Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Omnibus 2012 Music Post

Crazy year, 2012. Felt a bit like this

And a bit like this

Often at the same time. Or in close, alternating succession. I guess that pegs me as a Calvinist, which is true enough, although surely a liberal and mildly decadent one, at least by the standards of Calvin. The Tenacious One likes his rock and roll, and so I've needed a soundtrack for the crazy. Like last year, I've spent a good bit of this year reveling in and rediscovering the old, especially soul: Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Gil Scott Heron, Fela Kuti, Bill Withers, Dusty Springfield. Plus a heavy dose of vintage songwriter roots rock: Dylan, Springsteen, Zevon, Newman, Rodriguez. Got a little help on Heron and Fela from Frances, but also a lot of bargain bin scavenging in spare, bored moments, which I now have for a few days every other weekend.

Somehow I've also gotten to hear a few new records, pretty much all of which I put in my end of year list. Overall, a mediocre year. Lots of good music, but no one thing blew me away from start to finish. Settling on a top pick was not easy.

1) Justin Townes Earle, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Country soul, passionate but also tasteful and restrained. "Look the Other Way" and "Movin' On" are standouts. At first I didn't think this could hold up to Harlem River Blues (2010), but it grew on me, and the title's a good coda for my last few years.

2) Band of Horses, Mirage Rock. Hard call here. In some ways, I think this is the most collected and satisfying CD I heard all year, from the opening rocker "Knock Knock," to affecting country ballads "Everything's Gonna Be Undone," and "Heartbreak on the 101." Neil Young meets Built to Spill from some beardy South Carolina boys. But the tent-pole track in the middle, "Dumpster World," annoys me, as if they thought the 70s soft-rock band America could be revived with mid-song punk thrash and some well intentioned but too-blunt political posturing. Save that blemish, a great record.

3) the Walkmen, Heaven. These guys are really under-appreciated. "The Rat" from 2004 is one of the best songs of the last decade--coiled, yuppie anger just about to explode, with a put-down worthy of classic Dylan. The new CD is much more elegant, especially the gorgeous opener, "We Can't Be Beat." Also of note, "Heartbreaker," "Southern Heart," and "The Love You Love." It's the fleeting bliss of new parenthood, with trouble lurking beneath the sweetness of the surface.

4) Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls. Don't be the last one to the party. Brittany Howard can wail.

5) Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. Rolling Stone named this the best record of the year, and it is quite good. But I'm torn. It's like he decided to take everything that makes Bruce "Bruce" and turn it up to 11. So it's the most Springsteen-y album he's made since Born in the USA (1985). And my version has two bonus tracks, good ones, but do they undermine the cohesion? I'm always ambivalent about getting "bonus tracks."

6) the Lumineers, The Lumineers. Better than expected. And I already loved the ubiquitous single, "Ho Hey."  A folky heartbreaker.

7) Jack White, Blunderbuss. Deserves all the props it got. He's starting to age with me. Check out "I'm Shakin'." So good it makes me "noivous."

8) Bob Dylan, Tempest. What he's lost in melody, he's gained in grit. I especially love "Pay In Blood." You don't get as much biting political and cultural commentary as in old. Or maybe it's just too subtle for me.

9) M. Ward, A Wasteland Companion. Another that grew on me. Not his best, but a smooth spin. Try "Primitive Girl" for a flavor.

10) the Shins, Port of Morrow. These guys are chamber pop pros. "Simple Song" is one of their best.

11) Mumford & Sons, Babel. These guys should be right in my wheelhouse, but they always leave me a bit disappointed. Although they do melancholy banjo-based stadium rock like no one else, they lack a bit in the versatility department. That said, "I Will Wait" is one of the year's best songs, full of longing and hope. As I stumble pants-down into 2013, salvaging scraps and trinkets of glories past, I can relate.

See y'all in Zihuatanejo.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


I'm not sure what's more pathetic--that the filibuster "reform" approved by the Senate is so weak as to almost not even exist (you can only filibuster a bill twice not thrice), or that even the supposedly robust reform plan, the "talking filibuster," seemed so lame and ineffectual. I guess that's today's Senate Democrats. They offer us a shit sandwich and then hope we're not disappointed if they leave out the bread.

