2013...mewhat-popular - %2

"Made in California" Is the Essential (and Nonessential) Beach Boys

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
The Beach Boys in 1964.

The Beach Boys
Made in California
Capitol/Ume

With a staggering 174 tracks on six discs, Made in California is not the place to start for anybody interested in learning why The Beach Boys were arguably America's premier band. For that, consult one of the umpteen greatest hits collections or Pet Sounds, their acknowledged masterpiece. But this massive hodgepodge of classics, obscurities, and barrel-scrapings—more than 60 of them previously unreleased—offers a compelling portrait of resident Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson in all his brilliance, and reveals a group of remarkable versatility, able to blend soulful doo-wop, Phil Spector's wall of sound, jazzy pre-rock vocal harmonies a la the Four Freshmen, and rollicking Chuck Berry-style rock into one exciting identity.

From callow treats like "In My Room" and "Be True to Your School" to the ambitious intricacies of "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations," Wilson had few rivals when it came to catchy singles. As he started to share creative control with the rest of the band in the second half of the '60s, the results were spottier and weirder, with mediocrities outnumbering the winners throughout the '70s and '80s. Then the Beach Boys splintered, seemingly for good. Made in California can't hide the quality-control issues, although it does shine a light on worthy less-celebrated songs like "Baby Blue" and "All This Is That," and touches on their tantalizing, short-lived 2012 reunion. While hardly essential, this handsome package has plenty to lure Beach Boys diehards. You know who you are.

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Houndmouth Comes Alive

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Houndmouth
Jim Herrington

During the performance of a song called "Penitentiary" at San Francisco's Outside Lands festival last month, Houndmouth's curly-haired guitarist and vocalist Matt Myers was very deliberate in his annunciation of the first line: "I hid a batch in Fresco/I couldn't score a job/So I did the next best thing and I learned how to rob." He's referring to a Dallas suburb—not to be mistaken for Frisco, San Francisco's out-of-vogue nickname.

"I thought of changing it to Waco," Myers told me after the set, lounging backstage with bandmates Katie Toupin (keys), Zak Appleby (bass), and Shane Cody (drums), and sipping bourbon from a mug. "I know people from San Francisco don't like to hear their city called Frisco."

From the Hills Below the City, Houndmouth's debut on Rough Trade earlier this year, features a dozen tracks of corn-fed middle-American roots rock. In addition to the Frisco/Fresco thing, it name-drops at least a half-dozen southern states, towns, and cities. The songs are filled with stories about hittin' the road, ridin' the rails, gettin' thrown in jail, and comin' back home—dropping all nonessential "g”s.

The Syria Vote Looks Likely to Provoke Plenty of Republican Fireworks

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 3:42 PM EDT

Republican senators explain what it will take to win their votes for air strikes against Syria:

“We need to have a strategy and a plan,” [John] McCain said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “In our view, the best way to eliminate the threat of Bashar Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons would be the threat of his removal from power. And that, I believe, has to be part of what we tell the American people.”

....Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said Congress should vote against a strike on Syria unless it receives convincing assurance that the U.S. will not be drawn into an all-out military conflict there. “My constituents are war weary,” he said. “They don’t want to see us involved in this.”

Translation: McCain will vote in favor only if there's a plan in place that pretty much guarantees escalation of U.S. involvement. Chambliss will vote in favor only if there's a plan in place that pretty much guarantees there won't be any further escalation.

I can't wait to see the text of the actual resolution that Congress eventually votes on. I predict maximum weaseliness—which, I admit, will be sort of amusing to watch considering the endless neocon bellowing for the past couple of years about Obama's wimpiness in the Middle East. Now we'll get to see if Republicans are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

Here's Why Obama's Syria Muddle Is So Disappointing

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 2:07 PM EDT

The history of presidential warmaking has always been complex and fraught, and it's been even more so in the post-Vietnam era governed by the War Powers Act of 1973. No president has ever acknowledged that the Act is binding on the executive, and despite both the Constitution's explicit grant of warmaking powers to Congress and the WPA's equally explicit requirement of congressional approval for extended military action, until recently presidents of both parties have sought congressional approval for military force only grudgingly if at all. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada without asking for congressional authorization. George Bush Sr. eventually sought approval for the Gulf War, but did so only under intense pressure and with troops already massed and ready. However, he didn't bother with Congress at all before he sent troops to either Panama or Somalia. Likewise, Bill Clinton sent troops to Haiti despite explicit congressional opposition, and later insisted that he didn't need congressional authorization for the war in Kosovo—after which Congress famously dithered for months, refusing to either support or oppose the air strikes cleanly. And this doesn't even count fuzzier operations like Reagan's covert wars in Afghanistan and Latin America.

