2.28.2009

Photography: A Poetic Reflection on Aging

by Emily Norton
Special to iVoryTowerz

Growing old is often equated with creaky joints, memory loss, loneliness, and routine. Through a different lens, however, there is something intensely poetic about the entire process of aging. Fragility and untold memories transform the elderly into portraits of poignancy. Their routine rhythms and unhurried manners are a reminder to slow down, rest, and breathe while we grow ever closer to leaving our swiftly turning earth.

The lens to which I'm referring is not only the eye of the beholder, but also that of KayLynn Deveny's camera. Capturing this often forgotten or overlooked demographic is her specialty; Deveney, her web biography says, "earned a master's degree in documentary photography at the University of Wales, Newport, for which she photographed Edith and Leonard Crawshaw, an elderly couple who lived in a nursing home." One of the most pleasurable characteristics of her work is its transcendent quality. As a body, her narrative photos encompass far more than a brief snapshot of time.

Her spread of Edith and Len, as well as her documentation of Albert Hastings (which she later published in her "first photographic book The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings") produce the same effective character development as a well-written book or movie. By including the endearing quotations of each of her subjects, her images evoke sentiments of familiarity. In The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, Deveney even allows Hastings to comment on his seemingly conventional daily life. The result is a pleasant juxtaposition of the playful against the profound. For example, Hastings questions one of the portraits of his wrinkly face, "Could this be a presumptive picture of my futuristic soul regarding a past world and friends?" yet in another almost mischievously he reassures us, "I'm not talking to a ghost, I'm opening the curtains."

Deveney is a master of her craft. Every piece echoes her concern and involvement with the individuals she photographs. At the heart of her portfolio is a delight in the simplicities and beauty of old age. Her work is truthful and necessary, for it shows that aging may at times be difficult but is by no means heinous.

(The photo is © copyright KayLynn Deveney and is used with permission.)





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2.27.2009

iVoryTowerz Radio: Centennial Special

The underground podcast turns 100 today! Time to party! Yes, believe it or not this alternative radio program for the internet has logged 100 podcasts since its inception in December of 2006. To celebrate this landmark program, the underground programmers have provided a very special mix revisiting some of the best of our playlists from the previous 99 shows. But this isn't all greatest hits and throwback nostalgia. There's a dash of new material here too, just to keep it interesting. We also include excerpts from one of our suppressed shows, just to raise the danger alert factor of this program. And our patented eclectic mix can't get any more diverse: we cover everything from classic rock to alternative indie sounds, and golden hits from rock's cradle too, moving through more than 50 years of sound. In this week's mix you'll find country rock, alt-country, new wave, post-punk, progressive metal, blues, blues-rock, and indie rock. Put on a party hat with us. Crank the tunes. And, of course, enjoy!




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


Playlist

“100 Years Ago” by The Rolling Stones
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Highway Star” by Deep Purple
Cover Me: "Sloop Jon B." by Luckie Strike
Jeff’s New Wave: “The Funky Western Civilization” by Tonio K.
"Dancing Choose" by TV on the Radio
“Mr. Grieves" by TV on the Radio
"Amazing Grace" by Cat Power & Dirty Delta Blues
"All of My Days and All of My Days Off" by AC Newman
"Never Gonna Be Your Bride" by Carrie Rodriguez
“Old Enough” by The Ranconteurs with Ricky Skaggs & Ashley Monroe
“Eaglebird” by North Mississippi Allstars
“Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down” by R. L. Burnside
"A Song for You" by Ray Charles
"Play That Fast Thing One More Time” by Rockpile
"Let's Put the Fun Back in Rock N Roll" by Freddy Cannon
"Roll Over Beethoven" by Chuck Berry

(Mp3 Runs - 1:20:53; 74 MB.)

(The photo is by phonogalerie.com
of Paris, France via Flickr, and is used with a Creative Commons license.)

DISCLAIMER: The iVoryTowerz podcast is a non-commercial, non-profit program designed and used for educational purposes. Some of the material contained in this podcast is previously copyrighted but used with permission. Other copyrighted material is reused following fair use guidelines. Any copyright holders who do not wish to have their material used should contact the programmers directly at ivorytowerzradio@att.net and it will be removed. The programmers do not support filesharing and encourage listeners to buy music from the artists featured in this podcast.





