Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jamaican-Style Black Beans To Die For

Kiko's House can now certainly be considered middle aged.  After all, it has been eight and a half years since it toddled into the blogosphere.  One of the things of which I am most proud  is that on an average day nearly half of all visitors to this blog are as a result of Google searches for a particular topic of interest.

The leading search topic by far is this post on the cancer epidemic in American Golden retrievers, which gets over 100 pageviews a day and has generated nearly 200 comments since its initial publication in 2006, most from people who have lost their beloved Goldie to cancer and find some comfort in being able to share their grief.  The third leading topic, with a scant 10 or so pageviews a day, is this post on the true story of the Black Dahlia Avenger, which is L.A. Confidential for real.

Anyhow, the second leading search topic is my recipe for Jamaican-style black beans, which draws about 15 lost souls a day. People who have eaten these black beans say they are to die for although, to my knowledge, I haven't killed anyone who has eaten them.

This recipe works on several levels. If you refrain from drinking the rum you don't use in the recipe, the ingredients are inexpensive. It's easy and quick to make, and nutritious. And the result freezes and thaws beautifully, which in my case means I can make a big batch and put most of it away for use weeks or months later.

6 tablespoons cooking oil
2 medium red onions, chopped
4 medium red and green bell peppers, seeded and diced (*)
6 medium-sized celery stalks, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons crushed oregano
6 cups Goya or other brand pre-cooked black beans, drained
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons orange juice
4 tablespoons dark rum
Salt and pepper to taste

(*) If you like it hot, substitute one pepper with two to four green chilies
In a large iron skillet or heavy saucepan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Add peppers and celery, cook 3 minutes longer. Add cumin and oregano and cook briefly, stirring. Add beans, lemon juice, orange juice, rum and salt and pepper to taste and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Add water to think the mixture as necessary to a desired consistency. Simmer, covered, for 25 minutes, or longer if you like the beans to be softer.
There is no limit to the ways you can serve these: As a stew.  On rice.  As a side dish with shrimp.  Atop Mexican-style nachos. Wrapped in flour tortillas or as a quesadilla filling, both with Monterey jack cheese. As a hors d'ouvre with toasted ciabatta bread. And so on and so forth.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The End Of Chris Christie's National Ambitions & Other Random Musings

In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie singlehandedly killed a planned $8.7 billion commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River that virtually everyone else believed would ensure the future health of the New York region's economy.  Christie argued that it was just too damned expensive for the frugal times in which he governed, an argument that held little water then and has now sprung a ginormous leak. 
This is because it turns out that Christie planned all along to use New Jersey's share of tunnel construction dough to bail out the state's highway and bridge system, which under his "leadership" had been driven deeply into debt.
This "chop shop option," as one columnist aptly termed it, is paying for, among other things, the $1 billion reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway, the heavily traveled main connector for the Holland Tunnel and an 82-year-old bucket of rust in such bad shape that nets have been installed to catch falling debris. 
There was just one problem with Christie's secret scheme: The unspent tunnel money is under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, much in the news these days because the governor with a huge waistline and even bigger Republican presidential ambitions has used it as a patronage trough and personal piggy bank.  (Then there are the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures ordered by his administration -- with the blessing of the man himself, in my view -- as political retribution.  This government-sponsored public safety crisis, when examined close up, was nothing less than a case of domestic terrorism, as shocking as that may seem.) 
But I digress. By law, the authority can only fund roads leading to the GW Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel, but Christie got around that inconvenience by browbeating the authority's lawyers into asserting that the Pulaski Skyway is an "access road" to the Lincoln Tunnel, which is about as far from the truth as Trenton is from Kiev.
This is not to say that the governor had other options.
The logical one would have been to raise New Jersey’s gas tax, which is the second lowest in the nation. Even a one-penny increase would raise about $50 million.  You can do the rest of the math -- and repair a lot of broken bridges and roads.
But Christie, a bully without peer, knows only one way to get things done.  No, make that two: By lying and being underhanded.  Come to think of it, he would make a perfect Republican presidential nominee, but on top of all the other problems he has foisted on himself, the Pulaski Skyway deception will make his nomination a bridge too far.
I continue to have trouble getting my head around the notion that the Affordable Care Act, which has thus far enabled eight million or so uninsured Americans, as well as their loved ones, to get coverage, in most instances at reasonable rates, will spell electoral doom for Democrats in the November elections.  But that, of course, is what many members of the punditocracy are blabbing. 
Actually, the real number when you factor in those loved ones is closer to 14 or 15 million, while a healthy (pun intended) percentage of enrollees are younger people, who will keep premiums down.  Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of the law will be $100 billion lower than expected and that will significantly shrink the deficit.
If doom it will be, and I continue to remain skeptical that Republicans will recapture the Senate, let alone substantially enhance their comfy cushion in the House, and the Affordable Care Act is indeed seen as the villain, it is because of the GOP's relentless lie-filled portrayal of the best thing to happen to Americans, especially our shrinking middle class, since Medicare. 
Beyond reducing the obscene number of uninsured, the reason I know the ACA is a success is . . . because Wall Street loves it.
This is because hospitals, generic-drug makers, pharmacy-benefit managers and electronic medical record companies stand to gain handsomely from the ACA's emphasis on cost controls and its guaranteed payments.  About the only folks who won't gain are medical device manufacturers who, poor dears, have been slapped with a 2.3 percent excise tax, and assisted-living and home health-care providers because of reduced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
Just don't tell the Republicans.  Or for that matter, scaredy-cat Democrats.
The American Red Cross has done many, many good works over its long history, but before you give it another cent, consider the following: Except in the most general terms, it refuses to say how it uses the hundreds of millions of dollars of your money that roll into its coffers.
This refusal, most recently in the wake of the $317 million that the Red Cross collected for Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, is nothing new.  It stonewalled after the 9/11 terror attacks and again after Hurricane Katrina, making only the most feeble of efforts to push back against criticism that it performed poorly and mismanaged funds.

