Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Finite = alright

I promise, my own thoughts will someday populate this item.

But for now, here's some lyrics from David Byrne to tide you over.

Finite = alright

Three-hundred-fifty cities in the world
Just thirty teeth inside of our heads
These are the limits to our experience
It's scary but it's alright
And everything is finite

Only one record, in this whole wide world
Where Jimi Hendrix sings House Burning Down
Another Elvis will not come along
He got wasted but it's alright
And everything is finite
Yeah, wasted - it's alright
Everything is finite

I'm just a baby in my daddy's arms
Who will protect me from these women's charms
I'm six foot tall but I barely speak
My - mind goes crazy when the taste is sweet
Well we've known each other, eight years and twenty days
It's - terrifying, it's beautiful too
Things have an end
But feeling is infinite
We're changing but it's alright
And everything is finite
Yeah, changing's alright
Things finite

Monday, June 28, 2004

A Dangerous Innovation

I believe in the Electoral College. The arguments we continually hear against it (it makes individual voters unimportant; it magnifies the powers of the swing states; it destabilizes the country; it hurts moderates?!) sway increasing numbers of people, and may lead in the next few years to a constitutional amendment instating a simple "one person, one vote" system. This would be a catastrophic betrayal of the principles the United States was founded upon, and would foment more dissension than anybody seems to imagine. The ultimate result of the destruction of the Electoral College seems inevitable: civil war.

First, the issue of individual voters: "Every person's vote should count," howl the critics. A California in which every citizen votes is a California that overrules huge chunks of the country: eleven of the eighteen swing states COMBINED. Judging by these Census population projections, in fact, four (of 50, or eight percent) states (Texas, California, Florida, and New York) would utterly dominate a popular election vote with 30% of the overall population; the top eight states (16%) constitute a full 48% of citizens. These "potential voters" should give some idea of the percentage distribution of registered voters per state.

The United States is a federal republic: for political purposes, each citizen is a citizen of his or her state first and of the country second. Elimination of the electoral college would greatly undermine one of the most well-considered parts of the Constitution, one that was most strongly endorsed by both the Federalists and the Republicans (as Hamilton notes in the Federalist No 68). It is true that the Federalists supported the Electoral College to prevent "mobocracy" and that the Republicans supported it (and the odious "3/5 clause") to give their slave states a means of protecting themselves from northern abolitionists.

In suspicion of direct popular votes, Hamilton and I are in agreement. Back when he was sane, he wrote in the first Federalist:
... A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious 

mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden
appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.
History will teach us that the former has been found a much more
certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and
that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,
the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious
court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
The Electoral College provides a buffer of protection against would-be American Caesars. Thankfully, it has never had to serve as such a buffer, but think on this: do pilots quit bringing parachutes onto planes because they've never had to use them? Since no American president has ever been impeached and convicted, is that part of the Constitution anachronistic and ineffective? No Constitutional impediment to tyranny should be removed because it has not been used.

As important as this block is, however, I am more concerned with preserving the federalist republican organization of our government. Let's look at the Legislative for a clue as to why our government has worked up to now. There are two branches: the lower, the House of Representatives, elected popularly with 435 seats awarded to states according to their populations; the upper, the Senate, elected popularly (but formerly appointed) with 100 seats awarded equally to each state. Thus, the small states get a greater veto power in the upper chamber ("completely out of proportion to their population," please note); the larger states get much more control over the bills generated and passed by the house.

In electing a presidential candidate, then, the Founders had to be extremely clever: it was unfair to the smaller New England states to allow outright majority rule, but it was unfair to New York and Virginia to allow Rhode Island an equal power to select the president. The solution was simple and elegant: they combined the two methods and awarded a number of electors equal to the combined total of representatives and senators from each state. Small states had their voices preserved and large states were given fair representation, and everyone was happy (a rare feat in the fractious early days of our republic!).

The growth of the nation's landmass has combined with the explosion of population in two states (California and Texas) to confirm the wisdom of this scheme. Puny little Rhode Island has 5% of California's president-choosing power, despite having a measly little 3% of California's population. This 2% advantage is not, to my mind, detrimental to popular rule, but helps preserve the differences in culture between regions of the country. By comparison, if the electors were awarded based exclusively on the number of representatives per state (as at least one ridiculous site suggests), Rhode Island would have less than 1.8% of California's electors -- an actual penalty for being small!

I need to write more on this subject. In closing for now, though, I'd like to point out a few more reasonable solutions to the problems that do exist: proportional awarding of electors based on the percentage of votes cast for each candidate; appointed, non-partisan bodies to draw up congressional districts, killing the invasive menace of gerrymandering that has spread like kudzu through the count is necessary (on this point, the BusinessWeek editorial cited above is dead on); and, finally, chopping California and Texas into smaller, more manageable, and more culturally homogenous states. Yes, I'm dead serious about that last one. California residents except the Los Angelans, who would probably end up with a severely dysfunctional state of their own, would almost certainly agree, if they gave it some thought.

