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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fire yr idols

Posted By on 08.31.06 at 05:25 PM

Today the Village Voice fired long-time rock critic Robert Christgau. The paper, which was sold late last year to alt-weekly chain New Times, axed music editor Chuck Eddy back in April, and rumors were soon rampant that Christgau--the the self-appointed "dean of rock critics"--was the next to go. It took a bit longer than most expected, but he's gone now too, leaving almost none of the seasoned staff that gave the paper its reputation long before New Times honcho Michael Lacey started cleaning house. A note from Christgau can be found here.

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Kneel down. Pull those weeds.

Posted By on 08.31.06 at 12:35 PM

Mark Kastel and his colleagues at the Cornucopia Institute in Wisconsin are keeping a close eye on how factory farms sneak into organic agriculture by exploiting loopholes in federal regulations. Writing in the Nation, Felicia Mello comes up on the same problem from the workers' point of view.

As anyone who's tried it knows, growing plants organically involves subsituting labor (weeding) for capital (a bottle of herbicide). Mello gives the figures for Grimmway, a California megafarm growing baby carrots: "In a conventional field, one worker can spray weeds with pesticides at a cost of $30 per acre . . . .  Organic farming requires crews of laborers for weeding that can cost up to $1,000 per acre."

Are the workers at least better off for not having to deal with pesticides?  Yes, but not as much as environmentalists such as myself would think.  Between 1990 and 1999, almost half of the major insurance claims (i.e., more than $5,000) paid to California farmworkers were for strain injuries.  Just 1.5 percent had to do with pesticides. Cesar Chavez knew what he was doing when he made outlawing the short-handled hoe a cause.

Organic growers aren't much more likely to favor farmworker unions than are conventional growers. Mello does profile one grower who's making a go of it with a union contract, but more typical is the single mother farmworker who told her, "I buy food grown with chemicals so I can save to buy something else."

Read the whole thing.

FYI: Industrious Gristmill blogger David Roberts asks if there are ways to get people to "care about the broader food system," but suggests only flavor or distance-traveled labeling. Mello reports that there is already an organized effort at some kind of social labeling as well.

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Atrazine: because you can never have too many hermaphrodites

Posted By on 08.31.06 at 06:39 AM

"In the summer of 1997, Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, accepted what seemed a harmless offer to join a panel of eight other scientists investigating the safety of the common weed-killer atrazine."

If you get to read anything longer than a paragraph this week, read the whole thing at

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Trawling the Net

Posted By on 08.30.06 at 07:06 PM

Some worthwhile stuff floating around the good old Interweb . . .

  • Destination: Out: MP3s of classic free jazz cuts with some passionate commentary. It’s a good spot for newbies; recent offerings include Lester Bowie, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor.

  • Greenleaf Music: The site for trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf label also has an interesting blog. Douglas is not only an incredible musician, but a deep thinker, and of late he’s been discussing the need for a thorough, unbiased history of serious contemporary music: “The history that needs to be told includes all sorts of music from all sorts of traditions: contemporary classical, music from non-U.S. of A. parts of the world, electric music, pop, blues, country, pure improvisation and purely imaginary traditions.”

  • PostClassic: Contemporary-classical writer Kyle Gann offers some thoughts on the recent death of composer James Tenney.


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Measuring poverty with a broken yardstick

Posted By on 08.30.06 at 12:09 PM

I'm no fan of the American Enterprise Institute, the D.C. policy shop that harbors Michael "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business" Ledeen.  But as far as I know, AEI's Nicholas Eberstadt is trying to understand reality, and his latest article aims a powerful destructo beam at the way the U.S. has defined poverty since the mid-60s.

The poverty line, which is now built into all kinds of government helping programs, was drawn up by a woman, Mollie Orshansky, who had first-hand experience with hunger. The line is essentially three times a minimum food budget, a level below which "everyday living implied choosing between an adequate diet of the most economical sort and some other necessity." Though adjusted for inflation, it's meant to measure absolute poverty (eating vs. not eating), not relative poverty (eating hamburger vs. foie gras). A War on Poverty wouldn't make much sense otherwise.

The percentage of Americans in poverty, as officially defined, dropped sharply during the 60s, but since 1973 it's either leveled off or risen a bit. "We have had a generation with basically no progress against poverty," the University of Michigan's Sheldon Danziger told the New York Times in 2004. "The economic growth is not trickling down to the poor."

