Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Alberto No Mo

The Tribune hits the bulls-eye with its editorial this morning regarding the end of our long national nightmare -- otherwise known as the Alberto Gonzalez years.
But Gonzales was less the cause of the problem than a symptom of a deeper ill: the administration's unwillingness to recognize that the attorney general has to put the interests of the citizenry above the interests of his president or party. To politicize law enforcement is to risk forfeiting the public's basic faith in our system of government, by suggesting that prosecutions are just a matter of who's got power.
I imagine the President and his minions must understand how thoroughly cynical all of these political actions look to the public. I suspect that it's part of the purpose. Encouraging cynicism regarding government only serves their ends, even as they nuzzle up to rip off the treasury while it still has something left to give them.

The only thing that would be more thoroughly cynical than what has happened so far is if the timing of this resignation was all based on allowing the President to make a recess appointment of another toady who would never be able to get Senate confirmation.

Anyone want to bet against that?

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Year Of Netflix

I recently passed the year anniversary of having a Netflix subscription. Using their handy rental history I can see that I've rented 72 titles, starting with Bottle Rocket and ending with the two I have out now (and haven't watched yet), Badlands and The Bourne Supremacy (need to see that before seeing the new one). Included in that, though, is three seasons worth of "The Wire," which appears to have taken at least of couple of months to go through (but worth every second, of course).

Probably a good 80% of these were watched while running on the treadmill, so I have to thank Netflix for making it possible to keep up with the schedule because man, that can get really boring.

Anyway, it seemed like a good time to make a list -- is there ever not a good time to make a list? -- of the Top Ten movies I've rented from Netflix in the last year.

Of course, right off the bat the Top Ten list has to go to eleven. Just because. Of these eleven, six were movies I'd never seen before at all. I'd seen at least parts of the other five, but hadn't actually watched any of them through in their entirety for awhile. Maybe never.

Anyway, since five of the movies on this list were American movies from the era between 1967 and 1975 I can definitely say that this was a golden age for movies as I'm concerned. It's common wisdom that the one-two punch of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977 changed the way American movies were made and marketed, and that seems to have become a truism for a very good reason. It's true.

So, in alphabetical order.

Blow Up (1966) - As this post makes clear, I have a timeless fascination with the era when "London swing like a pendulum do." This movie captured the feel of the era like nothing else -- so iconically that it was thoroughly ripe for the tender satire that Mike Myers gave it in Austin Powers. David Hemmings is cool as a cucumber, Vanessa Redgrave is young and shirtless, and the birds are brilliant. Not really typical of the recently passed Antonioni, but interesting in every way.

Bonnie And Clyde (1967) - The movie (along with another one on this list) that kicked-off the golden age of American movies. The Faye Dunaway of this era may well be the most oddly beautiful movie star ever. But beautiful, really? Probably not, but dead sexy? Jeez yes. The level of violence seems tame today, but at the time it was seriously controversial and you can see why because it's not so much the graphic nature of the violence as it is the sensuousness of it -- particularly in the iconic final scene of slow motion mayhem.

Children Of Men (2006) - It's another truism that the best fiction about the future uses the setting as a mere trope to tell the audience about something timeless. Such is the case with Alfonso Cuaron's tale of hope in the midst of death, devastation and destruction. The tracking shot of Clive Owen leading Kee and the world's only infant through the sudden truce of solemn silence is just brilliant. Equally brilliant is the scene using "In The Court Of The Crimson King," one of the most cinematic numbers in rock history.

The Conversation (1974) - One that I had seen before, albeit quite a while ago. This is the movie that Coppola made between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II -- only two of the half-dozen best movies ever made. Think about that for a second. It's impossible to imagine a better series of three movies having ever been made. The movie equivalent of Talking Heads' triple-play from "More Songs" to "Remain In Light." Gene Hackman is pure paranoia as he completely misunderstands the nature and the scope of the conspiracy he has stumbled into.