The Red Cross has bled CEOs, one after 9/11 in 2001, another after Katrina in 2005, and a third in 2007 following an affair with a subordinate.  In fact, the stink grew so bad that Congress, of all people, imposed a set of governance reforms on the organization.
"The Red Cross is too big and too important to be allowed to be this secretive," says Doug White, a charity expert who tells ProPublica, the online investigative journalism organization, that such a lack of transparency is common among charities and, like other non-profits, the Red Cross is required to disclose only top-line numbers on its fundraising and spending.
But, as ProPublica notes in an unflattering report, the Red Cross stands out both for the scale of its operations and the unique role it plays in disasters.
"It is the first call for many people moved by images of a tornado, flood, or fire ravaging a community," ProPublica notes.  "[But] the organization is also a strange hybrid: a nonprofit charity . . . with a congressional charter."  It gets little money from the federal government but has an official disaster-relief partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and President Obama is its honorary chairman.
In contrast, there is substantial information available about where federal relief money went after Sandy rearranged beachfronts in the mid-Atlantic and trashed parts of lower Manhattan and Staten Island in October 2012.  But the Red Cross -- which was criticized for being missing in action in many communities ravaged by the superstorm -- has provided a dollar-figure breakdown in only the broadest of categories while giving only raw numbers for services provided.
"Because the spending isn’t categorized in the same way as the numbers of services provided, one can't calculate, for example, how much it cost for the Red Cross to provide overnight shelter stays or what exactly it purchased for the  millions it spent on individual casework," ProPublica found.
My own parting of the ways with the Red Cross came way back in 1988 when a reporter friend broke a story that the organization mistakenly released more than 2,400 units of tainted blood that should have been destroyed because of the possibility the blood was contaminated with AIDS or hepatitis. 
The organization collects about half of the blood used annually in the U.S., and has been involved in other contaminated blood scandals since then, including one that drew congressional scrutiny when Elizabeth Dole was Red Cross CEO in the 1990s.  Dole drew criticism for being more interested in her own image and political ambitions than reforming the organization, and the scandal on her watch was resolved only after the feds sued the organization to force serious top-to-bottom changes.
My charitable dollars go elsewhere -- woefully underfunded public radio stations at the left end of the FM dial and the American Friends Service Committee are favorites -- because of the blood scandals and the the organization's continued and determined squirreliness about how it spends your money.
In an internal merchandising plan written in the late 1970s, a Sears executive identified the company’s core audience and its identity: "Sears is a family store for middle-class, home-owning America. We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent. We are not a discounter, nor an avant-garde department store . . . We reflect the world of Middle America, and all of its desires and concerns and problems and faults."
As noted in the ACA post above, that middle class is shrinking and, if all the pre-mortems on Sears' eventual demise are to be believed, it is because that core audience is in dire economic straits and increasingly would rather shop at Walmart, which has brilliantly marketed itself to the so-called underclass, shop online or at specialty stores, or in the case of some city dwellers, haggle with street corner vendors for that new sweater or pair of socks.
Well, the pre-mortems (and this one in particular) have it wrong, or at least are missing a key factor that goes a long way to explaining why Sears stores, including its flagship store on State Street in downtown Chicago, one of 300 to close since 2010, are blowing away like so many autumn leaves: Service at Sears has ranged from bad to atrocious for many years, and so when all is said and done, its eventual demise will be very much its own fault. 
It's almost as if Sears' strategy has been to drive shoppers away.  In my case, it has succeeded.
Beyond the fact that its stores have become depressing to walk through (gotta love those Nancy Reagan era women's fashions), it's salespeople as a group are deeply dysfunctional.
This was our last big-ticket experience: My love and I decided one recent January to buy a compact, high-efficiency, energy-saving Bosch washer and dryer tandem. We marched off to our local Sears store where she was able to twist the arm of a taciturn salesman and locked into a deal at a pretty good price -- but only if she applied for and bought the units with a Sears charge card.
The salesman, while obviously unfamiliar with the units, nevertheless tried to foist accessories on us at additional expense that we didn't need or want, recalling to mind the Jerry Lundegaard character in Fargo (the movie, not the FX knockoff), who tells customers at the dealership where he works that for only a few bucks more he can get his manage to throw in undercoating on their new car.

Charge card applied for and approved, the washer and dryer were supposedly ordered and were to be delivered to a warehouse for pickup in early February. Early February came and went and it turned out the salesman was not only taciturn, but was disinterested in closing a nearly $2,000 deal and collecting the commission during a crushing recession. 
Long story short, after innumerable phone calls and cajoling salespeople who would never be mistaken for the Blue Crew members in Sears' hapless TV commercials, the washer and dryer finally were available for pickup in mid-March.
Alas, there were further complications.
The units were in the warehouse, but no one could find them. No matter, I was entertained by two saleswomen on a smoke break discussing paternity tests while the search went on.  The washer and dryer eventually were found.
And in a perfect coda to this epic retail fail, when we unpacked the dryer the power cord was hard wired and incompatible with the standard dryer wall outlet -- something that none of the salespeople had a clue and/or cared about even though they wanted to sell us useless stuff -- so a professional had to be called in at additional expense to rewire the unit.

