first century? These are the questions I'm preoccupied with now.

So I was pleased when a friend this morning passed along a link to the Juan Cole piece in Outlook India, as he, as usual, gets quickly to the heart of the matter:
The Bush administration took its eye off al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and instead put most of its resources into confronting Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Eventually this American fickleness allowed both al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup.

Likewise, India should not allow itself to be distracted by implausible conspiracy theories about high Pakistani officials wanting to destroy the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. (Does that even make any sense?) Focusing on a conventional state threat alone will leave the country unprepared to meet further asymmetrical, guerrilla-style attacks.
Now I'm worried by the obvious: Juan Cole and many others made these same points after 9/11. Will India hear them?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just Saying...

The Big Picture (via Sullivan):

If we add in the Citi bailout, the total cost now exceeds $4.6165 trillion dollars. People have a hard time conceptualizing very large numbers, so let’s give this some context. The current Credit Crisis bailout is now the largest outlay In American history.

Jim Bianco of Bianco Research crunched the inflation adjusted numbers. The bailout has cost more than all of these big budget government expenditures – combined:

Marshall Plan: Cost: $12.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $115.3 billion
Louisiana Purchase: Cost: $15 million, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $217 billion
Race to the Moon: Cost: $36.4 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $237 billion
S&L Crisis: Cost: $153 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $256 billion
Korean War: Cost: $54 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $454 billion
The New Deal: Cost: $32 billion (Est), Inflation Adjusted Cost: $500 billion (Est)
Invasion of Iraq: Cost: $551b, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $597 billion
Vietnam War: Cost: $111 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $698 billion
NASA: Cost: $416.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $851.2 billion

TOTAL: $3.92 trillion


data courtesy of Bianco Research


That is $686 billion less than the cost of the credit crisis thus far.

The only single American event in history that even comes close to matching the cost of the credit crisis is World War II: Original Cost: $288 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $3.6 trillion

God finally hears Ann Coulter

Definitely Old Testament.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Torture Symposium / Los Desaparecidos Exhibit

Here's the announcement for the symposium, "On Torture," based from my book, On Torture. The symposium is next Tuesday, November 18th at George Washington University. All are invited to attend.

The following day will be the opening of the exhibit, Los Desaparecidos, at the Art Museum of the Americas on the National Mall here in DC. Some of the artists will be there as well as some of the speakers (including myself) from the symposium.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


No Torture, Obama

Via Andrew Sullivan, note this, especially the portion also highlighted by Sullivan:

As a candidate, Mr. Obama said the CIA's interrogation program should adhere to the same rules that apply to the military, which would prohibit the use of techniques such as waterboarding. He has also said the program should be investigated.

Yet he more recently voted for a White House-backed law to expand eavesdropping powers for the National Security Agency. Mr. Obama said he opposed providing legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided warrantless surveillance, but ultimately voted for the bill, which included an immunity provision.

The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.

No. Let's hope this is a case of misrepresentation of Obama's views by the "current government official" or that it's an instance of the highly improbable side of the spectrum for a transition team "keeping all options open." If not, Obama's already wrong on one of the worst parts of recent US history. It would also be a sign either that he hasn't thought clearly about the issue of torture or that he's being advised by the wrong people.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Is Dear Leader Dead?


Update: If I had serious readership here, I'd see if I could get people to photoshop Kim in all sorts of suspicious places, complete with BBC-like conspiratorial arrows pointing out the discrepancies. You know, Kim winning a hot dog eating contest, Kim drinking manhattans with Heidi Klum, Kim taking surfing lessons in Waikiki, etc.

The Power "Family" of the Religious Right

A fascinating and disturbing interview in Guernica with religion journalist Jeff Sharlett.
One of the most interesting things about anti-intellectualism in American life is that it’s a very intellectual project. Real anti-intellectualism, the Family kind, you know, “Jesus plus nothing,” the systematic stripping away of history, of theology, of any kind of influence—that’s an intellectual project. Not for nothing does Doug Coe express some admiration for Pol Pot. In year zero, he did the same thing. Pol Pot had all the intellectuals killed. You only do that if you have an idea. That’s an extreme form of ideology that says: I can purify things.

There are two great traditions that have been written about before, which are American rationalism and American sentimentalism. What you see in the Family’s expression of power is that these are not two opposite poles, but the head and heart, the realpolitik of world power. The sentimental narrative, which is anti-intellectual—is absolutely interwoven with the rationalist Family agenda.