The Graduate (1967) - Along with Bonnie And Clyde, the movie that kicked off the golden age. While the movie gave Dustin Hoffman's career a kick start, Anne Bancroft is the real revelation in re-watching this one. While it's notable that she was only six years older than Hoffman (she was 36, he was 30 at the time), what is even more notable is just how incredibly hot she was in this role as a sex-starved suburban mother. She absolutely sizzles. But at the same time, she never loses the pain and vulnerability that is also so central to the character.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) - If anyone had a stretch equal to Coppola's during this time, it might have been Robert Altman. Between this one, M*A*S*H and Nashville, Altman had a hell of a run as well. Warren Beatty plays the role he seems destined to always play, a mostly good-natured, thoroughly befuddled and utterly star-crossed striver. In this case, John McCabe fails to realize when the deck is stacked against him, pushes his luck just a bit too far, and winds up paying the ultimate price. And Julie Christie? I guess that it's possible that there has been a more luminously beautiful actress in the past few decades, but the name is slow to come to mind.

Pan's Labrynth (2006) - Guillermo del Toro's bookend to his buddy Cuaron's. A fantasy set in the past rather than the future, but equally conversant in both fears and hopes. Rightly known for the terrific art direction, set design and costumes, it is the fairy tale story set amidst the harsh realities of the last days of the Spanish Civil War that makes this movie so lastingly memorable. That combination of shining illusion and harsh reality holds right up until the last heartbreaking scene of the movie.

Shampoo (1975) - Take John McCabe, move him forward a century in time, and you've got George Roundy. A simple (simple-minded?) man with no mind for business and a bod for sin. Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn are nothing short of ravishing -- big surprise there, huh? Julie in a backless evening gown could only be matched by Goldie in a lamé micro-mini-skirt. And Lee Grant's turn as Jack Warden's disaffected wife is truly amazing. Hard to believe in this day and age, but there was a time when movies could be made that had three real-life female characters in them. A movie that loves women almost as much as its main character.

Trainspotting (1996) - The only movie on this list that I'd watched within the past couple of years. A movie filled with some of the most reprehensible characters you could ever not take your eyes off of. Has there ever been a more screamingly psychotic character than Begby? Claims that it glorifies heroin use couldn't be further off the mark. There is literally almost nothing that these guys do that you would want to have any part in -- apart from jumping into a cab back to Kelly Macdonald's place.

24 Hour Party People (2002) - Tony Wilson, R.I.P. Between this, Tristram Shandy, Alan Partridge and the ridiculously hilarious Saxondale, Steve Coogan fits easily into the pantheon of funniest Brits ever. Mancunian magic is in the air in this two-part tale of Joy Division and Happy Mondays and everything in between. Great music (obvs), but great acting as well. Sean Harris inhabits Ian Curtis to a degree that is downright spooky. Every taut, twitching fiber in place.

The Kids Are Alright (1979) - The Who at Woodstock was almost certainly the coolest that any rock band has ever been. Just the embodiment of what that word has ever meant. And it's very difficult to ever imagine Keith Moon making it to the age that Townshend and Daltrey are now -- his star was just that incandescent. The first (and only?) lead drummer. I don't know if anyone else was ever capable of playing the drums that way, I only know that no one ever has.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Funny Comedy Jokes

Sooooo sweet (via You Aint No Picasso)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Music Biz: 2007, Part 2

Robert Sandall, in The Prospect, gives a great British perspective on the sea changes going on in the music business these days.

From a macro level, the value of the typical "music company" has both completely shifted internally, while taking a nose-dive overall.
This decline in fortunes has been noticed in the financial markets: EMI is being bought up by private equity group Terra Firma, for £3.2bn.

Almost as soon as the offer was accepted, Terra Firma were reported to be in discussions with Warner to offload EMI's recorded music division. The side of EMI that interested Terra Firma was its song publishing arm, the world's largest and a profitable performer. It is regarded as a safer bet because the exploitation of song copyrights is not subject to the same feasts and famines as the hitmaking process. As well as receiving around 14 per cent of the profit on any CD sale, the publisher has its fingers in other pies, such as licensing fees for films, adverts or any of the other myriad outlets which now employ music. Once upon a time, EMI's publishing arm accounted for about a third of the market value of the whole group. Now it's the only part that's worth anything to the people who venture their capital. It is no coincidence that Terra Firma's offer valued EMI at about a third, in real terms, of what it nearly fetched ten years ago when a sale to its competitor Universal was mooted.
In other words, the only real value of a music company is in the rights to license its music to commercials. Selling the music to consumers is a complete non-starter. Incredible.

