8.31.2008

China & the Gymnastic Cheating Scandal

by Suzie Raven

The Olympics are long over but certain issues seem to linger. The victories of a new sports season will soon overshadow the memory of record-breaking performances from U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican runner Usain Bolt. New scandals will overshadow the controversy regarding Chinese gold-medal winning gymnast He Kexin’s true age.

But wait — there hasn’t even been an official determination on He. At least, not yet.

Gymnasts must be sixteen years old to compete in the Olympics. Passports and state-issued identification cards claim that He was born in 1992, making her eligible. Other documents show her birthday as 1/1/94 and therefore two years too young.

Using Google and other internet search devices, Mike Walker, a computer security expert in Washington, D.C., actually turned up spreadsheet evidence from China's General Administration of Sport that shows He was born in 1994. The information Walker discovered also pointed to problems with the age listed for Yang Yilin, a bronze medalist in the all-around and parallel bars. Walker posted what he found on his blog, and soon the Associated Press was carrying the story of the scandal.


The reaction from the International Olympic Committee (IOC)? They asked the International Gymnastics Committee to investigate, even though, as the IOC stated “there is still no proof anyone cheated.”

If the material Walker found doesn't count as evidence, I don’t know what you would call it.

"We believe the matter will be put to rest and there's no question ... on the eligibility," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. "The information we have received seems satisfactory in terms of the correct documentation — including birth certificates."

Yes, the gymnasts showed Chinese government-issued identification, but those documents come from a state that is willing to go to any length for gold medals. Chinese officials are not happy with the mere 51 gold medals its athletes won this year, the most of any country in the games.

"There is still a relatively large gap between China and the best in the world in the high-profile items like athletics, swimming and cycling, and also in the popular ball sports," Chinese sports chief Liu Peng said.

Liu went on to say that "these (problems) require earnest reflection, to build courage from shame and to make up lost ground."

This earnestness led the government to spend $200 billion on infrastructure improvements in Beijing, and “forcibly displace” more than three million residents in the construction projects related to the Olympics. China has no problem uprooting millions of its citizens in preparation for the games or telling a young girl she is too ugly to sing at the opening ceremony. Forging a couple of passports and birth certificates is no stretch of the imagination.

During the Olympics, China sought gold medals and respect from the rest of the world. With the investigation quickly turning into a memory, the gymnasts will probably keep their medals. I would like to see the IOC conduct an actual investigation, not just give it lip service. However, no matter the outcome, these questions will forever taint the young girls’ victories. All of the infrastructure improvements in the world can’t improve China’s image after they cheated their way to the medal stand.

(The photo of He Kexin performing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics is from China's Xinhua News Agency. Although Xinhua claims its material is copyrighted, as an arm of the Chinese government this photo and other material is in the public domain.)














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8.30.2008

iVoryTowerz Radio: End of Summertime Blues

The summer has flown all too fast and traditionally ends Labor Day weekend, despite the calendar or school schedules. So the underground podcast bids adieu to the summer season this week with several hefty slices of memorable summer songs. We can't decide if this is a beer in hand, barbecue show or a program for 'round midnight with a tumbler of bourbon. Perhaps it's a feet dangling on the dock at sunset with a Long Island iced tea soundtrack. The usual eclectic mix is here. The program tracks through more than 45 years of modern music with a good portion of new tunes too. You'll find everything from Irish protest music, emerging Danish party sounds, folk, chamber pop, new wave, psychedelic pioneers, heavy metal, classic rock, industrial rock, and experimental sounds. Have a sip on your beverage of choice, and don't forget to enjoy this special end of summer mix.


(To stream or download this podcast, please click here.)



Playlist


“999,999/1,000,000” by Nine Inch Nails
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “This Ain't the Summer of Love” by Blue Öyster Cult
"Summertime Blues" by The Who
“Feel Good Hit of the Summer" by Queens of the Stone Age
"Girl" by Beck
"Funplex" by The B-52's
"Ten Cities Beyond" by Snake & Jet's Amazing Bullit Band
“It's a Hard Life” by The Seeds
Jeff’s New Wave: “Totally Wired” by The Fall
“Birmingham Six” by The Pogues
"Black Velvet Band“ by The Dubliners
"Southside Chicago Waltz” by Black 47
Cover Me: "House of the Rising Sun" by Tim Hardin
“Fake Empire" by The National
"The Confidential Agent" by American Music Club
"I Don't Know How to Stop" by Carol Lipnik & Spookarama

(Mp3 Runs - 1:27:19; 80 MB.) Program contains explicit lyrics.

(Photo of Grand Island, Michigan by James M. Phelps via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)




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Sarah Palin & John McCain: Playing Election Hardball

by Rick Rockwell

As they say in Las Vegas, it was time for John McCain to “go all in.”

Picking Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate certainly qualifies, as Sen. McCain (R-AZ) attempts to counter a strong performance by his main competitor, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), at the Democratic convention.

Whether you judge McCain’s decision as a superb counterstrike or a flawed and dangerous choice (as the Obama camp attempted to frame it), the McCain campaign managed the media brilliantly in unveiling Palin. Say what you will about Obama’s text message gimmick to name his running mate, but the Democrats squandered the traditional media by using that method. The brilliance of McCain’s move was the timing. Instead of the media focusing solely on Obama’s soaring oratory on the day after his acceptance speech, McCain’s choice stole the lead story on radio, television and the internet, capturing the news cycle. With folks headed out of town for a holiday, grabbing the radio or other electronic media was key, and this media play created both buzz and diminished a great speech by Obama. Winning the media war doesn’t always mean getting elected, but the McCain camp still understands how to grab traditional media, and that’s where the independents and undecided voters are to be found (not hugging a blackberry like many in Obama’s base).


