The Burmese Crackdown & the Chinese Connection

by Laura Snedeker

The Burmese military junta discovered the power of the media one day too late when news of the state’s violent crackdown on protesting Buddhist monks circulated around the globe, prompting foreign governments to sever ties with the rogue nation.

The junta’s disproportionate response and its failure to cut communications before the international media and domestic bloggers documented the carnage demonstrate the regime’s lack of preparation to deal either with its own citizens or the overzealousness of its military. The Burmese government isn’t known for dealing subtly with undesirable pro-democracy activists, such as imprisoned Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but its actions nevertheless shocked the world, its allies most of all.

Burma’s strongest military and economic ally, China, hasn’t gone so far as to condemn the junta’s actions, but the government did express concern about the political turmoil. China’s real concern isn’t with the plight of the protestors whom the military clubbed to death or spirited away, but with its own reputation.

Timing is everything, and this crackdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Chinese government, which is attempting to project a kindler, gentler image in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Much has been made of China’s own dubious human rights record, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to fear a boycott by Western nations.

The Chinese government is painfully familiar with the dangers of failing to properly control the media. Tiananmen Square is synonymous with violent repression, thanks to the non-stop news coverage. The iconic image of the lone protester facing down a line of tanks hurt China’s standing more than a dozen State Department reports or official proclamations could have.

The Tiananmen Square massacre drew condemnation from around the world, and since then the government has been increasingly image-conscious and extremely wary of the proliferation of dissident internet media. The government hasn’t fared well on that front, but if it faced a similar pro-democracy movement today it wouldn’t hesitate to bring the whip down on the media before taking out the guns.

A military dictatorship’s only response is violence; it is in a constant state of war with its own people and is incapable of solving problems without resorting to brutality. The Burmese military junta flew into a panic during the crackdown and cut internet connections, hoping to stem the tide of eyewitness reports flowing across the country’s borders. Killed in the violence was Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai; his death symbolizes the regime’s desire to remain closed to the outside.

The mere fact of a military crackdown in a dictatorship is rarely enough to prompt foreign governments and citizens alike to express their outrage. The Western world was not unaware of the Burmese junta’s brutality prior to this week’s violence. But foreign leaders failed to tighten sanctions or deny visas to military officers before it became obvious that anything less than those actions looked like further acceptance.

The images of hundreds of Buddhist monks dressed in red and marching peacefully drew the attention of the world because they showed us determined resistance and foreshadowed the coming crackdown. The accounts of Burmese soldiers killing protestors bring to life the regime’s horror; the picture of Nagai dying as he snaps his last photos demonstrates the regime’s panicked response to the momentary opening up of their secretive state.

(Photo by racoles of New York via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a political cartoon about the Burmese junta from The Washington Post, please check here. To see a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about the Burmese protests, please check below.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part XI

(This is the eleventh part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman

This is Why it's Called Burning Man

Thirteen hours until sleep.
The Man is burning!

Burn Night is insane.

The entire city of approximately 40,000 gathers around fire dancers of every kind who are gathered around the Man. The Man now stands unobstructed on nothing but a lean-to of tree trunks.

The outfits of the burners are unfathomable. One of my own companions, a lovely man by the name of Noca, wore a gentleman’s leather bikini bottom, a jacket and a hat that was lit by tiny white balls. Aaron, the artist from the Voodoo Space Patrol, was dressed as a neo-Roman warrior, complete with glow stick-accented helmet and toga. My, these boys were handsome!

Once the fire dancers had performed for a bit, the Man ceremoniously raised his arms in a “V” above his head. I’ve been told that this is his announcement that he’s ready to burn. I was not ready to let him go. I mean, he had already been burned once and had risen again like an alternative inferno Jesus!

Fireworks erupted sending flame, thunder and cheers into the sky. The Man burned.

For me, it was slightly anticlimactic in that I had already seen the Man burn early. Then again, this was only a small anticlimax when consider you’re watching a 30-foot human effigy burn. It also made my burn special and unlike the first burn of most. I got two Burning Men for the price of one.

During this second burn, the Man was resilient. He actually had to be assisted to his collapse. He stood proud, engulfed in fire, atop his tee-pee of wood until they used ropes to pull him down. There was a group of protesters walking around with signs proclaiming “Save the Man.” As the man fell, the leader of the protesters shouted “We can still save him. It’s just a surface wound!”

After the Man fell, I joined the throngs in slowly circling him. Some people played drums, some stripped down to nothing, but I just thought: “Damn, it’s hot this close to that fire wearing this stupid fur coat.”

The party after the Man fell had its own momentum: I didn't make it to bed until 11:00 the following morning. The party began with me taking enough of the substance responsible for my relationship with D to tiptoe along life’s edge. This time, I did not take it all at once. I wisely spread it out over the course of the next 12 hours. Raring to go, I had to make a phone call. To God. Somewhere amongst the other artwork seemingly dropped onto the Playa from a space ship, is a phone booth. It is a functioning phone, but you can only call one person. God. In my case, God was a chick. But I’ve heard that god has answered the phone as a drunken guy challenging you to shots as well as a sober man, and who knows what else.

Around the time the panic from the intoxicant was starting, it was time to light the oil rigger. The fireworks were apparently spectacular. I had buried my face into D’s jacket at that point and was not handling lots of fireworks well. But the few times I did glance up it was unbelievable. I was able to lift my head for long enough to watch the rigger itself explode into a 300-foot mushroom cloud of flames. It was beautiful and warm even though we were more then 150 yards away. If you don’t love and appreciate the beauty of all things fire — not the case for me; I blame my pyromania on my older brother — you will by the end of Burning Man.

