a new low in topical enlightenment

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Issue #118 (October 5, 2011)

Sunrise, San Pedro, California

Photo by Mike Watt

Hard-Timing the Longshoremen
by Chris Woods

Singapore lies some 85 miles above the equator at the crossroads of the world's shipping lanes. I was standing on the weather deck of the newest ship in the navy's Pacific fleet during the first heady rush of globalization. An old breakbulker named SS Cleveland was coming up the ways to Sembawang wharf. It would have been an unremarkable scene but for the American flag on its stern. Bulk ships are rare enough in the era of container shipping but American flagged merchant vessels of any sort are rarer still. It was like watching an Amish horse-and-buggy plod its way through Times Square.

Years later, amid the vapid talk about jobs created or saved, that day in Singapore now carries a certain sense of deja vu. Our befuddled elites appear not to know that many of the unemployed would be quite happy to work on an oil pipeline or a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Careful examination of elite thought in, say, the New York Times or a Whitehouse press briefing reveals their most earnest desire is to create a nation of solar-powered typists. One obvious problem with that is that jobs are not fungible in the way that oil or cash is. Putting more typists on the grid in Cupertino doesn't do much for the guy in Mobile whose rig has sat idle since the BP spill. It doesn't take much to realize that, from the elite perspective, unemployment is not so much the problem as having the right sort of unemployed. If your job can be automated or performed elsewhere in the world, it will. Almost every job in America fits that description and the temptation for politicians to peddle dubious job-saving elixirs has thus far proven too strong to resist. With an election season upon us and unemployment running at roughly throw-the-bums-out levels we can expect a lot of pious nonsense about job-saving and job-creating.

The case study in all this comes in the form of one of the most solemnly protected industries in the history of America: merchant shipping. The canonical telling is Gibson and Donovan's The Abandoned Ocean. The shorter version is: politicians have been fighting for American seafaring jobs for a long time now and they are just about economically irrelevant. Card players have a maxim: if you can't spot the pigeon at the table, it's you. Seafaring is attractive to the sort of American that likes drag racing, revival tents, freak shows, hot rods and punk rock. Our elites can't resist the temptation to reduce persons to the entertainments they consume -- booze, Jesus, or the Blues -- meanwhile making no attempt to understand why.

Not knowing this causes the job measurers in Washington to conflate paychecks with actual work being sought. Persons with paychecks are employed; persons without are unemployed. To some extent they are right. A goodly number of folks are content to while away the hours at the post office so long as the pay and benefits are agreeable. The counter-factual to all this is that America is disproportionately composed of malcontents, Utopians, and hustlers and these have inbred with the enervated, the anxious, and the impatient. This has Darwinian implications starting with the fact that these folks are unlikely to ever earn their living behind a keyboard.

Sometimes you get innovative malcontents like Henry Ford. But the more common form is the restless, rough-edged sort that once populated pool halls and prisons in nearly even proportions. Hunter Thompson tells the story in Hells Angels of the nomadic, Appalachian Linkhorns who drag themselves westward and upward to some notional level of respectability. Or not quite all. Some were ill-suited to the comforts of post-war America and took to riding motorcycles and shunned honest work. Such pugnacity confounds the job measurers, the unseemly resistance to work that isn't hot, sweaty, and dangerous. Denied such work there are other outlets, mostly illegal, but as the job measurers like to point out - good paying. Our job measurers don't know what to do with these folks other than imprisoning them.

It used to be seafaring work could absorb at least some of the demand for hot, sweaty labor but now we lack the ships. U.S. maritime policy has reduced the American merchant fleet to little more than a hobby of the government. Strip away subsidies and protected cargoes and most of the U.S. merchant fleet, among the most aged in the world, would be bound for the ship-breaking beaches of India or Bangladesh. That an elderly breakbulker still plies its trade when nearly everything on the seas moves on box boats in 40 foot containers is a pretty good indicator that the 'fight' for American seafaring jobs is lost. Or maybe it was never about 'saving' jobs at all. A triumvirate of shipowners, labor unions, and bureaucratic functionaries presided over the whole sad mess. Ship owners got what they wanted, the labor unions got what they wanted, and the sailors and longshoremen? They did all right for a while. But in the end they got screwed no matter the good policy intentions. Box boats like the Emma Maersk are often scapegoat, but the container, like the decline of the U.S. flagged fleet, was a product of maritime policies that ineluctably produced the opposite of their intended results.

As the Gordian knot of U.S. maritime policy unravels itself, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey now confronts the necessity of increasing the height of the Bayonne Bridge to allow the newest container ships to reach the docks at Newark and Port Elizabeth which lie beyond it. These are currently the busiest docks on the east coast moving something like 2.7 million containers a year. Counter-proposals to stage containers from other locations using lighters and coastwise feeders in a port where the longshore union receives something like $250 for each container movement are non-starters. It actually is easier and cheaper to elevate an 80 year old bridge and dredge a 50 foot channel through bedrock than to roil the waters of maritime policy and labor. The job measurers do have their work cut out.

There is nothing particular glamorous about life at sea or on the docks. It's hot, sweaty, and dangerous when it isn't cold, damp, and dangerous. Longshoreman are killed and maimed by falling or shifting loads, fall into open hatch covers, strain muscles, suffer hernias, crushed or severed appendages, and the like. Life on ship isn't much different but with a better chance of drowning. Ships like the Cleveland float on, carried by the inertia of a subsidy scheme so baroque as to defy common understanding. American merchant shipping is, more or less, a goner. Mostly it gets put down to the perfidy of capitalism or the treachery of politicians according to the predilections of the observer but really it died in the arms of a loving bureaucracy. Just as well for the job measurers, whose amorous gaze is now fixed upon green energy...