Die Sears die!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Please Take A Moment To Meet Ashol-Pan

The next time you're feeling chuff about that backyard barbeque you put together all by your lonesome, breaking 250 in league bowling, or that honor roll student child who you're convinced is destined for an Ivy League school, please pause for a moment and take a brief trip to the other side of the planet to meet a girl by the name of Ashol-Pan.
Ashol-Pan is a Kazakh who lives in western Mongolia.  She may never go to a barbeque, let alone bowl or attend college, but at the tender age of 13 has harnessed an extraordinary force of nature, a huge golden eagle she uses for hunting foxes and hares in the Altai mountain range. 
Learn more here about Ashol-Pan, who has become celebrated for an otherwise male activity many centuries old.  Understand that it is not the photography of Asher Svidensky that is so incredible (it is extraordinary), but Ashol-Pan's accomplishment.  And perhaps consider how comparatively mundane our sheltered existence is.
Photograph by Asher Svidensky

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The United States Of Cowardice: Still No Accountability For Torture Regime Perps

WE DO NOT TORTURE TERROR SUSPECTS. ~ George W. Bush (November 7, 2005)
Since 2007, I have written over 30 in-depth blog posts on what I term the Bush Torture Regime.  Underpinning these posts have been a call for accountability for the men who used the 9/11 terror attacks not as a clarion call to affirm all that is right about America, but manipulated the so-called War on Terror into becoming a war on ideals and an excuse to abuse power that drove the nation into the darkest era in its history. 
If nothing else, I have learned two things in the years since my first post: The yawning gulf between people who condone torture and those who are repelled by it has not changed, and that accountability not only remains elusive but will remain so.
And so we arrive at another defining moment in the long road since an incurious news media finally began acknowledging something that a number of bloggers, myself included, and civil libertarians had known for years: Despite repeated denials by George W. Bush and his coterie of henchmen, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they approved of Nazi-like torture techniques that violate the Constitution and Geneva Conventions under the cover of grotesque cover-their-ass legal opinions.
The latest defining moment is how far Diane Feinstein's Senate Intelligence Committee will go in declassifying the results of its investigation --  a massive 6,600 pages with 37,000 footnotes -- into one tentacle of the torture regime octopus: The Central Intelligence Agency's illegal detention and torture of terrorism suspects at secret prisons, its destruction of videotaped evidence, its lying to lawmakers about what happened, its stonewalling about releasing its own internal investigation to Congress, and its break-in of Senate staffers' computers in order to delete incriminating files.  And whether and to what extent the CIA will be permitted to determine what is to be declassified.
* * * * *
If I was not a realist going into my dissection of the Bush Torture Regime, the official reaction to it quickly would have made me one.
That official reaction, such as it was, while Bush was still president had a quality about it somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and George Orwell.  Typical was a statement before a congressional committee by Attorney General Michael Mukasey (remember him?) that led law school prof Jonathan Turley to coin the term Mukasey's Paradox,  which says that:
Lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.
* * * * *
Then there was the 2008 presidential campaign.  Torture wasn't on the radar screen of most voters to begin with, while the candidates tip-toed around the issue like it was a smoking turd.
This was rich.   Overlooking any mental torture that previous presidents may have suffered at the hands of their First Ladies, John McCain was the first potential president to have been physically tortured by an enemy while serving his country. As he has written in his memoirs, his North Vietnamese jailers withheld medical treatment, forced him to stand for long periods of time, put him in stress positions, beat him and deprived him of sleep during five and a half years of captivity.
All are clearly torture techniques, right?
Not according to Cheney, the acknowledged architect of the torture regime. Not according to his feckless boss.  Not according to the former concierge of the eponymously named Rumsfeld Gulag, a global system that included Guantánamo Bay and secret prisons in foreign countries and aboard U.S. Navy ships. Not according to David Addington, who proudly served as Cheney's dungeon master.
* * * * *
The first defining moment when things could have begun to be set right came with the inauguration of Barack Obama, who in his second act of office signed an executive order directing the CIA to shut what remained of its prison network and ordering the closing of Guantánamo within a year.  (Sorry, good liberal buddies, but Obama's first act was to severely limit access to public records.)  Meanwhile, today there is some dispute about whether that secret prison network is indeed history, while Guantánamo remains open.  And how about that NSA domestic wiretapping program?
As I wrote in the early day's of Obama's first term, I made an uneasy peace with the new president not showing any interest in prosecuting Bush administration perpetrators for their wrongdoing.  Aside from releasing nine memos endorsing torture and other abuses of power from the Bush era Office of Legal Counsel, which Slate commentator Dahlia Lithwick accurately called that administration's "constitutional chop shop," Obama made good on his determination to look ahead and not back and futilely tried to make nice with a Republican opposition that already was sharpening its pitchforks.
In hindsight, I was too easy on the president.
While the argument that prosecuting the torture perps would divide the nation, cause the sky to fall and pretty much scuttle Obama's agenda made some sense in April 2009, it is now April 2014 and the Republicans have been poking away with those pitchfork for five-plus years, pretty much scuttling that agenda anyway.
And so Obama has, in effect, been Bush's secret keeper in asserting that we just need to get over it, or something.
* * * * *
In the meantime, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have kept busy writing memoirs that give new meaning to the term "revisionist history," as opposed to preparing legal defenses against charges that, at the least, they abused the power of their offices.  Although it should be noted that none have taken European vacations.
This is because courts in Europe have issued warrants demanding the arrest of CIA operatives for kidnapping and torturing citizens and residents of their nations, although the warrants have not been executed for diplomatic reasons, while an effort to prosecute Rumsfeld in France for the torture of Guantánamo detainees foundered because no court was willing to take on this particularly hot potato.
* * * * *
This brings us back to the defining moment of the moment and what will happen to that doorstop of a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA abuses.
Senator Feinstein, who long has been a CIA lapdog despite her liberal Democratic credentials, thereby assuring from the start that the antipathy over getting to the bottom of the torture regime was a bipartisan effort, has kicked the can down the road in asking the White House to lead the effort to declassify the report, while the White House has given the can another kick in suggesting that it would be okey-dokey if the CIA determined what will be made public. 
All of which leads me to suggest that despite some declassification of some stuff we already knew about and commensurate cluck-clucking by the media punditocracy, no heads of consequence will roll.  No jail time.  No moral authority.
Given the number that the 24/7 news world does on our memories, it is easy to forget that the Bush Torture Regime occurred not in Iran, North Korea or even post-Soviet Russia, but in a constitutional republic.  Yes, the public hankers for jobs a whole lot more than an accounting of who was waterboarded when, where and on whose authority.  But we simply have not had the will to hold anyone of consequence accountable, let alone find out what really happened during those darkest days, while the forthcoming whitewash of the CIA report won't change anything at all.
Obama always would have had to go it alone on the issue of accountability and, in fact, would have faced vicious attacks from Republicans and many Democrats, as well, yet the president's roll-over response makes his oft-declared commitment to use government to bring about change something of a joke.  And further confirms us as the United States of Cowardice.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Charles Sumner 'Chuck' Stone (1924-2014)