The rest of the night/morning went as follows: met a faerie queen and king; danced at and in between half a dozen clubs; woke my fellow gypsies Sarah and Jasmine at 5:00 AM to convince them to rejoin the party; panicked again; accused D of having an affair with Sarah; watched the sun rise and partied like it was my last night on Earth.

All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good first burn.

(Although Robin has seen her first official burn, her series is not done. A few more parts remain. To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here. )

(The photos are courtesy of Robin Forman. To see a video of the 2007 burn, please check below.)

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Leave Your Bomb Shirt at Home

by Molly Kenney

In this era after Sept. 11, sometimes free expression has its limits.

Take for example, the case last week of Star Simpson, a student from MIT. Simpson arrived at Logan Airport in Boston sporting an explosive new look. Authorities say Simpson was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with a blinking circuit board and 9-volt battery attached; she was also carrying a lump of putty in her hands. An airport employee gave her directions. But authorities say when Simpson was asked about the machinery on her shirt, she walked away without a response. Instead of picking up her boyfriend as planned, Simpson was promptly arrested at gunpoint. A computer science major, she claimed her shirt was art and that it was designed to attract the attention of potential employers at a job fair earlier that day. What a stupid move, Star.

The Constitution protects her right to free expression, and her explanation makes sense (she was probably a big hit at the career fair). But she probably could have found other ways, ones not involving a threat to national security, to express herself. Her MIT degree, though still in progress, suggests that she is intelligent, and intelligent people should be able to solve the bomb plus airport equation. (But obviously, not always. For more on that theme, please see: "Osama Owes Me a Fifth of Rum.")

As Senator Larry Craig can attest, an airport is not a good place to get involved with the law these days. While constitutional rights are not shed at the security gates, fighting the system once inside ensures inconveniences for everyone. Simpson will have to go through personal security checks for the rest of her life, if she ever gets off the no-fly list. Other airport patrons were surely inconvenienced and frightened as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took down this perceived threat. Her artwork distracted TSA personnel from their taxpayer-funded jobs, leaving several old women to pass through security without getting accosted. After a stunt like that, Simpson was lucky that the TSA folks were the only ones with guns. Harried travelers are not the most understanding people, especially not when they’re from Boston.*

The incident makes students, computer scientists, and artists cringe at their occupational association to such stupidity. Such actions will not make Simpson attractive to employers, and she can forget any chance of a computer science position that involves government security and classified information. MIT probably isn’t pleased with the negative press either. Simpson, as well as her MIT classmate who suggested to The Boston Globe that Simpson may not have heard of the 9/11 attacks and their connection to Boston, aren’t poster children for intelligence.

*The author is a native Bostonian.

(The photo of Star Simpson was obtained via boingboing.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part X

(This is the tenth part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman

Dressing for the Ball

Twenty-four hours until I sleep again.
The Man burns tonight.

As the time for the Man to burn crept closer and closer I grew furious with myself that I had slept at all that week. I could have slept when I was dead, but instead I decided to waste what precious few hours I had at Burning Man on sleep. Well, not really a lot of hours on sleep, but I would have liked the count to be “zero.”

I woke up conflicted. I was excited because it was Burn Night but that also signaled the end of the event. Yes, I have to admit that part of me was nearing ready to go. I missed Chipotle, shaved legs and not battling with the alkali dust imbedded in my hair and the yarn recently braided into it. But a place like Black Rock City attaches itself to your brainwaves. It’s like the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” So only for a split second were my thoughts able to drift to the outside world before they were lassoed back.

It was Burn Night. Things needed to be done.

I had to rid my tent of all the dust. Because of the two days of dust storms, everything was covered with a quarter-inch of alkali dust. Let me tell you something about alkali dust. Have you ever spilled flour or baby powder before? You know what a pain that is to clean and how fine it is? Well, alkali dust is finer and more difficult to clean especially when you're standing in a dried lake bed made up entirely of alkali dust. I believe the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” was used to describe my efforts in getting the dust out of my tent and off my clothes.

With my clothes being slightly, and I mean ever-so-slightly, less dusty, I picked out my burn outfit. Leopard velvet pants with a black sequin belt, brown bikini top trimmed with black sequin band, big black faux fur coat that I’d actually worn to a homecoming dance once. It’s when wardrobe memories about faux fur coats from homecoming hit you that you realize that you belong at Burning Man, because you’ve never really fit in anywhere else. True to my pre-Burning Man self, I was running late so I rushed over to D’s RV. We joined the boys at the Voodoo Space Patrol camp and headed off to the Burn.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(The photo is courtesy of Robin Forman. To see a PG-rated video of burners displaying their outfits while blowing kisses, please check below.)

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Money and Why Voters Don't Matter

by Jeff Siegel

The most intriguing thing about President George Bush's poll numbers is not that his approval rating is near an historic low, but that Congress is right there with him (and with HMOs, which is truly scary). Contrast this with 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned and Congress got a 68 percent vote of confidence in a Gallup Poll.

Yet watch the political process, whether it's the various presidential campaigns or a variety of local races, and it's obvious that few in the polticial elite understand this. They see it, certainly, because they pay for the polls that tell them those things. But understand it? They're hopeless.

Mark Penn, the current polling genius, has pushed Hillary Clinton to the front of the Democratic presidential pack, but he hasn't been able to convince voters Clinton actually gives a damn about anything. Is it any wonder that Gallup notes that almost three out of five voters want a third party "to adequately represent the American people?" That's up from two out of five in 2003.

In Dallas, the elite are equally confused. A referendum is scheduled in November to cancel construction of a controversial tollroad, which garnered 90,000 signatures to get on the ballot. That's more people than voted in this spring's Dallas mayoral election. Nevertheless, the black woman who represents the tollroad's district in Congress (Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson) has said a referendum should not be held, while the area's gay chamber of commerce has sided with the business and political establishment to support the highway. It's like those 90,000 signatures don't register at all.

