Saturday, September 30, 2006

Let's burn all the libraries

Posted by on 09.30.06 at 09:45 AM

There's an old joke about an ultraconservative Republican senator who was going to have a library named after him--shaped like an incinerator.

Like many old jokes, the Bush administration has rendered this one inoperative by turning it into policy. (And, yes, I know this isn't new news.) It's closing Environmental Protection Agency libraries around the country due to budget cuts. A succinct report with links is at Biolaw. Also at the American Library Association.

Raizel Liebler posted a well-reported story on the Chicago situation at Third Coast Press in July. Meanwhile the Region 5 library here has already gone away. The official theory is that the public and agency employees will get their information on the Web. But as government-employee union officials explained in a June 29 letter,

"The National Environmental Publications Information System, EPA's repository of electronic documents, currently holds about 13,000 documents. But the Agency has a total of about 80,000 documents that should be retained; most of these are not available in any electronic format."

Employees are concerned that these shutdowns will "impede the agency's daily enforcement capabilities and would also render EPA unprepared to respond to emergencies."

Region 5 still does offer some publications online--a total of eleven, one of which is the "Happy Earth Day Activity Book."

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Calvin Broadus in the building

Posted by on 09.29.06 at 03:57 PM

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I received a press release today telling me that Snoop Dogg is supposed to be in town Monday to host a listening party for his new record at Dragonfly Mandarin. To me the phrases "listening party" and "Snoop Dogg" add up to "probably won't show up until 1 AM if he shows up at all," but by all means check it out if you think you can make it through an entire Snoop record in one sitting. For the record, his album is called Blue Carpet Treatment, which I'm guessing is a Crips reference. Is it just me, or did his sudden return to blatant gang talk since "Drop It Like It's Hot" come off as weird and/or random? Like, was he trying to make up for being on Sesame Street or something? Or the fact that my parents know who he is? 

PS: Don't get this event confused with the Snoopy DogFest in Naperville on October 14th. Dragonfly Mandarin has Snoop Dogg, and Snoopy Dogfest has actual dogs. They are unrelated despite the fact that their press releases showed up in my in-box mere minutes from each other, which actually freaked me out a little.

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I miss socialism

Posted by on 09.29.06 at 11:41 AM

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Fresh from University of Chicago Press is a nice, nuanced read by Northwestern historian Carl Smith, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City.

The famous 1909 plan came from the city's business elite, of which Burnham himself was a member. And yet, Smith writes,

"The Plan speaks with surprising directness of the city's need and right to place limits on speculators and landowners. It does so not only when it states that the lakefront 'by right belongs to the people,' but also when it defends the public appropriation of real estate needed to widen streets and to eradicate threats to sanitation and health. 'It is no attack on private property,' the plan contends, 'to argue that society has the inherent right to protect itself against abuses.' If society does not exercise this right, the planners [i.e. businessmen] warned, it might be necessary to resort to socialism in some form. Chicago, unlike London, had not yet reached the point at which the city must intervene and provide housing for people living in unaaceptable conditions. Unless timely action was taken, however, the Plan predicts that 'such a course will be required in common justice to men and women so degraded by long life in the slums that they have lost all power of caring for themselves.'"

Leave aside the condescension, and the irony (in the subsequent 97 years Chicago's done public housing, and undone it -- the book to read, Where Are Poor People To Live?, is also new), and the eerie voice of a long-moribund brand of Republicanism, what strikes me in this passage is how important the specter of socialism was in keeping the excesses of capitalism in check. It's been at least a generation now since that specter was real, and the excesses keep piling up, extending even to brazen attempts to undo collective protections like insurance (which right-wingers would replace with individual medical savings accounts) and rudimentary elements of fairness like the estate tax (which respects the principle of a fair start for all individuals).

I'm not a fan of the city's now-aborted big-box minimum-wage ordinance. But in this light I'm scratching my head. Even an ill-conceived opposition is better than none. Maybe capitalism itself needs competition.

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Is that a lie in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

Posted by on 09.29.06 at 06:26 AM

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The hype on lie detectors, from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General (page 2 of 151--it's a PDF):

"Because physiological reactions can vary when subjects are telling the truth and when they are being deceptive, by comparing a subject's reactions to different questions a polygraph examiner can detect reactions that may indicate deceptive responses to specific questions. The results of polygraph examinations are generally not admissible in court. [ALERT!  ALERT!] However, various components of the Department use polygraph examinations, primarily for criminal, foreign counterintelligence and counteretrrorism investigations, administrative investigations (internal affairs and misconduct), and pre-employment and personnel security screening."