Sure would be nice to hear what someone thought who actually knows something about this so-called "Senate."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Jobber the . . . hut, on a DC BikeShare Bike.

To keep the new 2013 momentum up, here's a neighborly post about a neighbor. He lives very nearby, but I won't reveal his exact whereabouts. He's the youngest NYT op-ed columnist in history, and his name rhymes with "hut" (I think). And he's a Republican/conservative . . . .

Anyhoo . . . there's an interesting question here. Why would Jobber the ". . . hut" and his wife and ONE CHILD (God, man, begin to re-populate the Earth!!!) live on/in Capitol Hill? It's one of the leading liberal neighborhoods, and, I think, the most under-rated. There are so many Republican places to live in the greater D.C. area. Reston! McLean! Even parts of Arlington, Alexandria. Falls Church. Heck, even N.W. D.C. (Capitol Hill is mostly N.E. or, shudder, S.E.) (j/k).

Why does Jobber the . . . hut live on Capitol Hill?

Two (non-mutually exclusive) options:

(1) He actually likes a diverse, vibrant, urban environment, with local markets, interesting people. The homogeneity of the (GOP) suburbs is not appealing.

(2) He likes to play the outsider, and where else will he be as much of an outsider than in Capitol Hill, where all his neighbors are LIBERALS, many of whom work for the GOVERNMENT, and the rest for those NGOs.

Vote in the comments, 1, 2, or both. Either way, Jobber the . . . hut is a stain on the undershorts of humankind.

Update: My sources tell me that the . . . hut family may be preggers. To which I say, good for them. But consider carefully entrusting your . . . hut-lings to the TLC of the Catholic clergy/Catholic schools. Buggery and such. This has been well documented. There are actually some decent public schools . . . where you choose to live . . . Maybe join the community? Join the team? Wouldn't that be the conservative thing to do? Wouldn't D. Brooks mention "little platoons" in this context? Burke? Or is it opt out, and play the outsider in a community in which you reside/live/enjoy the benefits but refuse to carry the burden?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Earl Weaver, RIP

Farewell, Earl. I don't have anything really original to say here. Maybe #3 will. So let me just say that I grew up idolizing the guy, who, for me, has always defined what it meant to be a "manager" in the big leagues.

I was born in Charm City to a couple of Oriole fans who took to me to games out at old Memorial Stadium when I was an infant. My dad and I went back for games on a few occasions when I was old enough to appreciate the experience, but long after we had moved to South Carolina, where there weren't a lot of Birds fans. Weaver took over the O's two weeks after I was born and managed them, save his two-year, early-80s hiatus, until I started my freshman year in college. During that time, he had one losing season, his last, in 1986. Oh, and six division titles, five hundred-plus-win seasons, four AL pennants, and one World Series championship, all in a small market town. He seemed so old, but he managed only from age 37 to 56, much younger at retirement than Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, or Tony LaRussa. Thinking back, it's amazing how much I took for granted rooting for a winning team that was also, bizarrely, the perennial David battling the hated Gotham Goliath.

Many of Weaver's ways resonated with me from early on--the pugnacious little guy, the brainy battler who sometimes had more self-righteous confidence than common sense. He was "Moneyball" before Moneyball, Nate Silver before Nate Silver, using stats to challenge the orthodoxies of old school baseball: the bunt, the hit-and-run, the conventional batting order. In junior high, I got obsessed with baseball stats and developed my own set of metrics, in part, I think, because that's how Earl and the O's outsmarted the big guys year after year. Loved that guy. The Orioles never seemed quite the same after he left--at least not until Buck showed up. With all the smoking and yelling, hard to believe he avoided a heart attack until he was 82. I suspect that that heart attack showed up thirty years ago, but Earl flipped his hat backward, kicked dirt on it, tore it a new one, and sent it cowering to the showers until the coast was clear.