Painting: SS Cleveland; Photo by Mike Watt

(Billboard 2011: Sub-Pop at 20; Trust 2008: SST at 30)

Platinum, Bloody Platinum
Joe Carducci

There still is a Billboard magazine, but somehow its recent cover story on the 20th anniversary of not so much Seattle or grunge or Sub-Pop, but of Geffen Records’ release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, or rather its platinum breakthrough, made me wonder if the dead are now memorializing the living -- they seemed so much more alive than we, after all. It isn’t a very good issue, but the wonder is that the magazine staff managed to cough up any kind of major themed effort. And given there is no current cultural activity that warrants the effort it would have to be part of a celebration of some contrived numeric anniversary of some major copyright property. This may be why the lead names touted on the cover do not include Bruce Pavitt or Jack Endino.

“How we won. What we saw. What we lost.” Sounds like Billboard itself is speaking from the grave. If it really wants to know what we lost they might have observed the thirtieth of SST Records back in ’08 if the recording of Black Flag’s debut 45 is the marker, or this November if the “Damaged” album’s release is the ancient totemic idol. Admittedly Greg Ginn is not the conventional copyright holder to get behind an advertorial trade paper synergy…. Which brings to mind the question, Is this Billboard issue, “The Lessons of Grunge,” the first editorial cover story in years, or just another vanity cover purchased by the grunge industry? Just asking. The issue itself is thicker than usual, tho I can’t say I pick up the issues as I used to.

In the late seventies I looked at Billboard for the singles and album charts, to see whether The Ramones or Television or The Dictators were accomplishing anything in the record stores and radio stations of America. (They mostly stalled in the 90s of the singles chart and 150s of the album chart.) At SST I learned from Greg and Chuck that Billboard was a better bet for a review than Rolling Stone but everybody in the media got the records from SST and ignored them for as long as possible. Luckily, to paraphrase Johnny Rotten, the more rubbish the major labels pumped out the better we looked.

Before I was at SST I was building Systematic out of a Portland record shop. Portland was very small as scenes went and most of its punk traffic was with San Francisco. Still by 1978 both The Wipers and The Neo-boys were really amazing the couple dozen punks and making what waves could be stirred in the city’s various gay, theater, and hippie subcultures. There was a car going up to Seattle for The Wipers first out of town gig and I decided to go up. They opened for D.O.A. and The Lewd, possibly there was a forth band. The Lewd were Seattle’s semi-ambitious punk band and they had their act together but it was pretty derivative as I recall (don’t make me pull out their 45...). D.O.A. were great but didn’t have enough good tunes to stand up to The Wipers set. D.O.A. were from Vancouver which had more going on than the other two Northwest cities. We were already distributing all the records and magazines coming out of the area. Nobody knew nothing, of course, but The Wipers were better than anything else up there though they weren’t really natural scene kids. They were a bit older than their audience and much too paranoid to work closely with us, even though their first single and album only got out of town via Renaissance/Systematic.

Seattle itself seemed to me full of the machinery for a scene but without any content. There were importers and distributors up there, but they didn’t have Eurock, which worked out of Music Millenium in Portland, and they didn’t have Renaissance which we moved to Berkeley at the end of 1979, and they didn’t have a KBOO. In fact, most of the action north of Portland seemed to come out of the OP magazine guys at Evergreen State in Olympia, and the record stores/labels in Vancouver, Friends and Quintessence.

I went down to SST from Systematic and Jello Biafra, visiting SST in West Hollywood in late 1981 told me they were looking for “a Carducci” to run their own label for real. They ended up with one of those Seattle scammers, definitely a down-market knock-off, and he didn’t last long, though Alternative Tentacles did succeed in creating an impressive catalog of releases. By the time SST was a record releasing machine, Bruce Pavitt had moved from Olympia to Seattle and was turning his Sub-Pop fanzine into a label. His dream of a pan-American underground of twee pop was what was buried by grunge. Bruce liked what SST was doing but his reviews in the Rocket (Sub-Pop was a column then) were less enthusiastic the more hardrock the band was. God is a practical joker so He gave Bruce a scene that seemed at first to made up entirely of Saint Vitus fans. I went up to the NW when Black Flag geared up for its “My War” tour by taking the Meat Puppets and Nig-Heist up to Vancouver and back in August 1983. Before Black Flag’s set in Seattle, Greg, Chuck, Bill, Davo, and maybe Henry stepped out on stage before the audience crowding in for a first look at a new post-“Damaged” set of tunes. Mugger played “Holy Diver” by Dio over the PA and they performed a kind of metal-aerobic-karaoke as best they could for laughing. By the time I was back in Chicago I caught Soundgarden at the Cubby Bear and they impressed as they were better than their Sub-Pop and SST releases, and half of them wore Saint Vitus T-shirts.

