2013 - %3, January

Review: Toro y Moi's "Anything in Return"

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:01 AM EST
Chaz Bundick.

Toro y Moi
Anything in Return
Carpark Records

Chaz Bundick, the improbably named 26-year-old behind the impeccably titled project Toro y Moi (Spanish and French for "Bull and Me"), built his reputation on his contributions to the genre known, unfortunately but evocatively, as chillwave: slow, gauzy music anchored by simple beats and looped samples. Yet he's always leaned towards more straightforward funk and pop in songs such as "New Beat," from his second album, Underneath the Pine. On his new release, Toro y Moi takes those once-peripheral elements and puts them front and center.

"Harm In Change," the opening track from Anything in Return, is at once catchy and seductive: "Don't let me hold you down/We could be there now," Bundick sings, in what seems like a reference to his recent move from his native South Carolina to California, where his girlfriend goes to grad school. "So Many Details" is a beautifully downtempo, sensuously melancholy song with shades of the Weeknd—though Bundick's voice is a bit too thin to pull it off, and the instrumentals get overproduced and murky towards the end.

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Music Review: "Blood Side Out" By Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:01 AM EST
album art

TRACK 7

"Blood Side Out"

From Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite's Get Up!

STAX/CONCORD MUSIC GROUP

Liner notes: All hell breaks loose on this raucous track as crashing drums, Musselwhite's blistering harmonica, and Harper's furious vocals forecast impending disaster.

Behind the music: Versatile California singer-songwriter Harper won a Grammy for his 2004 collaboration with the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama. Born in Mississippi, Musselwhite has long been a leading exponent of the driving blues style pioneered by Little Walter, the only harmonica player ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Check it out if you like: Bands such as the Black Keys, North Mississippi Allstars, and Alabama Shakes—all experts at updating primal sounds.

This review originally appeared in our January/February issue of Mother Jones.

Music Review: "General Dome" By Buke & Gase

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:01 AM EST
album art

TRACK 4

"General Dome"

From Buke & Gase's General Dome

BRASSLAND

Liner notes: Is it old-school progressive rock or newfangled art-pop? This head-spinning epic neatly splits the difference, wrapping a cool female voice in fractured noise to riveting effect.

Behind the music: The Brooklyn-based Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer often play musical instruments of their own devising, among them a modified buke (baritone ukulele) and the gase (a hybrid of guitar and bass).

Check it out if you like: Engaging musical innovators such as tUnE-yArDs, Dirty Projectors, and St. Vincent.

This review originally appeared in our January/February issue of Mother Jones.

Quick Reads: Nathanael Johnson's "All Natural"

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 5:56 AM EST
book cover

All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety
By Nathanael Johnson
RODALE

In this thought-provoking read, Harper's contributor Nathanael Johnson weaves stories of his patchouli upbringing with trenchant interrogations of both "natural" and "technological" solutions to everything from pig farming to child rearing. For example, he cites studies showing that laboring mothers died at a higher rate in the mid-aughts than they did in the late 1990s as a symptom of how hospitals overtreat us—in this case with unnecessary C-sections that raise women's mortality risk. On the flip side, Johnson recounts his own home birth in Berkeley, where his hippie mother was bleeding uncontrollably by the time her midwife called in a doctor.

This review originally appeared in the January/February issue of Mother Jones.

Immigration Reform is Finally on the Agenda

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 1:07 AM EST

The LA Times reports that the Senate's Gang of Eight—or whatever they're calling themselves—has agreed on a plan for comprehensive immigration reform:

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a plan to grant legal status to most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S....In terms of the number of people who would potentially receive legal status, it would be more than three times larger than the amnesty plan passed under President Reagan in 1986, which legalized about 3 million immigrants.

....The Senate proposal would allow most of those in the country illegally to obtain probationary legal status immediately by paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check. That would make them eligible to work and live in the U.S. They could earn a green card — permanent residency — after the government certifies that the U.S.-Mexican border has become secure, but might face a lengthy process before becoming citizens.

