2009 - %3, October

Music Monday: Meet the Accessible Daniel Johnston

| Sun Oct. 4, 2009 11:47 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Mon Oct. 5, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Daniel Johnston
Is And Always Was
Eternal Yip Eye Music

 
It has been more than a decade since cult figure Daniel Johnston went missing in New York, prompting members of Sonic Youth to troll the streets all night to find him. It's been 29 years since Johnston distributed his first cassette, Songs of Pain (followed by More Songs of Pain), and six years since his last new album. This week marks the release of Is And Always Was, which could end up being one of Johnston's most widely appreciated works. It’s full of solid rock songs the average listener can love without having to fast-forward through awkward moments of extreme honesty, which is maybe Johnston's best-known calling card. Always Was is still honest, but it’s more fun than awkward.

Johnston's hallmark lyricism is in full force on this album as he weaves gruesome tales of lost love, death, and despair. But this time they are backed by a full-bodied sound that's more produced than his legacy of low-fi recordings. A few tracks include faux doo-wop melodies and Jonathan Richman-like plotlines that are told with Johnston’s interminable lisp and involve characters like “Queenie the Doggie.” In one track, in which Johnston goes to the lost and found to retrieve his brain, he identifies it as “a cute little bugger…but warped from the rain.” “Thank you, ma’am,” he sings. “I’m always losing that dang thing.”

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Music Monday: Doc Watson's Enduring Appeal in a New World

| Sun Oct. 4, 2009 5:54 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Mon Oct. 5, 2009 5:30 AM EDT

There were two distinct personalities in attendance at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this weekend. One was comprised of old bluegrass standards and quick-tempo banjo melodies popular among the older crowd of free spirits. The other, favored by the twentysomething folk enthusiasts in skin-tight jeans, was a hip hybrid of blues riffs, funky instruments, and alternative style. Though noticeably distinct, the two personas were married by the unbeatable combination of light beer and cheap bourbon.

The crowd that came out to hear Doc Watson’s signature old-school flatpicking seemed less energetic than the audiences for the Old 97s, Gillian Welch and Galactic, which all market a watered-down variety of the pure stuff to a younger audience. Although he remains a legendary fixture of bluegrass, a surprising number of onlookers sitting near me at the festival's Banjo stage were surprised to hear Doc was on the schedule, even as he took the stage. But Watson, despite being 86 years old and blind for 85 of those years, knows how to get a festival crowd excited; he's been entertaining people for more than half a century, after all.

For Watson, music is a family affair. He played almost exclusively with his son Merle for 15 years, until Merle's untimely death in 1985. For the past two decades, Doc has played with a number of close friends, notably David Holt, with whom he shared the stage yesterday. Holt is known for his plucky banjo solos and narrative songwriting style. Doc was also joined by his grandson Richard, who announced to rousing and emotional applause that he recently became a grandfather, which makes Doc a great great (!) grandfather. The importance of Doc’s family in his music was most apparent when he crooned the mountain love song "Shady Grove" in honor of Rosa Lee Carlton, his wife of 64 years. And Doc gave his late sister Ethel a callout when he introduced his penultimate tune, "Sitting on Top of the World," a popular 1930s tune about a boy trying to cheer himself up after his girl leaves him.

Friday Cat Blogging - 2 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 2:15 PM EDT

You know how football games now have cameras suspended directly above the field of play so you can get an aerial view of the action?  That's what you're getting today in cat coverage.  On the left, Inkblot is staring upward at the camera suspended high in the sky above him.  On the right, the camera descends to field level for a rare shot of Inkblot and Domino together.  As you can guess, this display of brotherly love lasted about five seconds.

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Cheering Against America

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

I don't really care much about the Olympics, and the fact that Obama's brief trip to Copenhagen got saturation coverage in the press this week struck me mostly as yet another testament to the modern media's fundamental unseriousness.  The triumph of gossip over substance continues its inexorable march.