Well, that's what the official definition would lead you to believe. About one American in eight (12.7 percent) lived below the official poverty line in 2004, compared to one in nine (11.1 percent) in 1973. So all those people must be just as bad off in real terms as they were three decades before, right?

Well, embarrassingly enough, no. They're better off. Eberhardt writes:

  • "According to the National Pediatric Surveillance System of the CDC, the percentage of low-income children under five years of age who were categorized as underweight (in terms of BMI for age) dropped from 8 in 1973 to 5 in 2003."

  • "In 1970, almost 27 percent of poverty-level households were officially considered overcrowded [i.e. more than one person per room]. By 2001, according to the AHS [American Housing Survey], just 6 percent of poor households were 'overcrowded'--a lower proportion than for nonpoor households as recently as 1970." Since 1980 the average heated square footage per household member among the poor has risen from 371 to 472.

  • In 1972, about 40 percent of households in the bottom fifth of income had a car; in 2003, more than 60 percent did. "For all forms of motor transport, U.S. poverty households' ownership levels in 2003 matched overall U.S. families' auto ownership levels from the early 1960s."

  • In the early 1970s, 60 percent of poverty-level adults had untreated cavities; by the late 1990s, the rate was 40 percent.


If the poor were really just as poor in 2004 as in 1973, none of this would be happening--and it's easy to imagine an alternative present in which it hadn't been. The poverty line isn't measuring what we think it is.

As Eberstadt firmly states, none of this implies that everything is fine, or that relative deprivation doesn't matter. It does imply that our yardstick for measuring absolute poverty is badly broken.

He suggests several reasons why it isn't doing the job Mollie Orshansky had in mind.  The most interesting is that people's incomes are a lot more variable than they used to be, especially at the low end. A Census Bureau survey found that "at some point during the four years 1996-1999, fully 34 percent of the [non-institutionalized] population spent two months or more below the poverty line. On the other hand, just two percent of the population spent all 48 months of 1996-99 below the poverty line."  (That rate was over five percent for blacks and Hispanics, something Eberstadt probably wouldn't mention if he were acting as a shill for conservative policies.) Since almost all the blog posts I can find on this subject are conservatives jumping to conclusions and yukking it up, note that this bit of evidence might well argue against lifetime limits on welfare assistance.

Anybody know of any evidence that the poverty line really is measuring what it's supposed to be measuring?

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Five surprises

Posted By on 08.30.06 at 07:24 AM

  • Boeing's new plane emits no CO2, only water. Of course, it's a two-seater that maxes out at 70 MPH.  Treehugger picks up on a Sunday Times report. Scientific American has more.


  • There's fantasy everything--even Texas high-school football and dog shows, reports Mental Floss.

  • Baby math. "Babies ranging from six to nine months old looked at incorrect solutions 1.1 seconds longer than correct ones." Check it out at Seed magazine.


  • Bitch. Ph.D. offers parent hacks: "3yo can be a pest, especially if she knows there is a big trip coming. Mrs. Nym bought a cheap calendar, and we're x-ing off the days. 3yo can count them down. We also draw little icons for events we're planning, which gives her a sense of what will be happening. Net result: much less pestilence. On that subject." More here.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Recovery mission

Posted By on 08.29.06 at 07:48 PM


Throughout its history Drag City Records has extended its reach beyond contemporary artists to reissue music from some of the most overlooked iconoclasts of the 60s, 70s and, 80s (Gary Higgins, Big Flame, Half Japanese), as well as put out new material by veterans still doing bold work (Mayo Thompson’s Red Krayola, Scott Walker). Recently the label has released albums by two more greats from the 70s. One's a cult hero, and the other's totally unknown.

Bill Fay was one of the most interesting and literate folk-rockers to emerge in England on the cusp of the 70s. He made two superb albums for the Decca subsidiary Deram—1970's Bill Fay and 1971's Time of the Last Persecution, both reissued last year by Eclectic Discs. He was backed by some of the country’s most progressive jazz musicians of the time, players who were conversant in myriad styles and shared a sophisticated improvisational and harmonic language. Bill Fay featured nearly 30 musicians, organized by arranger Mike Gibbs; among them were saxophonist John Surman, Soft Machine drummer John Marshall, and guitarist Ray Russell—a titanic talent who bridged the gap between free jazz and psychedelic rock like no one else. (A new Russell album, Goodbye Svengali, was released on Cuneiform earlier this year). The follow-up was much darker and stripped-down, with Russell’s searing leads emerging as a key lyric feature.

