Thursday, January 27, 2005

Once again, too damn busy to post anything original. But these are worth noting:

Doug Feith, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Fafblog on American independence from Europe, the UK, Congress, and the CIA.

Dan Kennedy's list of ways to make reruns more interesting by adding weapons. (Seriously, this may be the funniest thing I've read in a long while.)

New soul singer John Legend, whose songs tend toward the "I know I cheated on you, but I also know you're going to forgive me" variety. Charming and swinging. (Jury's still out on his voice, which is interestingly crackly and distinctly more flawed than the usual soul singer's. Plus or minus?)

The Comics Curmudgeon, who reads the comics page so you don't have to. His recent installment on a puzzling "For Better or Worse" is hysterical -- make sure to read the comments, in which the "explanation" of the strip becomes clear. And be sure to keep an eye out for those roadside chicks, man. They're hangin' high.

This ancient video of outtakes from a Winnebago commercial. (NSFW, if your boss has a problem with the genial Winnebago salesman spewing a stream of F-bombs.)

The less glamorous side of cheerleading.

Wounded American troops are being forced to pay for their food at Walter Reed.

And, for God's sake, help preserve and disseminate "Eyes on the Prize," a documentary that is in danger of falling off the face of the earth.

 7:47 AM

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Okay, okay, the really interesting thing in Bush's Washington Times interview was not his claim that he doesn't "see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord," which is what is getting all the play in the hand-wringing lefty blogosphere. (Bush -- who has been repeatedly proven to be hugely ignorant of Judeo-Christian history, theology, and the Bible -- clearly doesn't remember any of the nasty-bad kings of Israel recounted in the Samuels, Kingses, and Chronicleses, none of whom were on very good terms with the Gal Upstairs.)

No, the interesting part was this passage:

"I think people attack me because they are fearful that I will then say that you're not equally as patriotic if you're not a religious person," Mr. Bush said. "I've never said that. I've never acted like that. I think that's just the way it is."

Now, the only way to read this statement literally is that he "thinks" that it just "is" a fact that irreligious people are "not equally as patriotic," though people have the wrong idea about him because he would never say it out loud. Except, of course, to a prominent conservative news media source.

But because no one ever takes the President at his word, his comment will be taken to mean that the "that's just the way it is" refers to the fear and not to his actual thoughts. And because he was talking to the news media, he probably meant something like that, because he's no dummy. Moreover, he made a clearer distinction later in the interview, when he contrasted America with the Taliban. That's heartening, I guess, if your expectations are in the cellar.

Yet I'm not inclined to give him a pass. He insists on "strict constructionism" from his appointed judges, why shouldn't we apply the same standard to him? After all subtlety from Kerry was blasted away, I'm sick and damn tired of the media giving Bush a pass when he trips over his tongue in meaningful statements.

So. Headlines:
President Feels "Attacked" By People Afraid He Will Say What He Thinks
Bush Says Non-Religious "Not Equally As Patriotic," Though He Would Never Say So Out Loud
Bush: "It's Rude To Acknowledge That Atheists Hate America"
Bush: "God Is My Co-Pilot"
Bush: "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Lord"

 3:51 PM
I have concluded that the single funniest thing on the Internets these days is fafblog, which is a series of postings by fafnir, giblets and medium lobster. It's a bit of an acquired taste, as all three have a very distinct and peculiar style of writing, but "Sinners In The Hands of an Angry President" is one of the funniest things I've read in a while -- perhaps because I've been engaged in so much theological debate lately. A close second is the next post, which compares Alberto Gonzales to a baked potato and finds him wanting.

Oh, and from our "where are they now" file, do you remember that there was something about "weapons of mass destruction" in the news a long way back? Something about how Iraq had WMDs that could be launched against Americans in a matter of minutes? And then, when they weren't right where Rumsfeld said they would be, our Lord and President told us to be patient and to let the inspectors do their work?


Yeah, me neither.