Back when we worked together at the Philadelphia Daily News, I usually could hear and smell Chuck Stone before I saw him.

The city desk, where I worked, was around the corner from a lobby. An elevator door would open with a ceremonial "ding" and I would hear the "click, click, click" of the cleats on the heels of Chuck's wingtips on the marble floor and the aroma of the distinctive Houbigant cologne he wore before he burst into the newsroom. (He later took to wearing fancy cowboy boots with his Brooks Brothers suits and sport coats, but kept the cleats and cologne, as well as his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties.  And he always used a fine fountain pen, whether editing his column or writing a note, in a brown ink he had specially made.)
Charles Sumner "Chuck" Stone was a legend in his own time and may have been the only journalist who knew or worked with virtually every civil rights leader of consequence.  Chuck, who suffered a major stroke in the summer of 2012, died in his sleep on Sunday morning of congestive heart failure at an assisted-living facility near his longtime home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  He was 89.  

He also was a dear friend whose parting gesture always was a big hug and the words "You know that I love you, brother."

Chuck became a Tuskegee Airman after graduating college during World War II, although he never saw combat.  He wrote speeches for and kept the faith, baby, with powerful U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., had a radio show with Malcolm X and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta before coming to the Daily News, where as the first African-American columnist wrote a thrice weekly column for 19 years before going to divinity school and getting a theology degree in his late 60s while teaching journalism at the University of Delaware.   He later was a journalism professor the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, retiring from teaching in 2004.
Chuck also wrote several books, including a marvelous children's book, and was a founder and first president of the National Association of Black Journalists. (His son, Charlie, is even better known than was his old man, having crafted and starred in the "Wassup?" Budweiser commercials and directed several pretty fine movies, including the award-winning "Drumline.") 

I was perhaps the only Daily News editor who in editing Chuck's column was not overawed by him or his incredibly rich vocabulary.  (I was, but never let it show.)  I told him if I thought he was off base or being precious, and he was grateful for my candor even if he sometimes did not take my advice.
While Chuck's columns were must-reads (and we'll get to one in particular in a moment), he was best known for negotiating the end to a 1981 hostage siege led by a triple killer in the maximum security unit of a state penitentiary, as well as for the extraordinary number of crime suspects -- 75 by my count -- who turned themselves into him rather than surrender directly to the Philadelphia Police.

Why? Because the suspects, most of them African-Americans, feared being beaten or otherwise mistreated. Having Chuck turn them over to the police, usually in his tiny office or the Daily News conference room, helped guarantee safe passage.  If Chuck wasn't available, I was his "second" and would babysit the suspect until he would arrive.
* * * * *
Newsweek magazine once labeled Chuck "the angry man of the Negro press."   The belligerent and racially divisive Frank Rizzo, a police commissioner and later mayor, was a frequent target.  But Chuck was unsparing in his criticism regardless of race, calling fellow African-Americans W. Wilson Goode, the underachiever who became mayor four years after Rizzo, a "paternalistic ferret," and U.S. Representative William H. Gray III, the powerful longtime North Philadelphia power broker and a longtime nemesis, a "peacock." 
He seriously considered running against Gray, but then-Daily News Editor Gil Spencer told him he would have to give up his column, noting that he was much more influential as a voice for the community than he would be as a mere congressman.  Chuck eventually agreed.
Chuck's reputation as a defender of the downtrodden no matter their color or station in life extended far beyond Philadelphia.

One day in 1981, he received a letter with a piece of toilet tissue that had been smuggled from H Block in Northern Ireland's dreaded Long Kesh Prison.

It had been written on in tiny, cramped printing by Ian Milne, an Irish Republican Army member, and slipped to one of the prisoner's fathers. At Milne's request, the father mailed it to Chuck near the end of Milne's 53-day hunger strike with the better known Bobby Sands and other IRA members to protest their inhumane treatment by the British. Ten men died during the hunger strike.

Now Milne was no choir boy, although he had been one in his youth. In fact, he was in Long Kesh for several political murders, which Chuck did not overlook in a column that captures his blistering disdain for anyone who would deny the most basic of rights to, yes, even a political prisoner who had shed blood for his cause.

An excerpt:

Read Ian Milne's letter and you get another view of Northern Ireland's tragic religious-civil rights war.

First of all, different words for the same thing.

Milne called Long Kesh Prison by its real name. The British renamed it "Maze Prison," hoping to clean up a gruesome concentration camp image.

Milne proudly signed himself as a "Republican POW." British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has defiantly christened him and other prisoners with a nastier epithet.

"A murder is a murder is a murder," she haughtily snarled in refusing to grant their request for P.O.W. status. King George III used to talk like her.

