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My Park(ing) Day

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 7:57 PM EDT

Lunch in a parking spot is never much fun, unless it's Park(ing) Day in San Francisco. Seizing the moment this afternoon, I packed a bowl of curry and headed two blocks down Sutter Street to a metered spot in front of the Charles Schwab building. I entered the space from the curb, ambled along an extremely short yet artfully snaking pathway lined with potted salt rush, blue squirrel tail and California lilac, and took a seat on a wooden park bench. Three park attendants watched eagerly. "Welcome to our park!" one of them said. They snapped photos as I stirred my rice. A bus blew by frighteningly close.

In 2005, Rebar, a San Francisco art collective, laid a parking space with sod, a bench and a large potted tree, creating the first of what would become many guerrilla parks. The event has grown into an international phenomenon, with participants this year in more than ten cities worldwide. The mission is "To rethink the way streets are used, call attention to the need for urban parks and improve the quality of urban human habitat. . .at least until the meter runs out!"

While I ate my chicken korma on the park bench, a park(ing) attendant handed a complimentary packet of poppy seeds to a businessman who'd stopped by. The businessman said, "Do they grow indoors? Or. . ."

"No, but you can try if you want, as long as you soak them first. . ."

My cell phone rang. It was a friend calling from Boston. "I'm at a guerrilla park," I told him.

"That sounds awesome," he said. "A very San Francisco day."

A bit too San Francisco, perhaps. It was 3:00, and the inevitable, frigid Pacific gale was nearly toppling the shrubbery. Then the meter ran out: I still hadn't finished my lunch when a woman arrived in a Volvo to haul the bench away. "I'm sorry, but we have got to take this," she said. A park(ing) attendant quickly added: "Thank you!" I probably would have fared better in the Presidio, but the fact that other people had actually been excited to see me take up a parking spot--instead of scowling or writing me a ticket--made the trip well worth it.

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Wal-Mart, More of a Dirty Brown Color

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 6:08 PM EDT

Wal-Mart has begun selling its own brand of inexpensive compact fluorescent lightbulbs, according to a Reuters article, as part of its effort to be more environmentally responsible. Called "Great Value" bulbs, they are "a more accessible option for our shoppers as we strive to sell 100 million CFLs by the end of 2007," said Wal-Mart General Merchandise Manager Andy Barron.

But, while Wal-Mart pushes its customers to be more green, the company itself has a long way to go, according to the folks over at Wal-MartWatch. A comprehensive report released this month called "It's Not Easy Being Green: The Truth About Wal-Mart's Environmental Makeover" discusses the tremendous amount of electricity used by the company, as well as its impacts on green space and wildlife, and contributions to sprawl and water pollution due to parking lot runoff. It also notes that, contrary to the company's public relations efforts, Wal-Mart still throws most of its financial support to politicians with terrible environmental voting records.

Mukasey: A Giuliani Republican?

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 4:21 PM EDT

Attorney General Michael Mukasey isn't a big giver when it comes to politics. He has donated only to a single federal candidate since 1989: his old pal Rudy. Mukasey and his wife have donated $5,600 to Giuliani's presidential campaign, reports the Center for Responsive Politics.

Mukasey and Giuliani have been friends since the 1970s, when the two worked together in the U.S. Attorney's office. When Giuliani became mayor, Mukasey, by then a federal judge, swore him in. Mukasey's son Marc also worked in Giuliani criminal law practice and has donated to Giuliani's campaign, and both Mukaseys have served on Giuliani's campaign advisory committees. No wonder conservatives don't like the guy!

Agreeing with Tom Vilsack...George W. Bush?

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 3:05 PM EDT

As I mentioned in my last post, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D-Corn) attacked Rudy Giuliani's shoddy family credentials. Turns out George W. Bush might also see them as a problem. Here's Bush on what he thinks the next president should be like:

"He should be comfortable with his family," Bush said. "Should be somebody who'll work hard to make sure there's love in the White House ..."

First, Bush obviously isn't comfortable with the "he or she" construction, as in "He or she should be comfortable with his family."

Second, I'm pretty sure the fact that Giuliani (1) has been married three times, once to a woman who was his cousin and once to a woman he divorced at a press conference; (2) barely, if ever, speaks to his own children, at least one of whom doesn't want him to be president, and (3) has been identified by a repeat adulterer.... well, that would suggest Rudy doesn't meet Bush's criteria. Maybe Bush is a Romney man.

Of course, this is all gossipy and trivial and you wish we would cover more substantive things. I know, I know. Cut me some slack, it's a Friday. Go read Winslow T. Wheeler.