May he rage in peace.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why Corporate-Manager Types Need to STFU

This criminally stupid column at the NYT. Josh Marshall at TPM flagged this first, and I read it before reading his commentary, which is pretty close to my reaction as well. The idea that Obama is a "bad manager" because he came into the White House with no executive experience is just wrong. Two reasons: first, he's not a bad manager, and second, he actually does have "executive" experience, primarily as the architect of his own presidential campaigns, which are arguably the two best run in modern history. Of course, that means that all presidents will have at least some executive experience, although some certainly take more active roles than others. My impression is that Obama was always driving that train, much more so than, say, George W. Bush, who was largely a creature of Karl Rove and the GOP corporate-industrial complex. Clinton mostly ran his own campaign too, but that was a rambling wreck if ever there was one. Oh, and Obama also ran the car companies--better than the car companies.

This idea that Obama is "aloof" always leaves me scratching my head. Compared to what or whom? To Bush, who delegated pretty much everything to Rove and Cheney, gave strictly scripted press conferences to hide his cluelessness, and famously ignored PDBs on bin Laden and storm warnings from the Gulf? Or Reagan, he of the "light touch"? Holy cow! Talk about a guy who was disengaged most of the time, probably suffering from some degree of early Alzheimer's for much of his tenure. Sure, Clinton was more engaged, but to the point of frenzy and distraction. I loves me some Bill Clinton, but there's no real question about who runs the tighter and more disciplined ship here--and no question about who has had greater accomplishments in office. Where are the scandals? the grand feuds? the policy disasters?

It would be nice if the author actually had some, say . . . examples!!! Not including gossip, I mean. The whispered grievances about Valerie Jarrett sound like little more than insider sour grapes, the kind you usually hear a lot more about than we've heard to date under BHO. The idea that Obama's team lacks diversity is especially wacky. No modern president has ever had more cross-party nominees in high position, nor better records for women, minorities, etc. The only group I can think of that has a consistent gripe is corporate CEO types, but just a few years after the Bush-Wall Street meltdown, it's hard to say with a straight face that those guys are getting an unfair shake.

Here's my impression of this author: he's the proverbial hammer looking for his nail. His entire think tank shtick is about "management" and so he strings together a bunch of incoherent slams with a conspicuous lack of actual evidence or argument in order to channel the angst of our annoyed corporate class. We get columns like this on a frequent basis in the local paper, some consultant or exec bandying about his superior insight in the least self-aware way possible. It's Mitt Romney ad infinitum. If that guy's such a great manager, how come Bain had a worse investing record batting average than the stimulus? And how come his campaign had such bad message discipline and spent so much more money? And then LOST?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Tomasky's latest in NYRB

Continuing the NYRB theme (one of the few periodicals I still read in paper), Michael Tomasky's latest raises an interesting point.

I'll try and block quote the section I found most thought-provoking.
To think back over Obama’s tenure is to be struck by a paradox that has, I think, little precedent. Obama’s is the most transformational presidency in modern history, but it simply doesn’t feel that way. Recall the famous words he spoke to a Nevada newspaper in January 2008 when he declared that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that…Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Aside from trying to throw then-opponent Hillary Clinton off her stride a bit, Obama clearly meant to be saying that he would be changing history as Reagan did.

His tenure so far hasn’t been much like Reagan’s at all. In large part this is because Reagan’s ascension represented the rise to the very apex of power of a relatively new force, the “movement conservatism” that first sprang to life in the mid-1950s. Before Reagan, that brand of conservatism had been consigned to the barely acceptable fringes of Washington, given voice by a few second-tier legislators (Roman Hruska of Nebraska, for example) and cranky columnists (James J. Kilpatrick). Reagan altered Washington’s chemistry in a vast number of ways, from questions of domestic and foreign policy to seating arrangements in Georgetown society. The many cumulative billions from rich conservatives that helped build conservative think tanks and media outlets such as Fox News started changing the balance of power in Washington as well during Reagan’s term.

Obama has not presided over that kind of political and cultural change, and it’s hard to see how he will. And yet, his record of accomplishments in both the policy and political realms is formidable. He passed near-universal health care and sweeping financial regulation. He ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on military service. He was the first president to endorse same-sex marriage (which I predicted in these pages—wrongly, I’m happy to note—might prove costly at the polls). The night before the election, Rachel Maddow devoted the first ten or so minutes of her MSNBC program to listing Obama’s policy achievements. It was a staggering list.