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Revisiting the CIA in Latin America

by Dan Aspan*
Special to iVoryTowerz

The Central Intelligence Agency is making headlines in South America again, and some South American leaders are speaking out against the U.S. spy agency. First, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, who expelled a U.S. diplomat last week, justified his action on the grounds that the diplomat was working for the CIA. On the same day, CIA Director Leon Panetta named Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador as countries in danger of facing economic destabilization as a result of the current economic crisis. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Correa will probably capitalize on Panetta’s claim as another opportunity to eventually hurl insults at the U.S. (and I wouldn’t necessarily say they would be out of line for doing so). But Argentina is a different matter. The Argentines immediately responded to the claim with a demand for proof. Members of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s cabinet summoned the U.S. ambassador to question him on the evidence supporting Panetta’s statement. Based on the Argentine reaction, a strong sense of anger and disgust toward the CIA (and the U.S. in general) are emanating from Buenos Aires. If you consider the context of Argentine society over the past ten years, their attitude of being appalled by Panetta’s statement is completely justified.


Unlike Americans, most generations of Argentines are no strangers to nationwide depression. Less than ten years ago, Argentina experienced a devastating stock market crash which resulted in the complete collapse of the economy. Think about what the current U.S. crisis is today, and multiply it by about 500. Or if you’re old enough, think back to the early 1930s. During the recent collapse, the people of Argentina lost everything: jobs, money, and their lives. Sebastian Delgado is a 22-year-old Argentine from Buenos Aires who was 15 during the economic crisis of 2001. Currently, he is a student at American University. When asked about the 2001 crisis, Delgado recalls people who lost everything jumping off of bridges, throwing huge rocks off of overpasses onto traffic below, and the complete sense of pandemonium and uncertainty that the time evinced.

These are situations that Delgado and every other Argentine who lived through the time will never forget. Which calls into question the judgment made by Panetta and his agency. To make a claim like this is to send shock waves through Argentine society and to scare people who, relatively speaking, have just recovered from a terrible depression. Imagine the thought not of going into a depression (which many Americans have considered in recent times) but of knowing just how catastrophic that situation is. And then have a foreign intelligence agency basically say the chances of that happening in the near future are likely. If I were President Fernandez, I’d be downright pissed. And if I was an Argentine citizen, I would be, well, tense. I would also question why an organization like the CIA spends its time making economic projections for other countries when the country it serves could use all the help it can get right now. This is also a bad move for another reason. The United States has made clear that it doesn’t approve of socialist leaders like Chavez and Correa. Whether this is good or bad is something that can be debated until the end of time. But what the CIA has done is strain the ties on one of the few real allies the U.S. has left in South America, that being Argentina. For an organization that gathers intelligence, it sure would be nice if they used some once in a while.

*Dan Aspan is the producer of Latinocast, a weekly podcast about Latin America.

(For more on Fernandez and Argentina, please see: "Argentina: Letter from Buenos Aires" For more on Chavez and Venezuela, please see: "Venezuela: Chavez & Perpetual Rule." For more on U.S. policy in Latin America, please see: "McCain, Obama & the Same Old Latin American Tango.")

(The photo of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, is from an international conference in Brazil from earlier this year; the photo is by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom of Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons license.)















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The Black Lips & the Hype Machine

by Rick Rockwell

The Black Lips want to be this generation’s version of the Sex Pistols. But this hoary piece of advice applies: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Down the trail blazed by punk rock icons the Sex Pistols lies death, destruction and dissolution. Just look at the late bassist Sid Vicious* as Exhibit A.


The Black Lips certainly have destructive properties. Their tours are legendary for what the band whips up both on and off stage. The Black Lips’ latest release, 200 Million Thousand, is filled with boozy post-punk tinged with neo-psychedelia (a mix the group calls “flower punk”) played so sloppily at times the band becomes endearing, much like the early Ramones. (For more on this new release please see, “Music Review: The Black Lips’ 200 Million Thousand.”) That album combined with the band’s recent controversial tour of India draws immediate parallels to the Pistols, something also planted in the mind of reviewers and the rock media by publicists for the Black Lips.

Which raises questions. How genuine are the Black Lips? Is this all an elaborate joke? And if it is, does anyone care if it is contrived?