Thatcher's doublespeak way with words is consistent with every problem she attacks.
Then Chuck issued the coup de grâce:
Britain is on the verge of becoming an economic basket case. Yet she insists in that attractively passionate way of hers that the waves of Dunkirk lapping at British backsides is actually a bathtub overflowing its sides.
By the way, the British finally released Milne from Long Kesh in 1992 after he did 17 years of hard time. Today he is a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Mid-Ulster.
Photograph by The Associated Press

Friday, April 04, 2014

'I Wake Up To The Sound Of Music . . . Speaking Words Of Wisdom, Let It Be'

Neither of my parents were particularly musical, although my father had a lovely singing voice and was a great whistler.  My mother not so much.  I vaguely recall big band music played on a staticy, low-fi AM radio when I was really little, but it wasn't until we got an FM -- a hulking Philco in a Bakelite case -- that I became aware of the ability of music to transport me, especially vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, whom my father would sometimes accompany in his post-cocktail hour beatitude when she sang Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" or "You Is My Woman Now" from Porgy and Bess.
Many years on, I look back on a life in which music has been a nearly constant companion, and when that life was especially dark, often my only companion.  But until fairly recently, as relatively well read as I am on music, musicians and even a little music theory, I never considered my own role -- the role of listener.
Why does music feel so good to me?   Why do I feel so much?
Why can I listen to Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" yet again and hear even more distinctly not just the notes but the spaces between the notes in this astonishing series of classical piano riffs?
Why can I listen to the Allman Brothers segue from "Whipping Post" into the opening cords of "Mountain Jam" on their classic 1971 Fillmore East concert recording yet again, know what's coming, and the hair on my neck still stands up?  
Why can I listen to Joni Mitchell singing her anthem "Amelia" yet again and see with even more clarity "six jet planes leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain . . . the hexagram of the heavens, it was the strings of my guitar"? 
Why can I listen to Charlie Parker honking his way through "Body and Soul" yet again and still hear something I missed before?  And understand why Bird's is not just another rendition of a lovely jazz standard, but the very essence of bebop?
It was time to figure out why.
The fundamentals of that why are fairly well understood.  Listening to emotive music causes the brain to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical involved in addiction (ohmygawd!), which puts music right up there with sex, drugs, gambling and good food.  This, neuroscientists explain in belaboring the obvious, is why music has been such a huge part of human history.
"You're following these tunes and anticipating what's going to come next and whether it's going to confirm or surprise you, and all of these little cognitive nuances are what's giving you this amazing pleasure," explains Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. "The reinforcement or reward happens almost entirely because of dopamine."
Salimpoor and her colleagues have linked music-induced pleasure with a surge in intense emotional arousal, including changes in heart rate, pulse and breathing rate. Along with these physical changes, she says people often report feelings of shivers or chills, a not uncommon experience for myself, someone who can become gelid upon hearing accordion or jazz violin, as well as roots reggae, because of the minor chords and swinging backbeat that suffuse that genre. 
(A disclaimer: While I can get all gooey over accordion, about a half an hour of polka music a year is plenty for me, while I can never get enough jazz violin, whether it is Joe Venuti or Jean-Luc Ponty, or roots reggae, whether it is the inestimable Bob Marley and his Wailers or other roots trailblazers like U-Roy and King Tubby.)
Just anticipating those opening notes of "Mountain Jam" can get the old dopamine flowing.
If you feel somewhat underwhelmed over the neuroscientific explanation for that why, join the club.  Reading several books on listening and music in general didn't do it either; most were so dense you could stand a tuning fork in them.
Then I stumbled on How Music Works by David Byrne.  Yes, that David Byrne.  The founding spirit of the new wave band Talking Heads, he of collaborations with Brian Eno and more recently with the singer St. Vincent, shovels aside the claptrap, writing:
"You can't touch music -- it exists only at the moment it is being apprehended -- and yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world and our place in it.  Music can get us through difficult patches in our lives by changing not only how we feel about ourselves, but also how we feel about everything outside ourselves.  It's powerful stuff."
As noted, I had grown up listening to standards -- that good old American Songbook -- as sung by Ella and others, and as a youngster would lie in bed on too-hot-to-sleep summer nights singing or humming "Peg O My Heart," "Shine On Harvest Moon," and "Stardust" in particular.  But as my musical tastes grew more sophisticated (or so I assumed in a decidedly snobbish way), I abandoned standards because they were old fashioned.  Corny.  Uncool.
Apparently like a goodly number of people, including Byrne, I was roped back in by Willie Nelson's 1978 cover of "Stardust" and his album of standards by the same name.  I had adored Nelson for years and once smoked a joint with him in Austin, but what (additionally) blew me away about his take on "Stardust" was truly understanding for the first time how a gifted artist can give a song their own unique interpretation.  This, in turn, taught me a lesson: Great music, and in particular great music like Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," which has perhaps the sweetest melody ever written, becomes even greater in the hands of a master like Nelson.  
(The same can be said of many other songs, including to name a very few, Suzanne Vega covering the Grateful Dead's "China Doll," Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop covering Cole Porter's "Well Did You Evah," and perhaps the greatest example to my ears, Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower.")

While I restrained myself from calling out "Play Stardust!  Play Stardust!" when I saw Nelson and his band open for the Grateful Dead a couple of times in subsequent years, I silently thanked him for outting me as a musical snob.
It was a lovely summer evening, stars flowed over our heads like a celestial river, and the sounds of Ahmad Jamal's Blue Moon album wafted through the windows out onto the deck behind the mountain retreat.  We had been joined by our friend Bud Nealy. 

