Friday, February 27, 2009

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Lost It to the Revolution

Assassins turn their guns on Albert Anastasio, the notorious capo of a national contract-murder syndicate, in his New York City barber shop. Mobbed-up casino owners arrange a sex party for then-Senator John F. Kennedy in Havana (and later kick themselves for failing to film it). A young Fidel Castro abandons ship nine miles off the Cuban coast to escape a rival with homicidal intentions. I gotta say, Havana Nocturne is a fun read.

T.J. English's plot is straightforward: he lays it all out in the book's subtitle. American gangsters see opportunity in Havana's licentious nightlife — gambling! glitz! girls! — Mob cultivates a partnership with ex-President Fulgencio Batista, Batista retakes power, and Havana really starts to hop. Batista has a strong hand politically but manages to overplay it. The revelry in Havana ends — poetically — in the wee hours of New Year's Day, 1959, as Castro's revolutionaries put Batista to flight and swarm over the city. A six-year party, followed by a fifty-year (and counting) hangover.

By now we're all familiar with the broad contours of this history, and English doesn't add much from a big-picture standpoint. There's no innovative historical argument here, no challenge to the conventional wisdom. It's the richness of detail that makes this book such a good read. It's the synthesis of sources, the cobbling together of a hundred gripping, tabloid-quality anecdotes of sleaze, corruption, excess, debauchery, murder, repression, insurgency, and riot. Oh — and Sinatra, too. How could anyone not want to read this book?
Two dynamic personalities drive the narrative here, and neither of them is Batista. The first is Meyer Lansky. Lansky, an unheralded Mob organizer and financier — and onetime protegé of Arnold Rothstein, scourge of baseball fans the world over — was the visionary who, along with Lucky Luciano, founded "the Commission," a sort of national governing board for the Mafia and later led the Commission's bid to colonize Havana's tourism and entertainment industry. Hyman Roth's character in The Godfather, Part II is modeled after Lansky. The other mover and shaker is Fidel Castro, and of course we know all about him.

It should not be surprising that Lansky and Castro's stars were in opposition. As English tells it, these two were polar opposites in every way — they were matter and anti-matter (you can decide which was which). Castro, the son of a prosperous landowner family, grew up in the country; Lansky was raised in poverty on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Lansky was disciplined, deliberate, and pragmatic, as much of a "peacemaker" as any gangster can be (the Anastasio hit notwithstanding); Castro is aggressive and confrontational, the consummate risk-taker. Lansky survived and thrived by flying under the radar — of law enforcement, of his Mob colleagues, of American journalists obsessed with the Mafia. Castro promoted a cult of personality that put himself forward as the very embodiment of the People's Revolution.

English works hard to place Lansky's Havana Mob and Castro's 26th of July movement in tension, but the truth is that his book tells two parallel narratives. The only point of connection between Lansky and Castro is Batista's regime, the fixed point around which these two characters pivot. Lansky's Havana "scene" parties on, at first blissfully, then willfully ignorant of the threat posed by Castro; meanwhile, Castro soldiers on in the mountains, plotting his revolution. He is aware of the influence of American gangsters in Cuba, but his obsession is with Batista — always Batista. If anything, it is surprising that these two elements could coexist in Cuba for as long as they did. It's clear that this island wasn't big enough for the both of them, and one man's ascendance necessarily excluded the other. For all that, though, Lansky and Castro's respective crews never came into active conflict, English's book is a bit anticlimactic as a result, and you can almost feel the author chafing at that fact.

If English advances a thesis at all, it is a subconscious one. He doesn't argue the point, but you can't help but get the feeling that this ending was foreordained. Lansky's plans could never have worked, in the long term. The active ingredient in the Mob's Cuba formula was a government partner that would sell the country's guts and soul to foreign investors for a cut of the take. Without Batista — and exactly Batista — Lansky and his partners in the Syndicate would never have gained their foothold in Havana. And yet Batista's was exactly the sort of regime that can never sustain itself. In retrospect, it's hard to see the Mob's Havana holiday as anything but a time-limited proposition. What was not predictable, necessarily, is that Fidel would not allow the Mob to co-opt him into its Cuba project. Turns out you can refuse an offer from the Mafia. This might explain why, after managing somehow to survive that first refusal, Castro is still around.

UPDATE: For all you doubters about the long-term prospects of This Thing of Ours, it's worth pausing to consider Lansky and Luciano's fruitful partnership — proof positive that a Jew and an Italian can work together and succeed in this world. FO is the Internet's "Commission," and don't you forget it.

Masthead Archive: February 27, 2009

He sure does look like a communist. Happy Birthday, Johnny Steinbeck!

It Was P.T. Barnum

Would it have been intrusive and pedantic of me to tell the people in the elevator just now — whom I didn't know — that it wasn't W.C. Fields who said "There's a sucker born every minute?"

Probably, so I decided to blog about it instead.

John McCain Is Back, and We Welcome Him

For anyone who cares about Afghanistan (remember that other War?), John McCain's speech to the American Enterprise Institute is worth a read. Whether you're a lefty or righty, it's hard not to listen to this guy and not believe we would have been better off with him at the helm the past eight years — we'll agree to disagree on the next four. Some things might not have been different enough for some, but it's hard to think they would been worse.
This is what we need. Leaders willing to give the occasional sober assessment of the situation and to make the right changes until they get it right.
The problem in Afghanistan today is not innate xenophobia or hostility to the West. It is our own failed policies that are the problem. We have tried to win this war without enough troops, without sufficient economic aid, without effective coordination, and without a clear strategy. The ruinous consequences should come as no surprise.
Let's get this out there before objections are shouted out. Yes, one big reason there weren't enough troops in (or focus on) Afghanistan was because of the other War the man championed. Can we move on?

But unlike others who tout numbers of enemy killed as a measure of success, he openly admits this doesn't count for much.
Although we succeeded in killing numerous terrorist leaders through this approach — including the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the insurgency continued to grow in strength and violence. It was not until we changed course and applied a new approach — a counterinsurgency strategy focused on providing basic security for the population — that the cycle of violence was broken and al Qaeda was seriously damaged.
So ignore the repeated mention of the surge (election's over, John). We've got a President willing to refocus on Afghanistan and commit more troops; a chance to get our allies to finally contribute more now that Bush and his ham-handed diplomacy are gone (think Obama can actually get them to pony up?); and a thoughtful opposition leader more or less on the same page.

Hope? Bipartisanship? Maybe? The good will and support won't last forever.
None of this will be easy. While today Afghanistan is seen by many as "the good war" and the one into which the dispatch of thousands of additional American troops can go mostly uncontested, this day may soon pass. It is possible — indeed likely — that sometime in the near future, perhaps a year from now, as the fighting in Afghanistan increases, the costs grow more dear, and casualties become more numerous and more visible, that the will to finish this mission will dramatically erode.
Let's get it right while we've got the chance. Let's hope Obama keeps this guy in the loop.