So here’s the reaction to the Palin pick:

• Is this a transparent and obvious grab for the disaffected supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)? Sure. But that’s hardball politics. Criticize McCain for being insincere, but the move still puts a woman on the ticket, something the Democrats don’t have. Many observers noted only about 15 percent of Democrats may have enough of a Hillary hangover to switch columns come November or to stay home. (And some like James Carville are still pouting.) But slicing off even half of those disaffected voters may be enough for a slim McCain win.

• The Democrats have already stumbled across the trap of reacting too negatively to Palin. Discussing Palin makes folks talk about experience. The immediate criticism was her youth and that she has been a governor for less than two years. The Obama camp immediately focused on the fact she was a mayor of a small town and served on a city council, before her time as governor. But isn’t this Obama throwing stones from his own fragile glass house? Compare records. Before Obama’s propaganda campaign, as noted here before, a review of Obama’s record in the Senate showed he was rated as merely average. And most of his Senate experience is confined to his first two years before he started his presidential run. How is that not comparable to running a state?

• Palin’s run is also historic. It may not equally balance out Obama’s historic run for president as the first minority presidential candidate for a major party, but it is a notable counter-measure, and sincere or not, moves the Republicans forward, a generation behind what the Democrats attempted with former U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York.

• Palin’s experience as a mayor and in small town government actually makes her appealing to rural working class voters, a group that hasn’t warmed to Obama.

• With two Westerners on the ballot, the Republicans will attempt to counter the Democrats’ new strategy in appealing to Western states. Palin has a long history in Alaska and is a native of Idaho.

• Palin’s pick had the NEA (National Education Association), basically the national teacher’s union, praising the Republicans for picking Palin, who comes from a family of educators. The NEA is part of the Democratic base (and has endorsed Obama), but originally the NEA was a big backer of Sen. Clinton (and her husband). Putting Palin on the ticket puts some of those votes from teachers in play.

Besides the issues of youth and inexperience, there are other risks in the Palin choice. Palin is working through a scandal: the Alaskan legislature is looking into whether her office used undue influence in the firing of a state official. The firing scandal revolves around Palin’s former brother-in-law who was involved in a nasty divorce from Palin’s sister.

Plus the national media haven't raked through Palin’s background yet in a strong way. Already, on the internet, critics have discovered her contradictory positions regarding the controversial Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” project.

Finally, what the Palin pick tells us is it's going to be a rough and tumble fight for the next few months. And we won’t know until November if McCain’s gamble will have any pay-off.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska is from 2007 and is by Tricia Ward; it is used through a GNU Free Documentation License. To see Gov. Palin's speech in Dayton, Ohio after she was named as Sen. John McCain's running mate, please check below.)











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8.29.2008

Cubs Fans, Take a Deep Breath

by Jeff Siegel

Chicago Cubs fans are in full panic mode. On Bleed Cubbie Blue, you'll see them huddled in a corner, hands over their head, terrified of what the last month of the baseball season holds. “While this team (knocking on wood) has not had a bad week, we are a bad week away from second,” wrote one.

What is this, you ask? Aren't the Cubs comfortably in first place in the National League Central, seven games in front? Haven't they had the best record in baseball several times this season? Don't they lead the league in a variety of key statistical categories? Isn't this their best team in at least a generation? Of course.

But these are the Cubs, and none of that matters.

The Cubs do not win. You can attribute this to curses or bad luck or rotten teams, but the results speak for themselves — no World Series championship in 100 years, no National League pennant in 63 years, and only five playoff teams since then. By comparison, the New York Yankees have won 16 World Series since the last time the Cubs played in one.


Hence Cubs fans' paranoia. Or, as the team's late, great poet laureate, Steve Goodman, put it in a song called “A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request:" “But what do you expect /
When you raise up a young boys hopes / And then just crush 'em like so many paper beer cups?”

Here's how terrified most Cubs fans are: The Cubs have 27 games left. If they go 13-14, which is quite ordinary and much worse than they have played this season, the only way second-place Milwaukee can beat them is by winning 22 of its final 29 games.* That's certainly possible, but not likely. The Cubs are about as close to a lock as humanly possible — 99.6 percent to make the playoffs, according to people who measure these things.

So here's some advice for Cubs fan from a Cubs fan old enough to remember the Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Enjoy this. Who knows? It may be 100 years before it happens again.

*This piece was posted before the end of the contest between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates, so those numbers may need some adjustment depending upon the outcome of that game.

For other pieces on the Chicago Cubs, please see:

(The photo of outfielder Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs is by terren_of_Virginia of Richmond, VA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. The Cubs resume their series against the Philadelphia Phillies tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 30.)






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Barack Obama Takes the Nomination & a Script from Ronald Reagan

by Rick Rockwell

Ronald Reagan was called the Great Communicator. And if so, what does that make Barack Obama? The Great Salesman?

Obama’s superb oratorical skills were again on display Thursday night, Aug. 28 at Invesco Field in Denver as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination. And he did another great job of selling his script of hope.

Arguably, Obama is the best orator to run for president in almost a half century. Certainly, he’s on another level when compared to Reagan, who may have had that B-movie leading man smile, the pompadour and the easy grace before a microphone, but was mostly Hollywood smoke and mirrors a la Michael Deaver.


And the marketing geniuses behind Obama (David Axelrod and David Plouffe of AKP&D Message and Media) have pulled off quite a coup with Obama’s acceptance speech, because it is now obvious the remainder of the campaign will cast the Senator from Illinois in a familiar Reagan role: the Outsider who comes to Washington to clean up the town.

