Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Music Parable # 5: Keith Richards and Muddy Waters


The Rolling Stones are recordings sessions at the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago. The label owner, Leonard Chess, tells the stones that there is someone who really wants to meet them. The Stones are taken around the corridor and into one of the studio rooms which is being painted. There they find Muddy Waters, paint brush in hand and white paint rolling down his face touching up the roof of the studio. Waters looks to at the Stones, laughs and says, “I like what you boys are doing with my music.”

Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morgansfield), like most black blues musicians, did not sell many records until the late 60s when a white blues audience, having their attention drawn by white rock groups like the Stones and the Beatles began to listen to the original versions of the blues classics that were the staple of many early rock bands. At the time that the Stones first met him, Waters would occasionally take odd jobs, when not working, to try to make ends meet. He lived in a very modest house in a working class neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Waters, along with Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Little Walter and a score of others would be the first to electrify the blues, effectively inventing the template that rock and roll would be built upon.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards would worship Waters - the Stones even taking their name from the Waters song "Rollin' Stone". Richards and Waters would eventually become good friends and Richards would actively advocate for Waters' music citing it as one of his main influences for picking up the guitar in the first place. Richards notes that whenever the Stones were in Chicago, he would stay with Muddy and his wife, where he fondly remembers that: “Every morning, you would be pulled out of bed, thrown in the bath tub, and shoved full of food – whether you wanted it or not.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Music Parable # 4: How Thelonious Monk met Harry Colomby


High School music teacher Harry Colomby (who’s brother Jules worked as a recording engineer for Signal Records) was involved in the jazz scene in New York. He was watching Art Blakey & the Jazz Messnager play. Blakey was to come to Colomby’s high school the next day and play a concert for the students. Colomby had come to insure that Blakey knew the way to the school and the time that he was scheduled to appear. It was already 1:30 AM, and Colomby had to teach a class the next day at 7:30. At around this time, Thelonious Monk walked into the club. Colomby had met him before, but it took someone yelling “Hey Monk!” for him to make the connection. It took Monk a couple of minutes to recognize Colomby, but once he did, he asked Colomby if he could give him a ride home. Colomby said, okay, but that he had to be up at 6:30. Monk assured him that he just wanted to see Blakey for a couple of minutes, so once Blakey’s set had ended, they both went up to see him.

Monk proceeded to involve himself in a lengthy conversation with Blakey, much to the distress of Colomby. Finally, Monk tried to draw Colomby into the conversation:

“You’re a s school teacher?” Monk asked. “Yeah,” replied Colomby, “And I have to get up very early. I’ll probably only get an hour or two of sleep.” He added with a bit of a laugh. “You don’t need much sleep,” offered Monk, “Really, I haven’t slept for two days myself. You feel more alert with less sleep.”

Finally, Monk was ready to go at around 3:00 AM. As he was driving him home, Colomby noted that Monk was his favorite musician. Monk wasn’t receiving the accolades that he would later, but Colomby stated that he should just keep doing his thing and that he would make it big eventually. Monk seemed to like this, it was what he was planning on doing anyways, and by the end of the car trip had hired Colomby to become his manager.

Colomby would remain Monk’s manager for the rest of his musical career. Monk would gain enormous national prestige in 1964 when he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, one of only five jazz musicians to do so in the history of the publication. Colomby always referred to Monk as "a man of great personal courage and great dignity."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Biosphere 2: A Cautionary Tale Of Utopianism

Those that know me well will know that I take certain perverse pleasures in outstanding acts of human hubris.  There is something fascinating about processes, frequently by determinist ideologies, that drive the creation bubble economies built around perversities (the Dutch 15h century 'Tulip mania' is a favorite dinner party topic) or monuments to extreme arrogance or ostentatious wealth teamed with no sense (the mad proposals for Paris of  Le Courbusier and the 'stupid buildings' of Dubai excellent example of the former and then latter). Wrong-headed attempts at social engineering may be among the most Schadenfreude rich.  To wit, I've been reading a lot about I've been reading up a lot on Biosphere 2 recently (which came out of the commune and ecology movements of the late 60s) which I think is one of the more fabulous and flawed ideas that humanity has attempted. Biosphere 2 something of a pitch-perfect example of a fraught pseudo-scientific concept being used to underpin a crazed enterprise with disastrous results.