My Latest Accomplishment

My list of recent work successes is a brief one — as a professional investor, "Still employed" is about the best I can come up with. However, I had a triumph in my personal life today about which I am particularly proud — I finished the last Q-Tip in one of those giant Q-Tip boxes that no one ever finishes. I've had this thing through at least my last two apartment moves — I always assumed that at some point I'd just lose it before I ever finished it. But no! This morning, I pulled out the last cotton-tipped swab, and threw the box away before removing a modest amount of waxy buildup from my ears. I think it's some kind of omen or portent, I will be buying stocks in my personal account today.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

FO News Roundup: February 27, 2009

  • Policy change: the press can publish photos of soldiers' coffins. Same SecDef, different Administration. We're told the rationale for the old policy wasn't the Pentagon's keen interest in suppressing talk of the human cost of war — it was deference to families. You know, because it intrudes on their privacy for the world to see their sons' identical flag-draped caskets. (P)
  • Chris Brown allegedly hit Rihanna more than once. And thousands of people in Zimbabwe are dying of starvation and cholera. So many causes for outrage: don't make me choose! (P)
  • Former CIA operative Kyle "Dusty" Foggo has been sentenced to 37 months for fraud. "We saw right through him," said gloating prosecutors. Foggo's assistant, Misty McCloud, has not been charged. (P)
  • Calcium lowers your risk of cancer, but a diet rich in dairy increases your risk of heart attack; alcohol reduces your risk of heart attack, but increases your risk of cancer. White Russian, please. (M)
  • No peace activists dancing in the streets. No Republicans saying the sky is falling. No talk of a giant victory parade. Just a reasonable plan laid out to end a long war and maintain an appropriate presence (for 100 years?). (M)
  • Every Feigned Outrage author and reader line up to fight these people! Unions,, and bears! "This is not an ideological crusade," said Markos Moulitsas, creator of the blog DailyKos and a supporter of the group. "What we want to do is move the Democratic Party to the mainstream." He said, without irony. (M)

No Fair!

This was a right-wing talking point for a while — usually served up in tandem with union card-check: Obama's going to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that once called for the FCC to enforce viewpoint neutrality on the broadcast bands. He's a tyrant who doesn't believe in free speech!
And of course he isn't going to do that. The Senate voted 87-11 today to prohibit the FCC from reviving the fairness doctrine. The 11 dissenters are named in Politico; they're Democrats, so everyone can go ahead and talk about how awful it would be if Democrats were running Congress.

This after Obama said last June that he opposed the Fairness Doctrine, and a spokesperson recently confirmed the Administration's position to Fox News. Obama's position never changed in the interim — but then again, whispered the Forces for Truth, Justice, and the American Airwave, you never know what a politician REALLY thinks.

Obama's position means that the FCC won't require broadcasters to extend corrective airtime to politicians when radio nut jobs make shit up about them to scare people. That's the right answer, as a policy matter. But that doesn't mean certain of us at FO can't say to the nut jobs (and at least one of our other writers), Duh — that's what we've been telling you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

FO News Roundup: February 25, 2009

  • And the Oscar for most gratuitous and tasteless exhibition passed off as news goes to . . ., for their School Sex Scandal Photo Gallery!
  • Websites technically do have numbers. The Internet is actually a "series of tubes". Give me your number, I'll send you an internet. Trust in government.
  • Some schools with low test scores have resorted to reducing recess to spend more time cramming math facts down their students' throats. Turns out this remarkably stupid idea is indeed remarkably stupid.
  • US deals crushing blow to drug cartel! Maybe this time no other group from an impoverished country will take their place in the extremely lucrative market of narcotics smuggling.

"What Made the Greeks Laugh?"

I enjoyed this article/book review about humor in Ancient Greece. A sample:

An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can't have wives, the Abderite asked, 'So is she your daughter then?'

That's the stuff that had them slapping their knees in the agora — and it is kind of funny, still!

I remember when I was learning German, the first time I felt like I really spoke it, understood it, and got it was when I was able to understand a German joke. When you understand what a culture thinks is funny, I think you're well on your way to understanding what makes them tick. I do think I understand the Greeks a little better having read this piece about their jokes.

Masthead Archive: February 25, 2009

Jindal. Che. Girl. Smile. Creepy.

Attention Harvard Grads - Vote!

Here's a Boston Globe column worth reading. Why?
  • Because it still does matter what type of example Harvard sets. Other institutions often do follow its lead.
  • Because there has to be a greater willingness for faculty and students to have honest and open debate, instead of sanctioning one politically correct opinion and shunning all others.
  • Because science doesn't happen magically overnight. It requires a constant challenging of ideas and objective analysis free from political interference.
Our universities get routinely slammed by certain political groups. Most of it is unwarranted. Our universities are the best in the world and, as much as anything else, provide a competitive advantage for the US. The best talent still comes here to go to our universities. They develop innovative companies here. They advance science here. Maintaining the preeminence of our higher education should be a priority of any administration that cares about the long-term competitiveness of the US.

But the criticisms about free speech and political correctness are valid and need to be addressed. And this may have to be done locally. A small step in the right direction by Harvard could make it easier for others to follow. I wish I had a vote in that election . . .

Addendum: Please don't let this post suggest any support or knowledge of any of the candidates beyond what's written in the Globe column. Oftentimes those who are fighting political correctness are just assheads spouting out crap. This may be the case here, for all I know. But at least let's get the issue on the table . . .

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

FO News Roundup: February 24, 2009

We're putting aside our "best/worst dressed on Oscar night" feature ("Phutatorius went with depression chic on Sunday night: blue jeans, green Stereolab T-shirt, fraying gray hoody sweatshirt.") for some news bullets. Bear with us:
  • Turns out you can't see Atlantis on Google Earth. But if you go to Street View you can see a unicorn in my front yard. Oh, no, wait — that's just a fertilizer bag. (P)
  • The SEC announced a big policy shift today: they're going to try to do their jobs. (P — not holding his breath).
  • The Octuplets' Mother's Ex wants a piece of the action. Would he be as interested if the kids were a much less marketable set of quints? (P)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Great Moments in Music Video: Van Halen Edition

Van Halen today — lest we should appear overly biased in favor of post-punk new-wave acts. An argument can be made that pretty much any video made for the 1984 album should earn its props in this department, but in this case selectivity is the mother of selection.

Let's consider the candidates:

(1) "Jump." A workmanlike video performance, and nothing more. Great costuming, and there are inklings here — as in "Pretty Woman" — that the band would have fun in this medium down the road. It's notable that David Lee Roth manages to rhyme "machine" and "saying," but this achievement is an artifact of the recording, not the video. Hold for now, as there might be something better.

(2) "Panama." There, right there, at 0:44-0:53: policemen are hauling a wild-eyed Roth (or is it Lee Roth?) out of a hotel room in a bath towel and handcuffs. This narrative thread (such as it is) surfaces without warning, then drops out of the video entirely. It's a complete non sequitur, but for me, this is the Quintessence of Roth. Bath towel and handcuffs. No Spandex, no war paint, no fringed chaps: this is about possibility. It's what you didn't see — whatever happened to precipitate the arrest — that fires the imagination. This would be the Moment of Moments, but here it's just a runner-up, because of

(3) "Hot for Teacher." (see above) It all comes to a head here. Where to start? The orgasmic (!) inflections in Waldo's mother's voice, as she leaves her son for the bus? The band's woefully choreographed soft-shoe in 70s wedding tuxedos? The scaled-down school-age lookalikes? The 'Where are They Now?' segments at the end of the video (is that Rick Moranis playing Waldo the Pimp?) are fun. A lot of potential Moments here, but these are all a bit too gimmicky to take the prize. Van Halen's Great Moment in Music Video, chapter and verse — "Hot for Teacher" 1:33-1:45:
"Wait a second man — what do you think the teacher's gonna look like this year? WHOA!"