This is because the political class no longer sees voters as their customers, but as Orwellian proles to be manipulated this way and that. The manipulation is financed by the increasingly corrupt campaign contribution system, as well as what old-time Chicago pols used to call "Where's Mine?" In Dallas, for example, the congresswoman's support of the road guarantees continued campaign cash (even though she has a safe seat), while the gay chamber can count on contracts, commissions and the like for its members for its support of the road.

Is this too cynical a view? Perhaps. But I haven't seen anything in the last eight years to change my mind. Bush was elected twice because his handlers convinced voters that he was something he never had any intention of being. If Clinton is elected next fall, will she be any different? Will the war end? Will the health care mess be cleaned up? Will the economy and federal budget be put on solid footing? Or will she and and Penn just do another Bush and Rove on us?

(Photo of Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York campaigning in New Hampshire by Marc Nozell of Merrimack, NH via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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iVoryTowerz Radio & Radio Nowhere

This week's podcast starts with Bruce Springsteen's new single and then, as usual, cruises through about 40 years of music history. Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere" is a commentary about the state of American radio and also the nation, and unfortunately not many radio stations are playing it yet. So give a listen on the underground podcast. And along the way you might also hear some outlaw country, some alternative rock, and some psychedelia for good measure. Set the volume at 11.

(This podcast is no longer available.)


"Radio Nowhere" by Bruce Springsteen & the E St. Band
"We Can Get Wild" by Mark Knopfler
“This is Us" by Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris
"Sometimes" by Holly Williams
"I'm Going to Live Forever" by Billy Joe Shaver
"Luckenbach, Texas" by Waylon Jennings
“Hold On, Hold On” by Neko Case
“Challengers” by The New Pornographers
“Google Me” from the musical Internet Dating by Rob Weiner (request)
"You're the Kind of Girl" by Mixel Pixel
Jeff’s New Wave: “No Reaction” by The Shivvers
"I Don't Understand" by The Chesterfield Kings
"Pushin' too Hard" by The Seeds
"You're Gonna Miss Me" by The 13th Floor Elevators
Cover Me: "Thank You" by Tesla
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Soulcrusher” by Operator

(Mp3 Runs - 1:10:46; 65 MB.) Program contains explicit lyrics.

(Photo by Alice Harden of Florida via morgueFile.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part IX

(This is the ninth part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman

Dorothy was a Sissy

Sometime...over the rainbow.
Twenty-two hours until the Man burns.

So Dorothy was afraid of lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Dorothy, you sissy, try dinosaurs lit with EL wire, monkeys eating snakes, and semi-trucks stacked on top of each other.

Somewhere over two rainbows, Black Rock City had slipped into an evening sparkled by stars and neon. It had been a long week, so I decided taking it easy was the best option. Tomorrow was Burn Night, after all, and I was going to need to be at 100 percent. So it was just a few tequilla shots for warmth. I was clad in vinyl pants and rabbit fur (yes, I’m sorry to say it was real — my apologies to Thumper and Buggs). I was towed off into the night upon my mobile throne (D’s bike cart.) We came to the Esplanade where there was a person, or at least I assume there was a person in this get-up: dressed in all black with a mask outlined with neon green EL wire. The EL wire was formed to make him/her/it look like a dinosaur skeleton. The dinosaur was also on those spring stilts that allow a person, or dinosaur, to run very fast with great strides and jump six or so feet into the air.

“Ooh,” I said, “Look at you! Aren’t you scary!”

Well, this apparently provoked the dinosaur who promptly came chasing after me in the cart.

Have you ever seen Jurrasic Park? Remember the scene where the rough and tough velociraptor specialist (Laura Dern), and the chaos theorist, played by the wonder that is Jeff Goldblum, are driving away from the T-Rex in a Jeep Wrangler? It’s a terrifying scene, and I was living it. I would argue that this was actually slightly scarier considering that in Jurrasic Park you knew if that dinosaur caught them he was going to eat them. I had no idea what the neon-dinosaur was going to do when it caught me.

“Well, you are scary! Ooooooh!” I wailed, trying hard not to wet my pants.

The dinosaur said nothing but kept chasing.

“No, seriuosly, you’re totally freaking me out.”

Still nothing.


And so D pedaled faster and eventually the dinosaur was left behind.

I was exhausted and so as I rode in D's cart I drifted in and out of sleep. It became particularly hard to decipher between dream and desert. This must be what Dali felt like while working, I mused. I would be jolted from a doze to open my eyes and gaze upon a tree made of bones, a giant flower with people sleeping in the middle, even the Man himself.

D, much to my dismay, kept making me get out of the cart and go explore art. I just wanted to sleep.

In this state of dreamily mild intoxication, it’s hard to say what my favorite piece was. They were all so different and there were so many. But on this particularly starry-eyed night I fell in love with two.

The first was two full-sized semi-trucks stacked on top of each other in an “S” shape. You could climb up them. At the time, I was too tired to climb and I probably would have found a nook near one of the tires and fallen asleep without anyone realizing I was gone. But now I am furious at myself for not having ventured up into this marvel of physics defying gravity.

And then we found ourselves at a tree filled with monkeys. There were exercise bikes stationed around the tree. People had clambered aboard these bikes and were pedaling furiously.

“God, could this place be any weirder?” I thought.

But then I realized why they pedaled. The pedaling powererd a strobe light that made it appear as though one monkey was swinging around the tree. And as it swung, a snake wound its way around the monkey's arm and into its mouth until it disappeared.