That's why I was surprised to read this article in the Washington Post, which explains that the inspectors officially gave up shortly before Christmas. They weren't there -- or if they were there, they've been long since stolen by the insurgents. And "the possibility is small" that there's any truth to the Administration theory (which I keep hearing from folks in the office) that they were secreted into Syria just before the invasion.

Guess there's nothing newsworthy there.

 10:01 AM

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Exhausting morning with the guy down the hall at my office, a partner at the firm. I enjoy talking with him, but sometimes the conversation can be tiring (once the adrenalin wanes), especially when religion comes up. He has rejected religion, and religiosity, as a defect in the human condition that cripples our understanding. Accordingly, he loves to pose hard questions, to see whether people of faith truly understand what they believe. He has recently been bragging that he wrung a complete capitulation from a Catholic associate here in the office, so there's blood in the water.

It's amazing how much he takes on faith without recognizing it as such.

Anyway, he had some questions for me this morning arising from an article in the NY Observer, regarding the crisis of faith some are having over the tsunami in Asia. (Side note: Really, people, let's keep this all in perspective. In 1970, a natural disaster in Bangladesh killed 500,000 people. Why should this new tragedy suddenly shake your faith, if it was intact yesterday? Because it's newer? Because you were a poor student of history?)

We had a far-ranging debate over the problem of theodicy and the moral distinction between an unsafe humanity (which can immediately be ascribed to free will) and an unsafe natural world (which cannot be so easily ascribed). Ultimately, setting aside the meat of the argument, I find myself frustrated with the arguments often employed by this partner, and the article, and most of those who reject or alienate religious thought. They set up a straw man in the place of religion, usually because the author/interrogator has not the wit or dedication to truly understand the complexity of theology. They they tear down their own ill-informed straw man gleefully, without realizing that they have done nothing but expose the limits of their own understanding. That is the failing of this particular article: no one should crow about the conclusions of an argument that completely fails to recognize Calvinist/reform theology, or which takes as a given that Rabbi Harold Kushner has given the last (pathetic) word on the subject. Sheesh -- if you're going to claim you've out-wrestled God, at least wrestle the varsity team first. (Admittedly, there seem to be fewer and fewer Christians who have wrestled the varsity team themselves. To this end, I commend the indictment that is Os Guinness's Fit Bodies, Fat Minds.)

I get so tired of sloppy, egocentric attacks on faith. "Aha! Don't you see that either God is not God, or God is not good," sneers this article. Yes, I understand your pithy little aphorism, thanks for arriving at the party several millenia late. Now ask yourself the next question in Theology for Dummies: what is "good"? Have you truly considered the possibility that the problem is with your own definition of "good"?

God does not -- will not -- provide safety on this Earth. Not even to His faithful, no matter how hard they ask. Is that "good"? If not, what is "good"? What would a "good" earth look like?

As for me, I'll take this earth. The natural world is terrible and wonderful; it bears cathedrals of redwoods, and crisp morning air, and hells of lava under tectonic plates that churn the seas and snap the cords of life. I don't blame God for creating that world, because I can just begin to see the glimmers of wise purpose -- and even aesthetic beauty -- in that balance. Ultimately, an unsafe world is a world without training wheels. In an unsafe world, own free will can give rise to true self-determination and a search for faith in the quiet places. Anything less would smack of artifice. I admit, there's a certain leap of faith in that conclusion, because I like comfort as much as the next person. And this world hurts. A lot. But it's good.

 11:33 AM

Monday, January 10, 2005

As a follow-up to my earlier post, I recommend this iTunes iMix. It's called "Straight from the Crate," and it pairs well-known hip-hop songs with the original songs that they sampled. It's a good way of refreshing yourself as to the way the hook sounded in its original context, and comparing what the hip-hop artist has done with it. In some cases, not much. In others, it's become something completely new.

And the Rap Dictionary is a Wiki that attempts to define and explain hip-hop concepts and people. For instance, "fo shizzle my nizzle" is tenderly translated as "For sure my african american brother."