The political accomplishments are notable as well. Bear in mind that many conservatives (and not a few liberals) believed that 2008 had to be unique, and that Obama’s aberrational triumph was made possible only by a storm of events that conspired to do in the Republicans—the financial meltdown, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, the media’s supposed lionization of Obama, and so on. Surely, conservatives thought, that 2008 coalition was a fluke; America will never reelect a man such as this.

The 2008 coalition, it turned out, was no fluke. If anything, it grew, enabling Obama to become the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to carry more than 50 percent of the vote twice (Bill Clinton didn’t hit 50 either time). Even Karl Rove and Dick Morris will now have to accept that the white vote is aging and shrinking, the white working-class vote is disappearing, and the Latino and African-American voting blocs will both grow steadily. They and their ideological allies will also have to accept what a different country this is from the one they’d wish it to be. When voters in three states pass same-sex marriage referenda, and voters in two other states approve the legal use of recreational marijuana, a cultural switch of some sort has been flipped.

Yet for all that change, the past four years haven’t felt like a change in historical direction. It doesn’t feel like transformation because every single victory has been so hard won, so emotionally exhausting, and in some cases so compromised that it becomes difficult to imagine them as pieces of a vast puzzle that is changing the course of history. The health bill left many liberals unhappy, and Dodd-Frank, say most experts, will not prevent another financial meltdown.

But it could be that this is what transformation often feels like. Perhaps this is what the New Deal felt like; after all, liberals were constantly frustrated with Roosevelt in precisely the same ways today’s liberals wish more from Obama. Shortly into his second term, Roosevelt riled the left by wholeheartedly embracing deficit reduction. Obama has only halfheartedly embraced it, which is progress.

Emphasis mine. I've had this thought myself, a few times. A friend of mine likes to use the frog in boiling water analogy. His politics are much different than mine, but I wonder if that works for both sides. For liberals, the problem (or maybe better, focus) has been what Obama has failed to do. And he's failed on some big issues (civil liberties, most notably).

But when he's won, he has moved the goalposts in significant ways. It's hard to imagine the Congress repealing many aspects of Obamacare. The one very unpopular part, the individual mandate, only exists because without it, the popular parts can't be made to work. I think that the Supreme Court's shaky endorsement of the individual mandate was one of the biggest deals in American public policy in my lifetime.

It's funny, but I think that conservatives get this in a way that liberals do not. For all the hyperbole in the "European socialism" charges, Obama has, in four years, been a transformational leader. I am under no illusions that the next four years will be comparable. Second terms are usually not. (Here I think Reagan is a good comparison. Other than arms control and the 1986 tax reform, the latter of which was largely Hill-driven, his second term was largely a disappointment to conservatives. Indeed, they mostly opposed the arms control, so maybe disappointment is too mild?) But his re-election means that his legacy will be more difficult to un-do. Indeed, Bill O'Reilly may be right (I said that!) that the United States is a different country after the 2012 election.

Anyway, I block quoted the best part, but the whole thing is worth a read. And the current issue has some other solid pieces, too.

This post was edited several times (additions only).

Friday, January 18, 2013

"[N]o mystical energy field controls my destiny[.]"

Reading through the new issue of the NYRB but fixated on this review of a new book by Thomas Nagel, largely on the (intuitive) impossibility of reconciling materialism and consciousness/subjective experience.

As anyone reading this almost certainly knows, I am a materialist of the first order and a non-believer of the uber-first order (that is a thing now). So I found Nagel's non-theistic musings on teleology somewhat perplexing. Just at the level of logic (which may, or may not, actually govern the Universe), how do you have a telos without [an entity] imposing the telos? It's a design without a maker, yes? I can understand theistic teleologies, but this is a design too far!