Housed in a stretch of the Arizona desert, a recent Cabinet magazine article on Biosphere 2 described it as:

...[A] three-acre complex of interconnected glass Mesoamerican pyramids, geodesic domes, and vaulted structures contained a tropical rain forest, a grassland savannah, a mangrove wetland, a farm, and a salt-water ocean with a wave machine and gravelly beach. This was Biosphere 2—the first biosphere being Earth—a $150 million experiment designed to see if, in a climate of nuclear and ecological fear, the colonization of space might be possible. The project was described in the press as a “planet in a bottle,” “Eden revisited,” and “Greenhouse Ark.
The project caught the national imagination. Discover, the popular science magazine, declared the mission “the most exciting venture to be undertaken in the US since President Kennedy launched us towards the moon.” Tourists came by the busload to peer through the glass at the bionauts, trapped in their vivarium like laboratory rats (the project was an acknowledged precursor to the Big Brother reality-TV show). Over the first six months, 159,000 people visited, including William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary.

Biosphere 2 had a prominent role in the most recent Adam Curtis documentary cycle: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Over the course of that series, Curtis made the case that a false notion of ecology - notably that natural systems are in any way balanced - promoted a mechanistic (almost Descarte-like) view of the world that resulted in the creation of non-hierarchical institutions that failed to govern effectively, enabled the abuse of minorities and proved damaging in the long-run to the notion of a 'common good'.

In a promotional article for that series, Curtis provides a slightly different summary of the Biosphere 2 project and it's eventual collapse:

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the "ocean" and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The "bionauts" began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another's faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.
Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches. In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred....

Curtis concludes the piece:

...At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.

What was so wrong-headed about Biosphere 2 was it was Utopianism projected onto non-scientific assumptions under the guise of being 'good' science.  Like with many economic models, you can build as many fancy mathematical equations you want on top of a false assumption, but that hardly makes the assumption any more accurate.  That biosphere 2 ended with a colony of ants - a 'superorganism' structured, surprisingly, almost as a fascist state* - obliterating an army of cockroaches and escaping into the wild is almost too perfect a metaphor for the whole endeavor. The arrogance of attempting to control and 'game' natural systems deserves no less.

Surprisingly, the near starvation conditions resulting from Biosphere 2's food production shortages and shortcomings were actually recommended and promoted by the doctor tasked with monitoring and advising the bionauts on their health and nutrition.  The doctor you see had pioneered said diet and believed that it's test within the context of Biosphere 2 was proof of it's efficacy.  After all, though the bionauts appeared half-starved and weak, they were relatively free of disease.  To this day, there remains nutritional pseudo-cults that believe (admittedly with some evidence) that these diets may greatly prolong human life spans and guard against illnesses.  One gets the feeling that the ascetic demands of the diet are such that, salubrious health affects aside, death may be preferable option.

Perhaps the most clear lesson is, as with the human race's experiments with Social Darwinism, Communism, Fascism, American style capitalism and other absolutist ideologies that promise Utopia of one sort or another - any belief system that relies on various rationale rather than pragmatism seem doomed to collapse under their own self-importance and hubris.  The human desire to build Utopia seems to frequently result in dystopia instead.

Our finest achievements are indeed visionary, but are flexible and perhaps the best that can be said for them is that they succeed in meeting particular needs with limited maintenance. As our ability to 'know' natural systems, let alone control them is highly limited - thus our ability to effectively 'play god' also remains limited. Certain grand ideas can be effective, but they are not always the ideas that stir the public imagination.  Because we think we can know everything, the solutions we arrive at tend to be those that play towards our desire for simple, or elegant solutions that sweep all considerations into a single, satisfying package.  This is not how organisms or natural systems actually work however, creating a disconnect that can often be dangerous. Thinking 'big' is not the problem - thinking ideologically is.

As for Biosphere 2: after the 'bionauts' were eventually evacuated, the project went bankrupt in a cloud of disgrace.  In the 90s it was resealed and resuscitated as a research station by the University of Arizona and the research project was eventually taken over by Columbia University in New York. While certain breakthroughs about how microclimates or biological phenomena operate in a closed system may yet be derived through the ongoing operation in some way of Biosphere 2, what remains most educational remains social. This does not simply constitute the break-downs and power relationships of the 'bionauts' while they 'manned' Biosphere 2, but rather the ideological system and thinking patterns that built Biosphere 2 in the first place. It may also be the hardest of lessons to learn.