....Less-controversial provisions would tighten requirements on employers to check the immigration status of new workers; increase the number of visas for high-skilled jobs; provide green cards automatically to people who earn master's degrees or PhDs in science, technology or math at U.S. universities; and create an agricultural guest-worker program.

The four Republican senators who have agreed to this framework are John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Jeff Flake. It's not clear how much clout these guys have with the rest of the Republican caucus, or how much clout Senate Republicans have with House Republicans. Still, as I mentioned last month, I wouldn't be surprised if the fiscal cliff and immigration reform are the sole exceptions to an all-obstruction-all-the-time strategy from House Republicans. They might not like it, but a sheer sense of self-preservation suggests that the GOP's best strategy is to pass something fairly quickly so that they can get immigration off the table as a political issue as soon as possible. Once that's done, they can at least get started on the task of mending their ruinously suicidal relationship with the Latino community.

On Tuesday, President Obama will unveil a competing immigration plan. After that the real haggling starts.

And on a political note, it's worth mentioning that Obama has probably played this issue about as well as he could have. His generally tough-minded approach toward immigration enforcement hasn't been popular on the left, but the unfortunate truth is that comprehensive reform was probably impossible until the flow of illegal immigrants was slowed down substantially. Tougher enforcement—which included building the fence, beefing up border patrols, pushing ahead with E-Verify, and escalating the number of deportations—has worked alongside a weak economy to slow illegal immigration to a crawl over the past four years, and this has steadily whittled away at the appeal of the immigration table pounders. Combine this with a Republican Party that desperately needs to stanch its bleeding among the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, and you finally have, for the first time in decades, a political climate that just might make immigration reform possible. But I doubt that this moment will last very long. This probably needs to happen in the next six months if it's going to happen at all.

Crime is Down in Britain. It's Not a Surprise.

| Sun Jan. 27, 2013 6:49 PM EST

Here's the latest crime news from the Guardian:

There has been a surprise 8% drop in crime across England and Wales, according to official figures, suggesting the long-term decline in crime since the mid-1990s has resumed.

As near as I can tell, crime declines are always a surprise to the folks who look for answers solely in social trends. But Britain's continuing decline isn't a surprise to everyone. Europe adopted unleaded gasoline in the mid-80s, and EU countries all showed drops in lead emissions in subsequent years. In Britain, lead emissions began to decline about a decade later than the United States, but they made up some of that gap via a much steeper drop. So, to the extent that the crime decline is a function of less lead exposure among children, they're about five years or so behind us. This means they probably still have a few years of crime decline ahead of them.

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Commuting in Your Driverless Car

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 5:11 PM EST

In an email to Stuart Staniford yesterday about whether private car ownership is ever likely to be replaced by subscriptions to fleets of driverless cars, I told him, "I love arguments like this because there's exactly zero evidence either of us can bring to bear. So we can argue forever and never get anywhere!"

In other words, this is a perfect blog subject. Here's Atrios:

I'm not one who thinks the technology will ever really work in the way that some urbanists think it will work, but I could be wrong about that. What I'm not wrong about is the fact that we still face the peak driver/commuting problem. As long as most people essentially need a car for their daily commute, driverless cars won't really remake the world. You'll still need a one car per commuter fleet. Those fleets could be put to work doing other things in non-peak times, but the peak need will still be there. They'll just be a slightly better carshare or possibly slightly cheaper taxi for non-commuting trips.

I'd make a couple of points about this. First, commuting makes up less than half of all driving. So even if driverless cars don't do anything for commuting, they still might make a big dent in our other driving. If subscriptions to driverless fleets reduce car ownership by half, or even a quarter, that will be huge even if commuting doesn't change much.

Second, though, I think commuting will be changed. The hard part of carpooling right now is finding fellow passengers. With rare exceptions, it's not practical to round up a new carpool every day, so you need to find one or two people who (a) live near you, (b) work near you, (c) all work regular hours, and (d) all work the same regular hours. That's pretty hard.