The record-buying public didn’t respond to the records, and Fay stopped recording under his name and took on day jobs. But in the mid-70s he did hook up with an aggressive jazz-rock trio called the Acme Quartet, made up of younger musicians who were fans of the Russell-era style, but capable of adapting to Fay's more relaxed vocal style. They recorded an album’s worth of material between 1978-1982, but it remained unreleased until Jnana--the label affiliated with Current 93’s David Tibet—put it out in late 2004 as Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow. It’s a gorgeous collection that sets Fay slightly wry but melodic singing amid elegant piano figures, stately rhythms, and the occasional guitar explosion, courtesy Gary Smith. While Fay is often compared with Nick Drake and Bob Dylan, his idiosyncratic, gentle singing doesn't really owe a debt to anyone; there are things about the album that remind me of the solo work by fellow Brit Robert Wyatt, but their voices sound nothing alike.

Drag City released Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow on vinyl in late July, and it's shown similar good taste in the case of fingerstyle guitarist Mark Fosson. A few years back, while asking her mother is she had any John Fahey records, singer Tiffany Anders (daughter of filmmaker Allison Anders) discovered that her cousin had once played with the legendary guitarist. In her charming liner notes to The Lost Takoma Sessions she explains that Fosson had sent an unsolicited demo to Fahey, who was thrilled with the music--a photo of the tape package features Fahey’s scrawled note reading, “best demo tape I’ve heard since Kottke”--and asked the Kentucky native come to LA and play some gigs with him. He left for LA in January of 1977 and recorded an album for Fahey’s Takoma imprint the following month. Unfortunately, by then the label was in deep financial trouble, and before Fosson’s record was ever released Fahey was forced to sell Takoma to Chrysalis Records. Fahey returned the master recordings to Fosson, who tried in vain to find another label to release the music. It was soon relegated to his garage until Anders’s curiosity led to him digging it out, which eventually led to Drag City getting hold of it and releasing it late last month.

Early Leo Kottke is certainly a good point of reference for Fosson’s playing, a technically dazzling mix of gorgeous melody and deft counterpoint. Compared with the complex, blues-derived constructions of Fahey, which drew upon elaborate structures of Indian classical music, Fosson sounds straight-ahead, but his original tunes are filled with shape-shifting episodes sewn together with invisible threads—the music rolls forward with the fluid motion of the finest bluegrass picker, but its studded with fanciful harmonic thickets, counter-melodies, and pinpoint rhythmic clarity.

It’s actually not Fosson's first album. After the Takoma deal went sour he remained in LA and started pitching songs to MCA Records. He didn't have much luck, but he did get involved with the city’s underground country and singer-songwriter scenes, and even had some tunes included on A Town South Of Bakersfield Vol 2, a 1988 collection put together by Dwight Yoakam producer and guitarist Pete Anderson that also included tunes by Jim Lauderdale and Lucinda Williams. But it wasn’t until last year that Fosson finally released a collection of own music, Jesus on a Greyhound. It's a solid collection of rootsy country-rock, but the music on The Lost Takoma Sessions is something really special.

If that’s not enough, in October Drag City is releasing The Black Swan, a terrific new album by Bert Jansch, a long-time guitarist in the excellent 70s folk-rock band the Pentangle. The new record was coproduced by Jansch and Noah Georgeson, who worked on Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender, and features some guest spots from Beth Orton, David Roback, and king of the cameo whores Devendra Banhart.

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Good advice I've never gotten

Posted By on 08.29.06 at 11:32 AM











  • So many ways to demotivate, so little time. Posters and paraphernalia to culture-jam any imaginable corporate propaganda.


  • Brian Dillon at frieze: An established magazine has to "keep reminding your readers of that first flirtatious thrill, even as you settle into something like domestic routine with your faithful subscribers. At which point, in a sense, you’re already sunk: you’ve begun to second-guess your readers’ motives--or worse, to service their whims: their sensible preference for information over style, their taste for gossip, their impatience with illegible typefaces." (Hat tip to kottke.)

  • Of 12 things Guy Kawasaki wishes he'd learned in school, one is how to give good voicemail: "First, slowly say your telephone number once at the beginning of your message and again at the end. You don’t want to make people play back your message to get your phone number. . . . Second (and this applies to email too), always make progress. Never leave a voicemail or send an e-mail that says, 'Call me back, and I’ll tell you what time we can meet.' Just say, 'Tuesday, 10:00 AM, at your office.'" (Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who also quotes a list of 10 things never to buy new.)