And online music sales, the Great White Hope of the industry? Say hello to Jack Johnson's right fist.
The market for digital downloads was worth around $981m in the US last year, around a tenth of the value of the CD market. Yet the labels' great hope is that the slump in demand for physical formats will be offset by growth in the download market. This looks wildly optimistic. The latest figures from the US reveal that while paid-for downloads are increasingly popular—up 74 per cent in 2006 on the previous year—the surge in demand is slowing. And while the total value of music sales across all formats remained more or less static in 2004 and 2005, it declined by more than 6 per cent in 2006. The trade body of the American record industry, the RIAA, optimistically predicts that by 2011, the global online music market will be worth $6.6bn; three times what it currently amounts to. This situation will, as the RIAA delicately puts it, "leave the industry better positioned to offset physical sales."

Yet however it finds itself in 2011, the underlying truth is that recorded music, on or offline, has moved from being a high-margin, "high-end" product to a low-margin, low-prestige commodity.
The upshot? It really is a simple matter of Economics 101. What is cheap and what is dear. As Sandall points out, the development of the CD in the early 1980s was actually the first step on the road to where we are now -- awash in a sea of recorded music availability (both legally and illegally obtained).

If you can quickly and easily access most of a band's recorded catalog at a reasonable price (often zero), then it -- and any structures built around it -- becomes cheap.

What becomes dear is what cannot be quickly and easily accessed, and that is seeing the band live.
It is difficult to prove that the rising popularity and price of live music has been directly affected by the superfluity and cheapness of the recorded stuff. But it seems more than a coincidence that just as fans are spending less on the tunes they listen to at home, they will pay unprecedented sums to hear them in concert. Ticket prices, especially for A-list artists, have soared.

Back in the 1980s, a seat at a concert by a superstar cost about the same as one CD album. By contrast, last summer you could have bought Madonna's entire catalogue for less than half of what it cost to see her perform at Wembley Arena. ... Ticket inflation with smaller bands is less intense. But even a relative unknown like the American singer-songwriter Laura Veirs charged £15 for her London show at Bush Hall this July. More telling is the ubiquitous presence of touts outside low-key venues where no secondary market for tickets existed ten years ago.

Attendance at arena rock shows grew by 11 per cent in Britain last year, and looks set to rise again in 2007. The bigger the concerts, the more we seem to like them. Hence the explosion in the festival trade. In 2007, there are 450 such large-scale gatherings scheduled, ranging from the recent Glastonbury festival to the one-day Underage festival in Hackney on 10th August, which claims to be the first to be aimed exclusively at 14 to 18 year olds.

A rediscovery, or a renewed appreciation, of the communal source of music-making—and listening— must lie near the root of this upending of the music business. As personal stereos and MP3 players have grown in popularity, so has an appreciation that music isn't just something that goes on between your ears. The guitarist of the American hardcore band Anthrax expressed this rather neatly: "Our album is the menu," he explained. "The concert is the meal."

In his book e-Topia, William Mitchell relates the increasing value of shared experience to the isolating nature of electronic or online virtual worlds. "In conducting our daily transactions, we will find ourselves constantly considering the benefits of the different grades of presence that are now available to us, and weighing these against the costs," he writes. Being in the same place at the same time as a live performance, music fans appear to have decided, is the rarest and most precious presence of all.
So maybe it all comes back to what Neil Young once said. "Live music are better."

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Remember when there used to be a thing out there called "the sensible center?" You may have to think about it for a good long time, because it's been a while since something like that existed. Pummeled by those on the left as being "reactionary cretins" and by those on the right as being "liberal wackos," it was eventually beaten to a pulp and left to die, at least in the U.S. Congress.

One example of what we've lost through this process is discussed by James Surowecki in a New Yorker article on the sorry mess that has been made of the idea that college students should be able to get loans to pay for school.

(The) convoluted process is good at making student-loan companies rich—Sallie Mae, the biggest issuer of student loans, earned $1.3 billion last year, with a return on equity that dwarfs most other companies’. But it’s not very good at getting government money to students cheaply and efficiently. President Bush’s 2007 budget shows, for instance, that it’s four times as expensive for the government to subsidize and guarantee private loans as for it to issue those loans itself. In other words, the current system is not just corrupt. It’s also inefficient. So why are we stuck with it?