Probably the weirdest thing about the Seattle breakthrough a couple years later was the Cameron Crowe movie, Singles (1992). Given how much managerial thought and planning went into the Seattle scene, it seemed they almost let an unholy Hollywood-Rolling Stone interloper deface the scene right out of the gate. Crowe had been the teen critic that Jan Wenner used to validate his own burn-out contempt for punk rock. Crowe grew up to marry one of the Wilson girls in Heart. His memoir film, Almost Famous (2000) is a much better film but there he uses a fictional Lester Bangs for his own false validation. Andy Webster reviewed Crowe’s new film, a documentary on Pearl Jam on their own pseudo-20th anniversary, Pearl Jam Twenty (2011), just last week:

“In Almost Famous, Mr. Crowe‘s autobiographical film about being a rolling Stone reporter in the 1970s, the music critic Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a mentor of sorts to the young protagonist, is rendered, accurately, as a writer of animated, penetrating and incisive prose -- a sharp contrast to Mr. Crowe‘s soft features and star-struck interviews. If Pearl Jam Twenty is any indication, his example went unheeded.” (NYT)

This must be the 21st century, because that’s the New York Times telling Rolling Stone how to cover music. According to the Times Book Review, Pearl Jam Twenty also comes as a “frighteningly comprehensive” book.

The Pearl Jam debut was not well produced but it had been fully kraeusened as the guitarist-bassist heart of the band had by then come down together thru Mother Love Bone and Green River and got most of the hard rock, glam and punk out of their systems and reached a low key granola pomp rock that managed to seal the Seattle deal in terms of the record and radio Industries coming as it did directly after Nirvana’s “Nevermind” breakthrough. Pearl Jam tried to live their ideals which were basic art-in-business ethics rather than Nirvana’s lifestyle revolt. The most rocking PJ album is “Mirror Ball” where they back up Neil Young; great album, like a more nimble Crazy Horse, but there’s just something wrong with that if your Pearl Jam.

Also last week in the Times, Ben Ratliff got the short straw and had to go and review the Foo Fighters at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He begins by noting he’s even read an upcoming biography of Mr. Grohl, as if we doubt his dedication or masochism or something. He’s much kinder to post-Nirvana Grohl than need be at this point in late capitalism. It’s a blues because there aren’t many drummers as good as Grohl, but it really ought to be instant hunting season anytime he reaches for a guitar or a microphone. Grohl's unique marketing skeleton-key was giving away his piece of the platinum-selling/no sell-out flame of Nirvana in exchange for Foo Fighters airplay by having his band play as many radio station holiday concerts as humanly possible. The man has music director chits coming out the ass! It’s a form of mutual payola and as we can see it certainly worked. The Foo Fighters are soon to celebrate their own twentieth anniversary, right after the high mass memorial on the twentieth anniv of Kurdt’s suicide. Who would’ve thought a band with no songs could achieve such sub-iconic status in pop history.

Soundgarden is back together again. They had improved as they went along in their first go-round, but they were never natural songwriters so it was all rather learned musical behavior. Chris Cornell doesn’t wear so well as a singer either, though what the Seattle breakthroughs had in their commercial favor back then was the slowing down of punk tempo, the “baritone” singers, and the revival of the long hair look. The market hadn’t been ready for home-made rock music in the garage tradition until this acoustic-aesthetico-historical point was reached.

I’d say that Alice in Chains produced the best of Seattle rock tune back then, “Would?,” and the best one lately, “Check My Brain.” They’ve always managed to bring some amount of droogy psychedelia through contemporary major label heavy metal production processes. Long odds on that.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the Desk of Joe Carducci…

Joseph Menn in FT, "The scary face of Hacktivism".

“The most important split is between the leadership and the rank and file. Gonlag underwent his own change of heart when he watched an administrator in an Anonymous chat channel encourage a minor to download the same software that had led to his weekend behind bars. The old hand told the teenager that he wasn’t in danger because the attack tool would mask his internet address. ‘LOL,’ Gonlag typed in the chat channel, for ‘laughing out loud’. He meant it as a warning born of hard-won experience. But the administrator shot him a private message: ‘Shut the f*** up.’ ‘That showed me they are trying to use kids to do their dirty work,’ Gonlag said. ‘That’s when the tide turned and I left Anonymous.’”


Robert Harris in Daily Mail, "Frankenstein finance".

“The Desertron -- or the superconducting super-collider, to give it its proper scientific title -- was supposed to be America’s answer to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, a gigantic experiment to investigate the most fundamental laws of our universe. With a circumference of 54 miles, it would have been three times as large and powerful.

Unfortunately it would also have been nearly three times as expensive. In October 1993, in order to save projected future costs of $10 billion, the U.S. Congress voted to abandon the whole scheme…. For a whole generation of American academic physicists, that decision wiped out their planned careers. One physicist with a PhD I spoke to when I was researching my new novel, now in his 40s, told me he cried when he heard the news. What was he supposed to do now? He had to earn a living somewhere. His solution, like that of a majority of his colleagues, was to go and work on Wall Street -- in his case, in the giant investment bank Merrill Lynch. The resulting collision of brilliant but unworldly scientists trained to manipulate sub-atomic particles and aggressive financial traders eager to devise new products was to be more spectacularly dangerous than anything that might have been produced beneath the dusty surface of Waxahachie.”


Sam Worley in Chicago Reader, "The last big bang".

“Which is why in July the lab could announce not that it had found the Higgs, but that it had narrowed the scope of where it might be: because the last ten years have been a sort of process of elimination -- of figuring out where it's not. In August, LHC scientists made a similar announcement. ‘What happens,’ says Roser, ‘is after one year of running, you're looking at things that happen once every 10,000 times. After two years of running, one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, right? You keep peeling back the skin of the onion. So what we're looking at now with this kind of data sample is something we didn't have access to three, four, five years ago, because we didn't have the statistical precision to look at it.’ Though work on the detectors' data will continue, scientists at Fermilab are already looking to the LHC, which circles underneath the France-Switzerland border. A remote operations center, just off the lobby of Fermilab's Wilson Hall, allows physicists to monitor real-time data from the LHC's Compact Muon Solenoid detector, on which the United States is a partner.”