In 2001, though, things changed. Despite his famously broad views of executive power, George Bush Jr. did seek congressional authorization for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And when Obama was asked in 2007 about the possibility of bombing Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons program, he was unequivocal about the president's authority as commander-in-chief:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation....History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

This is why I've been so disappointed in President Obama's use of military force. It's not that his use of the military has been self-evidently stupid. There was arguably a genuine humanitarian crisis in Libya that could be addressed at fairly low cost, and Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels is arguably a red line that the international community really should react to sharply.1 Nor is it because I'm really all that worried about escalation. I'm a little worried about it, but the truth is that Obama has generally shown pretty good sense here. He finished up George Bush's exit from Iraq on schedule; he kept U.S. involvement in Libya modest; and even after committing himself to escalation in Afghanistan he's shown himself equally committed to disengaging there on his original timetable instead of continually insisting that "one more year" will make all the difference.

Nor, in this case, is it because Obama has handled Syria poorly—although he has. As I said the other day, Greg Djerejian's rant about the Obama team's all-too-public mishandling of practically every facet of this operation is mostly fair. At the same time, "There's always a lot more messiness to these things than we think there should be, and often more messiness than we remember about similar episodes in the past." Obama may have screwed this up, but previous presidents have done much the same.

So it's not that either. The real reason I'm disappointed is that Obama had a chance to set a new precedent in foreign policy and didn't take it. Whatever else we liberals might think about George Bush's military acumen, he left office having explicitly asked Congress to authorize both of his major military actions before he undertook them. If Obama had acknowledged the War Powers Act as good law, acknowledged Congress's constitutional role in warmaking, and then voluntarily asked Congress for authorization of his proposed military operations in both Libya and Syria without being pressured into it, there's a good chance that future presidents would feel bound to do the same. This is the way norms become settled, and this is a norm that would have truly changed Washington DC for the better.

But he didn't do that, despite his apparent belief in 2007 that it was the right thing to do. It was a missed chance, and a disappointing one. I had hoped for better.

1For a variety of reasons, I'm not personally persuaded of this. But it's not self-evidently stupid.

Is Climate Change Pushing Pests into Northern Farms?

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 1:00 PM EDT

Pine beetles like this aren't the only pests driven north by climate change.

In 1996 Colorado received a very unwelcome—and hungry—house guest, the mountain pine beetle, whose voracious appetite for pine has since killed off millions of acres of trees there. A few years later, the beetles came knocking in British Columbia and have now knocked out over half the province's pine timber. The full-bore invasion of these critters, each no bigger than a grain of rice, is now one of the most pressing ecological disasters in the West, and their spread, scientists believe, is driven by climate change.

The beetles aren't alone: Rising equatorial temperatures have pushed a menagerie of pests north at an alarming rate of nearly 10,000 feet every year since 1960, according to a new survey out today in Nature. Researchers led by biologist Dan Bebber at the UK's University of Exeter combed through databases hosted by the non-profit CABI, which aggregates scientific and trade literature on agriculture, for the first documented appearance of over 600 kinds of pests (including insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria), over a 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere. They found, averaged across 14 taxonomic groups, a distinctive northward migration, wherein species first noticed at southern latitudes were, at a later date, discovered anew at northern latitudes. 

The chart below, from the paper, shows the distribution range of the different pest groups Bebber examined, with the vertical axis indicating distance from the equator (positive distances indicate north; negative distances indicate south) and the horizontal axis indicating time, from 1960 to the present. Overall, the groups show a gradual northward migration over time (up and to the right):

pest distribution chart
Bebber et al.

Obama Asks Congress to Approve Syria Strike

| Sat Aug. 31, 2013 3:04 PM EDT

Here's the latest on Syria:

President Obama stunned the capital and paused his march to war on Saturday by asking Congress to give him authorization before he launches a limited military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.

In a hastily organized appearance in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said he had decided that the United States should use force but would wait for a vote from lawmakers, who are not due to return to town for more than a week. Mr. Obama said he believed he has authority to act on his own but did not say whether he would if Congress rejects his plan.

Good for him. He only did it under pressure, but at least he did it. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also forces Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibilities, something they should spend more time doing and less time constantly squawking about.

As for whether or not Obama will go ahead with an attack even if Congress rejects it, I can hardly imagine he would. Am I wrong about that? Is there even the slightest chance he'd go ahead even if Congress votes against it?

POSTSCRIPT: Not that they will. I predict he'll get at least 60 percent approval. As an aside, Obama will be out of town for most of next week. Given the middle-school temperament of much of Congress, that might actually make approval easier to get.

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How to Make a Risk-Free Fortune on Wall Street

| Sat Aug. 31, 2013 10:40 AM EDT

Redline Trading Solutions recently allowed Berkeley professor Terrence Hendershott to conduct a study with its high-speed trading technology, which gave him access to stock prices a few milliseconds before everyone else. This meant that Hendershott knew, before he bought the stock, which way the price would move a fraction of a second later. As you might expect, this is a risk-free license to mint money:

According to his study, in one day (May 9), playing one stock (Apple), Hendershott walked away with almost $377,000 in theoretical profits by picking off quotes on various exchanges that were fractions of a second out of date. Extrapolate that number to reflect the thousands of stocks trading electronically in the U.S., and it's clear that high-frequency traders are making billions of dollars a year on a simple quirk in the electronic stock market.