What’s at issue here is whether the band’s performances are heartfelt and spontaneous or rather manipulative hype-mongering. Rolling Stone went so far as to label the Black Lips as scat rock for the band’s stage antics, which included: a band member swilling and spitting his own piss; nudity (including attempts at playing the guitar with a penis), vomiting, and band members who trade lingering French kisses. (A publicist at the band’s current label Vice Records claims in the band’s early days the act included on stage fellatio between band members.) Despite their name, the Sex Pistols only tread into spitting saliva and vomiting on stage. Actually, the Black Lips seem less like the Pistols and more like a modern version of G.G. Allin, a hardcore punk performer who used many of these extreme acts on stage and like Sid Vicious became another example of a rock ‘n roll overdose.

Sensing that the band was headed into self-destructive territory, bassist Jared Swilley told Rolling Stone in 2007 that the band was toning down its live act partially because they were better at instrumentation and song-writing now. "We don't want to be circus performers because the songs are better than that," Swilley said. "You can only go so far before you have to strap dynamite around you and blow yourself up on stage." Both the band and its publicists admit the outrageous acts were a way to draw a crowd in the early days.

But now with the launch of a new record, the Black Lips have fallen back into their attention-seeking ways. During a shortened tour of India, the band traded sloppy kisses while playing sloppy guitar licks, and not only mooned an audience in Chennai but also guitarist Cole Alexander decided to demonstrate how his penis could strum a guitar. It’s all on a video the band is promoting. But the video seems oddly contrived. (Perhaps not so ironically, the new Black Lips album features a song called "Short Fuse" which uses the image of a dynamite explosion both as a representation of the band's live act and perhaps also as a commentary about the band's psyche.) And when The Atlanta Journal Constitution asked Swilley about the problems caused by the band's performance in India, the reaction was a retreat from the material put out by the band’s publicists.

This recalls how some questioned whether the band actually recorded its album Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo at a live performance in Tijuana as it was billed or if the album was really mostly overdubs from studio sessions. The wild videos from the concert sessions in Tijuana, which feature audience members in the buff also have an overly-staged feeling. Publicist Chris Roberts of Vice says it's all real but he also confirms many have questioned the Black Lips about their authenticity.

The band’s young fans seem to take them at face value, usually never questioning their sincerity. Perhaps, that’s for the best, because cynicism is certainly a buzzkill.

Fans of the Black Lips believe what the band does on stage is cool, but if Green Day did the same things, it would be considered manipulative. Part of that feeling is stoked by how the Lips have called Green Day too political.

Perhaps this is where the post-punk vs. punk split shows its scars. Although punk and the Sex Pistols certainly had Malcolm McLaren who was a master of twirling the hype dial, the Pistols were about nihilism and a revolt against the economic and political conditions of the 1970s in the U.K. Green Day represents the 21st Century version of that philosophy in the U.S.

And what do the Black Lips represent? If anything they are almost entirely apolitical. They make music for many who want to zone out from politics and economics, not protest against what those hierarchies impose. The Lips have appropriated the sounds and mannerisms of punk without its philosophy.

And so for all their posturing for attention, in the end, that leaves the Black Lips far from their goal of replicating the pure sensation that was the Sex Pistols.

*Sid Vicious was the stage name for Simon Ritchie of the Sex Pistols.

(For more about the Black Lips, please see: "Music: The Best of 2007, So Far;" and "Photo Essay: The Black Cat Menagerie." For more on the Sex Pistols, please see: "A Brief Survey of Punk, Part II.")

(The photo shows bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley of the Black Lips in the foreground; drummer Joe Bradley and guitarist Ian Saint Pé are in the background. The photo was snapped at a Black Lips concert in Münster, Germany in 2005. The photo is by Christian Kock of Münster, via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. The Black Lips continue their U.S. tour with a performance tonight, Feb. 27 in their hometown of Atlanta, GA. To see a high-energy, gimmick-free set closer by the Black Lips at a concert in London from 2008, please check the video below. )



















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2.26.2009

The Gamer's Stigma


by Phil Kehres

My last column generated quite a bit of vitriol towards what some call "the gamer lifestyle,” leading to unfounded accusations that I am not only obese but also an anti-social mom’s-basement-dweller. After my initial anger, I let these thoughts marinate in my head for a while. I realized that the negative comments I attracted — while partially in response to my ambiguous sarcasm — were not simply one person’s opinion, but rather indicative of a subtle but pervasive anti-gamer bias that has persisted throughout society since the days of Super Mario Brothers.