Lee Dugatkin at Scientific American from his book, The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics.

“Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term -- progressive evolution -- to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life -- animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia. From the Siberian tundra, Kropotkin's thinking turned to the political implications of mutual aid. The ants and termites, the birds, the fish and the mammals were cooperating in the absence of any formal organizational structure -- that is without any form of ‘government.’ The same was true in the peasant villages, where mutual aid abounded, but a centralized government structure was nowhere to be seen. Kropotkin sensed great similarities with the writings of anarchists, which he had taken to covertly as a teenager. Leave people with complete freedom and autonomy, Peter had read in the anarchist literature, and they will naturally cooperate. In Siberia, Kropotkin had discovered this to be true not only for humans, but for all species that lived in groups. What marked so much in the natural world could surely help in politics and society. ‘I lost in Siberia,’ Kropotkin would write, ‘whatever faith in State discipline I had cherished before: I was prepared to become an anarchist.’”


Alan Wolfe in NYTBR on Robert Bellah’s book, Religion in Human Evolution.

“Despite lengthy discussions of tribal social organization as well as ‘archaic’ societies like ancient Egypt, Religion in Human Evolution is primarily concerned with what, following the philosopher Karl Jaspers, can be called religion’s ‘axial age.’ During the 500 years that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ, four great religious civilizations flourished: ancient Israel, classical Greece, Confucian China and Buddhist India. The fact of their simultaneity is remarkable enough. All four societies also witnessed greater tension between religious and political authority than those that preceded them. Perhaps for this reason, the religions of the axial age promoted philosophical speculation as well as offering spiritual comfort. As a result, they appear to us as surprisingly contemporary. ‘Our cultural world and the great traditions that still in so many ways define us,’ as Bellah points out, ‘all originate in the axial age.’”


Peter Berger in American Interest, "What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God?".

“It is debatable how far his more recent work still continues under a neo-Marxist theoretical umbrella. His views on religion have shifted considerably. Portier distinguishes three phases in Habermas’ treatment of religion. In phase one, lasting up to the early 1980s, he still viewed religion as an ‘alienating reality’, a tool of domination for the powerful. In good Marxist tradition, he thought that religion would eventually disappear, as modern society comes to be based on ‘communicative rationality’ and no longer needs the old irrational illusions. In phase two, roughly 1985-2000, this anti-religious animus is muted. Religion now is seen as unlikely to disappear, because many people (though presumably not Habermas) continue to need its consolations. The public sphere, however, must be exclusively dominated by rationality. Religion must be relegated to private life…. Phase three is more interesting. As of the late 1990s Habermas’ view of religion is more benign. Religion is now seen as having a useful public function, quite apart from its private consolations. The ‘colonization’ of society by ‘turbo-capitalism’ (nice term -- I don’t know if Habermas coined it) has created a cultural crisis and has undermined the solidarity without which democratic rationality cannot function. We are now moving into a ‘post-secular society’, which can make good use of the ‘moral intuition’ that religion still supplies.”


Mati Wagner in Commentary, "The Israeli Left: A Political Obituary".

“The normally good-mannered Haim Oron, the Meretz chairman, blamed Barak for ‘delivering the greatest blow to the left by engraving in the public mind the idea that there is no Palestinian partner.’ In a farewell interview that appeared in Ha’aretz marking the end of his 23-year career in the Knesset, Oron said that Barak ‘pushed the Palestinians into negotiations without preparation, out of a desire to breach the abyss in two hasty steps -- which was impossible at the time. He then declared that there is no one to talk to, and since then his motto has been ‘If I didn’t succeed, then no one will.’ Thus for Gaon and Oron and others like them, the Palestinian turn to terror didn’t destroy the peace process. Barak’s ‘spin’ did -- because it pushed Palestinians into a corner and left them no choice but to launch waves of suicide bombings and terrorists attacks.”


Peter Bruns at Europenews.dk, "Islam - A (Jewish-) Christian Sect? (Part I)".

“‘Mohammedanism is a rigid system which firmly encloses the whole of life. The Bible, on the other hand, has borne the fearsome impact of historical criticism and was able to survive it because it already carries relativism within itself in the relationship of its two parts and because the New Testament has the difference between the word of God and the word of the apostles. Islam cannot withstand the impact -- at least it is not foreseeable how that could succeed. It is based not just on Allah, but also on Mohammed, who is 'the book,' namely the Koran, filled with fables and inferiorities.’ [I assume the author is using a formula similar to ‘And the Word was with God, and God was the Word.’ That is, the Koran does not exist outside of Mohammed.] Such a blow, in Harnack's sense of shaking the philosophical structure of Islam, was delivered some time ago by the Erlangen orientalist Günter Lüling and [an independent scholar] writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg, who caused some upset recently in Islam scholarly circles. Since both authors dealt explicitly with the pre-Islamic Christianity of the Arabian peninsula, in this case, the judgment of the Syrologist and church historian is also called for.”


Mansura Eseddin at Qantara.de, "A Second Revolt for Sheherazade’s Daughters".

“In the Arabian Nights, King Shahryar kills a woman every night in a delirium of vengefulness – until Sheherazade comes and saves herself and her fellow-sufferers with the weapon of storytelling. Beautiful and exceedingly well-read, she enmeshes the king of kings in quips and seduces him with the power of knowledge. The charm of her tales overcomes death and chases away his ghouls. But for all their artistry and allure, the Arabian Nights are clearly marked with expressions of hatred for women. And they teach us a fundamental lesson: Knowledge liberates!”