Tom Vilsack Does Hillary Clinton's Dirty Work

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 2:07 PM EDT

There's a delicious lack of self-awareness on display in these comments by former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D). He suggests, without bringing up specifics, that there is trouble in Rudy Giuliani's personal life — the "number of marriages," the "relationship he has with his children." And then, in the same breath, Vilsack transitions to Hillary Clinton's history of familial problems and says, "We ought to be focused not on scandals. We ought to be focused on the direction of this country."

Let's talk for just one second about the wisdom of a Clinton aide drudging up someone else's sordid personal life. This is either a terrible idea, because it reminds everyone that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency we're going to have years and years of headlines and TV newscasts filled with psychodrama, or it's a dangerous but marginally okay idea because voters see Hillary as the wronged party in her relationship and don't assign her blame the way they would to Rudy.

Either way, that doesn't seem like a particularly strong political play. How about we cool it, Vilsack?

(H/T PrezVid)

Friday a Viable Day for Music News

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 2:06 PM EDT

Johnny Rotten

  • John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, says some pretty silly stuff. In an interview yesterday on the UK's Virgin Radio, the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited frontman called Sting a "soggy old dead carcass," said that Amy Winehouse doesn't have "much going on in her head," and that the music industry is "disgusting." Actually, wait a minute, this stuff isn't silly, these are just facts. Where's the outlandish punk-rock spirit, Johnny? When did you become Tom Brokaw?
  • Jay-Z's new single, "Blue Magic," gets played on the radio, ends up on the intertubes.
  • UK combo Keane follows Coldplay's lead in the "drum up interest in our new album by announcing it's influenced by something incongruous that people actually like" sweepstakes, saying rapper Dr. Dre may influence their new album. Drummer Richard Hughes posted on the band's website that "there's a lot of interesting stuff coming out of America ... I've been listening to people like Dr. Dre for a long time... we're going to try and do something different."
  • Possibly my most favoritest headline in the history of news reporting: "Nickelback In No Rush to Make New Album." You guys just relax, preferrably in a country without recording studios.
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    Another Reason to Skip the Muffin-Top Tattoo

    | Fri Sep. 21, 2007 1:34 PM EDT

    Which hurts more, getting a tattoo or giving birth without drugs?

    The Wall Street Journal ($) reports this week that there's some evidence to suggest that those ever-so-popular lower-back tattoos may cause complications from spinal epidurals given for pain-relief during childbirth. Unless they plan someday to make do with hee-breathing, young women contemplating the needle might want to forgo the permanent pink butterfly...

    French FM Kouchner a Class Act with Anti-War Protesters

    | Fri Sep. 21, 2007 11:53 AM EDT

    It was one of those traditional, staid Washington events: an audience of three or four hundred Washington diplomats, policy people, think tank denizens and journalists gathered in the gilded ballroom at the Capital Hilton for an audience yesterday with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, at an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We had all been offered ear pieces in case we needed translation, but Kouchner, the co-founder of French humanitarian medical relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, addressed the audience in good if heavily accented English. His speech started with a nod to past tensions in Franco-US relations (remember Freedom Fries?) and was moving onto the Middle East, when a group of women seated towards the front of the huge ballroom started moving to the stage unfurling their pink anti-war banner, and one woman seemed to try to grab Kouchner. The secret service agent could be heard telling Kouchner, 'Sir, we have to take you out," as several other security officers grabbed the women as they began chanting, "No war with Iran, no war with Iran." The audience, the Secret Service, and CSIS president John Hamre, sitting at the raised podium, were all momentarily stunned.

    But Kouchner recovered his composure first, and he asked at first it seemed merely perhaps politely, and later fully insisted to his host Hamre, that they let the activists back in. "But they are right. These ladies are right. I don't want war with Iran. Please let them back in." And to my surprise at least, after a couple minutes, the side doors of the large ballroom opened, and the women were escorted back to their seats by suited Secret Service types with the earpieces, not looking fully convinced of the wisdom of the move.

    Kouchner directed his remarks at several points to the Code Pink activists during his almost one hour of remarks (video available from C-Span). He said he did not want war with Iran, that he considered it the worst option, and a failure. He told them that an Iran with a nuclear bomb was also a worst case option. He said he advocated "dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue" and sanctions. He engaged them and asked them, what is their solution then. One woman suggested, dialogue with no sanctions. Kouchner responded to her why he felt that was insufficient. A few of the activists, perhaps a bit surprised themselves at the turn of events, offered sheepish thanks from their third row seats to Kouchner for asking that they be allowed back in. Later, one of the women stood on her chair, held up a poster, and let up a lonely chant, "What kind of doctor" blah blah blah. She was removed. The security guard later came back for her bag.