Why is this genius? Well, only because every president elected since 1976, with the exception of George H.W. Bush has won on a campaign that cast him as the Outsider. Even Reagan and President Bill Clinton won second terms, successfully selling the idea they just hadn’t had time to set things right. They were still the Outsiders. This is also genius because it casts Obama’s major flaw — his inexperience in Washington, only four years in the Senate, and half of that out of town running for president — as a major asset.

Americans want Washington fixed. They know it doesn’t work. This is why the Outsiders keep winning.

Also, better than any of the other Outsiders (Carter, Reagan, Clinton or George W. Bush), Obama harnesses both the mood for generational change and for racial equality. Who better to put the face on real change than a young African-American?

How does Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) run against that? McCain has spent the past generation in Washington. Except for Reagan, he’s the oldest person to run for president. McCain has trotted out the Karl Rove playbook in defining Obama as a celebrity, a euphemism for an empty suit: someone not up to the monumental tasks of fixing both the economy and a broken foreign policy. In his acceptance speech, Obama struck back hard at that campaign strategy, calling it “stale tactics to scare voters.”

Smartly, Obama also turned this Republican tactic on its head, noting in detail the failed policies of Bush II. “It’s time for them to own their failure,” Obama noted in his speech.

And as a final marketing flourish, Obama and his family took their bows before the thousands in Denver with the song “Only in America” by country music duo Brooks & Dunn playing. Picking a country song to market the rest of the campaign for a very urban candidate who needs rural voters is just another style point in Obama’s favor.

But does it add up? Obama may be the leader of a generational movement, but does his inexperience give us anything more than a Democratic sequel to the inexperienced and inept George W. Bush?

And other tough questions abound. Obama promises a middle class tax cut for 95 percent of all Americans. (Remember how Clinton promised such a tax cut in 1992, and then turned around and said the country couldn’t afford it as soon as he was in office? Could we be looking at a repeat?) Yet in his acceptance speech Obama also laid out aggressive plans for energy independence, universal health care, and new educational investments. How does he pay for all this? Will jacking up taxes on the rich actually pay for those great ideas? And besides vague assertions to bipartisan approaches, how does Obama intend to attack the very partisan nature of Washington?

Finally, is real change afoot with Obama in the White House? Behind the scenes, political operatives linked to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) hold key positions in the Obama campaign. These links and Obama’s Vice Presidential pick, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) tell us the old D.C. insiders will have plenty of pull in a future Obama administration.

But at this juncture, Obama’s rhetoric and oratory have sold the country: the nation wants to believe the Outsider can deliver this time. Great salesmanship has a way of erasing all of those nagging doubts. At least for some. Until buyer's remorse sets in.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Barack Obama was taken during a campaign appearance in California in January of this year by Eric Charlton of Menlo Park, CA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see Obama's historic moment at the Democratic Convention in Denver and his full acceptance speech, please check below.)












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8.28.2008

Income Inequality: What the Candidates and the Media Won’t Talk About

by Jeff Siegel

According to a widely accepted measurement of income inequality, the United States is closer to Mexico than it is to Canada. By this measurement, called the Gini coefficient, the U.S. is one of only three wealthy countries where income inequality approaches Third World levels.

Surprised? I am. I knew it was bad here, but I didn’t know it was this bad. The Census Bureau released its 2007 income numbers this week, and there was the U.S. Gini, buried at the bottom of the news release. The number was .463, a touch better the .470 recorded in 2006. But don’t get too excited by the improvement. Canada’s Gini is .326 and most of the European Union is in the high 20s and low 30s. And Mexico, with its consistent economic distress and immigrants fleeing poverty? It’s .461, according to the U.N.

And the numbers just get better.


In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected and told the American people he’d get government off our back, the Gini was .403. In other words, after 27 years of Republican and Republican Lite rule,* income inequality has increased by 15 percent. One more comparison: Between 1967, when the Census Bureau started tracking Gini, and 1980, the number hardly increased at all — from .397 to .403.

What does Gini measure? Income equality, where 0 represents perfect income equality, while 1 represents perfect inequality. Is Gini a good measure? Mostly, say the experts, though it has some flaws. It doesn’t do a great job pinpointing which part of the income pie is more unequal; rather, just that income is unequal. A poor country like Bangladesh (.334) could have a relatively low score because so few people who live there have high incomes. Plus, Gini measures income instead of wealth, so that it may actually understate inequality in countries where the rich have assets instead of income. One of which, oddly enough, is Sweden, and which may also explain Mexico’s relatively low Gini.

Obviously, there will always be a little inequality, and this is not a bad thing. It’s the incentive that greases the system, as the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated. But, generally, the higher the Gini, the worse off a country is. Would you rather live in Denmark (.247) or Sierra Leone (.629)?

And please don’t argue that inequality is not a problem. It’s a horrible, terrible problem (even if you ignore the moral implications). Income inequality stunts economic growth, decreases political cohesion, and increases social costs. In a skewed system, where most people are too poor to afford health care, they can’t work. This reduces growth, increases unhappiness, and puts an increasing tax burden on what remains of the middle class.

So what does all this mean for this fall’s election? A lot, which no one will dare talk about:

• Neither candidate will mention this. You may hear some corporate salary bashing, but you won’t hear how income distribution has become more skewed. No one will use the word Gini, no one will mention how it has increased since 1980, and no one will tell the American middle class that it is smaller than it was in 1980. If the politicians did that, they’d have to take the blame for causing it.

• Scapegoats will be found. The politicians will blame NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), immigrants, oil and commodity speculators, or the villain of the moment. Fix those, they’ll say, and the recession we’re not having will go away and all will be wonderful again.