Raymond Ibrahim at Meforum.org, "Running for Their Lives".

“As professor Habib Malik confirms, ‘It is principally the violence visited sporadically upon these Christian communities in their native towns and villages across the Middle East, and the absence of any reliable means of protection in a region seething with religious fanaticism and despotic forms of rule, which impels Christians to flee and not return’ (Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East, pgs. 36-37).

But it's more than this; in fact, we are witnessing another manifestation of history -- witnessing firsthand how formerly non-Muslim lands become Muslim. For just as conversion to Islam (out of force, out of necessity, out of cynicism) and the outright killing of non-Muslims saw the ranks of Islam grow, so too does emigration fit in this same paradigm of Islamization.”


"Foto do Dia", Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press


Fernando Lujan in NYT, "This War Can Still Be Won".

“The Taliban are not standing idly by. Pushed out of many of their strongholds, they have shifted tactics, focusing on high-profile attacks on softer (usually civilian) targets. But we fail to see the subtleties at home. In May, after one such attack in Kandahar, I joined some Afghan officers watching the local news coverage, expecting looped footage of explosions and chaos. We were all surprised to see four small children, their faces blurred, in an impromptu news conference. They recounted how the Taliban had given them candy and persuaded them to don suicide bomber vests by promising that they wouldn’t die and that their impoverished families would be provided for. Regardless of their political views, all Afghans regard children as off limits. That night, watching the children tell how they were recruited, the Afghan captain at my side, a tough Pashtun named Mahmoud, shrugged and said in Dari, ‘They’re getting desperate.’”


Kathrin Hille in FT, "China warns against curbing its rise".

“‘Certain countries think as long as they can balance China with the help of US military power, they are free to do whatever they want,’ said the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, on Wednesday. The editorial came just a day after Japan and the Philippines pledged to boost maritime security ties and called for the protection of freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea, the resource-rich area that is home to vital sea lanes to all of east Asia but also subject to territorial disputes involving China.”


Tom Wright & Jeremy Page in WSJ, "China Pullout Deals Blow to Pakistan".

“An official at China Kingho Group, one of China's largest private coal miners, said on Thursday it had backed out in August from a $19 billion deal in southern Sindh province because of concerns for its personnel after recent bombings in Pakistan's major cities. Zubair Motiwala, chairman of the Sindh Board of Investment, acknowledged the cancellation of plans to build a coal mine, power and chemical plants over 20 years. But he said he was hopeful Kingho would reconsider. Pakistan began playing up its friendship with China after the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May sent relations between Islamabad and Washington into a tailspin. But China's response has been lukewarm so far, suggesting that Islamabad may remain dependent on billions of dollars in military and civilian aid from Washington for some time to come.”


WSJ: "Myanmar Halts China Dam".

“The move is also a snub to China, which is widely seen as Myanmar's most important patron but whose investments in the country are increasingly unpopular. President Thein Sein said in a note read in Myanmar's Parliament that the project is against the will of the people. He stated that work at the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project -- affecting the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state -- should halt for the duration of his term, at least until 2015. The note amounts to a notice of suspension because of the government’s overwhelming majority in the legislature. The move is the latest in a flurry of government actions in recent weeks that some analysts and residents believe signal major reforms under way in the resource-rich Southeast Asian nation, which languished for decades under harsh military rule.”


John Bussey in WSJ, "China Venture Is Good for GE but Is It Good for U.S.?".

“If Mr. Immelt's response seems a bit edgy, it's probably because I raised a topic that has much of U.S. business on edge too: How to compete in China without giving away the store. And specific to General Electric: What's to keep GE's new avionics joint venture with China from transferring the best of U.S. technology abroad, empowering a new set of Chinese companies to challenge U.S. aircraft makers. China watchers are anxious about this venture. Avionics -- the ‘brains’ guiding navigation, communications and other operations on an airplane -- are at the pinnacle of American know-how, where the U.S. is still highly competitive. It’s also technology the Chinese military covets.”


Christopher Caldwell in FT, "Putin and his timely lessons for western democrats".

“Even many of those who dislike Mr Putin believe he saved the country from the dismemberment and servility that the west had planned for it. ‘Putin is more liberal in his views than 80 per cent of the Russian population’, the Russian novelist Victor Erofeyev wrote this week. ‘The liberal resources of Russia are laughably small and get smaller all the time.’ These resources are getting smaller because the engine that generates them, western prosperity and prestige, is functioning poorly. Distrust of democratic capitalism tends to happen not when people get mean or impatient, but when democratic capitalism produces lousy results.”


Charles Clover in FT, "Out of the shadows".

“In a country where resignations and reshuffles are usually choreographed with care, Mr Kudrin’s abrupt departure was already the second political scandal to erupt in a month. On September 15, Right Cause -- a pro-Kremlin party of economic liberals and democrats aimed at emerging middle-class voters -- self-destructed after Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest man in Russia and the party’s leader, was expelled in a furious public row…. However, the ensuing scandal made it clear that patience with such managed democracy is running out.”


Tony Barber in FT, "Why Italy is short of statesmen but long on scoundrels".