*All insects are fascists, which was why Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers was so effective (almost more so the Paul Verhoeven film adaptation) - you were left wondering which society was the more totalitarian, that of the 'bugs' or that of the humans that waged war against them.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Music Parable # 3: Charles Mingus


Miles Davis, Max Roach and Charles Mingus are driving from New York to San Francisco in Roach’s new car. While Miles and Roach share a good rapport, both are annoyed by Mingus who talks a blue streak and continually accuses the two of being insufficiently responsive to the black rights movement. Because of Mingus’ large physical size and often terrifying temper (he is purported to have chased musicians around the studio with a fire axe, among other incidents) the other two humor Mingus. At one point Mingus poses the question:

“If you were to see an animal and you’re driving your new car, and the animal is in the street, would you swerve to keep from hitting him and crash your car, or would you try to stop or would you just hit it?

Roach responded, “Well, I’d hit the motherfucker, because what should I do, stop and get all fucked up if a car is behind me? Miles agreed with this logic.

Mingus angrily growled back, “See there, you got the same ideas that white people have; that’s just how a white man thinks. He would hit the poor animal, too, wouldn’t care if he killed him or not. Me? I would smash up my car before I would kill a little defenseless animal.”

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Roach and Davis thought that they were finally rid of Mingus, but Mingus needed to borrow the car. Roach leant it to him only to have a wheel sheered off by Mingus later that day. It transpired that, driving along, Mingus had swerved to miss a cat that had run into the road and had crashed into a fire hydrant.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Music Parable # 2: Martin Hannett & Joy Division


Joy Division, fresh from signing a deal with Factory records had holed up in Strawberry Studio’s in Stockport, England. Producing them was drug swollen and soon to be legendary producer Martin Hannett. As the band attempts to cut “She’s Lost Control”, Hannett becomes increasingly dissatisfied at what he is hearing being played by drummer Stephen Morris, who is playing a typical rock back beat. Hannett first had Morris change his drum pattern to that from the Ronnettes’ song “Be My Baby”, because he wanted something that sounded “colder and lifeless.” 

Hannett remained unhappy with what is coming back through his speaker cans and, despite using one of the first digital recording boxes, continued to insist that the drum sound was “leaking”. Finally, Hannett ordered the drum kit taken apart, and a more minimal kit reassembled using pieces taken from the toilet, on the roof the studio. This proved to give the track the distinct, almost industrial sounding drum sound that Hannett had wanted for the band.

Joy Division singer Ian Curtis would later hang himself. The rest of the band would solider on, initially with vocalist Kevin Hewick, before guitarist Bernard Sumner took over vocal duties and the band was rechristened New Order.

Hannett would continue to produce records and pioneer new uses of recording technology before his eventual dug and alcohol fueled demise in 1991. At the time of his death he had exploded to over 360 pounds.

Vive la France!

S&P, mustering, as Shakespeare had it, 'a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours' now appears to be threatening to downgrade France's credit rating as well.  Paul Krugman appears to take issue with this in a recent blog post, and rightfully so.  The French economy weathered the storm of the financial crisis well, showing modest growth, retaining jobs and organized labour has prevented the Sarkozy government from imposing serious austerity measures.  The European Central Bank has done a great deal to assist the struggling Italian economy in a move to help stabilize the Euro. Certainly, France has not balanced it's budget, but this is because it is doing the sensible thing in times of recession by continuing social spending and thus insuring that money continues to move through the economy.

This said, it would appear that S & P decision is largely ideological.  Has S & P drunk deeply of the Tea Party ideology and is now consumed by the notion of demanding deficits be balanced?  I think the French economy is one of the safer economies to bank on.  Admittedly, there are several features holding the French economy back, but it is not as though France is pursuing policies that result in undue risk. It should also be noted that many of France's problems are more circumstantial than structural. All in all, S & Ps rumored considerations remain somewhat baffling.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Music Parable # 1: Glenn Gould


Iconoclastic Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould is waiting backstage at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, preparing to play a concert. He is approached by a janitor who wants an autograph. Gould obliges, writing across the 8 X 10 glossy photo of himself that he is handed:

“Glenn Gould, Los Angeles, April 10th, 1964: The Final Concert.”

Gould had yet to tell anyone that he was retiring from the concert circuit, though he had always stated that he preferred the level of control granted to him in the recording studio to live performance.  This was ironic coming from a classical musician who would regularly audibly 'sing' along with piano music he was playing.

Gould would continue to record until just before his death in 1982. This output included not simply recordings of classical works - Gould also wrote and recorded radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on non-musical subjects. Most notable among these was “The Idea of North”.