• The media will cover the economy, but in human interest terms that won’t discuss causes or solutions — auto worker Bob who has been laid off or single mom Mary who can’t afford gas. It will also focus on the we said/they said of post-modern politics, in which the story is not about causes or solutions but about the argument. Case in point is this USA Today article about the census income numbers. Most reporters don’t know the difference between Gini and I Dream of Jeannie.

Is it any wonder we’re in the mess we’re in?

*For those who don't regularly read this blog, Republican Lite would be the Clintons, followers of the Democratic Leadership Council, and most of the organization that calls itself the Democratic Party today. For more background on this, please see the short series, "2008 Election Manifesto: Voting Your Conscience isn't Wasting Your Vote."

For more background on the issue that supposedly the public cares about the most — that would be the economy — please check these archival posts:

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)








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8.27.2008

Music: Uriah Heep, Why Wake the Sleeper

by Rick Rockwell

Why do bands that creatively peaked more than 35 years ago bother to put out new studio albums?

That question has to be foremost when approaching the new release by Uriah Heep, Wake the Sleeper. The title, sounding like a twisted out-take from a space opera like Dune, is also very appropriate. The entire enterprise has an air of Rip Van Winkle to it. Somehow, if you put the band in a time capsule in the mid-1970s and they recorded an album during decades of dormancy Wake the Sleeper would be the result.


For those unacquainted with Uriah Heep, this band, along with Deep Purple bridged the gaps between heavy metal and progressive rock. Today, they are regarded as the precursors of the sub-genre known as progressive metal. Pick up Look at Yourself, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday (all from 1971-1972) and you’ll have the band’s best. But it’s been all downhill since. This critic remembers shuddering in 1978 when an editor sent a copy of the band’s Fallen Angel for a review because it was apparent Uriah Heep was out of ideas then.

Some would question if they ever had any ideas. If there is any band that seems to be the singular model for the parody of the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap, it is Uriah Heep. Spinal Tap’s hilarious “Stonehenge” was clearly both a visual and musical satire of Uriah Heep’s classic period when the songs mostly revolved around fantasy, magic, and wizards. From 1969 through 1980, Uriah Heep also went through five drummers and various line-up changes, very similar to the band Spinal Tap, although none of the drummers in Uriah Heep were victims of spontaneous combustion.

However, some of Uriah Heep’s decline began with the death (by heroin overdose) of bassist Gary Thain in the mid-1970s. Founding member and distinctive vocalist David Byron was dismissed from the band, and eventually died of medical complications related to alcoholism. Today, guitarist Mick Box is the only remaining original member. (Bassist Trevor Bolder — better known for his work with David Bowie’s back-up band the Spiders from Mars — who began playing with Uriah Heep in 1976, off and on, is also in this incarnation of the group.)

So what’s the reasoning behind Wake the Sleeper (released in the U.K. in June, but in the U.S. on Aug. 26)? Is it all just profit-driven, hoping to cash in on past glories? Perhaps. The band claims it has sold 30 million albums since its inception in 1969, and although it has been reduced to cult status, Uriah Heep frequently tours Central and Eastern Europe and fills stadium-sized venues there. Some of the band’s motivation for recording its first studio album since 1998 (the forgetable Sonic Origami) may be a line-up change. Long-time drummer Lee Kerslake (he anchored the band through much of its classic period) who has played on and off with the group since 1971, retired due to health reasons in 2006. New drummer Russell Gilbrook gave the band a creative boost.

But not enough of a boost to make Wake the Sleeper more than an odd exercise in nostalgia or perhaps give the band some new songs for its live sets that will meld nicely with its 1970s hits. The title track starts the album off with plenty of energy, however it isn’t really a song: it is a fast-paced chorus in search of something more. “Overload” is an attempt to use radio traffic samples and ambience to give the band’s sound more texture, but it seems like a wasted technique heading nowhere. Some of the problem is vocalist Bernie Shaw. Shaw approximates Byron at times but his vocals are mostly generic and have the style that was popular in the 1970s: over-the-top tenor with over-dramatic and even operatic tendencies. The one-dimensional lyrics on most of these songs don’t help either. (From “Overload,” a sample: No one cares about the role you play / Generations lost in space / A billion miles away.”)

On the positive side, Box is still a strong hard rock soloist. He knows how to work an effects box and foot-pedal along with delivering some skittering solos. But the arrangements are so predictable (“Tears of the World” and “Heaven’s Rain”) a listener can tell exactly when the solos will pop up and for how long on the very first listen.

Some of us haven’t missed Uriah Heep since their 1970s heyday. The band seems to want to keep it that way.

(The photo shows guitarist Mick Box and vocalist Bernie Shaw during a Uriah Heep performance in London in 2001; the photo is by Rodrigo Werneck and is used through a GNU Free Documentation License. Uriah Heep will open its European tour on Oct. 10 in Rheinbach, Germany. To see Uriah Heep perform a live version of "Overload" from last year in Germany, please check below.)











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8.26.2008

Michelle Obama Sets the Stage at the Democratic Convention

by Rick Rockwell

No matter how you feel about the Democratic Party, this week’s convention in Denver is one for the history books.

Michelle Obama showed us why on Monday night (Aug. 25), warming up the convention for the eventual nomination of her husband, Barack, the Democratic Senator from Illinois. The potential of two young, charming, African-Americans leading the nation was there for all to see. As one African-American woman told me before the convention coverage began, even if Obama doesn’t win, just the fact a major party stood behind him sends a message about race relations in America.