“The politician most emblematic of this era is sometimes said to be Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister on seven occasions between 1972 and 1992, and whose dark Machiavellian arts earned him the unflattering nickname ‘Beelzebub’…. Yet perhaps the man whose political activities best define the postwar age is Massimiliano Cencelli, a middle-ranking Christian Democrat. Had it not been for a brainwave that struck him in 1967, Mr Cencelli might have languished in well-deserved obscurity. But Italy’s postwar political system had come to be characterised by a spoils system that shared out power and perks among the Christian Democrats and their allies like chocolate bars among school prefects. With the Christian Democrats divided into factions, Mr Cencelli set himself the task of devising a precise mathematical formula for allocating the spoils. The resulting ‘Cencelli manual’ was a work of awesome, not to say gruesome, genius. It calculated the number of ministerial posts to which each Christian Democrat faction was entitled by multiplying the faction’s strength in the party in percentage terms by the number of ministries available and then dividing by 100. So if a faction represented 12 per cent of the party, and there were 22 ministries to fill, the faction was entitled to 2.64 ministers – a figure that was then rounded up to three. If a faction lost out by being rounded down, it could always be compensated with an extra junior ministerial post or two.”


John Kay in FT, "Dickens, Mrs Duffy and a major dilemma for the left".

“The Conservative dilemma reflects the party‘s long-standing coalition between Burkean conservatives, who value tradition and consensus, and economic liberals, radical and confrontational…. Labour’s dilemma is more recent. Intellectuals of the moderate left seized on the Rawlsian approach. It resonated with a new language of rights -- human and economic -- which provided an alternative discourse to the tired categories of Marxism. But the electorate mostly does not know that communitarianism is no longer in intellectual fasion. Few votes were ever much interested in the old rhetoric of socialsim, and they have equally little interest in the new rhetoric of rights. Support for social security is based not on recognition of claims to entitlement but on considerations of solidarity, sympathy and desert -- where but for the grace of God go I. With Charles Dickens they laugh at Mrs Jellyby, who loved humanity rather than people.”


Algis Valiunas in National Affairs, "Business and the Literati".

“Right-thinking people now take it for granted that, in criticizing business, American literature has saved (or at least elevated) the nation's soul. But after a century of slander, that assumption needs revisiting. In so doing, it is worth examining the process through which our literati have framed the way we think about capitalism, and especially those who practice it. How did our culture come to hold the image of the businessman that it now does? Which literary works and authors have had done the most to shape that (mostly negative) image? And in this casting of the entrepreneur as villain in America's morality tale, which culture has been exposed as more corrupt -- that of American business, or American letters?”


Ira Stoll in Reason, "Solyndra and the GOP".

“In other words, rather than simply attacking the Democrats for shoveling taxpayer money into a solar energy company that eventually failed, the Republicans might ask themselves how so many of their own former public servants wound up on the company’s payroll, and why so many of their own senators and President Bush backed the law that created the loan guarantee program. No one has accused the Republicans named above of any wrongdoing in this Solyndra situation, which has featured reports of FBI raids and company officials taking advantage of their Fifth Amendment rights. But as so often in Washington, Kinsley’s Law applies -- the scandal in Washington is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal.”


William McGurn in WSJ, "Solyndra and a Billionaire’s Guilt Trip".

“As Mr. Kaiser appreciates, an oil man who denounces fossil fuels will be lionized even as he continues to make millions off them, in the same way that a billionaire such as Warren Buffet earns praise for calling for higher taxes. But if you are a businessman such as David and Charles Koch, and you use your wealth to try to preserve the economic freedom you believe will help others move up the ladder, you will soon find yourself branded as an enemy of the people. ‘We’re all familiar with the greedy businessman who pushes taxpayer subsidies to enrich himself,’ says Scott Walter, a former domestic policy adviser in the Bush administration who now writes for Philanthropy-Daily.com, ‘Solyndra tells us we might want to start paying more attention to the businessman who’s already rich -- but seeks to salve a guilty conscience by putting taxpayers on the hook for his pet causes.”


Natalie Angier in NYT, "The Pathological Altruist Gives Till Someone Hurts".

“Indeed, the study of altruism, generosity and other affiliative behaviors has lately been quite fashionable in academia, partly as a counterweight to the harsher, selfish-gene renderings of Darwinism, and partly on the financing bounty of organizations like the John Templeton Foundation. Many researchers point out that human beings are a spectacularly cooperative species, far surpassing other animals in the willingness to work closely and amicably with non-kin. Our altruistic impulse, they say, is no mere crown jewel of humanity; it is the bedrock on which we stand. Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. ‘I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,’ she said. ‘I’m looking at it as an engineer.’ And by the first rule of engineering, she said, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.’ If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.”


Tony Jackson in FT, "Kodak fell victim to disruptive technology".

“Properly defined, a disruptive technology is cheaper than the existing version and initially not as good. For established players, this poses an acute cultural problem. They got where they are by giving their customers what they wanted at the highest practicable quality. Faced with a cheap and dirty alternative, they may address the challenge, but it goes against the grain to devote resources to it.”


Andrew Ferguson in Weekly Standard, "Jackie Oh No".