Band breaks out into full-on audio assault, black and white explodes into full color, Miss Chemistry blitzes the classroom stage in blue string bikini. Bam. That's it.

Roth is absolutely a ham (kosher, of course), and he'd overindulge himself in the solo vids that followed on the heels of 1984. "California Girls" and "Just a Gigolo" were good for a few laughs, but in the end, "Hot for Teacher" wasn't so far off when it projected Roth as "American's Favorite T.V. Game Show Host." I'll leave it to more knowledgeable fans to assess Van Halen's overall career. But in my capacity as self-appointed authority and enthusiast of music video, I declare that the band's crowning achievement in that medium was "Hot for Teacher."


Sunday, February 22, 2009


Finally some creative thinking about illegal immigration. Take "migra", the derogatory term used by illegal immigrants for the US Border Patrol, and "corrido", traditional Mexican ballads, and what do you get:

Migracorridos, a five-song CD distributed by the USBP to Mexican radio stations containing such hits as "El Enemigo Mas Grande", a ballad about a Mexican watching his cousin die in the desert. The CD also includes "La Carta" (The Letter), "La Tumba" (The Tomb), and "El Funeral" (you're on your own with this one).
The good news is it actually represents some creative thinking by our border control. Mexican drug traffickers are known to sing narcocorridos to brag about their exploits and the USBP now has a competing offer. And they're apparently quite popular. Read the rest of the Daily News article (hooray, they produced something worth reading! Oh wait, that's just an AP reprint) for more about the Border Crossing Initiative. The BCI claims success, as deaths are down from a peak of 492 in 2005 to 390 in 2008, but it's unclear how much of this is from fewer border crossing attempts due to fewer opportunities en el norte during the recession.

The sad news is that an effort like this is only noteworthy in the absence of any reasonable immigration policy. Eight years ago a governor from a border state ran for President with a sensible position based on years of first-hand experience with immigration. Too bad he never got the chance to make it happen. From 2005 and 2007, John McCain*, Ted Kennedy, and others led an effort for a comprehensive immigration reform that sought to address the major issues in a reasonable way by largely ignoring the rantings from the right and left extremes. The resulting rants of these extremes against the bill suggest it had some merit.

It was not perfect. It was not how I would have drawn it up. But considering the usual crap that comes out of Congress it wasn't that bad. It had the support of the last President. Would it have the support of this one? I think so. Can it get through the new Congress? It came close last time and seems worth a try now. But will ecomonic troubles and a temporary decline in illegal immigration remove it from the agenda entirely?

This seems like something the current Congress and President could get done in a reasonable way. So what gives? We'll tackle this issues in depth at a later date, but for now, can't we at least get it back on the table?

* note: when this author refers to "John McCain", he is not referring to the alien-demon-possessed 2008 presidential candidate who ran under the same name and said he would actually vote against the immigration bill the real John McCain sponsored back in 2006.

Kurt Vonnegut Saw This Coming

. . . or something like it, anyway, in his 1985 novel, Galápagos:

The thing was, though: When James Wait got there, a worldwide financial crisis, a sudden revision of human opinions as to the value of money and stocks and bonds and mortgages and so on, bits of paper, had ruined the tourist business not only in Ecuador but practically everywhere.
* * *
Mexico and Chile and Brazil and Argentina were likewise bankrupt — and Indonesia and the Philippines and Pakistan and India and Thailand and Italy and Ireland and Belgium and Turkey. Whole nations were suddenly . . . unable to buy with their paper money and coins, or their written promises to pay later, even the barest essentials. Persons with anything life sustaining to sell, fellow citizens as well as foreigners, were refusing to exchange their goods for money. They were suddenly saying to people with nothing but paper representations of wealth, "Wake up, you idiots! Whatever made you think paper was so valuable?"
* * *
The financial crisis, which could never happen today, was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains.

As it plays out in Galápagos, rioting, civil war, starvation and disease follow, and in the end (or rather, the beginning, as Vonnegut's ghost-of-a-narrator, Leon Trotsky Trout, tells the tale from a million years into the future) the last humans left alive are a gang of tourists, Ecuadoran refugees, and a ship's crew who find themselves shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos archipelago (say that five times fast). A million years later, these humans' descendants have evolved flippers and substantially smaller brains — advancements that, in the narrator-ghost's view, leave them much improved on their twentieth-century progenitors.

Did Vonnegut have it right? The last year has shown us Homo sapiens sapiens's capacity to outwit itself — and we find the fallout right where Vonnegut placed it two dozen years ago — in the delusional world of high finance. Could it be that our brains really are too big for our own good?

I think Kurt oversimplifies things a bit. If there's a big evolutionary flaw in the species, it's not that our brains are too big. It's that certain areas of our brains are overdeveloped, at the expense of others. The Ancient Greeks had two words for knowledge: tekne and sophia; these terms roughly correspond to "know-how" and "wisdom." It seems to me our tekne tends to get out ahead of our sophia, usually by about a decade or two. It's the tekne in us that enables us to develop intricate, destructive works of artifice like the atomic bomb and the collateralized debt obligation, and only years later does our sophia show us how our celebrated tekne has worked us into a corner. If only the sophia side of our big brains were more advanced, we might find ourselves in better stead.

It ought to be a sign unto us that the world's foremost economic minds (our vaunted "technocrats") crapped out in predicting the present state of affairs, but a wicked Juvenalian satirist like Vonnegut (a "philosopher?") saw it all coming as far back as the 1980s. Somewhere Vonnegut's own ghost is narrating today's events to a chuckling audience — and my guess is that he's taking no prisoners in the telling.

Love ya, Kurt.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Masthead Archive: February 20, 2009

"Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!"

The Futurist Manifesto at 100

100 years ago today Le Figaro published F.T. Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto. Here's a full English translation. But we'll cover some of the wilder bits here:
We have been up all night, my friends and I, beneath mosque lamps whose brass cupolas are bright as our souls, because like them they were illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts. And trampling underfoot our native sloth on opulent Persian carpets, we have been discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing.
Immediately here we see the difference between French and American newspapers. Just you try and submit something like this to the Wall Street Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, or Camden Courier-Post. This doesn't fly Stateside — not even in 1909. Oh, today's rags publish their fair share of "demented writing" that tests the "limits of logic" — but you have to earn that privilege first as a staff columnist.

"Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!"

As soon as I had said these words, I turned sharply back on my tracks with the mad intoxication of puppies biting their tails, and suddenly there were two cyclists disapproving of me and tottering in front of me like two persuasive but contradictory reasons. Their stupid swaying got in my way. What a bore! Pouah! I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself — vlan! — head over heels in a ditch.

Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse!

Cliff's Notes: Rich kid gets hammered, runs his car off the road, tells bystanders "I meant to do that."

(1) We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
(2) The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
(3) Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
(4) We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
(5) We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
(6) The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
(7) Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
(8) We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
(9) We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
(10) We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
(11) We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

These are the 11 canons/commandments of Futurism. Let's report back to Maronetti on how all this is working out, a century later:

*The 20th century was surely the Century of the Automobile. We've made good on this, F.T.: we've come up with hot rods, Interstates, NASCAR, Hunter S. Thompson. There have been stumbles: we briefly flirted with the idea of trading our big, angry engines for bumper-car electrics, but all that's by the wayside now. Gas prices are down to two bucks a gallon. The car companies are on life-support, but we think they'll pull through. What — are we all gonna ride bikes?