Most of the convention boils down to a four-day commercial for Obama and Democratic candidates, a fesival of propaganda and arranged photo opportunities (no different from the very scripted Republican events, the party that really transformed the modern convention into an empty exercise in television posturing). However, this convention passes the Koppel test for something of importance, actual news, breaking out. (Before he left ABC News for National Public Radio and the Discovery Channel, Ted Koppel of Nightline famously said networks should stop covering the conventions because rarely did any real news happen there anymore. Certainly times have changed since Dan Rather was roughed up at the Democratic Convention in 1968, not to mention the police riot that ensued when cops decided to rough up protestors. Or, considering this incident, maybe it's the media that have changed by failing to question the status quo.)

Sure, there is at least a lukewarm sense of party unity, so the traditional squabbling among Democrats won’t be on display. Actually, any real convention tussles between the Democrats haven’t been shown for more than a generation. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) will get her time in the limelight later in the week as her name is put in nomination (she’s the third woman to officially be nominated by the Democrats, not the first). Any news about bad blood between Clinton and Obama has been old news since June. That spat is patched over for the moment.

In her address to the convention, Michelle Obama made special mention of Clinton and her candidacy putting “18 million cracks in that glass ceiling.”

Michelle Obama’s speech was actually more story than address, and she delivered it with charisma and verve. The core of her talk was all about family, sacrifice and working class values. Whoever wrote the speech knows those themes are usually what the Republicans try to sell to voters and that Michelle’s husband needs to do a better job of getting across to those who remain undecided.

Carefully, throughout the speech, Michelle Obama made special note she was proud of her country. The speechwriters again were playing on the subtexts. This was no apology for Michelle’s gaffe during the campaign that she had not been proud of America until the country took her husband seriously as a presidential candidate. However, these mentions were clearly underlining that moment and trying to erase it.

In her address, Michelle spoke of this special historic moment. She called it “the current of history meets this new tide of hope.” And the theme of the speech was “the world as it should be” delivered by a “southside girl” (referencing Chicago’s southside, where she has been a strong community advocate and where she grew up).

Even for critics, (like this one too) who have criticized the Obama team for writing speeches long on rhetorical flourishes and short on specifics, unquestionably Michelle Obama helped craft one of those important moving moments that many will look back upon years from now, whether her husband wins or loses, and remember as a breakthrough.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Michelle Obama campaigning at San Jose State University in California in February 2008 is by Steve Rhodes via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see Michelle Obama deliver her speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver, please check below.)















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8.25.2008

Text Me: Obama, the Media & the Campaign

by Jeff Siegel

Barack Obama's text message, announcing Joe Biden as his running mate, arrived on cell phones in Dallas at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 23. Which doesn't seem like a very smart time to make a vice presidential announcement.

Unless, of course, you're trying to do something else.


By every measure of traditional media punditry, Obama's handling of the vice presidential announcement made no sense. He did it in the middle of the night, on a weekend, and too close to the convention. The conventional wisdom says Sen. Obama (D-IL) should have done it Wednesday or Thursday, which would have allowed the campaign to dominate the weekday news for three days before the convention. By doing it this way, Obama doesn't get any weekday publicity at all.

So what was the campaign up to? Consider these explanations:

• Putting the media in their place. The text shows the media that the campaign doesn't need them to get its message across. I was drinking beer Friday afternoon, and a woman at the bar kept clicking her cell phone. What was she doing? Checking for the Obama announcement.

• Managing the media. Here, the Obamas have learned from the Bush Administration. One reason why the reporting from Iraq has been so slipshod is that it has been managed so well, from the embedded journalists to restrictions on photos to military harrassment of reporters and photographers. The text accomplishes the same thing. If you show the media that you don't need them, the media will try harder to get the special favors and privileges that they are used to getting. Which means softer, more favorable coverage.

• Demonstrating its point of difference vs. the Republicans. Does Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) even know what a text message is (let alone ever sent one)? The Obamas' mantra is change, and the text is one way to show that. We're 21st century, we're hip, we're cool — not like those Republican old men.

This is going to be a completely different presidential campaign than any previous campaign, and not just because Obama isn't Anglo. It will almost certainly be the first post-modern campaign, in which the beliefs and wisdom that ran campaigns during the TV era (dating from the first televised conventions in 1952) won't be nearly as important. It won't matter as much what voters see on the network news, the cable news channels, or TV commercials, because there are so many other ways to get information. One series of e-mail blasts could accomplish, for a fraction of the cost, what a tradtional TV ad campaign does now.

And, for all of their other weaknesses, the Obamas understand this difference, as their success in internet fundraising has shown. It doesn't mean that the text was a good idea or that it worked. It means that they have a plan — something that the media and a lot of people have never credited them with having.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Barack Obama addressing a campaign rally in March at American University in Washington, D.C. is by Shanda Wilson via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)









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8.24.2008

Joe Biden: More of the Same from the Democrats

by Jeff Siegel

The news that Barack Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate is not surprising — one corporate Democrat turning to another. The news is that so many people see Biden as so different from Obama.

You’ll hear words like experienced and world-wise and mature, in contrast to Obama’s one-term resumé. You’ll especially hear that Biden is a foreign policy genius. Or, as The New York Times put it: “Mr. Obama’s choice of Mr. Biden suggested some of the weaknesses the Obama campaign is trying to address.”

Sigh. Biden is a five-term senator from Delaware who has never served in the military and has been on the government payroll for most of his working life. What’s so different about that? Hell, that sounds like Vice President Dick Cheney. And, for what it’s worth, as near as I can tell, after going through the voting records and ratings compiled by The National Journal, Biden may actually be more liberal than Obama.