So while I understand Dorothy’s fear of lions and tigers and bears, I feel as though the things I encountered that night, as well as during the whole week of Burning Man were far more fearful and on a completely different plane. They were terrifyingly beautiful.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(The photo is by Livin-Lively via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a trailer for the documentary Confessions of a Burning Man about the festival, please check below.)

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Film Review: Shoot 'Em Up

by Chris Heller
Special to iVoryTowerz

I love action movies. From the explosions and gunfights to the black and white, good vs. bad mentality, a great action movie is practically irreplaceable. Be it a cheesy Schwarzenegger flick or an over-the-top Michael Bay production, nothing's more fun to watch. Some people might feel my love of all things action borders on the obsessive (just ask me how I feel about The Rock, for example) but I'll still buy into the “oohs and ahhs” that no other genre can provide. It goes without saying, therefore, that I loved Shoot 'Em Up.

The movie opens with Clive Owen, as the squatter Smith, being thrown into a conflict (aka: a huge gunfight) that leaves him the guardian of a newborn baby. And of course, who better to take care of a baby than Red Light District “Milk Maid” Donna Quitano, played by Monica Bellucci. This odd couple jumps from one chase scene and firefight to the next, evading the grasp of Paul Giamatti, who takes the role of a professional hitman named Hertz. It all builds up to – what else? – a final battle between Smith and Hertz, although in a way most wouldn't expect.

Director Michael Davis holds nothing back for eighty-six minutes of all-out, intense action. In his previous film Monster Man, Davis demonstrated a skill in crafting tongue-in-cheek subject matter that's simply kicked up to another level in this release. Rather than tease you, however, Shoot 'Em Up beats you over the head with its absurdity. The funny thing is, it actually works. I, for one, watched in disbelief as Smith nonchalantly killed off dozens of baddies with weapons that would make MacGyver jealous (you'll never look at a carrot the same way again).

Critics have been harsh to disregard Shoot 'Em Up as an excuse to film shoot-outs, citing its lack of plot or character development. In response, I'd say that they entirely missed Davis' point. Who decided that action films need intricate, weaving plotlines? Can't the audience be just as easily satisfied with scene after scene of violence, one-liners, and sex appeal? I might be standing in the minority, but I feel that by cutting out the fluff, you're just left with everything that defines an action movie. Forget the plot dynamics, I'd gladly sit down with some popcorn and watch Owen dispatch villain after villain any day of the week.

(Promotional poster for Shoot 'Em Up from New Line Cinema. To see a trailer from the film, please check below.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part VIII

(This is the eighth part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman

Rainbow Songs

Two dust storms and one rain shower until the rainbow.
One day until the Man burns.

I have said that I emerged from Burning Man “a completely morphed and better version of myself.” The reason I say that is because I’ve always had that person I became inside me. I just needed something to help me find that part of me. For me it was Burning Man.

So here are a few of the radical changes that had already taken place. For those keeping socre…that’s in only five days, kids.

First, I stopped drinking coffee.

If you’ve ever met me in the world beyond Burning Man, you know that I would have coffee hooked up to an IV and carry it around with me if I could. I am constantly dehydrated because I guzzle coffee and completely forgo water. I once told my mother that I loved the shakes that I get from coffee to which she replied — and might I add, appropriately — “Robin, that’s just plain sick.” I didn’t need coffee on the Playa. I was running on an average of three hours of sleep and I had the energy of a two-year-old.

I stopped smoking.

Before I got to Burning Man, I couldn’t even run through an airport or my apartment building without “wishing whole-heartedly that I didn’t smoke.” Plenty of people at Burning Man smoke but something about it just didn’t feel right to me after a few days. I began thinking about respecting my body when I was there. I know, that’s hard to believe because if you’ve been following along you’ve already seen me go through two different mind-altering substances. But come on, it was Burning Man, everything can’t make sense.

I held hands.

In the default world, the public display of affection makes me long for a gun, a concealed carry law, and immunity from shooting people. And yet here I was holding hands while walking all over Black Rock City…with a boy… a boy with whom I was romantically involved! Which brings me to the next one….

I was romantically involved.

I don’t do relationships. I haven’t done the relationship game in three years and I am very proud and very happy with this accomplishment. I’m like the Wicked Queen in Snow White…it’s all about me. And boys are disposable toys to me in the default world. In fact, it’s like sport hunting for me...only I hunt with an AK-47.

But there’s something about the Playa and the kindness of the people there. Something in the heat of the desert and the beauty that’s dispersed across it can penetrate the coldest of hearts and melt them.

The dust had been stirred and whipped around twice and now it was beginning to rain. I was out with —get this— both the Mailman and D. But the Mailman went his own way during the rain shower. We lost him as he was doing capoeira with a topless girl. We wandered off to look for my lost bike.

The rain stops. And D asks, “Where is it?”

“What? The bike? Oh, forget the bike. It’s been claimed by the desert,” I reply.

“No, the rainbow. Dust and rain…there should be a rainbow.”

And so we turn to a chorus of other burners gasping.

There are two complete rainbows stretching the entire length of the desert. Over all the artwork, the Man, the city, and thousands of fur and fishnet clad people staring up in awe.

I hold D’s hand and realize that the changes in me have been set in place.

That, Kermit my dear, is why there are so many songs about rainbows.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(The rainbow photo is courtesy of Robin Forman. To see a short video of the rainbow from Burning Man 2007, please check below.)

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Concert Review: John Vanderslice

by Caitlin Servilio

The Rock & Roll Hotel is a bit of a hike from the Union Station Metro stop in Washington, D.C., it’s true. But the 15 blocks are well worth the walk when the Hotel has been consistently booking great artists since it opened last year. Last weekend, it was John Vanderslice and Bishop Allen, both of whom played fantastic sets on the Hotel’s tiny, cramped stage.