That said, I hopped back over to The Corner a few minutes ago, and the Olympics are by far the biggest topic of conversation there this morning.  But The Corner is a gossipy place, so that's not such a big deal.  What is stunning, though, is just how openly thrilled they are that America lost its bid.  All because a president they don't like decided to make a direct pitch for his adopted hometown.  Ditto for the Weekly Standard, apparently.  It sure doesn't take much to turn these guys against their country, does it?

UPDATE: Much, much more here and here.  I honestly had no idea things had gotten this deranged.  Jesus.

The Secret World of Deaf Prisoners

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 1:59 PM EDT

 In the 1970s, an antiwar demonstrator found himself at New York City’s Rikers Island jail facility for a couple of months on a disorderly conduct charge. The demonstrator, who happened to be a friend of mine, met a handful of young men from the Bronx in his unit who were deaf.

They were having trouble communicating with anyone but themselves. My friend knew a little sign language and, after a few conversations, discovered they were illiterate. With the idea of helping them improve their communication skills, he asked prison authorities for permission to order books on sign language from the publisher. The wardens refused, saying that they did not want anyone in that prison using a “language” they could not understand.

Things may have changed a little for the better since then. But not by much.

I first wrote about the deaf in the late 1960s in the New Republic and so I know something of the background which is what really informs this article. While researching stories about solitary confinement at Angola Prison for Mother Jones, I came upon an article in Prison Legal News about widespread violations against deaf prisoners. Remembering the people and culture I had caught a glimpse of in the 60s, I got in touch with the article’s author, McCay Vernon. Luckily he remembered my earlier writing, and promptly agreed to help me.

The letters quoted below are from deaf prisoners to different people in the free world, who are seeking to help them, to advocate their cause. I have disguised the advocates, prisoners and prisons to keep the inmates from getting reprisals—reprisals which they fear on a daily basis. You have to remember that a deaf person can’t hear the chatter among other inmates, can’t hear the person sneaking up behind, is unintelligible in his cries for help during a rape.

Why It's Good Chicago Lost the Olympics

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

After Rio beat out Chicago for the 2016 Olympics games—despite President Barack Obama's up-close-and-personal intervention—I asked Andrew Jennings, a British journalist who has spent years investigating the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and digging up much dirt on its members and practices, for his reaction. He didn't hold back:

Serve you right, suckers! Allowing yourselves to be judged by a bunch of third-rate nobodies and C-list European royalty [on the IOC] who care more about their comfort than the dreams of the athletes.
 
How can you do business with an organisation that has 106 members – only 16 are women?
 
Could it be that corruption in Brazilian sport and society is rampant – and offers all kinds of opportunities to screw the multi-billion dollar budget?
 
Chicago has a bad reputation for corruption – but at least a lot of the malefactors get caught and go to jail. That is not an Olympic dream at the IOC. At the BBC a few years ago, we did a sting on an IOC member with hidden cameras and taped him asking for a bribe. They are now very wary where they go.
 
We all know the Feds do stings – good bye Windy City.
 
The good news is that Madrid’s loss shows the diminishing influence of the IOC’s last president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. He was IOC president from 1980 to 2001 and gave the games to Beijing. Perhaps that was because he felt at ease with the media restrictions – similar to the Franco regime he served for 37 years, right arm always in the air.
 
When the fuss dies down – perhaps we can investigate and see if bribes were paid? They always were – the delicious bit being that members would trouser the kickback and vote for a rival candidate.

That certainly puts today's news in a different perspective.
 
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
 
 

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Out of Work

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 12:32 PM EDT

There are lots of different measures of unemployment.  One of the best and most consistent is the civilian employment-population ratio, which shows the percentage of the workforce currently employed.  The series below, from the St. Louis Fed, shows this measure for the past 60 years and it highlights just how bad our current recession is.  Here's the drop in the ratio in past recessions, measured in percentage points from peak to trough:

• 1948 — 2.2%
• 1953 — 3.1%
• 1958 — 2.5%
• 1960 — 1.4%
• 1969 — 1.9%
• 1974 — 2.4%
• 1979 — 3.0%
• 1990 — 2.0%
• 2000 — 2.7%

The worst recession of the past half century, the 1980-82 double dip, produced a drop of only 3.0 percentage points.  I don't think anybody has ever used the modifier "only" to describe that recession before, but it fits now: the current recession has produced a drop of 4.6 percentage points so far.  That's double the postwar average.  The drop from the previous peak in 2000 is 5.9 percentage points.  So far.  The job scene is simply devastating right now.  More from Andrew Samwick here and Brad DeLong here.