Which is to say each is about as liberal as a Chuck Percy Republican (if any still existed). And Biden’s expertise in foreign policy? Biden voted to support the Iraq War, and then changed his mind.

Which puts him in good company with Obama, who voted against the war and then changed his mind. Or, as Salon so deftly noted when Biden ran for president last year:

Biden, along with his fellow Sens. Clinton, Edwards and Chris Dodd, voted for the 2002 resolution permitting Bush to launch the war. During a 2005 interview with me, Biden recanted his vote, saying, "I never figured on the absolute incompetence of the administration ... If I knew Cheney and Rumsfeld so wholly possessed the president's attention, I never would have voted for that."

If that’s what experience does for you, give me Jimmy Carter. I am not a five-term member of the Senate who is reputed to be a foreign policy genius, but even I knew better than to trust the White House. And the truly scary thing about that quote? That the Iraq War was a good idea that was ruined by the Bushies. Note to Joe Biden: The Iraq War was a lousy idea then and it’s still a lousy idea. It accomplished nothing, save to rile up radical Arabs, kill U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, and give George Bush a chance to look pompous. And Bush already looks pompous enough.

And people wonder why I’ve given up the Democrats.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:
(The photo of Sen. Joe Biden shows him at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2005. The photo is © copyright the World Economic Forum and is by photographer Remy Steinegger. However, the World Economic Forum offers this photo for use through Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)










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8.22.2008

Concert Review: Springsteen Rocks Pennsylvania

by Vincent Lee

The challenge of staying relevant as the years go on is a daunting task few artists are capable of consistently meeting. Some artists attempt to reinvent themselves or change their old songs to achieve this feat. More often than not this ends poorly. However, there are musicians who have managed to stay significant as the years go on. One such example is Bruce Springsteen. At his recent concert in Hershey, PA (on Aug. 19) he showcased exactly why he has not faded into obscurity.


For years Springsteen has been known for his terrific live performances, whether solo or with his E Street Band. On one of the last nights of the Magic tour Springsteen pulled out all the stops playing songs from all over his catalouge. The set list began with standard songs such as “Radio Nowhere” and “Out in the Street.” During a brief song request segment the John Lee Hooker cover “Boom Boom” made its tour premiere. For the finale of the song request period, Springsteen played an interesting version of the usually quiet ballad “Reason to Believe.” The song was turned electric and upbeat. Springsteen continued the high speed pace of the show playing songs from nearly every album. The entire evening was filled with lots of energy. The only minor slow down was for another tour premiere “Part Man, Part Monkey.” Just prior to that was the standard Springsteen “sermon” as part of “Mary's Place.” And then Springsteen concluded the set with “Badlands.”

The encore was undoubtedly the highlight of the show. During the encore, Springsteen and the E Street Band played seven songs, and three songs were from Born To Run including the epic "Jungleland." Clarence “Big Man” Clemons played the two-minute sax solo with perfection. Other highlights included the always fun “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “American Land” from the Seeger Sessions. The show ended with the surprising “Gloria,” a cover of the classic from Van Morrison and Them, and a song that displayed Springsteen’s roots (the first time Springsteen played that cover on the tour). Throughout the show, Springsteen showcased why he and his work are timeless. He did not need to rework every song or change the way he performs. Instead, he put on the same show with the same energy and vigor he has for the past 35 years, yet he and his band are still refreshing and classic.

(The photo shows Bruce Springsteen performing in Barcelona, Spain in May of this year; the photo is by Yosi- via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band will continue their world tour with a performance in St. Louis, MO on Aug. 23. To see Springsteen & the E St. Band cover "Summertime Blues" at one of three appearances in New Jersey at Giants Stadium last month, please check below.)











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8.21.2008

iVoryTowerz Radio: Heat Treatment

There’s nothing like the slow burn of some soul, cooking across a hot August night. So this week, the underground podcast explores almost 55 years of soul sounds. This is a bit of an overdue memorial to both Isaac Hayes and Jerry Wexler, both who passed recently. As might be expected there are both classic Stax and Atlantic soul sounds percolating through this mix, but also new music, and rock inspired by soul too. And beyond soul, the usual wide variety is blended into this one: indie rock, post-punk, new wave, and heavy metal too. This program is perfect for a hammock with a long, cool one, and should harmonize well with the cicadas. Enjoy!


(To stream or download this podcast, please click here.)



Playlist

“Hold On, I'm Comin'” by Sam and Dave
"In the Midnight Hour" by Wilson Pickett
“I Got a Woman" by Ray Charles
"Got to Get You Off My Mind" by Solomon Burke
"100 Days, 100 Nights" by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
"Sincerely Jane" by Janelle Monáe (request)
“Original Sin” by INXS
Jeff’s New Wave: “Heat Treatment” by Graham Parker & the Rumour
“Supermassive Black Hole” by Muse
"Promises“ by Molly's Yes
"Balance Beam” by Blue October
“Now I'm Gone" by Juliana Hatfield
"Alphabet Pony" by The Kills
"Shake! Shake!" by The Subways
Cover Me: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by Mountain
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Cyanide” by Metallica

(Mp3 Runs - 1:19:41; 73 MB.)

(Photo by Dlritter of Phoenix, AZ via stock.xchng; the photo was discovered through everystockphoto.)





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8.20.2008

Music: Juliana Hatfield Knows How to Walk Away

by Rick Rockwell

The critical take on Juliana Hatfield, courtesy of the east coast taste makers: peaked too early; how sad; now seems like a tired ‘90s memory flailing (and failing) at pop music.

But isn’t an alternative storyline possible?

How about one-time sensation matures and finds a wider audience on her own terms?