Most of us are lucky to be pretty good at one thing.  Bud has been very good at three: As a photographer, a maker of knives and as jazz drummer who has played with some of the greats.  "Who's that?" he asked, his drummer's radar locking onto the complex rhythms on
Blue Moon, rhythms which were underscored by a drummer and two percussionists.
"Jamal's so damned rhythmic, it's how he see's it," Bud said, noting that like many great musicians, Jamal and his ensemble were playing with the beat.  Which is to say before, after and pretty much everywhere except on the beat.  Like the great band leaders, Jamal understood how to direct his ensemble, speeding it up or slowing it down.  The result was that it really swung.
(Great singers do the same thing with the beat.  Like Willie Nelson.)
Byrne cites an experiment performed by a neuroloscientist who also happens to be a musician.  This guy had a classical pianist play a Chopin piece on a Diskclavier, a kind of electromechanical player piano.  The piano "memorized" the keystrokes and could play them back.  The scientist then dialed back the pianist's expressiveness until every note exactly hit the beat.
"No surprise, this came across as drained of emotion, though it was technically more accurate," Byrne writes.  "Musicians sort of knew this already -- that the emotional center is not the technical center, that funky grooves are not square . . . "
It should go without saying that hearing music live is not an objective phenomenon, but I'll say it anyhow.
I have heard the Grateful Dead and their various spinoff bands in live performances a hundred or so times beginning in 1969 and most recently in 2011 in one of their post-Jerry Garcia incarnations.  The original Dead was a band of legendary unevenness.  The great shows were truly awesome and the off shows not that bad.  And all of them social as well as aural events.  I'm of a certain age in the Deadhead universe who believes that the Dead were at their creative peak in the 1970s (the year 1977 being the peak of the peak) and saw the band perhaps 60 times in that decade.
The last time I saw the original Dead -- at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1989 -- is memorable not so much for the show as a lesson learned that in retrospect offered insight into that why from another perspective.

I thought the show was only okay, but as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel on the ride back to a friend's home in North Jersey, a guy in his early 20s riding in the front seat turned to me and, breaking his silence, said that while he had gone to church much of his life, it did not begin to compare to what he had just experienced -- his first Dead concert.

An experience I found to be kind of meh was, to this guy, "mesmerizing," "electric," "profound" and most of all, "spiritual."  He said that he had wept at one point.  While our views of the show differed (and not being a spoilsport I kept my view to myself), I understood because there had been times -- always toward the end of  the Dead's endlessly layered and jam-infused second sets -- when I had wept, too.  Not many times, mind you, but enough to understand I wasn't losing my mind (okay, probably not) but was feeling a oneness and intimacy, as well as the sensation that everything in my life had been predestined to lead me up to this moment.  It was very much a satori.
Among those moments was one late in a show (in 1977, natch) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The Dead took me to amazing places during this four-hour extravaganza in Barton Hall, Cornell's acoustically sublime Gothic Revival performance space, elevating me to great and then greater heights, and then bringing me down ever so gently at the end.  Although it was May, snow was falling when my friends and I left the hall.
The advent of recorded sound and quantum leaps in sound technology since then have left the notion that music could only be appreciated in the moment in the scrap heap along with the typewriter and buggy whip.  I also believe this technology has compelled musicians to play better, sometimes much better.

The Dead were unusual in permitting taping of their performances; in fact, an area in the audience near the soundboard would be roped off just for tapers with their sophisticated portable decks and shotgun mikes on booms, so there were people already listening to a replay of the Cornell concert in the parking lot as we walked through the snow to my van.  Today that show is available as an MP3 download, among other formats, and there is a DVD of the soundboard recording.
I'm glad you asked: Having a recording of that concert doesn't cheapen the experience.  Neither do I get weepy while listening to the DVD toward the end of the second set, but the feeling I had that night is very much present.  If there is a drawback, it is that the audience, which was such an integral part of the Grateful Dead experience, is a distant whisper on the soundboard DVD, which is why I prefer a recording by one of those tapers out amongst the writhing, tie-dyed masses.  This is because it is so atmospheric, although technically inferior and in places downright murky. 
Meanwhile, the only thing I like about MP3s is the convenience of being able to download a song or an entire album.
I'm with Byrne when he writes: "[MP3s] may be the most convenient medium so far, but I can't help thinking the psychoacoustic trickery used to develop them . . . is a continuation of this trend in which we are seduced by convenience.  It's music in pill form, it delivers vitamins, it does the job, but something is missing."
A while back, I put together a baker's dozen list of my favorite musical compositions.  I guess it was a slow day.  I hadn't looked at the list since I assembled it, but was not surprised that of the 13 compositions, only three were arguably "happy," while the other 10 could be called either "sad" or "pensive."
No surprise because sad songs make me happy.

Why?  Because sad music has a counterintuitive appeal for listeners, according to researchers.  It allows us to experience indirectly -- I daresay to feel -- the emotions expressed in the lyrics.  Not surprisingly, to me anyway, the melodies are usually in a minor key.  And while the sadness may not mirror the listener's own experiences (although "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is on my list and I did, in a sense, leave my heart there when I moved back East many years ago), it does trigger the release of that good-old dopamine.
Chicago Tribune music critic Greg writes:
"Consider that of the nine best-selling songs of all time, most brim with melancholy, if not sadness and despair. Bing Crosby’s 'White Christmas,' Elton John’s 'Candle in the Wind,' Whitney Houston’s 'I Will Always Love You,' Celine Dion’s 'My Heart Will Go On' -- to paraphrase Elton, sad songs not only say so much, they sell really, really well."
Let me wrap up my yammering by noting that if given a choice, I prefer an extended song over a short one.  Take the blues classic "Who Do You Love?" I adore the original, Bo Diddley's hoodoo-rich 2 minute-17 second 1957 single, but Quicksilver Messenger Service's 25-minute extended jam on their 1969 Happy Trails album takes the cake.
Why?  Because I prefer instrumental prowess over vocalizing, even as great as Bob Diddley's lyrics are:
I walked 47 miles of barbed wire, use a cobra snake for a neck tie
Got a brand new house on the roadside, made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top, made from a human skull
Now come on baby let's take a little walk, and tell me "who do you love?
Besides which, Quicksilver's performance, which was recorded live, preserves the lyrics and rhythm, although the band stretches both, creating an interactive and deeply psychic motif around guitarist John Cipollina's arpeggios.
It once frustrated me that groups like Steely Dan and The Band never jammed.  (I got over it.)  The closest The Band came was the coda on "It Makes No Difference" from The Last Waltz.  Can you imagine what an extended version of that tearjerker would be like in the hands of these brilliant instrumentalists? 
Cipollina, by the way, is one of those musicians whose style is so distinctive that you can ID him after only a note or two.   Just like Charlie Parker.
Legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke hated making records because he felt they were too limiting.  "For a musician with a lot to say," he liked to say, "it was like telling Dostoevsky to do the Brothers Karamazov as a short story."
Headline lyrics: "Let It Be" by Lennon-McCartney
Image: "Three Musicians" by Pablo Picasso (1921)