Closing Guantanamo

I had really hoped to see this come as immediately as it apparently has.
President-elect Obama's advisers are quietly crafting a proposal to ship dozens, if not hundreds, of imprisoned terrorism suspects to the United States to face criminal trials, a plan that would make good on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but could require creation of a controversial new system of justice.

During his campaign, Obama described Guantanamo as a "sad chapter in American history" and has said generally that the U.S. legal system is equipped to handle the detainees. But he has offered few details on what he planned to do once the facility is closed.

Under plans being put together in Obama's camp, some detainees would be released and many others would be prosecuted in U.S. criminal courts.

A third group of detainees — the ones whose cases are most entangled in highly classified information — might have to go before a new court designed especially to handle sensitive national security cases, according to advisers and Democrats involved in the talks.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Coronation in Bhutan

Photo: REUTERS/Royal Government of Bhutan/Handout
As one of my favorite countries crowned a new president, another favorite country, Bhutan, crowned its new king. Photos at the great photography blog, The Big Picture.

Omaha Obama

It used to be amusing to rib Nebraska because it was not really clear what one was ribbing. Now we'll have to rib "Nebraska-minus-Omaha." More efficient, probably, just to make fun of Oklahoma. Or Arkansas. Or Texas. Fewer syllables.

Obama and Citizen Politics

Peter Levine:

I think the most important question about presidential candidates is not what kind of people they seem to be or what they promise to do if elected, but rather how they view the relationship between individuals and the government. Their characters are hard to assess from afar and will change in office; their policy proposals will also shift. But poor presidents always have vague, incoherent, or downright bad ideas about how citizens and the government should relate. Great presidents are elected with compelling new visions of this relationship, and they make those visions real...

Barack Obama launched his campaign by addressing citizens' relationship with government and he never stopped talking about it. It even came up in his 30-minute TV ad. I thought this theme was under-reported, even though it is always the most important question about a presidential candidate, and Obama has a distinctive view.

Obama's core idea is that citizens are at the center of politics. Not private individuals, not the government, not politicians, but people working together in public, on public matters. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2006, he said, "There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. ... All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate."

Obama broke away from the helping model that still guided Hilary Clinton and from the privatism that was the main theme of modern conservatism. On the campaign trail, he modeled his new conception in two important ways--by making his campaign maximally participatory (pushing power out to the network) and by lowering the partisan temperature a notch. He is a Democrat and he was willing to debate and compete with Republicans. But he never seemed to relish this difference. The reason is that citizens are both liberal and conservative, and they need to work together to solve any serious problems. Competition is appropriate in a campaign, but campaigning is a role for politicians, and they are not the heart of politics.

Japanese Convenience

At Happy Lawson, a kid-friendly store that overlooks Yokohama Harbor, you can buy fresh sushi and carbon offsets, pay income tax and change diapers, book airplane tickets and sip vodka coolers. There's hot soup, cold beer, fresh bread, clean toilets, french fries, earwax remover, spotless floors, and a broadband-empowered machine that will order home appliances, book concert tickets and sign you up for driver's ed.

No Big Gulp, no Slurpee, no mini-pizzas sweating grease under a hot light, but you can drop off luggage for the bullet train and park a stroller beside the bar that abuts the toddler play area. "For mothers to maybe have a sip of alcohol while children play is, I think, welcome," said Kazuo Kimera, a spokesman for Lawson Inc., which has about 8,600 convenience stores across Japan...

"We have standardized the size of the store to 100 square meters and 2,500 products," said Tetsu Kaieda, managing director of the Japan Franchise Association. "We don't need anything more or anything less to sell convenience."

I would like to purchase some convenience, but it is inconvenient to have to raise the money to do so.

Friday, November 07, 2008

We're All Mutts

Ezra Klein:
Obama just gave his first press conference, flanked by his economic advisers. Most of it was exactly what you've heard before -- economic crisis, deliberate haste, stimulus bill, putting politics aside. Then came a question about the family's new puppy. Deadpan, he replied, in full Obama voice, with phrasing precisely like his other answers, "we have, uh, two criteria for picking out a puppy." The first criteria is that the pup be hypoallergenic, as one of the little Obama's is allergic. The other is that they want a shelter dog, "a mutt," said Obama, "like me."