The truth is Hatfield was making indie rock hits when the term “indie” was just breaking into the mainstream in the early 1990s. Her song “My Sister” which both rocked and touched heartstrings broke her on to FM radio (this critic enjoyed her music on both KROQ in Los Angeles and WXRT in Chicago). But these days, her music is gone from the radio, even though, in her early 40’s now, she may just be hitting her stride.


Part of that maturity is knowing how and when to walk away. Hatfield is all about setting her own terms of engagement now. Although her new album How to Walk Away barely touches it, the singer/guitarist has battled depression. This is a topic she will take-on directly in her book When I Grow Up: A Memoir, due out next month. Hatfield admits some of her crash from indie rock stardom was due to depression, and the cover-up of her mental condition, which just made her feel worse. That depression wrecked the recording sessions for a never fully completed album for Atlantic Records in the 1990s, which released some of the tracks subsequently on collections. These days, after she wrangled her release from Atlantic, Hatfield has her own record firm (Frank Black of the Pixies is one of the artists on her Ye Olde Records label). Although she’s no longer the flavor of the moment like in the mid-1990s when she had a major label behind her, she’s taking on the demands of her career and measuring the costs.

On her tenth solo LP*, the topic of depression is dealt with in a glancing way with one exception. On “So Alone” Hatfield debates how to deal with loneliness, and thoughts of suicide. The song “Such a Beautiful Girl” (which features singer-guitarist-rock critic Matthew Caws on backing vocals) also seems like a chapter from Hatfield’s forthcoming book, singing as she does about a young songwriter in the third person: “They want to knock that smile off her face / So she shuts her door and writes some dreams / It’s her favorite escape.”

However, the centerpiece of How to Walk Away is a song cycle, which revolves around a relationship. The entire arc is there: “Not Enough” (expectations); “Remember November” (electrified moments at the start); “This Lonely Love” (long-distance love); “Law of Nature” (infatuation); “My Baby…” (the thrill is gone); “Shining On” (flashbacks of better times); “The Fact Remains” (break-up); and “Now I’m Gone” (good-bye, good riddance). Like the recent release from Carrie Rodriguez, it seems Hatfield needs to exorcise demons left after ending a very wrenching affair.

Hatfield’s duet with Richard Butler (The Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love) “This Lonely Love” is the song getting the most attention on iTunes. That song is filled with lush string arrangements and longing lyrics that just scream pop hit. But it is far from the best on the new album.

Although there are no straight-out rockers on this album (like “Stay Awake” from 2005’s Made in China), which is a disappointment (some critics don’t seem to appreciate Hatfield’s rockin’ side and only laud her acoustic work), the few numbers where Hatfield stokes up a slow burn on more electrified arrangements are the best pieces here. One of those, “Just Lust” is a slightly tongue-in-cheek explanation for a 3 a.m. liaison. The best number on the album, “Now I’m Gone” has a great hook and a boozy, Stones-like vibe, perfect for a closer at a roadhouse bar. Guitarist Jody Porter of the Fountains of Wayne gets the credit for trading guitar licks with Hatfield on some of these punchier songs.

Of the 11 songs on How to Walk Away, most are finely crafted. Not every piece is perfect though. Despite the guitar pyrotechnics “Not Enough” is a bit trite (this song is only available on the iTunes release). “Remember November” is over-sentimental.

The good news though is that Juliana Hatfield is writing the next chapters of her musical career on her own terms. And that’s a success story, no matter how you spell it.

*Those ten records include one live collection, but not her greatest hits compilation on Atlantic, nor a number of EPs.

(The photo shows Juliana Hatfield performing at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ in 2005; the photo is by Rob DiCaterino of New York City, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. Juliana Hatfield will perform songs from How to Walk Away on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Monday, Aug. 25. She kicks off her international tour with an appearance at IOTA in Arlington, VA on Sept. 9. To see her video for "This Lonely Love," please check below.)

















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8.19.2008

Music Review: Byrne & Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

by Rick Rockwell

Although he takes second billing too often, Brian Eno is having quite a year. And that great 2008 is about to crescendo with his just-released collaboration with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

Some may not realize Eno is the producer who shaped one of the dominant pop albums of 2008, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All his Friends. For those who do know Eno as Coldplay’s knob-twirling genius, and for his work with U-2, it seems odd that the rest of his musical resumé is almost forgotten now: his truly experimental side or how he was a pioneer of both glam rock and new wave.


So flash backward 27 years to the release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Eno’s experiment with Byrne (where Eno got top billing). This was a natural progression. Eno had just finished producing arguably three of the best Talking Heads albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Life in Wartime, and Remain in Light) which made him an intimate collaborator with Byrne. Think of how Sir George Martin teamed with The Beatles and you’ll get the idea of Eno’s contributions to those great Talking Heads releases. (So much so, that some critics refer to Eno as the fifth Talking Head.) Although it doesn’t sound so experimental today, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was an edgy trip into world beats, noisy mixes, radio samples, and sounds filtered with ambient quirks: it was music from far away, when it was first released. (Interestingly, this critic heard the album for the first time on an indigenous radio station on the Ojibwe reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin, where it seemed completely appropriate.) At the time, few realized Byrne and Eno had created a sonic time tunnel: they found the recipe for what works in pop and rock in the 21st Century.

That brings us to Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which seems very much part of the present rather than another leap into the future.