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Vacuous Evil Of Donald Rumsfeld

Despite his role as the key player in the late, unlamented fool's errand known as the Iraq War, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has remained the most elusive of subjects.  A big part of this has to do with him not meeting our expectations, or in any event my own: He remains unapologetic, unrepentant and unconscionably obtuse when it comes to discussing the war, notably the chief rationale for starting it -- that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- which of course was discredited almost from the start.
Errol Morris has now penetrated Rumsfeld's armor (which he compares to a turtle's carapace) in a four-part New York Times op-ed series based on his interviews for The Unknown Known, a 2013 documentary in which Rumsfeld discusses his career from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
I happen to think the Times series is way too long, and spare me the copious footnotes, okay?  But I slogged through the entire series with the (it turns out) prescient feeling it all had an Alice in Wonderland quality about it, and was rewarded with these closing observations by Morris in the fourth part: 
"The history of the Iraq war is replete with false assumptions, misinterpreted evidence, errors in judgment. Mistakes can be made. We all make them. But Rumsfeld created a climate where mistakes could be made with little or no way to correct them. Basic questions about evidence for W.M.D. were replaced with equivocations and obfuscations. A hall of mirrors. An infinite regress to nowhere. What do I know I know? What do I know I know I know? What do I know I don’t know I don’t know? Ad infinitum. Absence of evidence could be evidence of absence or evidence of presence. Take your pick. An obscurantist’s dream.
"There’s a quotation I have never liked. It comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.' Not really. The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and know they are opposed.
"People embrace contradictory positions, often without being aware of it. Sometimes not caring. Sometimes proud of it. Rumsfeld seems (with pleasure) to say 'p' and 'not-p.' What he would call the two sides of the coin. One side: 'If you wish for peace, prepare for war.' The other side, 'Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes.' Not exactly a contradiction. But where does he stand? His follow-up: 'All generalizations are false, including this one' — doesn’t clarify much of anything.
"When asked how Colin Powell could have presented such shoddy evidence for W.M.D. in Iraq to the United Nations, Rumsfeld told me, ' . . . because he believed it.' Fine, as far as it goes. My guess is Rumsfeld is right. When Powell appeared before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, he believed what he was saying. . . .
"Rumsfeld, too, may believe what he is saying. But believing something does not make it true. The question is why he believed what he believed. On the basis of what evidence? Mere belief is not enough.
"In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice, perplexed by her encounter with the Cheshire Cat, says, 'I have seen a cat without a grin, but I have never seen a grin without a cat.' I had a similar experience with Donald Rumsfeld — his grin and my puzzlement about what it might mean. I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything. It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all."
History already has judged Rumsfeld's stewardship harshly, and he certainly was the worst defense secretary since Robert McNamara, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara, in turn, was the worst since Jefferson Davis, who as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce worked tirelessly for Southern interests and was instrumental in helping push the U.S. toward civil war.

In fact, Rumsfeld was the worst hands down.

Like Rumsfeld, McNamara was a control freak who thought he had all the answers, lacked the crucial element of common sense and surrounded himself with sycophantic acolytes. Like Rumsfeld, he presided over an unpopular war built on a foundation of false assumptions and outright lies. Like Rumseld, there was an amorality to his actions. And like Rumsfeld, he squandered the respect of his generals and admirals.
But without McNamara, there still would have been a Vietnam War, while there would not have been an Iraq war without Rumsfeld.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Beyond Shameful & Brilliantly Successful Republican Lie Machine

Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the Republican Party has forsworn governance for something it believes to be far more effective -- lying. 

The party has lied consistently and unapologetically about matters large and small, whether in grossly mischaracterizing the president and his policy initiatives or in committing to work with Democrats on a variety of issues, including the congressional supercommittee to fashion a deficit-reduction package, and then pulling the rug out from under the table.  While the strategy of lying is shameful when considered in the perspective of the long arc of American political history and its many honorable practitioners, it has been brilliantly successful, so successful that the GOP's cavalcade of lies could conceivably put it within hailing distance of recapturing the Senate in the November elections.