Other useful references:
  • An Electoral College webzine article on the sometimes critical power of small states.
  • A very useful list of population/elector/representation statistics.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Examinations of Conscience

If there's one great idea that European Catholicism ever devised, it was the programmatic examination of conscience. If you've experienced pre-Vatican II Catholicism, you've seen what I mean. I'm not sure it was eliminated entirely in Vatican II "reforms", but I wouldn't be surprised.

Alright, I'm being mean. It clearly has not: this is a more traditional form, and this is a modernised version. Note that I don't necessarily agree with all the sins listed there ("using your vote wrongly" is an odious perversions of religion -- traditional 1850s American Catholicism is very clear on this).

It's the procedure, not the specific offenses listed there. In fact, it might be a good idea for anyone concerned with the consequences of his own actions to make out his own list of offenses, centered around his individual desires to avoid causing certain harms and to achieve certain goals, and do a real examination of his conscience every night before falling asleep.

I am not a moral absolutist, but I do believe in the conscience and the importance of developing and exercising it. Indulge a crap metaphor, please: if the will is the team of horses pulling the cart of the conscience towards one's personal goals, the conscience is the harness that keeps the horses under control. Neither will nor conscience is good for anything without the other.

And, while I'm at it, I'll attack rationalization. Rationalization is the instinct of the consciencious person who does not want to admit they've done something wrong. Everyone does it, and that is exactly the reason we should examine our consciences. Failure to admit that one's will has been exercised towards the wrong goals, or that pursuit of the right goals has had forseeable but unintended negative consequences, is insidious and blinds people to the power of their own beings.

Dammit. I am not a self-help guru! These things just interest and bother me.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Plagiarism: Neil Young's signal vice

Neil Young plagiarizes his song constructions and those of others in ways that would have sent poor George Harrison or Richard Ashcroft to the poorhouse. A sample:

Song: Differently (Are you passionate?)
Plagiarised from: Love and Only Love (Ragged Glory)

Song: Days that Used to Be (Ragged Glory)
Plagiarised from: My Back Pages (Bob Dylan)

Song: Borrowed Tune (Tonight's The Night)
Plagiarised from: Lady Jane (The Rolling Stones)
[He even admits this one in the lyrics and title!]

Song: Like a Hurricane (American Stars and Bars)
Plagiarised from: Runaway (Del Shannon)

Song: Get Gone (Lucky 13)
Plagiarised from: Chuck Berry... well, that's kind of like public domain, if you think about it.

There's more, loads more. I'll post more I think of them.

Plagiarism, of course, is too harsh. Really, this is the sort of cultural interchange that SHOULD happen in popular music; courts that have allowed the sorts of lawsuit I cite above are idiotic. F'rinstance, Like a Hurricane builds on the theme of Runaway in an revealing, interesting way -- T.S. Eliot would approve, at least in theory.

Reformist Sikhism

OK, Sikhism is one of the least reformable religions in the world today. This is because it's one of the more great-hearted, peaceful, and attractive religions in human history. (Yes, there are (or were?) militant Sikhs, but the Hindu nationalist Indian government had bloody hands too.) Consider this really touching anecdote about its founder, Guru Nanak, as a thirteen-year-old:

At the [Hindu religious investment] ceremony which was attended 

by family and friends and to the disappointment of his family Guru
Nanak refused to accept the sacred cotton thread from the Hindu priest.
He sang the following poem:

"Let mercy be the cotton, contentment the thread, continence the knot,
and truth the twist. O priest! If you have such a thread, do give it
to me. It'll not wear out, nor get soiled, nor burnt, nor lost. Says
Nanak, blessed are those who go about wearing such a thread."
(from sikhs.org)

Nanak was very intelligent -- he knew Hindi, Persian, and Arabic and had studied Muslim literature as well as Hindu. He also had a great, wry sense of humor (read his bio, it's really refreshing). My favorite example of this:
On his fourth great journey in life Guru Nanak dressed in the blue 

garb of a Muslim pilgrim traveled to the west and visited Mecca, Medina
and Baghdad. Arriving at Mecca, Guru Nanak fell asleep with his feet
pointing towards the holy Kabba. When the watchman on his night rounds
noticed this he kicked the Guru, saying, "How dare you turn your feet
towards the house of God". At this Guru Nanak woke up and said, "Good
man, I am weary after a long journey. Kindly turn my feet in the
direction where God is not."
The religion itself is strongly monotheistic (like Islam or Judaeism), but it is closer to Tolstoist ecumenism than any of the other major monotheistic religions. It's also an actively anti-superstition religion, which appeals to me strongly. You can read more about it yourself, anyway.