  • Forty-six kinds of male privilege, including item number 2: "I can be confident that my coworkers won’t think I got my job because of my sex--even though that might be true." Unlike most employers, symphony orchestras now have blind auditions, in which hiring decisions are made without knowledge of the applicant's sex. In a 1997 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse gathered data from audition records and found that blind auditioning “increases by 50 percent” a woman’s odds of getting past preliminary auditions, and increases by several times the chance that a woman will win the final round of auditions.
  • Chartreuse intervenes on behalf of those born after 1982: "The only thing your parents got right was multiculturalism. Everything else is questionable. . . . I know we’re at war but the world is flat. A Jew hating redneck who lives next door is just that, a Jew hating redneck who lives next door. You probably have more in common with a skateboard-riding, hip-hop-listening kid who lives in India. It’s the values that are important, not the land." (Hat tip to Abstract Nonsense.)

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"Pissing while"

Posted By on 08.29.06 at 06:26 AM


Last year the journal Social Research had a special issue on "busyness," in which Robert Levine, a professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno, wrote:

"Many people use their social activities to mark time rather than the other way around. In parts of Madagascar, questions about how long something takes might receive an answer like 'the time of a rice cooking' (about half an hour) or 'the frying of a locust' (a quick moment).  Similarly, natives of the Cross River in Nigeria have been quoted as saying 'the man died in less than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted' (less than fifteen minutes).  Closer to home, not too many years ago the New English Dictionary included a listing for the term 'pissing while'--not a particularly exact measurement, perhaps, but one with a certain cross-cultural translatability."  (It's in the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites usages as far back as Shakespeare.)

Does anyone have personal experience with marking time this way, rather than clockwise?

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Tortoise boxed, the Reader in "Best Music Writing," the Like Young retires

Posted By on 08.28.06 at 07:10 PM


Last week Thrill Jockey released A Lazarus Taxon, a three-CD box set by Tortoise that collects a big chunk of remixes (both by and of the band), various Japan-only bonus tracks, compilation tracks, and rare singles. There’s also a DVD of music videos, an appearance on Chic-A-Go-Go, and some fascinating live footage, including performances at the Deutsches Jazz Festival in 1999 with the Chicago Underground Trio and Fred Anderson. The third disc of the set reissues the long-out-of print 1994 remix album, Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters, appended with a previously unissued remix by Mike Watt that was lost in the mail when it came time to release the original record.

Bands that have been around as long as Tortoise, especially local ones, can be easy to take for granted. And when their early accomplishments are absorbed by other musicians, with time they might not seem as interesting or important. But Tortoise's reputation as humorless or pretentious has never been deserved--any group that tries to be progressive gets called that. It's true that a few of the remixes, as well as a fair number of the bonus tracks, are dispensable (can’t that be said of most bonus tracks?), but one of the things I like about some of these singles and compilation tracks is how the band reworked specific songs into new tunes. “Why We Fight,” a 1995 single on Soul Static Sound, borrowed material from the Duophonic 12-inch “Cliff Dweller Society,” while “Source of Uncertainty,” a track from the Mo Wax compilation Headz 2, was a different mix of “Why We Fight.”

Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters was pretty radical for its time: a rock band, albeit a stylistically expansive one that didn’t “rock” in a conventional manner, releasing an entire remix album of material from its eponymous debut. While dance music producers had been remixing music for decades, usually to enhance its club- or radio-friendliness, Tortoise were one of the first rock bands to embrace the remix as compositional terrain.

Bang the Head Slowly: Uncomfortable, Unemotional, Isolating Metal at a Snail’s Pace, Monica Kendrick’s review of an Earth show last year at the Empty Bottle, will be included in the forthcoming Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006. It's also available in the Reader's paid archives.

The Like Young, the local husband-and-wife pop-rock duo of drummer Amanda and singer-guitarist Joe Ziemba, has just announced that its upcoming tour will be its last. According to a post on their website by Joe, “We're no longer interested in being a part of an industry which, with a few exceptions, is often cold, cynical and senseless. The financial, mental, and physical strains are constant. The resulting victories are few.” What turns out to be the band’s final album, Last Secrets, was released by Polyvinyl Records in May. Their final Chicago gig, on Friday, September 1, at the Hideout, kicks off the tour, which ends in Houston on September 16.

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