*I think we struck out with literature. There's just one book now. It's about a young, liberated professional woman and her urban odyssey toward self-actualization and true love. Well, there's that and all the Jesus/ Armageddon books. You might like the Jesus/ Armageddon books, but you have to go to a special store (Wal-Mart) to get them.

*Our museums and libraries are still standing. That's the bad news. The good news is we have the Internet, and the sheer volume of its published content overwhelms all the dusty old books gathered in hard-copy archives. And I hear that most web sites turn over completely in less than three months. Out with the old! Go forth, TiVo, and delete this two-week-old recording of Grey's Anatomy from my hard drive. In fact, delete all of 'em.

*Lethal, beautiful ideas had their time in the sun, thanks to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Whoopee. Hooray. War, militarism, patriotism, contempt for woman — we pretty much locked down (9) for you. The anarchists petered out, but then again, they were never all that well-organized.

*Re (11): wow! Quite a lot to cover there. These days great crowds are agitated because they're not working. We're trading carbon credits now, so smoke tendrils are a bit passé. Steamers are long gone, unless you're ordering mussels. We still have trains, but Mithridates will tell you that they're limping along languidly, with the occasional kick in the backside from a government subsidy. We did just earmark three quarters of a trillion dollars for a lot of this stuff. Oh, we'll have bridges, Signore, bridges spanning the great yawning chasm of this stolid, stupefied Economy. Great, graceful arcing bridges to Prosperity. And bridge loans for banks. Harrumph.

It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.

And it was in Italy that Futurism found an evil twin — or punk cousin — in Mussolini's Fascism. Did some corruption of meaning happen in the retranslation back from French? Hey, everybody — let's drain the swamps, get those trains running on time, and invade Ethiopia! Let's get wrecked and drive the country into a ditch!

The oldest among us are not yet thirty years old: we have therefore at least ten years to accomplish our task. When we are forty let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts! They will come against us from afar, leaping on the light cadence of their first poems, clutching the air with their predatory fingers and sniffing at the gates of the academies the good scent of our decaying spirits, already promised to the catacombs of the libraries.

It ought to be clear from all this that F.T. Marinetti was declaring a permanent state of rock 'n' roll. Noise, speed, reckless youth, generational warfare. Shoot, the rock tradition (in its purest form, anyway) even calls for "contempt for woman." What's the difference, really, between Marinetti and Jim Morrison, other than that Marinetti was actually a poet?

I don't think I like this 40-year cutoff point for relevance. Urk. This Frustrated Writer has only five years left before his useless manuscripts (their words, not mine) would hit the Waste Paper Basket. And what does this mean for rock music, now that I've raised this issue? Yeah, so maybe I enjoyed the "light cadence" of the first Killers album, but I'm damned if I let those poseurs push aside the Old Masters.

And Signore, you're pushing one hundred and forty. Would a true Futurist be pleased that his work has been assigned a library call number, that he's been stuffed away in the proverbial climate-controlled storage facility, to be released only for the occasional time capsule-style review in a blog post?

I'll leave you to think this through, Signore, but I enjoyed the exercise.

Today's Sign that the Recession is Upon Us


You can get Per Se reservations on OpenTable right now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Somebody Find Me LL Cool J's Letter to Obama

I want so badly to find LL Cool J's "open letter" offering counsel to President Obama, so I can make fun of it. But Google only turns up these Hollywood gossip blogs, and they all carry the same quoted excerpts, e.g.:

You have shifted the cultural paradigm of America, but now you have to live
up to the ideal that fostered the shift and ensure that the paradigm doesn’t
shift back. You must deliver.

Blow! How ya like me now?!

Somebody needs to post this communication on the Internet, in its entirety.

FO News Roundup: February 19, 2009

Honestly, if you're not reading the New York papers, how on Earth can you stay properly informed on the key issues of the day . . .
  • The Post bravely takes on Political Correctness by comparing our black President to a raging chimpanzee.

  • The Daily News couldn't wait to call out the Post for its offensive cartoon. Of course, the hypocrites published these far more offensive pictures in their own Wednesday edition. I mean some of those are just plain wrong.
  • The "days of winging it need to end," proclaims the senior adviser to the world's foremost authority on the subject, in the Wall Street Journal.
  • But at least all that garbage is worth reading. The New York Times is the object of relentless assault by the "media bias" crowd, but sometimes (less often than not) it deserves it. I mean, what purpose does Maureen Dowd serve? For liberals who need a fix of anti-conservative vitriol, turn on MSNBC for a few minutes in the morning, but get that catty (what's the politically correct term for a catty woman?) woman out of my damn newspaper!
Elsewhere in the country:
  • Amid all the allegations and scandals and insincere apologies, let's not forget that there are good guys in baseball, too. And one of them's going home. Good story, if you're not completely soulless. (P)
  • This just in: whatever "mental anguish" the photos on the Internet have caused you, the outside of your house is not private. (P)
  • First Phil Gramm called me a "whiner"; now Eric Holder says I'm a "coward." Keep talking, government jerks. Maybe tomorrow I'll be a "rebel insurgent." (P)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Masthead Archive: February 18, 2009


Steroids give you mumps.

FO News Roundup: February 18, 2009

Three days, three Roundups. We're on a roll here, but what does Phutsie need to do to get above the fold?

  • Die, GM, die! OK, I take that back. I'd love it if they survived, became profitable, and made good cars. But does anyone see this happening? How much more money are we going to burn? These aren't opinions, they're retracted sentiments and open-ended questions. (M)
  • I am shocked (shocked!) to find that the Illinois politician appointed by the former Illinois governor is himself a liar and a crook. Do any decent politicians ever come out of Illinois? (M)
  • He bit his nails at the table, "gorged on cakes" and was "often lost in his own thoughts at the dinner table." And then there were the rages. Thank you, Fox News. Without these insights we might have thought he was a swell guy. (M)


  • Another Ponzi scheme. I think it would be cool if somebody started a meta-Ponzi scheme, where all the guys who run Ponzi schemes could invest and get ripped off. This would truly be the Final Frontier for derivatives. (P)
  • Sarah Palin feels "beaten up." What — did her witchcraft shield wear off? (P)
  • Relatedly: Q. what's the difference between a hockey mom and an embezzler? A. Bad hair. (P)
  • Dang. I'd take that chimpanzee over Christian Bale. (P)

Facebook Backtracks on Its TOS, Still Works the Same Way

Here's my understanding of the recent Facebook Terms of Service Crisis:

When you post something to your profile, reports of it may (but not necessarily do) appear on your friends' pages. And of course Facebook allows you to post content on your friends' pages, e.g., by writing on your friends' walls. If you decide (and I'm close) that you've had enough of Facebook, and you delete your profile, everything on your page evaporates, but traces of your Facebook activity will remain on your friends' profiles.
This isn't a matter of Facebook policy; it's a programming problem that they haven't yet figured out how to fix. (It's a content and context problem, too. If I comment on Friend A's status, and Friends A, B, and C respond to my comment, the whole stream becomes a bit of a non sequitur if I bug out of Facebook and withdraw my comment. But my understanding is that Facebook hasn't decided that my comment to Friend A should survive my profile's demise — because it's not in a position right now to follow through on that promise.)