Passion Fruit

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Black and Brilliant

Last night, the champagne, wine and Jubilation Ale having washed in waves across the 15 or so people at my place who were following the election returns, I admit I had a moment of petulance when McCain gave his concession speech. I was unable to articulate why at the time. But I think this gets at it:
I confess a certain impatience, on this poignant day, with all the earnest talk about how America achieved something remarkable yesterday by electing our first African-American president, as if the choice has been about race all along. I do not mean to diminish an historic first, like electing a Catholic in 1960; I, too, choked-up when John Lewis spoke. But relief today is not about Americans choosing an obviously black man over a white man, which proves we can come to terms with our past. It is about our choosing an obviously brilliant, reciprocal man over a thick, cynical one--a man who articulates a coherent vision of global commonwealth over someone advancing vague, military patriotism--which proves we can come to terms with our future.
Obviously, as the election of the first black president, the occasion is momentous and the implications for American society run deep. For the first time in quite a long time, I really do feel proud about my country. And the reaction of the entire rest of the world is thrilling. But we shouldn't forget that we've elected a brilliant, intellectually agile, and obviously politically talented person, not just a black man. There's something amiss in making this exclusively an election about race, whichever your political brand. He is certainly the best presidential candidate fielded in my lifetime. Regardless of his blackness or whiteness or whatever, we would have been a truly sorry country to pass that up.

Just Smiling...

I don't know what to say today. Atrios expresses my sentiments exactly.

Barack Hussein Obama. Wow. A progressive, genuinely democratic, pragmatic, intelligent thinker with a background and perspective that reflects the fundamental reality of the variegated American soul.

Just smiling today.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Ideologues and the Philosophical Pragmatist

Daniel Larison, one of the remaining thoughtful conservatives, along with Andrew Sullivan, still misses the point, I think.
Everyone who is voting Obama to punish the GOP thinks that there is some small chance that the GOP might change its ways. The diversity of views among Obamacons reflects how many different future directions are expected, guaranteeing that many will be disappointed, but it also reflects how badly the GOP has failed on multiple fronts that it is simultaneously losing so many prominent and obscure Catholic pro-lifers, libertarians, foreign policy realists, moderates and small-government conservatives, among others, to a Democratic nominee who genuinely is the most liberal of any they have had since 1972. Under normal circumstances, a vote for Obama ought to be unthinkable for almost all of the people on the right who have endorsed him, but the GOP has failed so badly that it has made the unthinkable mundane and ordinary. It’s reaching a point where the report of another Obamacon endorsement is no more remarkable than when the leaves start falling in autumn. Far more important in the aftermath than coming up with new and amusing ways to mock the Obama endorsers is an effort to understand and remedy the profound failures that made this phenomenon possible before a major realignment does occur.
Yes, it's true that the Republican party is a mess. It is rife with corruption, demagoguery, and anti-intellectualism. It has led disastrous foreign and domestic policies over the past eight years. It has been the main supporter of one of the great moral stains on the history of the US - the exceptionalist institutionalization of torture. A viable GOP clearly has serious reflection to undertake. The promotion of Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate for 2012 is one key apparent direction of this reflection, which further demonstrates how utterly clueless the party has become.

But Larison misses the point. I would think that if you're a conservative, you would be less concerned about the GOP and more concerned about the state of conservatism as a fruitful political approach. The thoughtful conservatives still tie conservatism to the party, even while some of them seek to extract themselves from the party's grip. A party-less ideology has a tough road to follow for political saliency. But it's probably time to let that rotten GOP go, given the amount of damage it has done to itself, to the country, and to other countries. This is because conservative ideology has been captured by the GOP, turned dramatically to the right, and transformed into a religion of the GOP. Fidelity to the party has become the sole ideology. This is partially why you see Obamacons so harshly lambasted by their fellow GOPers. But that party-ideology has been losing any intellectual heft it ever had. It is now almost totally reactionary and based on membership and loyalty to the club. This makes it difficult to recruit new members other than the Sarah Palins of the world.

I think this kind of discussion about bolstering one side or the other of the ideological divide nonetheless misses something very important about Barack Obama, which both parties ought to understand better. It's uncontroversial to say that US political life is dualistic and polarized. Demagogues constantly prey on this polarization by reinforcing it. Thus, most of the pundit class can't see past the possibility of either a conservative-Republican ideology in power or a liberal ideology in power. For these people and their dualistic framework, an Obama victory is necessarily an ideological shift to the left. What neither the right nor many on the left get, however, is that Obama is not an ideologue. He's a pragmatist.