“In the normal course of the apparat’s work, elevating the Kennedys requires the denigration of the Eisenhowers, the 1950s, and the supposed dullness of the country that the Kennedys rescued us from -- ‘our country of suburbs and Ozzie and Harriet, poodle skirts and one kind of cheese,’ as Diane Sawyer oddly put it, while the screen showed a golden brick of Velveeta…. In our middle-class nation, it wasn’t easy for us to fathom this first lady.’ …While on the screen those sumptuous Kennedy images swim by, you can hear the protective tone in the voices of the apparat. ‘She helped America come of age,’ Beschloss said. ‘She finds her voice,’ Diane Sawyer continued. ‘And she arguably changes history, global history, for America in the way she deals with foreign leaders because she’s a very effective [advocate] of a very different kind of politics. And she gets it done.’ Thank heavens for that word ‘arguably,’ for without it Diane Sawyer’s statement would be thought self-evidently absurd by -- well, by anyone who knows anything about anything…. The tapes make clear that Mrs. Kennedy’s politics were of the old kind. She boasts that she gets all of her political opinions from her husband. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ she asks. He was the professional politician, not her. ‘His opinions were the best.’ She’s annoyed at women who assert themselves in the world of politics, like Madame Nhu in South Vietnam or Clare Boothe Luce closer to home. ‘Why are these women like her and Clare Luce, who both obviously are attractive to men, why are they -- why do they have this queer thing for power?’ And then, whispering to Schlesinger, she answers her own question: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they were lesbians.’”


Steven Horwitz at Cato.org, "Herbert Hoover - Father of the New Deal".

“The critics of laissez faire are right about one thing: Herbert Hoover deserves a good deal of blame for turning what would have most likely been a steep but short recession into a much deeper and eventually much longer Great Depression. Everything else about Hoover, however, they have wrong. The version of Hoover presented in the media’s narrative of Hoover as champion of laissez faire bears little resemblance to the details of Hoover’s life, the ideas he held, and the policies he adopted as president. In fact, Hoover rejected laissez faire early in his life and much of his career was spent working in government and using the state to solve social problems, including reducing unemployment during recessions. When faced with an economic crisis only months into his presidency, his actions were completely consistent with his well-established views: he expanded the role of government significantly in order to fight the Depression. He would be more accurately portrayed as the father of the New Deal, not its enemy. The result, unfortunately (but not surprisingly),was to fan the flames rather than successfully fighting the fire.

Dismantling the mythical presentation of Hoover as a “do-nothing” president is crucial if we wish to have a proper understanding of what did and did not work in the Great Depression so that we do not repeat Hoover’s mistakes today.”


George Will at Indianapolis Star, "Federalism, coerced".

“Ohio Sen. Robert Taft (1889-1953) was ‘Mr. Republican,’ revered by conservatives chafing under the domination of the GOP by Eastern money that preferred moderates such as New York Gov. Tom Dewey, the GOP's 1944 and 1948 presidential nominee. In ‘The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party,’ Michael Bowen, historian at Pennsylvania's Westminster College, recounts how Taft leavened his small-government orthodoxy with deviations, including federal aid to primary and secondary education. In the 79th Congress (1945-47), Taft sponsored legislation to provide such education more than $8 billion over 25 years. The sum was huge (the 1947 federal budget was $34.5 billion), and the 25-year horizon said federal intervention would not be temporary. Taft drafted his bill with help from the National Education Association (NEA), the teachers union which today is an appendage of the Democratic Party, except when the relationship is the other way around. Bowen says Taft's bill ‘included provisions to guarantee that states would not cede control of their educational systems to federal authorities.’ Guarantee? Today we are wiser.”


Stephen Moore in WSJ interviews "Harold Hamm".

“Mr. Hamm's rags to riches success is the quintessential ‘only in America’ story. He was the last of 13 kids, growing up in rural Oklahoma ‘the son of sharecroppers who never owned land.’ He didn't have money to go to college, so as a teenager he went to work in the oil fields and developed a passion. ‘I always wanted to find oil. It was always an irresistible calling.’ He became a wildcat driller and his success rate became legendary in the industry. ‘People started to say I have ESP,’ he remarks. ‘I was fortunate, I guess. Next year it will be 45 years in the business.’ Mr. Hamm ranks 33rd on the Forbes wealth list for America, but given the massive amount of oil that he owns, much still in the ground, and the dizzying growth of Continental's output and profits (up 34% last year alone), his wealth could rise above $20 billion and he could soon be rubbing elbows with the likes of Warren Buffett. His only beef these days is with Washington. Mr. Hamm was invited to the White House for a ‘giving summit’ with wealthy Americans who have pledged to donate at least half their wealth to charity…. ‘Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, they were all there,’ he recalls. When it was Mr. Hamm's turn to talk briefly with President Obama, ‘I told him of the revolution in the oil and gas industry and how we have the capacity to produce enough oil to enable America to replace OPEC. I wanted to make sure he knew about this.’ The president's reaction? ‘He turned to me and said, 'Oil and gas will be important for the next few years. But we need to go on to green and alternative energy. [Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu has assured me that within five years, we can have a battery developed that will make a car with the equivalent of 130 miles per gallon.'’ Mr. Hamm holds his head in his hands and says, ‘Even if you believed that, why would you want to stop oil and gas development? It was pretty disappointing.’”


Jeremy Pelzer in Casper Star-Tribune, "Rock Springs: Holes in its Heart".

“A big part of the problem, though, is that officials don’t have a clear picture of where all the underground mine shafts are under the city. To avoid paying more in taxes, mine owners would often underreport how long their shafts extended, so official maps often aren’t reliable. About the only way to discover if a dangerous mine shaft is underneath an area is to drill down to find out. AML contractors will be doing just that in downtown Rock Springs for 30 days starting Monday. In the mid-2000s, another idea for a solution was hit upon: Pound the ground with massive weights to cave in the shafts underneath.

But when that process, called dynamic compaction, was tried in the summer of 2007 on a 61-acre plot of land in southwestern Rock Springs, it created new problems that endure today. For more than two weeks, workers repeatedly slammed 25- and 35-ton weights against the ground. Nearby residents in the Tree Street neighborhood claim that nearly 20 homes in the area were damaged -- not only because of the vibrations of the weights, but also also because it destabilized voids under their houses, causing subsidence issues in an area that previously hadn’t seen any such problems.”