Over the weekend Facebook amended its Terms of Service to inform its users that right now they can't completely delete their content from the site. Everybody flipped out, Facebook has now gone back and removed the offending language from the TOU, and the out-flippers, including People Against the New Terms of Service (oh, praise the Lord for Internet organizing! what's next on the agenda: Darfur or the iPhone's battery life?), are rejoicing over their hard-fought victory for user privacy. This even though nothing about how Facebook works has changed.

For clarity's sake, Brothers and Sisters, let's apply an offline analogy: imagine that I've been hitting you with a stick for a couple of days, and I suddenly decide that it would be fairer to you if, while I hit you with the stick, I said, "I'm hitting you with a stick. You agree to allow me to hit you with the stick." You become outraged, you insist that you never agreed to let me hit you with a stick, and you demand that I stop telling you that I'm hitting you. So I stop talking, and I continue hitting you with the stick. Hooray for you, B/S: you really stuck up for yourself.

To be fair, the language that Facebook introduced in its amended TOS was pretty broad, and it was helpful to have some clarification from Mark Zuckerberg on what the amendment meant. And of course TOS don't just inform users about how the service works; they mean to bind them contractually and limit the company's liability.

Still, though: if the ebb and flow of the Sturm und Drang here teaches anything, it's that you can do what you want with your customers' content, but for God's sake, don't tell them about it.

Ranking People By Their Subway Puzzles


"Whenever I see somebody doing a word search puzzle, I assume they probably have a low IQ," observed a friend. Which led to a office conversation where we ranked mass transit passengers from most intelligent to least intelligent, based solely on the type of puzzle they work on during their commute. Our list:

1) crossword
2) sudoku
3) spot the difference
tie 4) junior jumble
tie 4) maze
6) word search

Frankly, even when the word in word search is hidden diagonally backwards, it's still not that hard.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009



I'm writing for two reasons. First, I just tried calling Customer Service a number of times, but I can never get through. I press "1" for customer service, then I hear a series of clicks and am subsequently disconnected. So there's that.

Second, and more importantly, I had a shirt returned to me today with two dramatic, vertical gashes running down its front. The gashes are both at least six inches long. The shirt arrived with an incident number (668664) and a notice that your "garment resolution" officer (hardly an objective arbiter of the matter) had determined that these significant tears aren't Zoots' fault.
I'm sorely troubled both by this process and its outcome. In fact, it seems like a bit of a "kangaroo court" to me. In support of this "tough luck" determination, Zoots attached a photocopied circular, the International Fabricare Institute's TABS Bulletin No. 331, which reads, in a nutshell, "whenever shirts tear, it's because they've been worn out by the wearer (except in the rare case when dry cleaning machinery tears them)." Aside from being a self-serving industry circular, this bit of "evidence" is itself equivocal and says nothing specific about the two horrific, parallel slashes in my dress shirt.

Your Bulletin No. 331 states that "[s]ome garments will develop weak, thin, and frayed areas after a period of time that may not become objectionable until after the agitation of some professional care procedure." This worn fabric is characterized by its "rough, pilled, distorted, thin, or even torn" condition. None of those adjectives applied to my shirtfront, which was in pristine condition when I left it out for pickup. Nothing about my shirt predisposed it to be shredded in so dramatic a fashion.

On the evidence before me, I have to reject Zoots' summary, unilateral "resolution" of this matter, and I would like to speak to a Customer Care Professional about this, if anyone should be handy over there to pick up the phone.



Appraisal of Apple's Approach to App Approvals: Appalling!

Geez — this blog post couldn't be any more on the money: Apple's gatekeeping of iPhone apps is, as we lawyers are wont to say, arbitrary and capricious.

That's not to say that Apple doesn't or shouldn't have the right to control what it sells through its App Store. But competent people ought to be managing the approvals. Or don't the folks at One Infinite Loop recognize that the worm turned a while ago, and they're not exactly hailed as the good guys anymore?

This sort of hardware-level censorship is exactly why you can't beat a good ol' PC and Internet connection — a point Jonathan Zittrain makes in spades in his latest book, The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It. Read the introduction at least. JZ's critique of the iPhone pre-dated Apple's opening-up of the iPhone to app-makers, but it's no less relevant now that Apple has positioned itself to make inane and discordant judgments re what is "iPhone-worthy."

FO News Update: February 17, 2009

Today we lead with an FO Special Feature on Religion. One by one the stereotypes come crashing down:
  • "The founder of an Islamic television station in upstate New York aimed at countering Muslim stereotypes has confessed to beheading his wife, authorities said." (M)
  • We've come a long way since Michelangelo's statue of Moses. Now even the evil-investor-devil-Jew-toy is horn-free. (M)

  • A Catholic priest boycotted a shop where Jews (turns out not) sell saint candles with a black man's picture on them. Sales have tripled, of course. (M)

In other news:

  • FO: Pakistan, it's sovereignty over land that allows you to govern the people on it. Pakistan: We know why we have sovereignty over land. FO: We don't think you do. (P)
  • If the 20th century teaches anything, it's that the most bitter of enemies can come together as allies. You'll just have to expect the occasional Freudian slip. (P)
  • Dwight Schrute takes up the cause of the Iranian Baha'i on And if I have anything to say, I have to do it through an iReport. Talk about repression . . . (P)

Setting a Record

I noticed on my way to work this morning that the sushi place down the street has gone out of business, leaving behind a dumpster with what looked like 500 pounds of aging fish & seaweed products. I am quite confident that no one has ever consumed 500 pounds of aging fish & seaweed products in one sitting. So if you want to make history, call the Guinness Book of World Records, post a note in the comments so I can come by and take photos, and I'll meet you at Ichiban.

Monday, February 16, 2009

FO News Roundup: February 16, 2009

It's right-of-center columnist from left-of-center newspaper day here at Feigned Outrage (which is itself, of course, completely unbiased and exactly in the center).
  • No doubt some criticism of the stimulus is warranted, and in the end I think Obama will be judged harshly if he lets the Democratic weasels in Congress have as much influence over policy as he did with the stimulus, but did George Will just bring up the specter of Napoleon? (M)
  • And while we're on a Washington Post conservative columnist kick, have I mentioned how much I love Kathleen Parker? Can reasonable conservatives and liberals form a broad enough coalition to stop the madness of our drug policies? Looks like we've got a long way to go, but keep it up Kathleen! (M)
  • Moving from intelligent conservatives to knuckle-draggers, Jeff Jacoby tells us that segregation in the South came about from big-government liberals running roughshod over free-enterprise conservatives. Let that be a lesson to you — follow Obama's lead and we'll have Jim Crow laws again! (M)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The House GOP: Rhetoric and Realpolitik

We've had two votes in the House on the stimulus now, and not one GOP rep has broken rank to support the bill. Cue rhetoric from the Democrats about obstructionism and partisan politicking in a time of crisis. That rhetoric has its appeal, but can we really blame the Republicans? The writing was on the wall, after all: this bill was going to pass.
If your vote isn't actually going to have an effect on the outcome, it's not unreasonable (I don't think) to vote your self-interest, and Realpolitik says GOP representatives should vote no. That way, if the stimulus fails to stimulate, the GOP can sing the "We Told You So" song. If it provides the expected modest boost to the economy, the House Republicans can hammer home what they'd have done to make it better. And even if the stimulus proves to be a Just What We Needed Cure-All — and the percentages point against this possibility — it won't be the worst thing in the world to have opposed it. The electorate doesn't always preoccupy itself with who was on the wrong side of a question that proves to be one-sided in retrospect: consider the case of isolationist Republicans who wanted no part of World War II.