Vanderslice is a singer/songwriter originally from Gainesville, Florida, who went solo after the breakup of his band MK Ultra in 1999. Since that time, he has been releasing richly lyrical albums that combine a thoughtfully instrumental pop sensibility with a sense of humor and social consciousness. Emerald City, which was released in July, contains even more political commentary wedded with catchy hooks and yearning melodies. At the Hotel, Vanderslice and his band (made up of a drummer, keyboardist, and violinist/guitarist) started strong with “Kookaburra,” a highly esoteric discussion of capitol domes, dirty confetti, and other veiled allusions to sex from Emerald City. As the set went on, he included other songs from 2005’s Pixel Revolt and 2004’s Cellar Door.

Standouts included the heartbreaking “White Dove,” about the abduction of his neighbor’s eight-year-old daughter; “They Won’t Let Me Run,” a surprising wistful and sympathetic portrait of a small-town lowlife; and “Trance Manual,” a mellow ballad about the liaison of an American journalist and Iraqi prostitute. Between songs, Vanderslice proved a funny and engaging performer, giving out drink tickets to the crowd (“Life’s biggest regret is waking up the next morning with like 50 drink tickets you didn’t use,” he said wisely), inviting everyone to hang out with him at the Montgomery County Mall, and cajoling his violinist to do a Gollum impression (which he did, to the delight of all). The audience loved Vanderslice’s banter and knew all the lyrics to his songs, which was impressive considering the length and complexity of his material. Vanderslice himself seemed appreciative of this, proclaiming that this was one of his favorite shows ever.

One of the best moments of the show, however, came during “Exodus Damage,” probably the most sensitive and intelligent of all the songs that have been written about 9/11, with Vanderslice plaintively but firmly calling out to America:

No one ever says a word about/
So much that happens in the world/
Dance Dance Revolution/
All we’re gonna get/
Unless it falls apart.
I’ve heard a lot of bands that have violinists, from the mediocre (Yellowcard, anyone?) to the excellent (The Decemberists) but rarely have I heard a violin solo more inspired than that by Daniel Hart during “Exodus Damage.”

Sadly, Vanderslice did not play an encore, but he ended on a perfect note by bringing the whole band down from the stage, bass drum and all, for “Keep The Dream Alive,” and then encouraging the crowd to stay after the show for a dance party. Some of the hipsters in the audience seemed to think this was a stellar idea and were already starting to bust a move as we made our way out of the club.

In the opening set, Bishop Allen, kept the energy high as they played various jaunty pop numbers from their recent release, The Broken String, including the sweetly catchy singles “Click Click Click Click” and “Rain.” They also broke out some excellent tunes from previous releases, such as “Corazon” and “Things Are What You Make of Them.” Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, actor/musicians from Brooklyn and the masterminds behind the band, were as charming and witty as ever. There have been some changes in the lineup of the band since they last performed in D.C. (please see: "Four Bands"), but Rice and Rudder always carry the show as long as they have competent musicians backing them.

All in all, another great night for the Rock & Roll Hotel, which continues its winning streak this weekend with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth playing on Saturday, Sept. 29.

(Photo of John Vanderslice from his performance at D.C.'s Black Cat in 2005 by dcJohn of Washington, DC, of course; via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. John Vanderslice, with Bishop Allen as the opening act, will appear in Cambridge, MA for a show tomorrow night, Sept. 27, as their U.S. tour continues. To see Vanderslice play "Trance Manual" at L.A.'s Troubadour on this tour, please check below.)

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Rocky's Football Corner, 9.26.2007

(Michael Vick makes several more sad returns to the legal section of the news. Vick and Donovan McNabb – both with his statements to HBO and his statement game – have raised the issue of race and how black quarterbacks are treated in the National Football League. And speaking of quarterbacks, the Bears bench Rex Grossman. And still, the column stays silent. Why? Well, the truly unscientific reason: that superstition has something to do with it, of course. Just check the winning percentages and you'll see there's just cause.)

by Rick Rockwell

Week 4 Office Pool Predictions

Game of the Week: Seahawks at 49ers (Seahawks)
Upset Special: Eagles at Giants (Giants)
Raiders at Dolphins (Raiders)
Bears at Lions (Bears)
Buccaneers at Panthers (Panthers)
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Last Week: .813
This Season: .729

For other blogs calling NFL games, please see:

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part VII

(This is the seventh part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman

Once Upon a D Tablet

One dust storm until my Playa Romance.
Two days until the Man burns.

The visibility had been reduced to about ten feet. Everything was cloaked in this swirling beige-white chalk powder and every now and then a girl wearing nothing but a skirt, knee high boots and goggles or a boy on a bicycle in a loincloth would emerge from the abyss and I would at least know I was still in the right place. Funny what becomes the measure of norm in such an outlandish place. I was completely ill-prepared with no goggles and no dust mask. I had to stop and find shelter.

And so walking down the street I found some boys in a parachute-covered dome. I asked if I could come in from the storm. When the storm threatened to take the entire parachute structure off of its hinges I was not at all surprised to find myself sitting in a VW van with my new friends, sharing various intoxicants and stories. This is just how things are at Burning Man.

I ventured back out into the dust storm. Before the winds picked up and pummeled Black Rock City with alkali dust, I had been on my way to grant a request for my presence at the Voodoo Space Patrol campsite.

Soon, I was sitting on a couch with the Voodoo boys enjoying yet another intoxicant when out of the dust materialized this character seemingly from Dune for whom I’d been searching since Day One. Now, true to my default world personality, my search was not a noble one. I had been searching for him because he had offered to share certain substances with me. He had also been my sustenance the night the man burned early.