Once they reach critical mass, fleets of driverless cars completely transform this. When you need a car, you click a smartphone app that immediately starts searching a central database for matches. As long as there are lots of people looking for rides—and drive time is precisely when lots of people are looking for rides—you have a pretty good chance of finding a match anytime you look for one. What's more, because the car is driverless, it has more flexibility: a human would want everyone to have destinations really close to each other, because the driver doesn't want to spend tons of extra time dropping everyone off. A driverless car doesn't care. If it has to drive a few extra miles, it's no big deal.

This is obviously better for the driver, since she can now read the paper or play Angry Birds instead of driving. It's also better for the passengers, who don't have to worry about being precisely on time every day and also don't have to worry about whether the other passengers are precisely on time. If you're running a little late, no big deal. If you work flex time, no big deal. If you have a doctor's appointment and need to leave for work an hour later than usual, no big deal.

Is this how things will evolve? I don't know. But the subscription idea works best precisely when a car service has a lot of people looking for rides at the same time. Given a guaranteed service time of X, some cars will end up with one person, others will end up with two or three or four. With a big statistical universe, this ends up being pretty stable, which means the car service has a pretty good idea of just how many cars it needs.

Will people want to keep a car of their own even if car services become cheap and easy to use? Maybe. But commuting is pretty much the last place where people care about having their own car. No matter what kind of car you own, commuting is just a drag. Nearly everyone would prefer to be ferried around as long as it's quick and convenient. In other words, peak usage isn't a problem here. Peak usage is precisely why commuting is likely to be the kind of driving most affected by driverless cars.

Losing Nemo: Great Barrier Reef At Risk From Coal

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 1:10 PM EST
The Great Barrier Reef

Coral reefs already have a lot on their plate: ocean acidification and warming, damage by extreme storms, water pollution from industrial runoff, even crazy invasive starfish. Now, it seems, the big momma of all reefs, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is also under siege by fossil fuel development being pushed by the recently elected conservative Queensland state government. The risk is great enough that UNESCO has threatened to strip the reef of its World Heritage Site status this year, if not more is done to protect it.

"It would be an international shame for Australia and send a shocking message that even the wealthiest nations can't manage their reefs," Felicity Wishart, director of Fight for the Reef, said. The campaign is a newly-formed coaltion between the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Marine Conservation Society to pressure the state and federal governments to curb industrial development near the reef.

barrier reef
Comparative size of Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site. Courtesy Australian Government

Wishart said a suite of more than 60 proposed industrial facilities, mostly to facilitate coal exports, are being considered for the Queensland coast, off of which the reef is located. If built, she said, they would nearly double the amount of ship traffic over the reef, posing the risk of physical collisions and oil spills, and necessitate dredging the ocean floor nearby, adding to sediment contamination that can block the sunlight the corals need to thrive.

Last year UNESCO decided the threats were enough to warrant dispatching a team to investigate; it drafted a series of recommendations for the state and federal governments, which are due to issue a response by Feb. 1. If the World Heritage folks aren't sufficiently impressed, they could demote the reef to "World Heritage in Danger" status, along with another large reef in Belize where chunks were sold off for development, a historic Buddhist landmark in Afghanistan that was sacked by the Taliban, and a host of other brutalized spots. World Heritage listing doesn't confer any specific legal protection per se (in the way that, say, officially designating habitat for an endangered species in the US would); rather, UNESCO provides guidance for local governments to better manage the sites. Still, the demotion could deal an embarrassing blow to the $5 billion tourism industry the reef supports—designation is largely seen as a major tourist draw, and getting booted from the list could send the signal that the reef just ain't what it used to be.

The Story Behind My Porsche

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 1:10 PM EST

I seem to have unleashed a mini-storm of incredulity yesterday by mentioning that I drive a Porsche. Here's a typical email from a longtime reader:

You read a guy for ten years and you think you know him, and I would have never guessed that you drive a Porsche. You can preserve my construct of your personality if you tell me it was bequeathed to you by an uncle you'd never met.