(And given this electorate, which self-sorting and crafty gerrymandering has calcified into party-identifiable districts, it's typically the case that an in-party primary battle poses more of a threat to a rep's reelection prospects than the November vote. This gives a Republican every incentive to look more Republican, if he wants to hold his seat. So they embrace the tax-cut ideology, even if "we all [ought to be] Keynesians now.")

It's no coincidence that the GOPers were so stridently opposed to the stimulus bill in the House, and that they held the line so staunchly — whereas Senate Republicans worked within the system, labored to improve the bill, proposed amendments, and mustered three moderate GOP ayes to reach the 60 votes required of a deficit spending measure. The Republicans can only be obstructionist up to the point of actual obstruction. The party couldn't gamble on the bill not passing — and in the end, they didn't. I see that it's fashionable these days for the right-wing bloggers to excoriate Senators Collins, Snowe, and Specter: but of course it's these three Senators who have empowered the party ideologues to carp and criticize without actually having to answer for their opinions. The far better play here for Republicans is to take a dive and appear to go down fighting.

It would be interesting to know how our esteemed Congressmen would vote if we created a situation in which they couldn't know the ideological composition of the two houses and had no clue in advance where any of their colleagues stood on the legislation — say, if we locked each of them up in a storage facility cubicle (climate-controlled, of course) with nothing inside but a flashlight and a copy of the bill. Blinded as to self-interest, these 535 could well be in a position to vote their consciences, for once.

How do you suppose it would shake out? Would these GOPers still be convinced that we're better positioned to inject cash into the economy in the short term by giving it to people who are terrified of losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance right now? Do they truly believe it's a better investment in the economy if the stimulus money is ultimately spent on Big Mouth Billy Bass, Tickle Me Elmo, and other novelty baubles, rather than on roads, high-speed rail, broadband, medical records digitization, weatherization, and other infrastructure? I'm guessing they wouldn't, but that's all water under the corroded bridge. House Republicans voted no on Friday because they could. So hooray for them — and hooray for the three Senate "traitors" who enabled them to do it.

Masthead Archive: February 15, 2009


Young Hickory — Napoleon of the Stump.

Hope over Fear?

Bradley Schiller expresses his worries in the Wall Street Journal about Obama's fear-mongering. He's right in that the over-the-top rhetoric can't be good for confidence, but where was the WSJ over the last eight years of real fear-mongering, when Bush told us we were in for catastrophic attacks unless we passed every single one of his measures and continued to mock American justice by holding people in perpetuity without trial?
And it's pretty rich to single out Obama for calling this the worst crisis since the Great Depression without noting that people of all stripes in both political parties have been saying that for quite some time. Moreover, some of Schiller's points are just nonsensical. Yeah, there were far more bank failures in the Depression, but banks are much bigger now (or has the WSJ not noticed the consolidation in the financial industry it's been championing for years?). There are fewer bank failures now, but those that do happen are devastating. It takes a facile and petty mind to compare the failure of say, Jimmy's Corner Bank in 1931 to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

But the entire argument is nuts. He writes "as [Obama] tells it, today's economy is the worst since the Great Depression." And then he goes on to note how he thinks the Great Depression was worse. Well, it was worse. That's why this is the worst economy since the Great Depression, and not the worst economy ever.

Schiller almost actually tries to counter Obama's claim by suggesting that the 1982 recession might be as bad as this one, but he uses very selective statistics. He compares peak unemployment from the 1982 recession to current unemployment figures, even though we don't know if we've bottomed out yet in this one. But this crisis features massive bank failures as well (Schiller fails to mention that this didn't happen in 1982). In 1982 the entire financial system wasn't at risk. It seems to me that this recession is much worse than the 1982 crisis, and Schiller's really grasping at straws if his argument is that Obama shouldn't say this is the worst since the Depression because the 1982 recession might, by some metrics, be just as bad. The current situation might be closer to 1982 than 1932 — that's fair to postulate — but that wouldn't refute Obama's claim.

To say that Obama's claim was way out of line, you'd have to provide very convincing proof — far more convincing than the trite argument Schiller makes here — that 1982 was worse. Or, show somewhere in your article a quote where Obama says this is as bad as the Great Depression. As is often the case with journalists on the left and right, the headlines and paraphrases usually exaggerate the statements of the politician. See headlines about John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama on the Great Depression.

But Schiller does have a valid point in there. One worth making. It's not so noticeable amid WSJ's hypocrisy about fear-mongering, his selective statistics about 1982, his willful ignorance about the fact that most people are saying the same thing, and his embarrassing misunderstanding of the word "since." So I'll restate my own modified version of it here:

Talking about impending financial disaster will not boost confidence in a way that's needed to get people spending and lending again (nor, of course, will burying our heads in the sand and pretending nothing's wrong). Getting quick passage of a controversial bill with huge ramifications by threatening disaster is something we all hoped we were finished with, as well as loading up said bill with partisan policy and then calling the other body "obstructionist" for opposing it.

Now that the bill has passed, can we get back to Hope? Now that the bill has passed, can we get back to working with the John McCains of the world again?

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I love trains. But our trains suck. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the fact is undeniable. If you've ever ridden on a TGV in France or a bullet train in Japan and then come back to the US of A and taken a "high-speed" Acela from Boston to New York, you can't help but think that we could better.
In 1981, France introduced a train with an operating speed of 168mph. The top speed of the Acela is only 150mph, which it reaches on only a small stretch, and averages 86mph, well below the the high-speed trains in Japan(125mph), South Korea(125mph), Germany(153mph), and France(173mph). If the Acela averaged 125mph, one could do Boston to Washington in 4 hours and 45 minutes and Boston to New York in around 2 hours.

So it's with great pleasure that this train lover anticipates the new investment in train travel that is part of the new "stimulus" package. High-speed and inner-city rail was slated for $300 million in the House bill and $2.25 billion in the Senate bill. So how did the Democrats compromise? By giving high-speed rail $8 billion in the final bill! Meanwhile, Amtrak got $1.3 billion in the final bill compared with $800 million in the house and senate bills.

It's not exactly clear where, when, and how this money will be spent, but some of it seems likely to go towards California's project for a 220mph rail link from San Francisco to Los Angeles, something towards which Californians have already pledged $10 billion of their own money they don't have. Bill Kristol may be right to mock Harry Reid for wanting some money to go to a 300mph line from LA to Vegas, but the California rail link seems like it's going to happen — and soon.

So if you're a Kristol type who doesn't mind subsidies for cars and planes — but hates them for trains — this image of Mike Dukakis in a tank helmet ought to cheer you up. Laugh at it while you read his well-reasoned defense of investment in high-speed rail. It's a good explanation of what to expect, what fantasies won't happen, and why it's necessary.