So here stood before me this lovely boy with hair the same color as the nail polish I was wearing (O.P.I. Nail Polish’s “Cha Cha Cherry”). Some may remember he goes by "D." Yes, as in “today’s episode of Sesame Street is brought to you by the letter ‘D’!” By this point I had already lost my bicylce and D just happened to have a little tow cart on the back of his bike. So we decided we would go out together. He chauffeured me back to my camp so I could change. We stopped by his RV (which is high class livin’ at Burning Man) to pick up the afore mentioned substance. I had been hesitant to try this, but something in me knew if I was with D I would be alright.

So intoxicant ingested and clothes changed, I was off into the night being towed in a cart like the Queen of Sheba.

Now, imagine this: You’re on an intoxicant that’s brand new to you and making your heart race. You know too much of this stuff can kill. So severe anxiety sets in, partially in your head and partially because of the intoxicant. And you’re in the center of a fabricated city in the middle of the desert surrounded by people dressed up like it’s “Halloween on Acid.”

I panic. D holds my hand and hugs me with that kind of hug that make you feel like maybe you’ve found your very own Superman. He let’s me do whatever I want — which is keep walking and don’t stop. He even slows me down and has me go through yoga “sun salutation” because he learned earlier in the week that I’m very into yoga and it grounds me.

But the panic subsided and I found myself happily dancing at the Opulent Temple with a man dressed like some kind of fawn, who, in a few short hours, would become my one and only Playa Prince.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(The photo of D and Robin is courtesy of Robin Forman. To see a short video of the dust storm at the 2007 Burning Man Festival, please check below.)

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Dan Rather & the Hypocrisy Beat

by Rick Rockwell

For a time, Dan Rather famously signed off his broadcasts at CBS News with one word: “Courage.”

As Rather now drags CBS to court, asking for $70 million in damages in a wrongful dismissal suit, that signature sign-off takes on different dimensions.

This all stems from the now notorious reporting of Rather and his crew at Sixty Minutes II during the 2004 elections. Rather tried to use documents to prove that President George W. Bush received preferential treatment during his Air National Guard duty in the Vietnam era. After Rather’s reporting though, Bush was no longer the center of the story. The focus shifted to the documents, which proved to be doctored.

At the time, Rather apologized. Bush ducked the story, which still had merit, but was now clouded by the sloppy reporting at CBS.

Within months, the bosses at CBS reacted in a scorched earth campaign. They canceled Sixty Minutes II (a vanity vehicle for Rather). They fired Rather’s producer and forced out others connected to the story. CBS brought in independent evaluators to investigate what went wrong. And then the network pushed Rather into retirement.

And Rather got what he deserved.

Rather’s predecessor in the CBS anchor chair, Walter Cronkite had said Rather should have been fired long ago.

That’s because Rather exemplified everything that went wrong with television news in the past thirty years.

Put aside, if you will, the accusations of Rather’s bias. Some see his shouting match with President George H.W. Bush and his verbal dueling with Richard Nixon as partisan. But many journalists recognize these are the acts of an aggressive reporter attempting to hold power to account. Rather was never delicate.

These examples also show what is at Rather’s core: the ego of the super-anchor. Such acts of ego are what corrupted television journalism and have brought it to the state where it rests today: lamely trying to evoke credibility to a disappearing audience between plastic advertising pitches and the hyperbole of its own marketing campaigns.

Ego is what caused Rather to stay off the air infamously pouting because his newscast was shortened by CBS Sports’ coverage of U.S. Open Tennis in the late 1980s. Ego is what caused Rather to utter those condescending lines that littered most Rather broadcasts (such as, “you can bet the double-wide”) in an attempt to sound folksy. Most saw through the act which is why CBS News saw its ratings decline with Rather in the anchor chair, the once proud Tiffany Network now seemingly stuck in third place forever when it comes to news.

Rather inherited the title of managing editor of CBS News from Cronkite too. But apparently, Rather never understood what that meant.

He now claims the Air National Guard story on W. is still right and that his bosses made him apologize for its faults. He claims he was too distracted by his various duties to properly oversee the story and merely voiced it. He also claims he was ordered to announce his retirement. Could such a powerful anchor and the managing editor really bow to such pressure? If he was such an iconic leader in journalism, why didn’t he take his case to the public?

Well, Rather’s history shows he never seized the leadership reins except to build shows around himself and to sabotage his potential heirs for the anchor chair. What did Rather do when Laurence Tisch took over CBS News in the 1980s? Tisch led the way in the movement to make news profitable rather than a public service: he slashed the CBS News budget with unprecedented layoffs. Rather’s response was a protesting op-ed in The New York Times, and the muttered “courage” at the end of his broadcast, an empty symbol for hundreds of his laid-off colleagues.

Did Rather lead a walk-out? Did he lead a strike? Did he throw a fit like he would later over being cut by a tennis match? Did he endanger his multi-million dollar salary in any way? Not really. Yet, his status as the network’s anchor and managing editor could have made a difference at stemming the corporate tide swamping the public service mission of television journalism in the 1980s.

Where was Rather’s courage then? Where was it in 2004? Sadly, the answer is nowhere.

(The photo of Dan Rather is from CBS News.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part VI

(This is the sixth part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman

The Mailman

Ten and ½ hours until my Playa Romance commences.
Three hours until they put the Man back up.
Two days until the Man burns.


Begrudgingly, I stumbled out of my tent wearing an outfit that seems the most out of style at Burning Man: cotton shorts and a North Face tank top. Sarah was sitting on one of the couches outside. Thank goodness. She looked like crap too. I plunked down next to her and tried to regain my will to live.

We were both trying to muster up the strength to go to various activities that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol. In fact, my choice was downright nerdy. I wanted to go to a lecture on the geology of the Black Rock Desert. Who goes to a geology lecture in the middle of a week long party?