One way or another, that money is coming out of your retirement account. Think of it like the old movie The Sting. High-speed traders already know who has won the horse race when your mutual fund manager lays his bet. You're guaranteed to come out a loser. You're losing in small increments, but every mickle makes a muckle — especially in a tough market.

"It's clear to us these guys are just raping, pillaging, and plundering the market," as Joe Saluzzi, co-founder of agency brokerage Themis Trading put it.

Click the link for more details, along with a simple and interesting idea for putting an end to this. In practice, stock markets are never going to be fair to every participant, but at the very least, their rules are supposed to make them theoretically fair to all comers. High-speed trading makes a mockery of this.

GOP Congressman Endorses Bogus Theory That Syria Got Its Chemical Weapons From Saddam

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 6:28 PM EDT

On Friday, the Obama administration released its assessment of last week's chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. The US government "assesses with high confidence" that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad carried out the attack, and that the Syrian government has a stockpile of sarin and other chemical agents. (UN chemical weapons experts are still working to confirm details regarding the attack.) This declassification was accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry's public statement, in which he called the attack a "crime against conscience" and "crime against humanity."

Something of this magnitude will always provoke a stream of conspiracy theories, some wilder than others. In a radio interview on Thursday, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) seemed to endorse one of them.

The Huffington Post reports:

"The theory then and the evidence was that Iraq was an enemy of the United States and had direct plans in either support of Al Qaeda and/or with other weapons that we found out weren't there—which I still think they were moved to Syria," said Terry. "And it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the chemical weapons that have been used by Syria actually came from Iraq."

[...]

When Becka asked whether Terry's claim about the transfer of weapons was based on information he had received as a member of Congress, Terry replied, "Gut feeling..."

This theory isn't new. Senior Bush administration officials publicly flirted with the idea that Iraq transferred weapons to other nations. The claim has been promoted on conservative media and Fox News many times over the years. In 2007, Mitt Romney said that it was "entirely possible" that weapons of mass destruction were moved from Iraq to Syria during the run-up to the Iraq war. The thing is that there is absolutely zero credible evidence that this was ever the case. I called up the State Department to ask about the theory the congressman rehashed. The first spokesperson I talked to simply laughed. The second could only say that the State Department doesn't "have any information on that."

For a firmer rebuttal, here's an AP report from January 2005:

[I]ntelligence and congressional officials say they have not seen any information—never "a piece," said one—indicating that WMD or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred from Iraq to neighboring Syria, Jordan or elsewhere...The [Bush] administration acknowledged...that the search for banned weapons is largely over. The Iraq Survey Group’s chief, Charles Duelfer, is expected to submit the final installments of his report in February. A small number of the organization’s experts will remain on the job in case new intelligence on Iraqi WMD is unearthed.

But the officials familiar with the search say U.S. authorities have found no evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein transferred WMD or related equipment out of Iraq.

A special adviser to the CIA director, Duelfer declined an interview request through an agency spokesman. In his last public statements, he told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.

"What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points," he said. "But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."

Last week, a congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.

After the subsequent report was released, Duelfer gave an interview to PBS NewsHour in which he expressed doubt that Iraq transferred WMDs to Syria prior to the US-led invasion. "Syria, we had some intelligence that perhaps some materials, suspicious materials, had been moved there," he said. "We looked as closely as we could at that, there were a few leads which we were not able to fully run down, largely because of the security situation, but it's my judgment that had substantial stocks, important stocks been moved to Syria, someone would have told something to us about that."

And in the years since, no new evidence has come to light suggesting otherwise. This all seems to conflict with Rep. Terry's "gut."

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 August 2013

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

Happy last weekday of August! It's been a little warm around here this week, and Domino knows what that means. It means you stretch out your body as much as you possibly can and dissipate as much heat as possible. So that's what she's doing.

The Fed's Job Just Got a Lot Easier

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 2:42 PM EDT

Speaking of inflation, Josh Mitchell reports that it's still low, continuing to trend even lower, and that this could "complicate" the Fed's decision-making next month:

Both overall prices and core prices (excluding food and energy) rose a tepid 0.1% in July....From a year earlier, overall prices rose 1.4% while core prices rose just 1.2%....That’s well below the Fed’s target of 2% inflation.

....The central bank, in a statement after its July meeting, acknowledged its concerns about inflation remaining low. The Federal Open Market Committee said inflation “persistently below its 2% objective could pose risks to economic performance, but it anticipates that inflation will move back toward its objective over the medium term.”

You know, there are some things that really are complicated. The Middle East is complicated. Education policy is complicated. Quantum mechanics is complicated. But low inflation? That should make the Fed's job less complicated. It means they don't have to worry about whether stimulative monetary policy will send us into an inflationary spiral, which in turn means that boosting economic growth and reducing unemployment are the only things they have to think about right now. That should make their job easier, not harder.