I bring this up only because it’s still all-too-common to illicit an upturned nose or an eyeroll in response to telling an acquaintance that you play video games and, even worse, play them online. My friends get it, but that’s because I’ve chosen my friends based on their rationality and tolerance — and not surprisingly, many of them are gamers.

There’s nothing that makes gamers inherently anti-social. A gamer is no more anti-social than someone who runs on a treadmill with their iPod on, or someone who curls up on a couch to read a book or watch a TV show alone. Those people don’t get labels, because all of those things are perceived — rightfully — as valid and enjoyable activities in their own right. They’re individual pieces of people’s complex lives. Gaming is no different. Just as an avid reader wouldn’t spend his or her free time exclusively reading, a gamer wouldn’t spend all of his or her free time gaming. I, for example, also enjoy playing sports and music, photography and, obviously, writing.

Being a gamer doesn’t mean you’re holed up in a dimly lit room 24/7 eating pizza and growing steadily fatter. It’s a hobby, like anything else. In fact, the most avid gamer I know is also one of the healthiest and fittest people I know. Gaming online is arguably more social than watching TV — I’ve been able to keep up with friends from across the country through Xbox Live online gaming. Like other forms of entertainment, gaming has its roots in pure escapism. And while every game can’t be as deep and enriching as a good novel, the best games keep your mind sharp and tell stories far more compelling than anything you’ll find on network TV.

Now, I’m not trying to make myself out to be a martyr here. Clearly, no one is committing hate crimes against gamers. It’s not that serious. But the sentiment exists nonetheless, and ridding society of prejudices, no matter how small, is always a worthy cause. Somewhere along the line, gamers got stereotyped as anti-social, insular, lazy nerds lacking creatively and with no better outlet for their childish minds. Speaking for myself and my friends, at the very least, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)

(The photo is by MNgilen of Des Moines, IA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)




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2.25.2009

Kidnapping the Bride: An Old Tradition Returns

by Z*

The sentimental traditions of Valentine's Day are receding ever faster in this month's rearview mirror when considering the new documentary from Al Jazeera television. Filmmaker Anthony Butts of Al Jazeera broadcast his investigative piece last week about the revival of the tradition of bridal kidnapping in Central Asia. In Kidnapped Brides, Butts skillfully captures the prevailing rural mentality of working men and their families in Kyrgyzstan, and the terrifying destiny of young women.


What drives these men to kidnap women they had never met before and forcefully marry them? The gloomy answer is that these societies are driven by unquestionable traditions. Far from everyone wants to abide by certain conservative traditions and yet seemingly everyone does. While bride kidnapping is mostly discussed as an issue in Kyrgyzstan, it is quite popular in Kazakhstan and in the North of Uzbekistan. The scary part is that it is progressing. What once was a part of old village culture is now becoming commonplace in cities.

However, there are several bride kidnapping scenarios that are widely overlooked in the West.

Scenario #1 — A Shakespearean tragedy:

Her parents do not like the guy or his parents. Or maybe her parents think that 18 is too young to get married. Perhaps, he is from a different social background. There are many reasons for parents to disapprove of marriage. That is when unstoppable Romeo kidnaps his Juliette. Her family is unhappy, the couple is thrilled with joy and his family is counting days till they have grandchildren.

Scenario #2 — Let’s make a deal:

Her parents realize that it is time for their young daughter to have her own family. His family realizes that throwing a traditional lavish wedding party is unaffordable. Negotiations take place and both sides agree on kidnapping. Everyone is happily counting days till the newlyweds have grandchildren, no one is counting how much money has been wasted on a wedding and neighbors are the only losers who did not get to party.

Scenario #3 — She’s just not that into you:

They are co-workers or they go to the same grocery store and once in a while stop for a casual chat. Although she has a boyfriend, the guy is convinced that they are meant for each other. One day, he asks her out with some other friends so that she does not shy away from a date. Instead, the guy takes her home, where his grandma puts a white scarf on her head — she is a fiancée now. Her family is unhappy, she is unhappy, he is cautiously thrilled with joy and his family is counting days till they have grandchildren.

And then, there is a scenario described in the Al Jazeera documentary:

Scenario #4 — I’m sorry, what’s your name again?