Why am I interested in a religion, especially a Guru-based one? Well, I'm not exactly atheistic; agnostic and universalist, maybe. I have religious feelings, though, and since there's no way I'll ever know the objective truth of the universe anyway, why shouldn't I indulge them so long as they're not contrary to common sense?

The problem, though, is that Sikhs are required not to cut their hair (hence the turbans)or shave their beards. This is rather problematic for hygeine, and I don't think I would look so good with a long beard.

So! Reform Sikhism reduces the beard-and-hair requirement to a symbolic thing, much the way Catholic practice replaced hairshirts with scapulars. I'm not sure how to implement it yet, though. Thoughts can be sent to the usual email address. Maybe I'll set up a Gmail account for this blog, though, when I get invited.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Dave Marsh: Neil Hata

It's a waste of time to critique an article that's 25 years old. The author has had time to reevaluate his views, and it's ultimately meaningless. Nevertheless, Dave Marsh's putdown of Neil Young for a 1979 Rolling Stone book ticked me off so much that I wrote a pedantic letter to Diane about it, which I reproduce here for no particular reason.

The chapter's here:

Points to make:
"Bob Dylan changed rock fundamentally. He gave it a sense of tradition, rooted in white folk music and high culture. He showed a distrust for the very technology it exploited, a disdain for conventional celebrity, a brooding lyrical seriousness and a yearning for high art credibility. "

Having learned more about Dylan, do you agree with this? I certainly don't: when Dylan went electric, there was as much black as white in the music; mentioning Beethoven does not "high culture" make; I don't get what that "technology" crap is about; I don't buy the celebrity thing -- an icon disappears if it doesn't stay mysterious, no? It still doesn't stop it from being famous and worshipped; and "brooding lyrical seriousness" is about the antithesis of 'Blonde on Blonde'. I don't contest the last one. What it comes down to for both Dylan and Young is that they're ruthless, talented assholes who insist on controlling how they're perceived -- and succeed. Dylan at his best beats Young's best lyrics, but Young's most wrenching guitar tone eats Dylan's alive and makes damn good coffee afterwards, IYKWIM.

"by emphasizing certain highlights and disregarding the rest, Young has managed to avoid close analysis, leaving most critics gaping in awe of an image greater than the work that supports it--the ultimate Dylanesque trick."

Do Dylan's musical abilities or lyric-writing skills stand up to "close analysis"? I don't think so. I don't think the great majority of pop music does. (The Beatles and Radiohead stand up to close musical analysis. Lyrical -- well, I don't feel most great opera does, so my standards are probably too high.)

"Young's role was to play lead guitar, write a few songs (most notably "Mr.Soul") and conduct a few experiments in recording montage ("Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow")."

Wow, that's condescending. I'm no big fan of Springfield, I admit, but Young's work with them smashes what I've heard from the rest of them (grudgingly excepting FWIW). Who denies that Broken Arrow is a great song? I think "Expecting to Fly" is a great song, too, and easily Young's most successful experiment with orchestral backing.

"But Harvest was pure formula product, the kind of commercially conservative record that came to characterize too much of California pop rock in the Seventies. "

My good lord. Harvest may be terminally overrated, but I'm betting Marsh has only heard the tracks from Decade. Why? Well, you've heard the album: "Words" and "There's a World" are not commercially conservative. Shit they may be, but they're not "typical of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell" or any other singer-songwriters of the period.

His perception of Journey Thru the Past is pretty accurate. He gets Time Fades Away wrong (calling it a "live album" is deceptive, and misses the real problem with the album -- the lack of interaction between the band), and then really plunges into crap with his treatment of the rest of the Doom Trilogy.

To neglect TtT, are "recycled riffs ... from Buffalo Springfield and ['Everybody knows this is nowhere']" really the substance of On the Beach? Does Young mention Indians? Most irritating is the sentence "But [the net effect of the music] can also be simply silly, especially in the quasi-apocalyptic "Revolution Blues" from OTB, where Armageddon arrives by dune buggy." Marsh somehow manages to miss the whole Manson thing entirely and grossly exaggerates the "armageddon" part. I don't think that's a good-faith mistake -- it seems intentional.

Next is 'American Stars and Bars' -- is "Like a Hurricane" bathetic country pop, or "stunted"? He then confuses "Homegrown" (an admittedly idiotic pot ditty; I blame CSN) with "Roll Another Number" (a blackhearted tune from 'Tonight's the Night') -- another indication that he probably DIDN'T ACTUALLY LISTEN TO THE ALBUMS.