The facts, from University of Maryland physicist Bob Park Sept. 22 ("Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be"): "The polygraph can't tell a lie from the sex act. . . . [The Inspector General's report states that] the polygraph is used slightly less as an investigative tool (recall it failed to expose the Green River killer). But it is used increasingly to screen employees (recall it missed CIA super-mole Aldrich Ames, and has never uncovered a single spy). Meanwhile, brain research became the hottest frontier after physicists developed fMRI brain scanning, revealing what really goes on in our heads.  The report never mentions all the unrefuted science showing the polygraph is worse than useless. Nor does it mention fMRI research advances." (In fairness, the report was just taking stock, not recommending anything. But in all seriousness, why?)

The even more embarassing facts, again from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General (page 14 of 151):

"The FBI's program [which conducts most DoJ polygraph tests] was not certified as complying with federal standard [in 2003, 2004, and 2005] . . . because of repeated instances of noncompliance . . . [including] instances of improperly constructed questions, opinions on results . . . that were not supported by standard test scoring techniques, and the routine destruction of the score sheets that examiners and supervisors prepared when examining polygraph test results.  Although not all issues were finally resolved," the program was certified in January 2006.

There's just something so amusingly quaint about fussing over the right protocols for pseudoscience.  I wonder how the DoJ astrologers are measuring up to their professional standards.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Who are you, Jan Terri?

Posted by on 09.28.06 at 03:12 PM

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The Blender magazine/Fark.com site--apparently someone decided that the best partner for a magazine that's obsessed with Ashlee Simpson's boobs would be a Web site that's obsessed with a squirrel's balls--isn't where you go to discover whatever British/midwestern/teenage band is going to blow up the internets for the next three days. But it's usually good for some gossip, or learning what insane thing Michael Jackson is talking about now. Today it does a valuable service by pointing us to this piece of low-budget video gold. As a piece of Chicago music history, this is huge. Really, aside from the "Super Bowl Shuffle" we have very little idea what the city's vanity rock projects were like at the time. Did they involve big hair? Were there mega-weak guitar solos? Did the videos inexplicably focus on "No Parking" signs? Was Mike Ditka moonlighting as a limo driver? Thanks to this video we now know that the answer to most of these questions is, "Probably." 

Also, the vocal melody and the singer's eccentric phrasing sound exactly like Daniel Johnston, which creeps me out for some reason.

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Funk carioca today

Posted by on 09.28.06 at 11:58 AM

A couple of days ago a reader disputed my claim that Tetine was behind the curve, gently calling me a “clueless American crit.” Because the duo hosts a radio show on England’s Resonance station called Slum Dunk and has curated a decent collection of funk carioca, they've gotten lots of exposure, which has allowed them to become flavor of the moment. Most funk carioca artists in Rio de Janeiro are from favelas (slums) and thus poor, have scant access to the media, and don’t speak English. Tetine’s take on funk carioca has a relatively high-tech gloss that's missing from the real Brazilian stuff. That on its own isn't a good reason to disparage their music; it only takes a pair of ears to realize that they're ridiculously over-the-top to the point of parody.

What rubs me the wrong way is that while Tetine may be aware of what’s happening in Rio, they’re bandwagon jumpers. Check out earlier Tetine tracks like “She’s Not a Girl Who Misses Much” and “Russian Roulette” and it’s clear that in a previous incarnation not so long ago they were riding a lame musical trend: weak neo-80s synth pop.

I spent a few weeks in Brazil earlier this year, and a fantastic tune called “Ela So Pensa Em Beijar” by MC Leozinho was the ubiquitous summertime hit. (The best way for an American to buy the song is to pick up this strange compilation, a collection of Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho’s fave tunes.) The song grabbed me because it was adapting the beats of funk carioca for pop music, using strummed acoustic guitars, melodic synth patterns, and mildly soulful, sung vocals rather than the usual gruff rapping. Funk Mix, a swell new anthology compiled by DJ Marlboro—the longtime kingpin of Rio’s funk carioca scene and Diplo’s key Brazilian buddy—proves that the sound of the MC Leozinho track was no fluke, but rather a new paradigm. The collection has some straight-up, lean funk carioca: “Satisfação” by Tati Quebra-Barraco (whose mighty “Boladona,” which swiped its primary melody line from Devo’s “Mongoloid," was another smash in Brazil this year) and “Cria Asa, Periquita” by MC Brio Levby, which nicely samples some yodeling. But most the CD follows the new model, with a distinct R & B twist that betrays R. Kelly’s reach.

It’s not all good, but it’s a fascinating (and perhaps inevitable) commercially oriented mutation of standard funk carioca, whose bares-bones rawness is one of its most appealing characteristics. I’m not about to prognosticate on the future of Brazilian pop music, but this stuff certainly seems more fecund and exciting than the warmed-over slop Tetine was dishing out at the Empty Bottle last week.