Nope. I don't even have any uncles. The real story is that we all have at least a few vices, and mine is that I'm sort of a C-list car guy. I don't inhale car magazines or anything like that, but I like cars, I like reading about them, and I like driving lively little sports cars. The first car I owned after the VW Beetle I drove in college was a Mazda RX-7. That was a great car! Rear-wheel drive, nice handling, beautiful clutch, crisp shifter, and the rotary engine had a great torque curve. It wasn't all that fast, but fast is overrated. It was fast enough to be fun. And cheap, too: I got mine for under $10,000, and it lasted a dozen years without a single major problem.

I remember shopping around for a new car in the mid-90s and not finding anything I liked. I was mostly intrigued by the BMW Z-3, but the roofline was just a hair too low. My head brushed the roof of the RX-7 in the morning (but not in the evening thanks to ten hours of spinal compression), and the roof of the Z-3 was maybe half an inch lower than that. I tried for a while to convince myself that it wasn't that bad, but eventually I gave up. Ditto for the newer RX-7, which was hopelessly too small. Eventually, after driving lots of cars, I finally compromised on a Honda Prelude. It was a perfectly fine car, but I never really bonded with it. No personality.

So where did the Porsche come from? Well, I used to make more money than I do now, and in the late 90s the startup company I worked for did an IPO, and then a couple of years later got acquired. I made a chunk of money from all that, and thought that maybe I'd go take a look at a Porsche Boxster. One thing led to another, though, and I ended up in a 911 instead. Why? It's been my favorite car forever, it wasn't really that much more expensive than the Boxster, and the roofline is wonderfully high. That's it on the right, back when it was shiny and new. It's still pretty shiny, actually, thanks to low mileage, the wonders of modern paint jobs, and keeping it in a garage.

I don't regret buying it, and it still runs fine. But this is really sort of a farewell post, because it's now twelve years old and it's about time to replace it. Sadly, it's also the end of the line for sports cars for me: my future car will be a cheap little hatchback, something that's a wee bit more practical and gets good mileage. Right now the leading candidate is a Mazda 3, because I want a stick shift and Mazda still seems to make about the best manual transmission out there.

In other words, very soon my friend's construct of my personality will be 100 percent accurate. Funny how that works out.

Apple's Higher R&D Expense May Not Be Good News

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 11:39 AM EST

Apple announced lower gross margins and slower growth this week, leading to a selloff of their stock. But Chris O'Brien reports some good news:

[If] investors are looking for some reasons for optimism, they might do well to check Apple's numbers related to its research and development spending. Tucked way down deep in its 10-Q filed on Thursday, the company noted that spending on R&D increased 33% in the quarter ending in December. That amounts to an increase of $252 million to a cool $1 billion.

....So, what's cooking in Apple's labs? Ha. You didn't think they'd actually tell us that, did you? In the filing, the company said, "This increase was due primarily to an increase in headcount and related expenses to support expanded R&D activities."

This might indeed be good news. But then again, it might not. Part of Apple's success over the past decade has been its uncanny ability to invent a very small number of blockbuster products. Its R&D expense has been low—less than 2 percent of sales—largely because there was so little wasted motion: first the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad. That's three products, along with a smattering of other stuff, generating $200 billion per year. That's remarkable.

But as product lines age, they have to be maintained, and maintenance engineering is as costly as the original invention itself. Compatibility problems crop up, both between product lines and with prior versions of software. Old products have to be supported. Bureaucracies swell. Not every new product is a winner. All of that causes R&D expense to go up.

Maybe Apple still has the R&D magic. Maybe they're spending more because their next product introduction will be even bigger and more amazing than anything they've done before. But then again, maybe it's because they're turning into an ordinary company. Maybe their improbable run of good luck is over. We'll have to wait and see.