Some highlights:
There's worry that the states just aren't ready to move on stuff. They haven't done the planning and the engineering they need to jump into major projects when the funding is there. We have a major construction-management problem in this country. In Massachusetts, the governor wants to build a four-mile light-rail extension using existing right of way [tracks and property that are already in place], and it's going to take six years to complete. How can that be? Chinese and Irish immigrants were laying four miles of track a day on the transcontinental railroad, and that was in the 1860s.
Yeah, how can that be? It's a question that vexes us train supporters so much. France did it a generation ago. We built railroads across this continent before anyone else in the world knew what a train was. Have we made no progress in 200 years? What the #$%^?
It's also about government spending priorities. It's absurd to say we don't have money to expand rail. For what we spend in Iraq in a week or maybe 10 days, we could fund Amtrak's ongoing operations as well as make major investments. We spend about $30 billion a year on highways and about $15-to-$16 billion on airports and airline subsidies. We're talking about 6 percent or 7 percent of that for a national rail-passenger system. You're essentially talking about a few billion dollars a year over the course of the next 10 years for a system that we should have had years ago.

That's right. For all those who rail against government subsidies, the question has never been about whether to subsidize or not. We already subsidize by the tens of billions. It's just a matter of what we subsidize and what subsidies are most effective for a clean, safe, efficient, and fast transportation network.
If you want to build a European-style 200-mph high-speed system—the kind that California is now committed to—that requires exclusive rights of way. And it probably argues for electrification. That's an expensive proposition. We can use our existing rights of way to reach speeds of between 110 and 125 mph. In some cases you'd want to lay tracks alongside what is there so that passenger and freight trains can stay out of each other's way, but most of what you'd need is already in place.
Well, this bums me out. I want the 200mph kind. But the man is saying we can get 125mph for much cheaper. That's already a huge improvement. And the hope for people like me is that the California project proves the concept and the rest of the country demands more.

There's a 10-state plan to connect downtown Chicago to every other major Midwest city within 400 miles using trains that travel between 110 and 115 mph. The whole thing would cost around $7 billion, and the basic proposal calls for using existing right of way. That $7 billion is half of what it will cost to move forward with the planned expansion of O'Hare airport. Every third flight out of that airport is less than 350 miles. So if you build a regional rail system in the Midwest, you're also helping with congestion at O'Hare and opening slots for longer flights.

The point is we're a long way off from replacing cross-country flights with cross-country trains, but for travel under 300 miles or so, it doesn't make any sense to fly. Unless, of course, you live in a country that subsidizes its airlines and starves its trains to the point that rail isn't an option . . .
I've heard that argument a lot [that we're more spread out than Europe]. But from the Mississippi River east, we actually look a lot like Europe. There's similar population density and distance between cities. That's why the Southeastern states want high-speed service extended from Washington, D.C., down to Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta. They know it can work. It's true that in the area west of the Mississippi to California, with some exceptions, these kinds of corridors don't exist.
The man's right on. It may not make sense to develop the network from Tulsa to Tucson, but the East is dense enough for trains to work — if given the chance. Let's face it, door to door the train is almost as fast as a plane to get from Boston to NYC. If that trip were shorter by an hour, and air travel weren't over-subsidized compared with trains, it would be a no-brainer. The same is true for Birmingham to Atlanta, DC to Philly, Jacksonville to Charlotte, and a hundred other routes. We're almost at the critical mass necessary to make train travel work in the US. Here's hoping this portion of the "stimulus" puts us over the top . . .

But read the rest of the interview. Even if you're not sold yet, it's a good place to start the debate.

You! Me! Dancing!: Los Campesinos! at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston

We showed up at the Paradise around 10 p.m. — at that age now where we can't be bothered to watch opening acts, although I hear Titus Andronicus does a good set.

You know you're going to see something interesting and original when you arrive at the venue and see not one but two glockenspiels on stage. You know you saw something interesting when band members have to run around between songs to pick up the glockenspiel keys and remount them, because they've been beating the hell out of them. That's Los Campesinos! for you, in a nutshell.
After ten, fifteen minutes spent tuning their own instruments and conducting their own soundcheck — what? would you have them hire roadies? it's a seven-piece band in a lousy economy — Los Campesinos! hit the stage hard, leading off with "Ways To Make It Through the Wall," the opening track off the band's second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed.

This was Los Campesinos!'s second go-round at the Paradise — this time there were three times the number of people in the crowd, and the show was sold out. The band made note of this in the between-song banter. They behaved as though they were uncomfortable about the reception they were getting and at times they suggested they might be putting one over on us. All this is fraudulent. This band is brilliant on record, and stunningly good live, and they have to know it.

Why do I like Los Campesinos! so much? What made a great old friend of mine insist to me that they'd be right up my alley? How did he know that I'd buy right in after just hearing the one track he played for me, "Don't Tell Me To Do the Maths?" Well, here are some clues:

*Fast, furious, melodic music in the tradition of the Ramones.
*A violinist (see also James, Camper Van Beethoven, and other Best Bands Ever).
*A cute, blonde bassist (see also Stellastarr*, Smashing Pumpkins).
*And finally: clever, literary, postmodern lyrical stylings that range from the pithy —

I'm not Bonnie Tyler, and I'm not Toni Braxton,
And this song isn't gonna save your relationship:

to the downright incomprehensible —
We have to take the car 'cause the bike's on fire
We cannot trust your friends 'cause they were born liars
And if you you don't exist with hearts the size of a house brick,
Cease and desist!

All that and the lead vocalist's personal jerry-rigged drum kit (along with glockenspiel) at the front of the stage adds up to a can't-miss act for Phutatorius — though I recognize that Los Campesinos! might not be for everyone.

On that point, let's discuss this anarcho-syndicalist collective's front man (if that's not a contradiction in terms). Gareth Campesino's stage presence is as indie-cultivated as the horn-rimmed, hipster-shirted Paradise Crowd in Residence. He cocks his head when he sings, brings his arms behind his back, strikes sensitive, poetic postures. A fellow named Steven Patrick Morrissey started us down this path, and 25 years later, for better or for worse, this is what we get. It's no surprise, then, that a guy in the crowd repeatedly and indefatigably calls out "PLAY THE SMITHS!" between songs. For my part, I can never fault anyone who shouts these words — and the band members, too, take it in stride, serving up knowing smiles. And that's ultimately the saving grace on this point: Los Campesinos! are just fun. Gareth is, too, despite his grievous "I'm not comfortable being a rock star" put-on. You can't help but like the guy, because in between all the woe-is-me poses he's beating hell out of a glockenspiel, literally shrieking at us in an exaggerated Welsh accent (gone now the days where Brits endeavored to "sing American"), and attacking his drummer's kit.

In addition to "Ways," Los Campesinos! served up five other tracks from November's WAB, WAD. I bought this album last week, and I wasn't sold on it before the show. I'm not sure I'm sold now — it came out in a hurry, within 8 months of the debut LP I like a lot better — but some of the performances won me over to certain tracks. "Miserabilia" and the title track were two of these. I was pleased when Gareth introduced "You'll Need Those Fingers for Crossing," a song he said is about "a bulimic suicide pact." Oh, now I get it. Urk. The problem is that once you've been clued in to that fact, you don't hear this song the same way again. I didn't think they performed "Fingers" particularly well. Gareth noted beforehand that "nobody likes it," and afterward he thanked us "for our patience." "Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1" and "All Your Kayfabe Friends" were the two other new-album bits.