The answer: Me and the Mailman.

“Mail Call!” shouted a very attractive, very shirtless 20-something. “Is there a ‘Robin’ here?”

I looked up at the sky and thanked Zeus for Adonis and his ancestors.

“That would be me,” I said and got my postcard which was from Chris and the Voodoo Space Patrol boys expressing their longing for my company.

What can I say? I’m a catch.

“Welp, I gotta go,” the Mailman said. “Got a geology lecture to go to.”

Zeus, you sly fox!

So the Mailman and I set off to the Earth Guardians’ camp where the lecture was scheduled to be held. However, the lecture had been moved to Friday. The Mailman and I agreed to meet Friday for the lecture and we decided that, rescheduled lecture aside, we would explore some of Black Rock City together. It was when we were standing outside of the Costco Soulmate Exchange (that's where you can trade in your soulmate for a new one) and we had both filled out our soul forms when I noticed that we had written the same thing about each other: “Good Vibe.” Why the hell was I filling out a form to find a soulmate when he was standing right next to me?

A waffle, a mimosa, a snow cone, a pair of the Mailman’s socks (Borrowed because I wasn’t wearing any: get your head out of the gutter!) and seven hours later I parted ways with the Mailman to go find my Voodoo Space Patrol friends. I was school-girl giddy. “This is it!” I thought. “He’s my Playa Romance!”

However, there are several things you need to understand at this point:

1) In the default world —meaning the regular world outside of Burning Man — I am somewhat of a frigid bitch when it comes to relationships and they are something from which I generally abstain.

2) A Playa Romance refers to the Playa, which is what the open desert is called at Burning Man, and the romance part is the super-intense-year-long-relationship you cram into anywhere between one and three days.

3) Everything that happens at Burning Man is about timing and feelings. And sometimes those are not always in synch.

So it was that one shared geology lecture later the Mailman and I parted ways as merely friends. Somehow, I could not bring myself to get attached to this adorable Mailman with his chiseled body and sandy and appealingly unruly hair. He was not my Playa Romance. Although, he will always have a place in my heart. And ladies, if you had met him he would have a place in your heart, or perhaps in your bed, too.

It turns out that the furry man who holds you as your world literally burns in front of you is the Playa Romance you should seek.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(The photo of the Mailman on the Playa is courtesy of Robin Forman. To see a CBC report on Burning Man done via bike, please check below. Also, please note, the CBC report would be R-rated in the U.S.)

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Blackwater & the Outsourcing of War

by Laura Snedeker

The specter of irrelevance haunted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week when the United States refused to obey his government’s order banning an American security contractor from the country.

The Iraqi government demanded that Blackwater USA, a military contractor with the Department of Defense in charge of protecting U.S. State Department personnel, leave the country following a shooting incident on September 16.

According to witnesses and Iraqi government officials, Blackwater’s hired guns fired into a crowded marketplace, killing at least eight and wounding several more. Company spokesmen and embassy officials claimed the dead were insurgents who ambushed a State Department convoy, but other witnesses said the attack was unprovoked.

Early last week, Blackwater was ordered to stand down and the U.S. embassy confined its personnel to the Green Zone, but the Iraqis caved under U.S. objections and the private army was back in business by the end of the week.

Blackwater describes itself as a “professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations company” and is not bound by U.S. military law or by Iraqi law.

Blackwater’s government ties go deeper than just a no-bid contract and a license to kill. The company’s vice chairman is none other than Cofer Black, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism Center.

Black’s own company, the Black Group, delivered private security services to corporations and individuals operating in high-risk regions. In 2007, it joined two other companies to form Total Intelligence Solutions, a private intelligence company run by the CIA’s former Assistant Deputy Director of Operations.

Total Intel and Blackwater are the CIA’s answer to falling military recruitment numbers and criticism of its performance in the run-up to the Iraq War. Veterans for whom re-enlistment bonuses won’t suffice are enticed by the prospect of earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to protect American diplomats.

These types of operations, which started out as a way for the Pentagon to boost its security abilities without pulling too many soldiers from the front lines or putting more effort into recruiting, eventually take on identities of their own.

The billion-dollar embassy is proof enough that the U.S. has no intention of fully withdrawing from Iraq, but American soldiers need not remain. The evolution of Blackwater from a security force into a clandestine army with an allied intelligence company makes the Pentagon’s plans as irrelevant to the future of Iraq as the Iraqi government.

This information isn’t secret, yet it hasn’t received more than cursory notice in the media. Blackwater’s website unabashedly admits Cofer Black’s CIA employment, and Total Intel identifies its CEO as a former CIA officer. Are the mainstream media too timid to address the implications of CIA-affiliated mercenary armies?

Or will they wait 30 years for the government to declassify outdated and extensively documented material? CNN was ecstatic when the CIA released its papers this year about assassination attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. Will the media again jump on the story in 30 years when it’s too late to prevent disaster?

(Political cartoon from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free. To see what President George W. Bush had to say about military contractors earlier this year at Johns Hopkins University, please go here.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part V

(This is the fifth part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman
Special to iVoryTowerz

Bunnies, Bikes & Bathrooms

Six hours until I lose my bike and my mind.
Three Days until the Man burns…again.

On what is called TuTu Tuesday (that means you had to wear a tutu, and thank goodness I’m a ballerina!) they took the Man away to be rebuilt.

On Wednesday, I altered my mind to make the memory of the premature burn easier to digest.*

My friend Sarah and I decided it was time to give back to the Burning Man community…not to say that the two of us hadn’t been giving our fabulous selves to the community all week, but we needed to do more. Sarah and the previously mentioned Jasmine (the girl in turquoise lingerie) had quickly become my best friends at Burning Man.