I don't mean "pragmatist" in the crass political sense of going with the socio-political flow or drastically diluting one's policy programs in order to get something-anything done or leverage support for some other attractive policy. I mean "pragmatist" in the philosophical sense, the form of philosophical critique that had its first generation in Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey and has been renewed with vigor over the past thirty years. These three thinkers were probably the three greatest philosophers to come out of the US., with deep roots in the longer lineage of American thought through Thoreau and Emerson, Jefferson and Madison and Franklin, and back to Jonathan Edwards, though naturalized and Darwinized by Peirce and Dewey in particular.

To put it simply, Obama seems to me an experimentalist problem-solver of a pragmatic stripe.

A pragmatist thinks in terms of problems and tools and experiments for solving them. A problem arises, which is such precisely because we don't have the conceptual or normative tools at hand to solve it. The pragmatist looks around for explanations, interpretations, analyses, arguments, and new understandings to try help us resolve the problem. If it's political, or a matter of policy, or a matter of ethics or legal interpretation, the pragmatist understands that we start from an irreducible pluralism of values that are crucial to even understanding the problem, let alone resolving it. In a pluralistic country such as the US, policy and political disputes are often disputes involving complex, competing values and ideas. They are problems of intelligent cooperation.

Ideological commitment of the sort that drives the US political system is problematic here - it may provide us with some useful interpretive tools, but it more than likely frames and constricts our understanding of the nature of the problem and the range of possible solutions a priori, prior to investigating the problem. This suggests that the truth of the matter comes prior to testing ideas and policies. The ideologist ends up, by default, resolving problems from a partial and usually self-interested perspective. Pragmatists think this has it all backwards.

The pragmatist seeks to suspend prior ideological commitments and focus rather on generating ongoing dialogue, attempting to build a community of public discussion, in order to gain the fullest possible view of the problem as well as in order to eventually engage the most democratic means for resolving it.

Proposed solutions are tested over and over against real, multi-faceted experience rather than against their fidelity to ideological commitments. Sometimes, we will hit upon policy solutions that work well enough given the constellation of interests. But we'll eventually, more than likely, need to revisit them at some point as new circumstances generate new issues to resolve. There are two crucial components to this process: 1) an assumption of the fallibility of any one view or idea combined with a pluralism of values entails a fuller, epistemologically robust, understanding of the nature of a given policy problem; and 2) the experimental, adaptive process through which problem-solutions are sought just is the creation and sustaining of intelligent democratic community.

Read these five articles on Obama:
Each one of these pieces - as well as many of Obama's most eloquent speeches - shows Obama the philosophical pragmatist at work: as a thinker, a problem-solver, a man with a complex understanding of his own diverse experience and competing values, and a commitment to genuine democratic discussion.

What does this mean for Obama the president? I'd like to hope that the office doesn't convert Obama into yet another pragmatist of the crass, non-philosophical version I mentioned above. I'm not worried about him being an ideologue. Despite the right's best efforts to paint him as such, there's little evidence that he's that sort of person. He's going to make a lot of people unhappy on both the left and the right when he doesn't follow the rules of prior ideological commitments. That unhappiness will unwittingly reflect something profoundly wrong with the older and hopefully dying form of polarized ideological politics in the US. But, unlike how many pundits put it, the problem is less "polarization" than it is the epistemological backwardness of ideology-driven politics.

But can Obama function as a genuine philosophical pragmatist? I think so. Given the serious nature of the problems he'll be dealing with as president - from the wars to climate change to poverty and economic collapse to education and healthcare - we really do need someone who's not blinkered by prior ideological commitments and hackneyed policy ideas and tools. We need a philosophical pragmatist with a rich understanding of the complex diversity of the US and the world, a morally reflective person who's willing to listen, to experiment, to involve and engage, and to lead when it is time to lead. Everything in his background says this is precisely who Obama is.

Vote Obama.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

November Gaffe


'I Would Make A Bad President,' Obama Says In Huge Campaign Blunder

TALLAHASSEE, FL—In a campaign gaffe that could potentially jeopardize Sen. Barack Obama's White House bid, the Democratic presidential nominee told nearly 8,000 supporters Tuesday that, if elected, he would be a terrible president.