Finally, by way of contrast, here is Jennifer Garner's Celebrity iMix. This can't bode well for the fourth season of Alias. Of course, Alias already suffers from the most surefire shark-jumper of all. Once you've introduced a magical/sci-fi machine that can make people look like other people, and used that machine to un-kill people, then there's no way to take the series seriously again. Why get all worked up over a character's passing when you're not sure that the real character died? I think that was the real problem with some of Jane Austen's later work -- all the damn clones.

 2:12 PM

Friday, January 07, 2005

Music: A Review, A Manifesto, And A Rambling Monologue

Reading the news this morning, I see that the music industry finally managed to increase album sales in 2004. I have certainly done my part to help them, though it seems almost comical that of the Top Ten albums, I own none of them. I don't even respect them. (Evanescence? Ashlee Simpson?) My eleventy-billion albums -- for that is how many I bought -- don't show up on the media radar.

But despite that fact, there is a strange tension building in the music industry. It's been a peculiar year for music, or at least it looks that way if you read Pitchfork and Stylus and the armada of MP3 blogs spreading the hipster gospel throughout the blogosphere, each of which has offered its own listing of the top albums and singles of the year. After some reflection, I would give "top single" honors to "Toxic" by Britney Spears. That is not sarcasm, by the way. And even stranger, the aforementioned hipsterati would usually agree with me. (Some prefer Usher's "Yeah.") So despite the fact that I didn't buy any of the top ten albums, I did buy some of the top songs. It's not safe to dismiss the "mainstream" as irrelevant, any more than 60's acid rockers could dismiss Motown, because there's some amazingly inventive stuff out there in hip-hop and dance music.

I would give "top album" honors to Madvillainy, an "underground" hip-hop album. It may be worth noting that in hip-hop, "underground" doesn't refer to being "underground" any more than "indie" still refers to "independent" status in rock. (See media darlings Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and Arcade Fire.) "Underground" now means "not obsessed with thugs, pimps and whores." Anyway, Madvillainy is ruthlessly inventive and endlessly exciting, like I imagine jazz was once upon a time. Once again, the most inventive and interesting work being done in popular music is being done in hip-hop. Sturgeon's Rule* still applies, but it's the source of significant hope for the future.

[* When asked why 90% of science fiction is such crap, SF author Theodore Sturgeon responded that "90% of everything is crap."]

The stranger trend is the fact that the free hip-hop is the best.

Though I would call Madvillainy the best album, my favorite albums this year were these:

The Grey Album by DJ Dangermouse, Jay-Z and The Beatles (Jay-Z remixed with unlicensed Beatles samples)
A Night At the Hiphopera by the Kleptones (hip-hop samples mashed with unlicensed Queen samples and, sometimes, entire tunes)
Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1, by M.I.A. and Diplo (collaboration between MC and DJ/mashup artist using unlicensed beats)

Each album was a triumph of the DJ's art, in which incredibly talented musicians showed that "piracy" is about a lot more than simple duplication of crappy CDs by shady businessmen in a market stall in Shanghai. These artists looked in their toolboxes, found just the right material for a song, and used it -- regardless of the fact that the "material" was unlicensed and thus illegal. Who cares? Make the song and release it and move on.

More importantly, each album is more than a simple stunt. The Grey Album could have been simply a joke -- Jay-Z's The Black Album mixed with The White Album. But Dangermouse was able to use the beats to add to the flow, to comment on it. He made a new work of art that was more than the sum of its parts. A Night At The Hiphopera is straightforward mashup, not true hip-hop, but it resurrected the worth of a lot of Queen songs by finding a lot of similarities between their bombast and the well-known belligerence of hip-hop artists. (And it was simply brilliant to mash "Under Pressure" with "Ice, Ice Baby," Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is A Place On Earth," and Prince Paul.) And Piracy Funds Terrorism is a fascinating "mixtape" collaboration between Sri Lankan-born, London rapper M.I.A., and Diplo, a mashup artist who brought a constellation of unlicensed world beats that perfectly mix with M.I.A.'s sparse style. (For instance, suddenly you realize that M.I.A.'s flow has given way to "Walk Like An Egyptian," which is why the whole thing remains quite illegal.) It's particularly interesting because it was a collaborative effort -- M.I.A. helped out with the "illegal" appropriation of her own music. And Madvillainy could be placed in the company of these albums. Madlib is another one of the incredibly innovative DJs working today, which is why his collaboration with MF Doom (Madvillainy) was such an inspiring work. It is not a coincidence that Madvillainy started out as an illegal collaboration, or at least one in which legality was not an issue. It was their good fortune that a record label was able to license all of the samples and release the disc.