In part, it’s ideology, and the dominance of what you might call the privatization mystique—the idea that anything the government can do, the private sector can do better. Often, this makes sense: the free market is more likely to come up with efficient ways of creating and distributing products and services than the government is. But the student-loan market isn’t a free market in any meaningful sense of the term, because the government effectively determines prices, insures against losses, and subsidizes volume. In this environment, most of the competition among private companies is really just squabbling over how to split up the spoils. Economists call this behavior—when a company seeks to manipulate economic conditions rather than actually create value—“rent-seeking.” It’s common in areas where the fetish for privatization has taken hold, such as the outsourcing of homeland security to private contractors and the boom in private Medicare insurers. (The private insurers are less efficient than Medicare and receive billions in subsidies from the government.) Outsourcing tasks to private companies is supposed to let government reap the benefits of the free market. But sometimes it just ends up uniting the worst of government and the worst of the private sector into one expensive mess.
Without a sensible center, decisions on how to best implement ideas get hijacked by ideology. And this is what happens when fetishizing a practice based on ideology, in this case outsourcing of government services, takes the place of a sensible practice based on truly maximizing efficiency. But even more than that, it also points out how a program that is implemented in this half-assed way eventually betrays the ideology itself in the pursuit of what is essentially corporate welfare.

True devotion to "getting the government off our backs" would lead to cashiering the entire system of government-subsidized loan programs, leaving students to do the best they could on their own ("with no collateral and uncertain future earnings") to cover the skyrocketing costs of a higher education. Oh, but maybe that wouldn't go down too well with the voting public.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Random Great Stuff: Brit It Girls

From swinging Carnaby Street down through the mists of time. It's got to have something to do with the bangs...

Jean Shrimpton

Cathy McGowan

Jill Kennington


Paulene Stone

Celia Hammond

Pattie & Jenny Boyd

Jane Asher

Marianne Faithfull

Sunday, August 05, 2007


A little bit of rain didn't manage to put a damper on our Day 2 visit to Lollapalooza in Grant Park. In fact the cloudy conditions were really something of a godsend, as the usually baking August Chicago temps were held at bay.

Sights, sounds and impressions...

The festival area is basically two mirror-image ends of the park, bisected by Buckingham Fountain (which, for those who may never have visited it, is easily one of the top 3 coolest things in Chicago -- literally as well as figuratively). The two main stages stand at opposite ends of the venue -- roughly Roosevelt Rd. on the south and Monroe St. on the north -- which literally puts them hell and far gone from each other. A good day's walk to get from one to the other.

In between are a couple of mid-sized stages and a smattering of smaller ones, but most of the day was spent on the south end.

Tapes 'n Tapes played the mid-sized MySpace.com stage in the early afternoon and definitely lit fire on a couple of occasions, especially on a new song called "Demon Apple."

Next was some blanket time while listening from afar to the absurd stage patter of Daniel Johns of Silverchair (as well as listening to their recycled 70s riffs). Daniel demands that you know the band IS NOT GAY!

On to the smaller Citi stage for a late-starting Cold War Kids set. Interestingly, despite the extended sound check, the band was close to inaudible near the middle of the largish crowd. The band had great chemistry, interesting rhythms and a distinctive sound. I think. Fact is, given the quality of the sound mix, all of that was way too hard to hear. Too bad, and this is definitely a band worth seeing in a better setting.

After watching Clap Your Hands Say Yeah get rather overwhelmed by the big stage, I split off to venture to the other end of the park to take in the rest of The Roots set as well as Regina Spektor.

The Roots were incendiary, a hip-hop answer to the JB's. A five-piece brass section (including the second tuba of the day -- take a look at those Tapes 'n Tapes pictures again) complimenting a suitably kick-ass rhythm section (bass solos, though ... never welcome).

Regina Spektor was completely undone (for me anyway) by the sound system at the bandshell (the one permanent stage also had the worst sound mix -- worse even than Cold War Kids'). Roky Erickson on the next stage over was pretty much as loud as Regina, and her style is really not conducive to trying to outshout the competition.