    Whatever one thinks of Kouchner and his foreign policy views, one was struck by how hard it is to even imagine any of the current U.S. administration handling such an outburst with anything approaching the willingness to engage shrill critics that Kouchner demonstrated at the scene. This administration and its critics have long operated in entirely different universes, top U.S. leaders have confined themselves to the most staged press and public events purged of critics to the extent possible.

    Later, in remarks about Darfur, Kouchner said, "For two years, nobody did anything except the activists. The activists are always right."


    Bush's Latest Big Fib

    | Fri Sep. 21, 2007 10:19 AM EDT

    In his press conference yesterday, President Bush let loose some whoppers in defending his plan to veto a popular, bipartisan bill that would extend health insurance to 4 million poor kids. Bush claimed that the bill would allow the program (known as SCHIP) to cover too many rich people, i.e., families earning up to $80,000 a year. Not only would this burden the taxpayers, but, he declared, it would lead all those families to (gasp!) drop private insurance in favor of the public program, making the bill "an incremental step toward the goal of government-run health care for every American."

    Most of this just isn't true. A recent Urban Institute study found that the vast majority of the families covered under the pending bill have incomes less than $42,000 (for a family of four!). And even kids covered by SCHIP get their actual insurance from private companies that contract with the states, so no socialized medicine there.

    That's why Bush's veto threat may be pretty irrelevant. Most of his own party is behind expanding the children's insurance program, including stalwart conservative Utah Republican senator Orrin Hatch, who provided perhaps the best quote of the debate so far. When asked by the Washington Post whether he would vote to override a Bush veto, he replied, "You bet your sweet bippy I will."

    The Dust-Off: Kate Bush - The Dreaming

    | Thu Sep. 20, 2007 8:29 PM EDT

    Kate BushCould we be witnessing an unlikely resurgence of interest in Kate Bush? Two pieces of evidence: one, on a recent trip to local record emporium Amoeba, I bought a CD copy of The Dreaming (to replace a warped vinyl copy, in order to write this piece) and the clerk said "Hey, we're selling a lot of these lately." I said, "What? Kate Bush?!!" And he goes, "Yeah, a couple just today." I was completely baffled, until watching TV that night, when I happened upon exhibit number two: a Kate Bush song, "This Woman's Work," is being used to promote an upcoming episode of "CSI."

    Accordingly, the song jumped into the iTunes Top 100. Weird! As the zeitgeist turns away from one Bush, is it turning for solace towards another? If so, I hope people don't forget The Dreaming, a shockingly strange album that may be the dark star around which the Kate Bush solar system rotates. Released 25 years ago this week, The Dreaming was Bush's fourth album in five years, but the first she produced herself, making it a sort of statement of intention, and that statement is "watch out."

    The singer had burst onto the UK scene in 1978 (at age 19), hitting #1 with her comparatively accessible single "Wuthering Heights." While she didn't entirely escape the cynical marketing techniques of the music industry (her label notoriously used a publicity photo that emphasized her, uh, voluptuous bosoms) Bush forged a path on The Dreaming that's hard to imagine any of today's young female singers taking. While the album features a variety of guest musicians, it revolves around Bush's use of the Fairlight synthesizer, whose sound has aged surprisingly well; its imitation trumpets and violins have unique depth and timbre, and Bush wrangles the instrument like a pro. Her production work is all the more astonishing considering the pre-Pro Tools era: track five, "Leave It Open," features at least three unique vocal effects, including a thick flange, a thin, sped-up reverb, and a flashy reverse-echo that zooms in from the right to the left channel. Try it on headphones, it's hella weird. And yes, that voice, one of the more impressive in pop music, or anywhere. While her mannerisms are easily mockable, they're never show-offy; on the contrary, in almost every song, she's willing to push her vocal chords to extreme lows, gravelly shouts, piercing hollers, all in service of the song. Like her beloved Fairlight, her voice is a malleable instrument, a tool for making sounds; this is a singer who makes Bjork look like Ashlee Simpson.

    Opening track, "Sat In Your Lap," alternates between 3/4 and 2/4 time; the title track trips along in 6/8; didgeridoos, bongos and even a bouzouki make appearances; this is one kooky listen, for sure. So it's surprising how simple and, in fact, childlike the central element of the album turns out to be: a piano, played in basic, loping chords, like a waltz or a march. It's with this familiar, comforting motif that Bush balances the album's eccentricities, like a children's story that uses the conventions of genre to introduce the surreal and fantastic. Appropriately, Bush's awe-inspiring collection of singles, The Whole Story, was one of my favorite albums as an insufferable 15-year-old; it's hard to separate how much of my feeling for her music now is nostalgia for my early adoration, or unbiased present appreciation. I think it can be both. For an artist whose career contains multiple masterpieces, The Dreaming is where she took control, an exhilarating moment where she aimed her career straight into uncharted territory.

    After the jump, mp3s and a video.