They haven’t met yet. She is already in his house surrounded by his entire family; tears are streaming down her face as she is trying to pull down the stupid white scarf and leave. Her family has no idea where she is. She is suicidal. He is clueless, but thinks that he is happy and his family is counting days till they have grandchildren.

When there are several scenarios to one issue it is easier to see why such traditions persist. Some happy endings create an illusion of the tradition’s legitimacy. It is not even about people not exercising their rights. It is about them being afraid to go against the tradition. A kidnapped bride will not easily find another man who will marry her. It is shameful to come back home after you had been a wife (technically, after having worn a white scarf on your head). What can be done is raising awareness. Unfortunately, the Central Asian region is not familiar with raising awareness. It sounds to them like some Western intrusion into their family privacy.

*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.

(The photo shows a bridal kidnapping party in Turkmenistan circa 1871; the photo is from the U.S. Library of Congress and is in the public domain. To see an excerpt from Kidnapped Brides on Al Jazeera, please check below.)










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2.24.2009

Music Review: The Black Lips' 200 Million Thousand

by Rick Rockwell

Art that transports the listener or viewer is often labeled as transcendent. That word is too deep to apply to the Black Lips and their latest music release, 200 Million Thousand. However, like a saucy transfixing B-movie, the Black Lips have the ability to transport the listener through time and space, suspending the now. That’s truly an artistic success.

Certainly, there’s reason to make metaphorical comparisons between 200 Million Thousand and guilty pleasures like films Desperado and Sin City, both from director Robert Rodriguez. All are entertaining and visceral.


200 Million Thousand even has its cinematic moments. Both “The Drop I Hold” and “I Saw God” have spoken-word cinematic prefaces. “I Saw God” also includes a satiric gospel-rant filled with bleeped-out expletives of passion. What makes “I Saw God” all the funnier is that much of the rest of 200 Million Thousand includes songs spattered with uncensored passages. This is a big clue that the Black Lips have their tongues set collectively in cheek and enjoy playing the role of post-punk provocateurs.

This new release actually begins with a no-holds barred sonic assault that recalls proto-punk pioneers The Stooges. “Take My Heart” is primal, guitar-fueled garage rock at its best. Singer/bassist Jared Swilley and singer/guitarist Cole Alexander trade hoots and shouts that recall Iggy Pop, from the Raw Power era.

Other highlights include “Let It Grow,” a reverb drenched song that wanders into neo-psychedelia. The 13th Floor Elevators would be proud if they heard this number. It sounds like material straight from their late ‘60s psychedelic garage rock hearts. “Body Combat” starts with the type of psychedelic cadence that launched seemingly a thousand songs from the San Francisco wing of the psychedelic movement. (Think very early Jefferson Airplane.) The pulsing guitars of “Big Black Baby Jesus of Today” also have psychedelic tones, but the band slows this number down to establish more of a bluesy groove, in keeping with its lyrics about early 20th Century boxing champ Jack Johnson. “The Drop I Hold” also has bluesy overtones, but the lyrics recall the simple basics of The Ramones, and at times have the same comedic effect, whether intentional or not.

Another standout, “Starting Over” has the boozy feel of a teenage binge-party weekend. Think “Louie, Louie” with a Southern California surfer punk edge and you’ll have the vibe down perfectly. Of the 14 cuts on 200 Million Thousand, only one exceeds four minutes in length, just another reason the Black Lips recall the best of the punk and garage band genres.

200 Million Thousand is this Atlanta-based quartet’s seventh release (including two live releases, which included original material). This release seems to move the continuum forward as it includes all the energy of the band’s past few releases for its label, Vice Records (both Good Bad Not Evil, and Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo released in 2007) but seems a bit more mature in select spots. “Short Fuse,” one of the singles from this release, even includes acoustic guitars and a synthesizer in the mix.

However, most of this is post-punk with no pretenses. The Black Lips wrap their influences up nicely in a group of songs that would ignite any party or live concert. And for those with the long view of rock history, perhaps the Black Lips aren’t cutting much new ground, but they certainly have a way of freshening these older influences and making them sound modern with the tremolo pulsing, the feedback just south of overwhelming, and the singing pitched at raw and intense.

And like any rock ‘n roll guilty pleasure, 200 Million Thousand may not be among the great albums of the year, but it certainly is very very good at what it does. It gets the pulse racing and feels like a rock n’ roll lightning rod at times. And sometimes being jolted by rock, like what the Black Lips play, is just what you might need.