So I bailed on her after a couple of songs and high-tailed it back to the MySpace stage to catch the end of The Hold Steady's set. They may not officially hold the title of "World's Greatest Bar Band," but only because it's an unofficial title. The guitar riffs were chunky (and thankfully loud), and the stage patter included a heartfelt note of the fellas' recent hometown tragedy and the wild improbability of even the band's mid-range success.

After an hour of staking out a space near the stage, listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the big stage from afar, the headliner (for me, anyway) hit the stage. Spoon played a rock-solid, skin-tight, rain-soaked, hour-long set, with only four songs from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and the other eleven from the back catalog. A real greatest hits set.

The core of the band's sound is the rhythmic interplay of all four guys in the band. Every instrument takes a rhythmic lead, and the tight interplay gives the band its lean, angular greatness.

The real closer for the night, though, was Muse. I really had no idea if they were up to the task of closing a festival like this one, but I'll be damned if they weren't completely theatrical, completely over-the-top, and completely up to the task. Great light show, wall of sound, virtuoso playing and utterly remarkable pipes from Matthew Bellamy. Nicely done.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Unrelated News Items

Item 1
Tens of thousands of U.S. bridges rated deficient; repair costs estimated in the billions

WASHINGTON -- More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.

That works out to at least $9.4 billion a year over 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Separately, the Federal Highway Administration has said addressing the backlog of needed bridge repairs would cost at least $55 billion. That was five years ago, with expectations of more deficiencies to come.

It is money that Congress, the federal government and the states have so far been unable or unwilling to spend.

Item 2

What $1.2 Trillion Can Buy
By David Leonhardt
The New York Times
Published: January 17, 2007


In the days before the war almost five years ago, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost about $50 billion. Democratic staff members in Congress largely agreed. Lawrence Lindsey, a White House economic adviser, was a bit more realistic, predicting that the cost could go as high as $200 billion, but President Bush fired him in part for saying so.

These estimates probably would have turned out to be too optimistic even if the war had gone well. Throughout history, people have typically underestimated the cost of war, as William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, has pointed out.

But the deteriorating situation in Iraq has caused the initial predictions to be off the mark by a scale that is difficult to fathom. The operation itself — the helicopters, the tanks, the fuel needed to run them, the combat pay for enlisted troops, the salaries of reservists and contractors, the rebuilding of Iraq — is costing more than $300 million a day, estimates Scott Wallsten, an economist in Washington.

That translates into a couple of billion dollars a week and, over the full course of the war, an eventual total of $700 billion in direct spending. ... Whatever number you use for the war’s total cost, it will tower over costs that normally seem prohibitive. Right now, including everything, the war is costing about $200 billion a year.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Tomorrow the wife and I and several thousand of our closest friends will descend on Grant Park for the second day of Lollapalooza.

Actually several thousand of them will be there today and Sunday as well. While the lineups for both those days held some real gems (Ted Leo, Silversun Pickups & LCD Soundsystem today, Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse & Pearl Jam on Sunday, to name but a few) Saturday seemed like the best day to go, both for the day and the lineup.

The main attraction for me is, of course, Spoon, although Tapes 'n Tapes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Roots, and these two should make for a good day as well.

Nightmare Scenario

I'm sure he only did it once or twice, but when I was a wee lad my brother would make a great show of threatening to jump out of the car every time we would go over a large bridge (most likely the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, but my memory is a little hazy on this).

The upshot is that it took me a very, very long time to not freak out a little bit every time I had to cross a significant body of water on a bridge -- driving, biking, walking, whatever.

So the recent news from Minneapolis was especially sickening. Not only for the obviously distressing thought of those poor souls who didn't make it home on Wednesday night, but the even more distressing thought of what their last few seconds must have been like.

Driving off the edge of a buckling abyss into the roiling waters (and they are roiling at that point in the river) ... yeesh. Hence the very literal title of this post.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"When I Hit On A Girl, I Need To Be Able To Talk To Her"

At some point during your life's travels you may have met a special sort of someone. And it's possible that you thought to yourself, "Well now, that guy has got to be the biggest tool I could ever imagine."

Well, you would have been wrong.

Without question, this guy is the biggest tool you could ever imagine.