The Republican playbook has been simple:
* Avoid abstract ideas and appeal to the emotions. 
* Constantly repeat just a few ideas by using stereotyped phrases.
* Always give only one side of the argument.
* Continuously criticize your opponents. 
* Pick out one "enemy" in particular for special vilification.
This playbook would be immediately recognizable to students of the Third Reich.  It was employed, almost word for word, with insidious effectiveness by Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler's minister of propaganda.
This is not to compare Republicans with Nazis.  I do not.  But like Hitler and Goebbels, Republicans have seized on lying as an effective tool for getting the attention of a restive electorate not unlike that in Germany in the early 1930s. 
In a contemporary American context, these are most notably "low-information voters" to use the polite pollster catchphrase to describe working-class whites still smarting from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and deeply distrustful of the Big Government that nevertheless has kept many of them afloat.  It is this group that could make the difference in several states where Republicans have a shot at picking up Senate seats.
* * * * *
Among the biggest Republican lies are these:
The Affordable Care Act Will Result In The Loss of 2.3 Million Jobs.  In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last month that the act will reduce the total number of hours worked by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely as a result of workers being able to choose to supply less labor because of the benefits the act provides.  (Then there are other hard-to-kill ACA lies, including claims the act creates death panels and pays for abortion as contraception.)
Obama Has Doubled The Deficit.  In fact, his administration has reduced the deficit by a nearly one trillion dollars in five years, and is one of only just three administrations in the last 50 years that will leave office with a lower deficit than when it began.  (In case you're wondering, the last Republican to manage that feat was some guy by the name of Eisenhower.)
The Keystone XL Pipeline Will Create 120,000 Jobs.  In fact, the State Department estimated in its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that 16,100 direct and 26,000 indirect jobs would be created over the two years of construction.
Tax cuts stimulate the economy.  In fact, Moody's Analytics estimates that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits generates $1.61 in economic growth and every dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.74 in economic growth, while every dollar spent on rolling taxes back to Bush-era levels creates a measly 32 cents in economic growth, a whopping 68-cent loss on investment.  So much for trickle-down economics.
Voter Fraud Is A Serious Issue That Requires Strict New Laws.  In fact, an estimated one one-hundredth of one percent of the votes cast in general elections are questionable as the extremely rare prosecutions for voter fraud cases abundantly show.  In Ohio, for example, a GOP-inspired war on voter fraud netted 20 possible cases out of nearly six million votes cast in 2012.  This was just one of many attempts by the party to suppress turnout of minorities who reliably vote Democratic.
Man-Made Climate Change Is A Hoax.  In fact, while a tiny minority of scientists remain skeptical that humans are causing climate change and failure to address it will be catastrophic to the planet in the long term, NASA states the evidence that global temperatures are rising at an alarming rate is overwhelming.  And record cold and snowfalls in the Eastern U.S. over the past winter were a consequence of record temperature increases in the Arctic.
It Is Safer to Have A Gun In Your House Or On Your Person.  In fact, having a gun doubles the risk that household members will kill themselves or family members.  (The figures for suicide risk is substantially higher.)  Meanwhile, someone is 50 percent more likely to be shot dead by their own hand than by a criminal assailant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And my favorite: Obama Is Giving Away Free Cellphones For Votes.  In fact, there is a program offering low-cost phones to people who can’t afford them. The program was created with the support of that great conservative god, Ronald Reagan, in 1984, and is paid for entirely by phone companies and not taxpayers.
* * * * *
It is tempting to blame the news media for rarely fact checking even the most egregious Republican claims, but in the 24/7 news cycle world, that would be nearly impossible.
As it is, the fact-checking organization PolitiFact has found Republicans to be "less trustworthy" than Democrats.  In one study, PolitiFact found that 52 percent of Republican claims were "mostly false," “false” or “pants on fire,” versus 24 percent of Democratic statements.  Some 54 percent of Democratic statements were rated as "mostly true" or "true," compared to just 18 percent of Republican statements.

Los Angeles Times economics columnist Michael Hiltzik is the rare media maven who has fact checked the litany of woes attributed to the Affordable Care Act in Republican-backed advertising and has yet to find any real "Obamacare" victims. 
"What a lot of these stories have in common," he has written, "are, first of all, a subject largely unaware of his or her options under the ACA or unwilling to determine them; and, second, shockingly uninformed and incurious news reporters, including some big names in the business, who don’t bother to look into the facts of the cases they’re offering for public consumption."
* * * * *
Of course, fudging the truth, if not outright lying, has a long and dishonorable place in American politics.  (Heck, even George Washington was being disingenuous when he is said to have uttered, "I cannot tell a lie.")  But credit Republicans with raising lying to an art form, as well as calculatedly using lying as a substitute for actually engaging in governance.  You know, articulating policy positions and sticking to them for longer than a press conference, and helping fashion compromises for the common good, as opposed to shutting down the government when they don't get their way and vilifying the president, sometimes in terms that are unmistakably racist.
Michael Tomasky quotes Paul O'Neill, who was prepping George W. Bush for a presidential debate, as telling him that "The public prefers spending on things like health care and education over cutting taxes. It’s crucial that your remarks make clear that there is no trade-off here."
"Put more bluntly," Tomasky writes, "what O'Neill was saying here is: You have to lie. By definition, you have to lie. You can't tell people that tax-cutting will result in less money for these programs, which is the truth, so you/we Republicans have to invent a fiction of no trade-offs, of a free market that can deliver everything. What Bush delivered to us was essentially no net job growth in eight years and the worst crisis in 80."
Which certainly didn't stop Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan from peddling that same lie in 2012.
* * * * *
While Republican bashing may seem like good sport for commentators like myself, in reality it is a deeply depressing state of affairs when a political party abandons advocating serious policy positions. 

Exhibit A in this regard is that the GOP has yet to float a credible alternative to the Affordable Care Act in the five years since Obama presented it to a joint session of Congress in February 2009.  It is so much easier to simply lie over and over.  And declare that the so-called free market is the best mechanism for managing health care.  This is perhaps the biggest lie of all because it is the very reason the U.S. leads the industrialized world in infant mortality, obesity and anxiety disorders, and is last in life expectancy despite having by far the highest health-care costs.
The Democrats, mind you, have not been exactly lie-free, notably President Obama's whopper that under the Affordable Care Act people would be able to keep their health-insurance plans no matter what.  (Actually, the vast majority will be able to do just that, but an embarrassed Obama nevertheless had to backtrack on the claim.)
But the truth (pardon the term) is that when a lightweight like Ryan -- himself a Pinocchio of staggering dimensions -- is viewed by the GOP as its leading intellectual, it simply is easier to try to scam voters than educate them.  (Ryan qualifies for additional scorn for his thinly-veiled attacks on inner-city blacks whom in his and the GOP's view are undeserving layabouts.)
We are all -- and I include Democrats, as well -- losers when the Republican Party delegitimizes itself because it cannot stop lying.