Emily Owens in NYT, "The (Not So) Roaring ’20s".

“At first glance, the numbers do seem to support the conventional wisdom. According to Census mortality statistics, the national homicide rate jumped 40 percent under Prohibition; after it was repealed in 1933, murder rates plummeted. It’s only natural to conclude that criminalizing the market for alcohol caused a huge increase in crime.

But there are three major holes in this conclusion. For one thing, the Census data on homicides is not actually from a complete census. In 1900, the Census counted deaths only in New England, Indiana and Michigan. New states were added almost every year until 1931. The states that were added later, like Nevada and Texas, tended to have higher homicide rates than states added earlier. In other words, part of that 40 percent increase in the “national” rate is due to the inclusion of more violent states in the statistics, not an actual increase in murders. Furthermore, Prohibition wasn’t a sudden thing. The 1919 passage of the 18th Amendment culminated a 70-year movement that had gradually shut down liquor sales nationwide. By the time the federal government got involved, it was already illegal to sell alcohol in 32 states, home to roughly a quarter of the population covered by the Census. Nor did repeal make all states go “wet”: it remained illegal to buy or sell alcohol in some states for years -- Mississippi did not legalize it until 1966.”


Michael Miner in Reader, "Bob Katzman’s Magazine Museum".

“Now, Katzman tells me, everything's even worse. He shut down the Morton Grove store two years ago, ‘tried to find work, learned I was essentially unemployable, was offered a smaller cheaper space [in Skokie], and in despair’ reopened there 20 months ago. ‘I have yet to draw a paycheck.’ His e-mails appealed to ancient bonds: ‘A very unusual relationship between two semi anti-establishment organizations, I've always felt. Your alternative newspaper, my alternative enterprises. While I wish your company continued success, I know this is my last act. Our histories are intertwined in the best possible way.’

Ancient journalism evokes vanished eras every bit as pungently as ancient art or music does, and Katzman's Magazine Museum on Oakton in Skokie teems with it. But Katzman says there's never much foot traffic on Oakton and people rarely come in. As Skokie sees it, that's true and Katzman is part of the problem. Under a program called ‘Skokie Reinvented,’ the village sent visual merchandiser Lori Ann Gum over to the Magazine Museum this year to shape it up. Gum thought the front window was a horror.”


John Gilmore on Darby Crash, James Dean, Steve McQueen etc., at Vice.com.

“Let’s talk about Jack Nicholson. When I first interviewed you years ago, you told me that he was the last guy you ever expected to make it. How do you think he succeeded against the odds?

Opportunity. Jack did anything [to get ahead]. In the 60s, when New York actors were coming to Hollywood, for them it was like going to the dump or something. Jack was from here. This was his home ground, and if they turned their nose up at [Roger] Corman parts, he’d go do them instead. Casting people aren’t going to hire anybody that doesn’t have any film work behind them, so Jack did a lot of stuff and his name got around. He was part of a little group with Warren Oates; Jack just wormed his way in somehow.

He had a strong woman behind him, too.

He was married to [actress] Sandra Knight for a long time, and she would help steer him. But it was strange, he never introduced her at all. He was falling-down drunk one time on Melrose, and Wild Bill Elliott and I took him home to her little house by Gardner. We laid him in the front yard because he wouldn’t move. I went and knocked on the door, and she came out. That was the only time I ever had an interaction with her. Actually, it’s not strange; it’s how people live their lives out here.”


Jeff Pearlman in Sports Illustrated, "Walter Payton - The Hero No One Knew".

“On April 12, 1999, former Bears fullback Matt Suhey picked up his old teammate in his Mercedes 430 and drove him to Wrigley Field. It was the day of the Cubs' 97th home opener, and Walter Payton was scheduled to throw out the first pitch. On the way to the park, Payton turned to Suhey. ‘Maybe I'll do this again next year,’ he said, ‘when I nip this thing.’ There was nothing for Suhey to say. When the prognosis was still in doubt, he could laugh as Payton cracked lines like, ‘This is gonna be another Brian's Song -- only here the brother dies in the end.’ By this point, though, Suhey was well aware that, for all the hope and prayer and optimism, his friend was dying. ‘The cancer was severe,’ Suhey says. ‘His odds were not good.’ Five months earlier, when he first learned of Payton's illness, Suhey dedicated himself to being by his side as much as possible. Though the two had been friends through the years, they were not extremely close. They spoke every so often, partnered in some business deals, traded holiday cards. When Payton became ill, however, something in Suhey changed. He had blocked for his friend for eight years, and now he needed to block once again. ‘Matt was loyal to Walter,’ said Mike Lanigan, their friend and business partner. ‘Fiercely loyal.’ Suhey accompanied Payton to the Mayo Clinic, where Payton was undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatments. He still cringes at the memory of Payton's suffering. ‘For a guy who could take so much pain on the football field, this was a real test,’ Suhey says. ‘I've never seen anything like it. Just nightmarish.’”


Thanks to Mike Vann Gray, John P., Steve Beeho, Jay Babcock.

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
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  1. Thanks for the tip on current Alice in Chains. That's a great riff!

  2. Great piece on Billboard, grunge, et al, Joe. I put up a little thing here: http://theworldsamess.blogspot.com/2011/10/guess-what-corporate-rock-still-sucks.html. Hope I can send some traffic your way.