Some of this is how the pair approached the album. Bush of Ghosts was designed as an experiment using vocal samples in languages other than English and radio broadcasts in place of lead vocals. However, the new album is like those classic Talking Heads releases, hightlighting Byrne’s work as a lyricist and musician. The result is the best work Byrne has produced in decades, maybe since the Talking Heads’ True Stories from 1986.* Thus “Strange Overtones,” the first single may start with electronic filtering which creates an odd burbling but it quickly becomes akin to latter-day Talking Heads, a pop song with an eccentric heart. (This song, penned almost as a note from Byrne to Eno, even makes a lyrical nod to the time since their last collaboration: “This groove is out of fashion. / These beats are 20 years old.”)

Both Byrne and Eno, in their album notes, say they were attempting to make a type of modern, electronic gospel music. They accomplish this on a third of the tracks (the title song, “One Fine Day,” and “The River,” which also makes reference to Sam Cooke) by slowing the tempo and layering Byrne’s vocals, effectively creating a choir. With its hymn-like arrangement, “My Big Nurse,” also approximates this terrain, but the acoustic guitars and Byrne’s delivery actually give this song more of an alt-country, folky flourish. However, you won’t find any Louisiana-style ravers like “Papa Legba” from the Talking Heads here. And the attempts at electronic gospel aren’t this album’s strengths.

As might be expected, Eno’s production touches and synthesizers color in all the edges of this collection of 11 songs. “Poor Boy” with its dark percolating synthesizer undercurrent, electronic and acoustic drum mix and world-beat approach is the only number that really recalls Bush of Ghosts, and it’s a true stand-out. “I Feel My Stuff,” with Eno’s avant-garde piano introduction and the twin guitar workout between Leo Abrahams and Phil Manzanera is another success.

In the end, what the aptly titled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today gives us is a musical statement for its times, which evokes discussions of the past with thoughts about such positive collaborations in the future.

*An important note: David Byrne was not the only key member of the Talking Heads. Apparently, Byrne’s imperious nature as the leader of that band — perhaps reacting to the critics who rarely gave other band members credit — and Byrne’s need for more creative control doomed the Talking Heads.

(The photo is actually a Photoshop collage of two different photos. The left side shows Brian Eno and is a photo by Bungopolis using a GNU Free Documentation License. The right side shows David Byrne and is a photo by vonlohmann of San Francisco via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. David Byrne will open his solo tour to promote Everything That Happens Will Happen Today in Bethlehem, PA on Sept. 16. To see a video for "Moonlight in Glory" from Eno and Byrne's first collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, please check below. Also below, a musical widget that allows the streaming of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which is available directly from Byrne & Eno from their website. As of this writing, "Strange Overtones" is still available as a free download directly from Byrne & Eno.)
















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8.18.2008

Russia & Europe: A History Lesson

by Jeff Siegel

Geography, wrote the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, is one of the keys to understanding why European countries behave the way they do. Poland, for example, has been a plaything of various European powers for much of its 1,000-year history because it is located between bigger and stronger countries. Germany, on the other hand, is one of those bigger and stronger countries, and German history is the story of its efforts to absorb the smaller countries around it.

And the Russians? Their history has been one of paranoia, autocracy and continued imperial expansion, whether ruled by czar or commissar. This attitude, Taylor wrote, is directly related to Russia’s position on the outskirts of Europe. It does not see Europe as a continent of individual countries, each with its own interests, but as possible opponents who will unite for almost no reason at all to gang up on it. Which, oddly enough, Europe has done repeatedly since Peter the Great unified Russia in the late 17th century.


Only when governments realize the role of geography, wrote Taylor, can they devise effective foreign policies. There’s no sense in guaranteeing Poland’s security, as Britain and France did in 1939, unless you’re willing to wage war to backstop that guarantee. Which, as Taylor points out in his classic The Origins of the Second World War, they weren’t.

Which brings us to the Russian invasion of Georgia. Apparently, the only people who were surprised by it were in the Bush Administration. The Russians weren’t surprised. The Georgians weren’t surprised (their mistake was assuming that U.S. troops would show up as soon as the Russians crossed the border).

This is not to justify the Russian invasion, because there is no justification for it. Rather, it’s to point out that the invasion is the greatest threat to world peace since the end of the Cold War, an incident that has the potential to turn into a full-scale European war. It probably won’t now, because the West can do little to help Georgia and so it won’t. But since the Russians will get away with it, they will turn their sights on other former Soviet republics: the Ukraine, Belarus, Lativa, and Estonia. This is a function of Talyor’s treatise on geography. Each country is adamantly anti-Russian, counts on the West for moral and military support, and won’t be able to do a damned thing when the Russian tanks arrive. Georgia may well be Czechoslovakia in 1938; will the Ukraine be Poland in 1939?

In fact, the Russian invasion makes Sept. 11 look like the terrorist side show that it always was — unless you wanted to overthrow Saddam and grab his oil. Sept. 11 was a horrific, terrible thing, but limited in its long-term consequences if handled properly. That it wasn’t handled properly (the word incompetent comes to mind) demonstrates how woefully unprepared the Bushies are to deal with this crisis. Their world view is that the U.S. is the most powerful and the most moral and the coolest country in the world, so everyone will do what we say. But one can’t practice foreign policy with frat boy philosophy like that, as Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. And, as badly as the Bushies have handled those wars, their mistakes don’t mean the end of the world. That’s not the case with the Russians.

Talk about the 3 a.m. phone call: What happens in November if the Russians, responding to what they say are unprovoked attacks on ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, send in the armor? What should we do? What can we do? And, what’s worse, look who will be making the decisions.

(For more background on the Russian-Georgian conflict, please see: "Georgia: The 3 A.M. Call for Obama & McCain.")

(The photo shows Russia's Vladimir Putin — then Russia's president, and now Russia's prime minister — in a joint appearance with President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas in 2001. The official White House photo is by Paul Morse and is in the public domain.)










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