The Definition of Insanity

The Obama Administration has called for an an extension of tax-cuts in order to "stimulate the economy" in the face of ailing stock markets.*  This is apparently because those ongoing tax-cuts for the wealthy has thus far been ever so-effective in stimulating the economy and creating jobs. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The administration's response appears to be a fairly compelling exhibit 'a'.

Meanwhile, economists overwhelmingly hold that increasing spending on social programs is a far better way to stimulate the economy and create jobs than tax cuts. Tumbling share prices and lack of investor confidence are all issues that would be rapidly remedied through a robust jobs creation program and stimulus programs that built or repaired public infrastructure and helped small-businesses gain access to lending.

I've previously written that Obama is far more in line with far right economic ideology, however, his lack of any comprehensible policy vision, a willingness to apparently muddle through is a very real problem. Obama's anemic positions have annoyed moderates, such as Robert Reich, as well as the progressives that elected him. Drew Weston argues meanwhile that Obama failed to create a pertinent national narrative that holds the financial industry publicly accountable, in the same way that Teddy Roosevelt and FDR did, and thus has avoided the policies that would naturally flow from that narrative. To me, one of the big differences is that both Roosevelt's were incredible people- strong charismatic leaders with strong, progressive agendas. Teddy Roosevelt in particular was something of a superhuman, capable of subsisting on almost no sleep and armed with both a photographic memory and near pathological need to win and push himself. Obama is simply not made of the same stuff.

Part of Obama's response may have something to do with a tendency, observed in neuroscience, that people, in the face of data that would disprove their positions, are more likely to retrench their positions than to head that data. If Obama is genuinely sold on the free-market capitalism that his economic team, notably Rubin and Geithner espouse, then he is likely to ride this wave of cognitive dissonance to electoral defeat to a Tea Party ideologue - like the illustrious Rick Perry. Such joy.

*As as afterthought, as far as the current stock market palpitations go, I have to agree with Paul Krugman: why anyone should care what S & P should have to say about US securities, regardless of their rationale, when they only recently gave junk bonds 'A' ratings in the lead up to the current financial crisis, is something of a mystery. China is justifiably angry, but has been arguing that the US needs to live within it's means (and 'be nice to the Countries that lend it money') for some time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Last Thoughts on the Negotiated Debt Ceiling

With the grotesque business of the debt ceiling negotiations finally apparently concluded, and the far right largely triumphant - pushing nearly $3 trillion in austerity measures with no tax-increases - despite the foolishness implicit in trying to balance a budget during a recession - we should now, as Dean Baker argues here, turn our attention to what the economy is actually doing. Growth has all but stopped and unemployment has exploded. Baker notes:
On Friday, the commerce department released data showing the economy grew just 1.3% in the second quarter. Even worse, it revised down the first quarter growth number from 1.9% to just 0.3%. This means that the economy was growing at just a 0.8% annual rate over the first half of 2011. This is well below the 2.5% pace that is necessary just to keep unemployment from rising.
Of course, unemployment has been rising, with the June figure hitting 9.2%. That is up from a post-recession low of 8.8% in March. The unemployment rate does not give the whole story, since many of people have lost hope of finding a job and given up looking for work altogether. The employment to population ratio (EPOP) – the percentage of the population with jobs – has fallen back almost to its low point for the downturn. The EPOP for African Americans has hit new lows in each of the last three months.
Instead of worrying about US debt being downgraded on the Standard and Poor (S&P) index, perhaps politicians should be worrying about how to actually create jobs - most commonly done by governments through vigorous spending on social programs, infrastructure improvement or replacement projects and other stimulus programs rather than worrying about debt. The whole idea that there is some inherent benefit to a government always operating a balanced budget is non-nonsensical anyways, and current measures seem to be benefiting exclusively corporations who are (a) loathe to pay their taxes, and (b) cutting jobs anyways.

I'm getting tired of carping on about the economy on this blog. Everyone is tired of hearing me carp on about the economy. That said, the same economic problems will persist until we hold elected officials responsible and require them to push a sensible program that would create jobs, require meaningful financial reform, and require corporations and the very rich to pay their fair share of the tax obligation.  This must be done rather than continuing to play these increasingly dangerous ideological games that have no relation to how much of the population actually lives or how economies work.

The humanity has been ripped from people. It's time to adjust policies such that humanity is brought back into discussions about the economy, fiscal policy, taxation and programs expenditure. As the late Joe Strummer once wisely said: "Without people, you're nothing."