Notwithstanding their promises to inflict a disproportionate amount of the new material on us, the band served up a tweener single, "International Tweexcore Underground," and eight tracks off the Hold It Now, Youngster . . . album. "My Year in Lists" and "This is How You Spell, 'HAHAHA We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux Romantics'" were two standouts. "You! Me! Dancing!" was the show's climactic number, with its sustained Two Men/One Drum Kit beatdown firing up the crowd before the rhythm guitars triggered and the song suddenly snapped into its groove. This is standard fare at a Los Campesinos! show — at least, based on the two I've seen — and it's great theater. Same, too, for the band's coordinated amplifier-climbing at the end of "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks," the last song before the encore, "Broken Heart Beats Sound like Breakbeats." "Knee Deep at ATP," "Drop It Doe Eyes," and "Death to Los Campesinos!" also made the set list, which according to Gareth, was written out on pita bread that Neil and Tom Campesino subsequently tore up and fed to the crowd (I did not personally witness this administration of Communion and can't say for sure that it happened).

All in all, a terrific show, notwithstanding certain tired indie aesthetic tics and the all-too-periodic bouts of unintended feedback. They're the Ramones with glockenspiels and English lit degrees. They're Belle & Sebastian on speed. They're Los Campesinos! Buy their albums; go see 'em.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Thin Mint Is the Best Cookie Ever Made

It's that time of year again: the days are getting longer, the great, bracing bulwarks of snow on either side of our driveways are shrinking in size (it's almost imperceptible, but it is happening), the sun is shining upon us, and the Girl Scout Cookies are out.
Holy crap! The Girl Scout Cookies are out! They'd set up a table in the Harvard Square T station: it took me completely by surprise on the way home from work Wednesday night. I stopped, did an exaggerated double-take, bought five boxes.

Now I know I'm prone to enthusiasms, and I know, too, that it's probably not best to write when I'm jacked up on mass-market baked fundraiser goods and a lemon flavor-injected Big Gulp. Even Wordsworth, that great Romantic poet, made sure not to commit his "spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling" to writing without first "recollect[ing them] in tranquility." But I'm sorry — I've got to say it:

The Thin Mint is the best cookie ever made. Seriously. I love the Oreo, and I'm wont to observe, in moments of weakness, that when Nabisco Doubled the Stuf they halved the distance between man and God. I don't mean any disrespect to Mithridates, whose hometown gave us the Fig Newton. That's a good cookie, too. And pretty much anything with a Keebler Elf on it gets a gold star from me (especially the Fudge Stripes). But the Thin Mint is far and away the best cookie you can buy.

It's so simple. It's so perfect. The blend of chocolate and mint can't be matched — not in the Mint Oreo, not in your York Peppermint Patties, not in your chocolate chip mint ice creams and their several hundred variations ("grasshopper," etc.). The Girl Scouts have it down, and I have to tip my hat to them, notwithstanding they're a quasi-fascist organization that does nothing to prevent or forestall the transformation of its members into that most cruel and abased form of human being, the teenage girl (yeah, I'm still bitter).

Wikipedia tells us that, notwithstanding its strictly seasonal availability, the Thin Mint is the third best-selling cookie behind the Oreo and Chips Ahoy (Chips Ahoy? Are you frickin' kidding me? They're like sand cakes with chocolate jimmies in 'em.). It says something, doesn't it, that people hoard up boxes of Thin Mints and scalp them on eBay? It says something, too, that it's "Cupcake Day" here at work, but I'm not in any kind of condition right now to partake of any of the several plates of homemade offerings folks have brought in, because I packed away half a sleeve of Thin Mints walking to the office from the parking garage.

Now the philosophers might disagree with me, but I'm the kind to believe that perfection can be enhanced (that's why I'm always going back to edit these blog posts). On that score, I recommend that FO readers put their Thin Mints in the freezer before eating them. My mother taught me this trick. They're cold, they're crunchier. I won't say it's the only way to eat a Thin Mint, but it's surely the best.

In summation, I declare today that the Thin Mint is the best cookie ever made in human history. I will challenge to a fight and beat down to the ground anyone who says otherwise.

Masthead Archive: February 13, 2009


Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Queer and a Motherf****r

Gets your attention, doesn't it? But the producers opted for the more tame An Officer and a Gentleman. Either way, the movie is brilliant and I had the adulterated pleasure of watching it on AMC last night. And yes, I have the soundtrack on vinyl. I also have the movie on DVD, but instead opted for keeping my butt firmly planted on the couch and watching the edited version.

And I'm glad I did, because I learned a thing or two about what's acceptable language on my favorite standard cable movie channel. Well, to be more accurate, I was totally perplexed by their editing rules and I'm not sure I really learned a thing.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: explicit lyrics. As in, I'm advising my parents not to read further.
Here are a few examples ([Censored] words in brackets; movie quotes in italics):
  • They treat me like [shit] . . . Some bull[shit] code of ethics . . . [I just can't shit on people and sleep at night]. OK, I guess "shit" is out, that must mean "bitch" is out, too, for sure . .
  • KC Jones is a son of a bitch . . . That son of a bitch! . . . You bitch! OK, I stand corrected, "bitch" appears to be in, no problem.
  • Quit whispering, sweet pea, [you're giving me a hardon], says Sergeant Foley to Officer Candidate Worley. Really? We can say "bitch," but can't talk about an erection?
  • It's growing out more than an inch, says Worley to Mayo as he went to dance with Lynette. OK, I guess we can talk about erections, but only when the guy is aroused by a woman. Hmmm.
  • The only things to come out of Oklahoma are steers and queers. I don't see no horns, so yo must be a queer . . . Best head in 52 states . . . Napalm sticks to kids . . . [Foley's a queer!] He got his balls shot off in the war! Why can we talk about someone's balls being blown off but not call them "queer? " Mutilated genitalia and mangled children are fair game, as is talking about oral sex between a guy and a girl, but even a hint of homosexuality is off limits? But wait a minute. We can call an officer candidate "queer," just not an officer. I guess 'cause we're still weeding out the candidates . . .
  • Oh God! Oh God . . . So help me, God . . . Get the hell out of here . . . Damn you! [God]damn you! . . . Can't you bend your [God] damn rules? So lets get this straight. We can say "God." We can say "damn." But "God damn" is censored every time? We can even talk about Hell, you know, the place God damns you to. What's going on here?
  • Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus [Christ] . . . Jesus [Christ]. What? Really?
  • Your father was an alcoholic [and a whore chaser]. OK, this is getting ridiculous, but I think I've figured it out:
There's a God and you can be damned, but it's not that God's fault. We can say "Jesus. " That could be Jesus Shuttlesworth or Jesus Quintana, for all we know. But Jesus Christ? Well, that's the Lord and we can't be taking his name in vain on television at midnight. And talk about penises, balls, and erections all you want, but homosexuality doesn't exist for actual military officers. Alcoholism is fine for the whole family, but prostitution is too dirty. Oh, we can call women "bitches" that's OK but don't say "shit." That's too bad a word.

OK, AMC was a little bit respectful of women. They did censor out the infamous "you little c***" from Mayo to Lynette at the end. But we censor that even here at Feigned Outrage . . .

I tried to think of some method to AMC's madness, but couldn't find anything on perceived severity of swear words in the US. (There's this great little report done about British swear words — skip right to the rankings on page 9).

But can anyone make better sense of:

Acceptable: bitch, god, jesus, damn, hell, balls, alcoholic, mutilated children, officer candidates might be queer;
Unacceptable: shit, god damn, jesus christ, whore chaser, officers might be queer?

Louis Gossett, Jr. won an Academy Award for his brilliant performance. His profanity was central to the character. Removing it weakens the movie. So if you really have to remove some of it, at least have rules that make some fucking sense.