Abortion Support Reaches New Low

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

The latest Pew poll finds that Americans are now split evenly on their opinion of abortion rights.* In an August survey 45% of respondents said they thought abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, 47% said legal. Last year same time those numbers were 41% and 54%, respectively. Whether these numbers match up to similar polls or not, the fact that the same language was used year-to-year by Pew means the data is worth noting. Yes, it's a high bar that the respondent has to agree with the all/most cases assertion, but they also had to agree with it last year and the years before that.

As this graph shows, at least according to Pew measures, support for abortion is at its lowest since 1995, opposition near its highest. That people are more entrenched in their position after a hot election year and that conservatives are feeling defensive with a progressive in the White House who's already appointed a Supreme Court Justice, these numbers are not all that surprising, if discouraging.

The survey also asked how critical people feel abortion is as a political issue. In 2006, 28% of respondents said abortion was a critical issue, in August just about half as many felt that way, 15%. These days #hcr and #climate are more the rage, and there is plenty else to get up in arms about. Still, it seems that conservatives can manage more pots on the stove; they can rally against finance reform, health care reform, Obama, et al and still keep up an effective fight against what might be secondary issues like abortion. Progressives are way too disorganized to handle such maneuvering.

 

*The addition of "rights" is mine. Pew asked if people are in support of legal abortions. Saying, do you support abortion, versus, do you support the right for a woman to choose is a very different question. As Kevin Drum points out, survey design is notoriously sensitive particularly when it comes to abortion.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, October 2

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 12:14 PM EDT

Happy Friday, folks. A sampling of health and environment news on our other blogs:

Abortion support declining? A new Pew poll says yes, but ABC's polling director doubts it.

Keep on the sunny side: Don't worry about global warming, says the US Chamber of Commerce. After all, humans are now less vulnerable to rising temperatures because of the growing use of air conditioners. Right.

Changes to Kerry-Boxer: Gone are any mention of China and India in the latest version of climate bill.

More Chamber unease: GE is the latest company to disapprove of the US Chamber of Commerce's stance on climate change.

Charting public health-care opinion: Bottom line: the public really likes the idea of having a choice between a private and a public health insurance plan.

Opt-out revolution? One in four moms stay home. Proof that women ditch their fulfilling and high-paying careers once it's baby time?

Republicans know they don't like Kerry-Boxer: They just can't figure out why. The party is divided between those who think action will destroy the economy and those who still question whether climate change is occurring at all.

The NSF's porn problem: The National Science Foundation handles twenty percent of all federally supported research in all American colleges. Some of its employees are having a grand old time surfing sex sites. Way more fun than reviewing grant applications.

Climate change crystal ball: What does prediction guru Bueno de Mesquita think about the odds of getting any kind of serious global action on climate change?

Chamber: Global Warming Is Good for You

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

After losing several high-profile members over its climate policy, the US Chamber of Commerce spent much of this week attempting to convince the public that it does believe global warming is a serious concern that Congress should act upon. But in comments recently submitted by the group to the Environmental Protection Agency, the group advanced a very different view. In its submission, the Chamber questioned the science behind the phenomenon of climate change, suggested that humans are now less vulnerable to rising temperatures because of the growing use of air conditioners—and theorized that even if the planet is getting warmer, that might be a good thing.

The Chamber's comment was submitted to the EPA on June 23 in response to the agency's finding in April that carbon dioxide is a hazard to human health. The 86-page document is packed with claims that cast doubt on that conclusion. An excerpt:

The Administrator has thus ignored analyses that show that a warming of even 3 [degrees] C in the next 100 years would, on balance, be beneficial to humans because the reduction of wintertime mortality/morbidity would be several times larger than the increase in summertime heat stress- related mortality/morbidity.