Jasmine was off doing her thing with her fellow Oregonians so Sarah and I headed to the Lamplighters to help light the city for the evening.

After doing our part to be good…Sarah and I took care of our part to be bad.

Altered minds and all, we boarded our bikes and rode to the Esplanade. The Esplanade is the last part of the city before it opens up onto the desert scattered with artwork. This is where all the happening bars and clubs are as well as the Burning Man staples like Lamplighters.

We decided it was best that we no longer have our bikes because in about 20 minutes they were going to get very hard to handle and there was no way we were going to be able to ride them.

So Sarah chained them together. And in our addled states, we remember chaining them to a lamp post…but we never saw those bikes again.

So off we wondered into a sea of EL wire** and fur to a white tent that was playing music and projecting images on one of the tent's walls.

We couldn’t handle it. In fact, we couldn’t handle anything on the Esplanade. It was all too much. Imagine that you had used a mind altering substance that blurs together imaginary and real while you were at an event where everyone was in elaborate costume and character 24 hours a day.

We headed for the bathrooms. When you’re in some kind of Halloween town in the middle of the desert there’s something profoundly grounding and comforting about a port-a-potty. I kid you not. I actually had a few other burners tell me that they had similar feelings. Sarah and I also felt like we were going to be sick.

I spent a long time going in and out of one particular port-a-potty as Sarah continuously called out to me to make sure I was alright.

The moon was full and so Sarah and I decided that walking along the side streets under the moonlight was the best route to go. We were both wearing white puffy vests and at some point in our constitutional we decided this somehow made us bunnies. Not rabbits, but bunnies. And this required that we hop…for that is how bunnies get from point A to B. Arms linked at the elbow, Sarah and I hopped.

In fact, we had somehow wound our way back to our own campsite and we were hopping right in front of it. One of the other gypsies informed us that some guys from a camp just across the street from us had set up chairs in front of the port-a-potties nearby. They were having a “port-a-party” which involved them applauding and cheering for people coming in and out of the port-a-potties. Sarah and I agreed that there was no better way to close our evening than with our old friends the port-a-potties at a port-a-party.

“Just don’t tell them about the bikes,” Sarah whispered.

*From here on out when I am referring to altering the state of my mind with an illicit substance I will refer to it as “intoxication” or “altering my mind.” You can interpret that as you will. (Insert a Scooby-Doo giggle here.)

**EL wire is the common term for electroluminescent wire.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(The photo shows Robin and Sarah at Burning Man. Photo courtesy of Robin Forman. To see how Burning Man was depicted in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle from 2005 on FOX, please check below.)

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Robin's Adventures at Burning Man, Part IV

(This is the fourth part of a multi-part series about the Burning Man Festival. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Robin Forman
Special to iVoryTowerz

“Thank you, driver, for getting me here. Too much, the Magic Bus.”
–The Who

Premature Burn

En Route to Burning Man.
Seven days until the Man burns (officially).

I’m sitting at a table, on a school bus, playing Texas Hold ‘Em over Seagram’s and 7up with an Irish guy in a top hat and an artist from Los Angeles named Aaron who wears a skeleton mask. I am wearing a Darth Vader helmet.

There’s a sticker above our heads that reads: “When I’m not busy saving the planet I like to get drunk and screw.”

I couldn’t have been happier.

Finally, we pull off the last of the paved roads at the sign for Burning Man. I have tears in my eyes as I watch Black Rock City unfold before me. I can see the Man!

Some of the boys and I, beers in hand now, climb up to the couch on top of the bus to ride into the city in style.

I was a virgin burner. So, at the entrance gate I couldn’t just show them my ticket and enter. I had to ring the bell. And in order to ring the bell I either had to take off my clothes or make a “dust angel.” Next year I’ll take off my clothes. This year it was the dust angel for me.

My friendly bus escorts, Chris and the Voodoo Space Patrol were camping on the opposite side of the city from my camp site with the Gypsy Nomads. So I wandered over to my site. I had a beer with the neighbors, twirled fire down the street, got invited to the Mile High Club, and had vegetarian tacos with my fellow gypsies. Soon, it was time to get my gear from the bus.

“Let’s take an art car,” said Jasmine, a fellow gypsy. And just like that I was running after a girl in turquoise lingerie and sneakers who was running after a blue-lit metal dance floor on wheels.

There was supposed to be a lunar eclipse and parties underneath it. So Jasmine and I headed into the desert. We were accompanied by Aaron, and his pals from the Voodoo Space Patrol, Jed and D. We wanted to be close to the Man when the eclipse happened. We were standing just outside of the tent that was under the Man when the eclipse started. Everyone seemed to move in slow motion when it came time to watch it. And as we were standing there we noticed a guy climbing up the sides of the big tent. “That’s weird,” I thought. And the others seemed to have a similar thought from the looks in their eyes. Then again, this was Burning Man and everything was kind of weird.

But then something weirder happened: the climbing guy reached out and lit the Man on fire.


There we were, in the middle of the night/morning, all just watching the Man go up in flames now six days before he was officially scheduled to burn. I clung to D and his furry coat like they were the only things that were going to keep me from falling off the planet. I was so upset. Seemingly from nowhere, firemen appeared finally and extinguished the Man. But the damage had been done literally from his toes on up to his head.

“I wonder what we’ll do on Saturday now,” D asked.

“We should burn the guy who lit him like a witch,” I suggested.*

*Authorities in Nevada have charged Paul Addis with arson in connection with the early burn. His arraignment is set for next week.

(To read the preceding part, please go here. To read the next part, please go here.)

(Photo courtesy of Robin Forman. To see a video of the early burn from the 2007 festival, please check below.)

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