Marsh then tries to tie it together with a sad psychological analysis: "Rather it is symptomatic of that refusal to commit himself fully, which is the bane of everything he's ever created. Instead of a unified body of work, Neil Young has forged only a series of fragments, some relatively inspired, some absolutely awful. "

*cough* 'Nashville Skyline'? Dylan's *entire 80s work*? 'Self fucking Portrait'?

"Yet if there is a major difference between Bob Dylan and Neil Young, it is that Dylan has always managed to make each of his shifting perspectives seem final and irrevocable, while Young makes each seem tentative and equivocal."

Perhaps this seems more ridiculous with hindsight; it was written in '79, after all. But the real tempest -- Young's 80s work -- was still to come -- as were both Young's and Dylan's renaissances in the 90s. For my money, Neil Young's career seems more coherent, more internally consistent, and more meaningful than Dylan's periodic bops between styles. IMO, even if Marsh's comment ever was true, they've traded places now.

In closing, and this may be a low blow, I'll take Sun Green over Jakob Dylan anyday.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Neil Young's Invisible Histories

Neil Young has a habit of writing songs -- very good songs -- that seem historical and are taken as such by incredibly credulous fans, but in reality have nothing whatsoever to do with the historical figures/events being invoked.

The list of songs I've identified:

Southern Man -- This one is treated as protest, but it's not. Cf. the Decade liner notes.

Cortez the Killer -- This isn't about Cortez or Montezuma, it's about the idiot paradise of the hippie dream.

Pocahontas -- Some take the indian-related stuff seriously, losing the all-important context of the final verse.

Goin' Home -- Custer's Last Stand becomes Sept. 11th -- and the song doesn't such, marvelously.

There's more, I'm just forgetting them.

You can hear them blow if you lean your head out far enough.

Politics and rock'n'roll.

Neil Young - non-political, for the most part.
Bob Dylan - non-political, for the most part. His protest songs suck, by and large.
Roger Waters - highly political; decently successful.
Ray Davies - non-political, really.
Rage Against the Machine - easy targets. Highly political; highly crap.
Radiohead - non-political, for the most part.

Good political songs:
"Southampton Dock", Roger Waters
"Rockin' in the Free World", Neil Young
"Fortunate Son", Creedence Clearwater Revival

Saturday, June 12, 2004

To relate

Human communication sucks. We all know it. Some of us write books about it, some of us write songs about it, some nutters even make movies about it. We all think about it, though, and we all suffer from it.

Communication has a simple denotative meaning: transmission of information. I cough on you, I communicate the flu (which is constituted by DNA, I guess, and is thus abstractly information). I send you a brief memo, I communicate the ideas scratched thereupon. It's just in the connotative aspects of the word that things really get tricky. This is going to become a rant about information theory, though, and none of us really wants that.

Weather zones reported on by the British shipping service: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, Heligoland, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Finisterre, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, Southeast Iceland. I've got another message I can't read.

[This post transplanted from the cognate blog when I split them.]

Friday, June 11, 2004

Richard M. Nixon: or, An Existentialist Manifesto

Richard M. Nixon is the most significant public figure in recent history. As a politician, his relentlessly finessed and often contradictory initiatives were so difficult for the public to understand that most don't remember that the man founded the EPA -- or, for that matter, suspended the capitalist economy. Indeed, most people think of Vietnam as Nixon's war, even though Lyndon Johnson deserves ownership -- partly because everybody was and is so disgusted by that nasty little Cambodia bit.

As a person, he is perhaps the most documented moral creature in history. For all his unprincipled and questionable actions, he seems to have cared deeply about his country and believed most strongly that his actions were for its good. It is silly to talk about whether this belief absolves him; that's relevant only to his own private conscience. It illustrates, though, the difficulty the human consciousness encounters when trying to police itself. To give Nixon the benefit of the doubt -- the "crook" speech alone makes me doubt that he was a sociopath, so needy of the public's love it was -- he doesn't seem to have realized he was crossing lines of proper behavior.

The human consciousness is a drama. (Okay, maybe a Joycean drama.) All the characters, our friends, enemies, and acquaintances, are assigned roles and given moral ratings (good, evil, neutral). I don't notice this in my thought, so much, but I have noticed it in others, and I find it probable that I do the same sort of organization. The mind exists to classify data into sets and to make connections between those data sets -- it's how we survived in the wild. The content of those sets varies wildly, from emotions to formulae to geographies, but the task of the low-level brain, the subconscious, is the processing and interconnection of these sets. We ourselves are characters, too, though more elusive and less easily classifiable than others.

Alright, this isn't really going anywhere. Nixon represents the breakdown of self-analysis; Carter its crippling preeminence; and Reagan and W. its lack.