The blunder, captured by all major media outlets and broadcast live on CNN, occurred when the typically polished Obama fielded a question about his health care policy. Obama answered by saying he would give small business owners a tax credit to help them provide health care for their employees, and then added, "Now, I'm not completely certain that my plan would work because, overall, I think I would make a bad president."

More at The Onion....

Meanwhile, the McCain camp's November Surprise:

You may have noticed that the AP is reporting that Barack Obama's aunt (who he does not seem to have a relationship with) was denied asylum in the US four years ago and is now living illegally in Boston. Convenient timing, ain't it?

The real story, though, is down in the third paragraph of the AP story ...

Information about the deportation case was disclosed and confirmed by two separate sources, one of them a federal law enforcement official. The information they made available is known to officials in the federal government, but the AP could not establish whether anyone at a political level in the Bush administration or in the McCain campaign had been involved in its release.

That's about as transparent a red flag as an outfit like the AP is usually willing to give. And there you have it. Quite likely working in concert with the McCain campaign, a Bush administration official is leaking details on an immigration case to try to help McCain three days before the election. It's shades of Bush I's riffling through Bill Clinton's passport files just before the 1992 election in a desperate last minute gambit as they were swirling down the drain.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Photo: Eva de Guzman

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Income Inequality in OECD Countries Is Growing

The gap between rich and poor has grown in more than three-quarters of OECD countries over the past two decades, according to a new OECD report.

OECD’s Growing Unequal? finds that the economic growth of recent decades has benefitted the rich more than the poor. In some countries, such as Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, Norway and the United States, the gap also increased between the rich and the middle-class.

Countries with a wide distribution of income tend to have more widespread income poverty. Also, social mobility is lower in countries with high inequality, such as Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, and higher in the Nordic countries where income is distributed more evenly.

Launching the report in Paris, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría warned of the dangers posed by inequality and the need for governments to tackle it. “Growing inequality is divisive. It polarises societies, it divides regions within countries, and it carves up the world between rich and poor. Greater income inequality stifles upward mobility between generations, making it harder for talented and hard-working people to get the rewards they deserve. Ignoring increasing inequality is not an option.”...

Atlas of Hidden Water

Awesome. BLDGBLOG:
An "atlas of hidden water" has been created to reveal where the world's freshwater aquifers really lie. "The hope," New Scientist reports, "is that it will help pave the way to an international law to govern how water is shared around the world."
This prospective hydro-geopolitical legislation currently includes a "draft Convention on transboundary aquifers."

"What the UNESCO map reveals," New Scientist adds, "is just how many aquifers cross international borders. So far, the organisation has identified 273 trans-boundary aquifers: 68 in the Americas, 38 in Africa, 155 in Eastern and Western Europe and 12 in Asia." One of these is the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, whose waters are nearly a million years old.
According – somewhat oddly – to the International Atomic Energy Agency:
    The ancient system’s massive reserves, estimated at 375,000 cu km of water (equivalent to about 500 years of Nile River discharge), are confined deep inside the earth’s underground chambers – staggered, tiered, and pooled beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert, oasis settlements, wadis (dry riverbeds that contain water only during times of heavy rain), small villages, towns, and large cities.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Spreading the Wealth

If we were more of a high-falutin' elitist culture, we might reflect more on the expressions we're so quick to deride. Daniel Little asks,
...why would any middle- or low-income American object to the principle that the most affluent should assume slightly more of the burden? Is it that they imagine (fictionally) that this is where they will wind up eventually, and they won’t want the bigger tax burden when they get there? Do they give credence to the trickle-down theory that got this whole slide towards greater income inequality going in the first place in 1980? Plainly most people are deeply offended by the excesses of executive compensation that are now so visible; is that an impulse towards socialism? Or is it simply that they’re alienated by the label that is being thrown at this fairly ordinary tax proposal — which certainly gives a lot of credence to the irrational power of negative image marketing?

From McClatchy:
...For decades, ["socialism"] served mainly as a cudgel with which conservative Republicans beat liberal Democrats about the head. When Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan accused John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson of socialism for advocating guaranteed health care for the aged and the poor, the implication was that Medicare and Medicaid would presage a Soviet America. Now that Communism has been defunct for nearly twenty years, though, the cry of socialism no longer packs its old punch. “At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives,” McCain said the other day—thereby suggesting that the dystopia he abhors is not some North Korean-style totalitarian ant heap but, rather, the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation.

The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35 per cent and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6 per cent.