For more background on the Black Lips, please see these archival posts:

(The promotional photo of the Black Lips is from Vice Records. The Black Lips continue their U.S. tour with an appearance Thursday, Feb. 26 in Birmingham, AL. To see the video for the Black Lips' "Short Fuse," please check below. )










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2.23.2009

The 81st Oscars: An Unprecedented Academy Awards Night

by Melissa Mahfouz
Special to iVoryTowerz

The 81st Oscars was quite spectacular. Minus the cheesiness of Disney prodigies (the program was broadcast on Disney's network ABC) and at times the excessive patronization, this year's Oscars found an unprecedented flavor. To begin with, the thought of Hugh Jackman as host was met by this writer with weariness, yet for the duration of the ceremony he maintained an ambiance of entertainment and yes, even hilarity. Although his musical mannerisms were crude at best, he certainly made an effort and it showed. The genius combination of Tina Fey and Steve Martin as presenters made for moments of laughing-out-loud comedy, compensating for Jackman's and Anne Hathaway's disharmonious musical duet that produced exclamations of "what the hell is this?"

The ceremony provided an element of eclecticism, with its diverse array of tributes, montages, and seemingly unconventional musical performances, including Beyoncé, among others, gracing us with their presence.

Individually, Meryl Streep stole a good portion of attention, as is due for her astounding 15 nominations. Yet, the evening clearly, without hesitation belonged to a select few: Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, and of course Sean Penn and Kate Winslet for their performances. The Dark Knight's merits were recognized, yet overshadowed by its competitors, and justly so. Slumdog racked up awards in Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Editing, Director, Original Score and Song, and, what I was rooting for, Best Picture. Benjamin Button was second with Art Direction, Makeup and Visual Effects, yet the night certainly revolved around a Mumbai slum no longer in the shadows of obscurity. Winslet brought the audience to tears with her sentimentalism. A bit later, Penn advocated, very strongly for gay rights in the United States.

The Oscars always makes for a promising evening, yet the 81st was without a doubt one of the best produced and righteous.

For a variety of posts concerning this year's winners, please see:

(The photo is by cliff1066 of Arlington, VA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see the opening of the 81st Academy Awards, please check the video below.)


















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2.22.2009

Prop. 8: Protecting Marriage, Protecting Children, My Ass!

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

What the hell is going on in California? The land of fruits and nuts. The other coast. Home to air-kissing takers of lunch, serenely sinuous yogis stretching their legs behind their heads, tube-happy surfers hanging ten, industrial sized and televised churches filled with tanned folks cheerfully loving Jesus, Nike-shod Buddhists with rocking MySpace pages. The state too content with navel contemplation to heed the worn-out one-liners condemning its denizens to diminishing numbers of brain cells commensurate with our intake of bean sprouts. You’d think our plethora of warm and fuzzy auras would fill the state with warm and fuzzy attitudes, but apparently we haven’t all been eating our tofu.

Turns out, there are some folks in California who want to force 36,000 other folks to divorce. No, no need to reread that sentence: These people want to nullify the marriages of 18,000 happily married couples.

But why would anyone want to do such a thing? It’s akin to Gloria Allred arguing for sterilization of 36,000 people against their will or Whoopi Goldberg demanding the forced abortion of 36,000 women’s fetuses. (Come to think of it, it would be like Whoopi Goldberg demanding the annulment of mixed-race marriages, were that prejudice still law.) So, what the hell is going on here?

Let’s ask Kenneth Starr, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, former U.S. solicitor general and the independent counsel whose investigation led from Monica Lewinsky’s bloomers to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Although Starr seems a wee bit too interested in others’ private matters, he also seems a gracious man, tenaciously rooted in conservative values. So how it is he can align himself with an effort to force annulment on people who do not want their marriages annulled? Well, Starr, who has taken the lead of the Proposition 8 legal defense team, believes that California’s anti-same-sex marriage ballot initiative, a change to the state’s constitution passed in November, intrinsically embraces this intent.

The proposed language in Prop. 8 read in toto: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” In Starr’s Interveners’ Opposition Brief, filed with the California Supreme Court in response to post-election challenges to the initiative, he wrote, “Proposition 8’s brevity is matched by its clarity. There are no conditional clauses, exceptions, exemptions, or exclusions.… Its plain language encompasses both pre-existing and later-created same-sex (and polygamous) marriages, whether performed in California or elsewhere. With crystal clarity, it declares they are not valid or recognized in California.”