As for my part, I think that we just don't know enough about how the brain works to say (as Nagel apparently does) that we can never explain my subjective experience of consciousness by way of neurons. Maybe we can't do this, ever. The human brain is very complex, and organic (analog) not silicon (digital). But I have yet to see (remotely compelling) evidence that my subjective consciousness resides outside of the neurons I carry around in my brain-cage (i.e., skull). The decline of that gray matter causes the loss of that subjective experience, memories, etc. So the subjective experience is clearly tied to, if not directly reducible to, with modern neuroscience, brain functions.

To shake me of this, you'll have to show me a ghost. A disembodied consciousness of a formerly embodied mind. Hell, I'm feeling charitable. I'll go for this: A ghost (i.e., mind) that was never, ever in a body. That would do.

And, yes, I just asked to be haunted.

And one more, provocative, point -- that old belief in the resurrection of the body, is that really about resurrection of the brain? Resurrection of the storehouse of memory? Because as we grow older, we find that what we really want isn't to have the body of an 18 year old, but the memories, the brain states that we had at younger points in time?

This post has been updated (additions only).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012)

Post-apocalyptic tale of survival and hope (?). Really an existential meditation on life, with an emphasis on "waiting" for the real life to begin versus living life really, in the here-and-now.

This one was a challenge (I think I started it three times before managing to finish it). It's very "literary" in the sense that the story is not told in a straightforward narrative, but is instead part stream-of-consciousness, with constant flashbacks/memories, at least until the mid-point. As some of the criticism I've read says, it's two books--the first half, about the protagonist Hig's relationship with the survivalist Bangley; the second half about his journey (by airplane) into the unknown, seeking something more. Miraculously, he finds it, but almost loses everything; of course he doesn't, and he manages to even rescue Bangley in the end. In the second half, Hig finds two more survivors, a father and his (adult) daughter, and he and the daughter eventually start a relationship. Although that takes a long time to develop.

Post-apocalyptic, but super flu, not zombies. But as in a zombie story, once civilization collapses, the greatest threat to the survivors is other survivors. Hig, Bangley, and the rest have a number of encounters with "raiders".

Hard to know who would like this one. It's poetic, literary (as I said). But with a science fiction premise. It's a bit like Colson Whitehead's Zone One, the literary zombie apocalypse novel. (I liked Zone One quite a bit, but it's not one that I would recommend to many people.)

 This one could actually make a good movie. There's enough action, but a simple enough plot. Like The Road, but with less cannabalism and airplanes? (Btw, I haven't seen the movie, but I did read the book. Certainly less dark than The Road.)

This was Heller's first novel, even though he's an experienced magazine writer and a published poet. The protagonist is clearly based on Heller's own experiences, to a great extent. Heller must be a pilot, for example, given the detailed exposition about flying a small Cessna. And a fly fisherman.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Voice of Liberal Learning

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately . . . I'm really happy that I did that Ph.D. in political theory, even if isn't something that I "use" in my day-to-day job. Because I'm very happy to have read all those amazing books -- even some of them that I wasn't happy to have been reading at the time. I find that I have few current colleagues who have (really) read Plato, or Locke, or Wittgenstein . . . and most of my colleagues have advanced degrees. I often wonder what it is that they know that I have missed out on. And I'm not sure that I don't "use" my academic training in my day-to-day job. I feel like it informs the way that I look at the world in myriad ways, some of which are elusive, others allusive. For example, I spend some amount of time writing up "best practices" (I will not defend the term, it's the one that mostly other people use). I am often thinking of Aristotle when I am doing this, both in terms of moderation as a wise approach to most things, and in the sense that different kinds of questions can be answered at different levels of specificity. (In my experience, generally not that specifically.) And even when I get in the spirit of "best practices" things, I am in the mindset of Ben Franklin or Machiavelli. Let's draft an aphorism. I am always depressed when one of my (perfect) aphorisms gets swatted down in the review process. But they do. Which reminds me of Camus and Sisyphus and his rock . . . I guess what I'd say is that, no, I'm not endorsing the "Great Books" style curriculum. But I am endorsing it for people like me, even if we end up worrying about things far, far away from any great book. It lends a richness to life that I, for one, am happy to have.