The nature of art is changing in a way that Roland Barthes never could have predicted -- or at least, that couldn't have been predicted by his numbskulled disciples, who remain trapped in their own useless heads. Pomo failed as an intellectual movement, because it's uninspiring and hollow at its core. But deconstruction works in hip-hop, because the Apollonian is torn down and used as the foundation of a new, Dionysian art. And if you don't like it, stop complaining and get on the dance floor. Life's too damn short. The world eats itself on a daily basis; why shouldn't music?

In short, the music industry is in the midst of a fully-fledged meltdown. Its best artists are able to flout the law by giving away their most adventurous work, which builds their reputation and allows them to charge more for their legal efforts. The best-selling artists are widely derided as ludicrous cheesemongers. The radio stations have made themselves irrelevant through their support of said cheesemongers. And because America is starting to develop a lactose intolerance for all that cheese, the industry is moving toward a slice-and-dice, one-song-at-a-time, listen-when-I-want-and-where-I-want model.

For instance, I generally like U2, and this year I was finally able to buy their new album How To Dismantle A Stellar Reputation in the way I have wanted to buy every one of their albums since Rattle and Hum: cherry-picking the three songs that reviewers indicate are the only songs worth owning. Thus, I can wholeheartedly endorse the new U2 disc as having held my attention throughout its ten-minute runtime on my iPod. Thanks, iTunes!

For instance, I bought "Toxic." But I paid $1 for it, not $18 for the entire insipid album. Thanks, iTunes!

For instance, of all the albums I recommended this year, 75% of my recommendations went to albums that were "free" (read: illegally posted on the Net). I didn't recommend them because they were free, I recommended them because they were the best music had to offer this year. Thanks, mp3bloggers!

For instance, I found out about great new music from two sources: (1) the internet, including mp3blogs that illegally post songs for the purpose of evaluation and "spreading the gospel," and (2) XM Radio. Screw you, Clear Channel radio!

God only knows where the "music industry" is going next. But the decentralization of information sources is here to stay, and lawsuits will never be enough to stem the tide.

By the way -- check out "Drop It Like It's Hot." Well worth the $1.

 9:18 AM

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Ten Things I Learned Over The Holidays
[and the source of my newfound knowledge]

1. The words "nobody" and "stinky" are really, really funny. [from Jonah]
2. "Snow" is, apparently, defined as a natural phenomenon occurring only when I am not present. [from leaving the steaming, sweltering swamp called Houston just before it got its first snow in decades]
3. The Covenant Carbine is a surprisingly effective general-use weapon; though not as effective at long range as the Beam Rifle, it is easy to use in mission-critical sniper situations and, more importantly, remains effective in a wide variety of circumstances. [from Halo 2]
4. The state of Louisiana is 842,503,204 miles wide, and Elmo starts to grate on the nerves after the first six or seven hours. [from the car trip]
5. Every single time you press "Start," you automatically lose at least two hours of your life. [from Halo 2]
6. No matter how much you look forward to an event like Christmas, it still passes at the rate of one minute per minute. [general realization]
7. I never appreciated Dick Clark until I saw Ryan Sechrest trying to host a New Year's Eve show. [from Fox TV]
8. Despite our efforts to tame it, the natural world still possesses an almost unthinkable capacity for snatching away the lives of humans -- each of whom suddenly seem much more fragile than before. [from Tsunami news coverage]
9. Constant, purposeful movement forward is a necessity if you don't want to be overtaken and killed. [from Halo 2]
10. Constant, purposeful movement forward is a necessity if you don't want to be overtaken and killed. [from the year 2004]

 1:58 PM

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