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I can't believe it's science

Posted by on 09.28.06 at 11:41 AM

  • The blister beetles' variant of the badger game. In the southwest, baby blister beetles assemble on a blade of grass and emit smells that simulate those of a female bee. When assaulted by an unwitting male bee, they hitch a ride on him. When he finally blunders into an actual female [your joke here], they jump off onto her, ride back to her nest, eat her offspring and its food, grow up, live long, and prosper. Technical description here. (Hat tip to Coturnix.)

  • Outsource your internal organs? It's been done. A Mediterranean worm has bacteria that eat and excrete on its behalf. Says one researcher, "In exchange for housing, the microbes take care of energy production and handling the waste." Technical description here. (Hat tip to Science Blog.)  [This inevitably reminds me of an old Dave Barry column in which he abused the Donald but then added in mitigation that he hadn't meant to imply that Donald Trump picked his nose. "That's what he has a staff for," he wrote.]

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Carving up the Wal-Mart pie

Posted by on 09.28.06 at 06:21 AM

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Jason Kuznicki puts real numbers into the big-box discussion at Positive Liberty:  

"Wal-Mart is a corporation, not a fountain of limitless cash that we can approach with a pail and a shovel. We can shame Wal-Mart all we like, but it will not enrich the chain’s employees. . . .

"Let’s imagine, though, a perfectly altruistic Wal-Mart, a Wal-Mart that took every bit of its net income and returned it directly to the employees. We shall forget, for the moment, that this would also drop Wal-Mart’s stock price to zero (no dividend and no possibility of growth means no reason to invest). We shall also forget that our new firm—call it Charity-Mart—will entirely lack the ability to meet unforseen contingencies. We shall even put out of our minds the imminent dissolution of the firm, which would surely be the result of this disastrous policy. Hey, whatever. Imagine no possessions and all that. . . . So here are the numbers, if we returned absolutely everything Wal-Mart made to the employees:

"10.267 billion net income / 1.6 million employees = A one-time cash payoff of . . . $6,626.25. Which they will have to spend wisely, since they will momentarily be out of a job." (Read the whole thing; the comments are intelligent and civil as well.)

Kuznicki has hold of an important part of the truth, but not the whole thing. He leans heavily on the fact that lots and lots of people apply for jobs at Wal-Mart--so by definition, no matter how menial or ill-paid they are, they've decided that they're better off with those jobs than with the alternatives.

Does the voluntary presence of employees prove Wal-Mart's critics wrong? No. That argument proves too much. It would also justify the repugnant situation in which people were applying for jobs that paid one cent an hour because the alternative was chattel slavery.

The market system that enables Wal-Mart to find ways to sell cheaply is legally bound by our collective decision that some forms of employment are not tolerable. Minimum-wage laws, laws against slavery, occupational health and safety laws, environmental laws, all define the market playing field. Within that field wealth is created. If the play gets too rough, we pass laws to change the shape of the field. That's what the City Council tried to do--and eventually that fiasco may force people like Mayor Daley to actually lobby at the state or federal level for a more effective minimum-wage law than any single city can pass.

 

 

 

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Stop! Please!

Posted by on 09.27.06 at 06:49 PM

Pitchfork points out that there's a new Web site for Ryan Adams, a man who seems to make a living by making an ass of himself. Although I'm sure it's supposed to be funny, the sound track at the new site features Adams, who must think he has enough talent to tackle any genre, rapping. Really. At least Devendra Banhart sticks to strumming a guitar and cackling in that vibrato-laden falsetto of his.

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M.I.A. in the M.I.X.

Posted by on 09.27.06 at 02:53 PM

Pitchfork has a report on M.I.A. dropping a spontaneous club set in Baltimore, as well as the latest news on her alleged "Bird Flu" project. The concept is not only becoming dated--most of us have moved on from bird flu to worrying about inevitable global ecological calamity, and more advanced worriers are fearing wandering black holes--it's also kinda biting. Pitchfork also calls M.I.A. a "mash-up diva" in the piece, which seems to be a running problem with them. I think maybe they're getting "mash-ups" confused with "beats" and "sampling," which is what she actually does. Maybe in the future they'll call Scott Storch a "mash-up king." I would actually like that. Maybe it's the rare couple of good mash-ups people have made with M.I.A. songs that has P-fork mixed up. But just because Fergie rips her off so hard on "London Bridge" that replacing the original vocals with M.I.A.'s on "Pull Up the People" not only improves the song but makes more sense out of it, that doesn't make M.I.A. a "mash-up diva." But whether Fergie is a "rip-off" or just "pathetic" is still up in the air.

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