Starr will argue before the court that California’s 18,000 same-sex marriages must be nullified — and that the court must uphold the measure, forcing the state to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states and nations. He will wax eloquent of the inviolate right of the people to amend their constitution (notwithstanding current prejudices), of the clearly stated will of the voters, the mandate of their vote on Prop. 8. Oh, Starr will sing a fervent song!

Of course, the people of California did not write the proposition. California’s ballot initiative process, which originated in 1911 as a tool for voters to wrest control of their government from special interest scoundrels, has been usurped by — surprise! — special interest scoundrels. Prop. 8 was the baby of the Mormon and Catholic Churches, the Knights of Columbus and some other orthodox groups and conservative legislators.

Despite Starr’s passionate defense of the people’s will in his court briefs, Prop. 8 is, actually, the will of only a slim majority of voters: 7,001,084 voted yes; 6,401,482 voted no; and 52.3 to 47.7 percent is a far cry from a ballot initiative mandate. Besides, the fear mongering of the proponents’ campaign, with its “Restoring Marriage, Protecting California Children” slogan, casts doubt on the outcome: At first glance, which is all many voters give ballot measures, who wouldn’t want to vote for marriage and children? And, the election produced no data indicating what the voters want to do about existing California same-sex marriages, because this question was not made clear in the voter guide. Damn sneaky of those god-fearing folks, eh?

So what’s going on in California is we have oral arguments for and against Prop. 8 coming up on March 5, and 18,000 marriages are at risk of dissolution by the prejudice of religious organizations, now led by a conservative bulldog who can’t keep his briefs out of other people’s briefs.

Want to do something about it? Watch “Fidelity” and consider joining more than 319,000 folks who have signed a letter asking the California Supreme Court to invalidate Prop. 8 and to allow 18,000 committed couples to remain married. Then we can go for a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

(For more background on this issue, please also see: "California: Prop. 8 Turns Back the Clock;" and "Election Afterglow: When It Was All Over.")

(The photo of Kenneth Starr is from the Fairfax County Library in Virginia and is in the public domain.)









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2.21.2009

iVoryTowerz Radio: Progressive Dinosaurs

If a dinosaur could roar, it might roar it's approval for this special podcast as we go on a bit of a musical archaeology dig to unearth the sounds of progressive rock. Instead of fossilized nostalgia though, concentrating on what is now called "prog rock" and its golden era in the 1970s and 1980s, this program looks primarily at the sounds that have emerged in the past 20 years, with a special emphasis on the best progressive sounds from the past year or so. Still in all, the program covers 40 years of sound stretching back to the beginning of the progressive genre. What does 21st Century progressive rock sound like? Well, join us on our dig. You can't get any deeper down in the underground than with progressive sounds. Somehow, that seems perfect for the underground podcast. And along the way you'll hear some progressive sub-genres too including progressive metal, symphonic metal, and space rock among others. Heavy!




(This podcast is no longer available for download.)


Playlist

“Dinosaur” by King Crimson
"Predator Feast" by Adrian Belew
“Returning" by Arcana
"Clelia Walking" by Kayo Dot
"Bat Out of Basildon" by The Tangent
"The Wave" by Van der Graaf Generator
“Moonglum/Elric the Enchanter” by Hawkwind
Jeff’s New Wave: “Susan's Strange” by The Psychedelic Furs
Cover Me: "Nights in White Satin" by Gypsy Soul
“Money is Pure Evil” by Bigelf
“A Cry for Everyone” by Gentle Giant
"The Thin Ice" by Tony Levin, Gary Green & Ian Anderson
"Society's Child” by Spooky Tooth
"Thunder Fly" by Marillon
"Wake the Sleeper" by Uriah Heep
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Lost Northern Star” by Tarja

(Mp3 Runs - 1:33:20; 86 MB.)

The program includes songs with explicit lyrics.

(The photo is by Mykl Roventine of St. Paul, MN
via Flickr, and is used with a Creative Commons license.)

DISCLAIMER: The iVoryTowerz podcast is a non-commercial, non-profit program designed and used for educational purposes. Some of the material contained in this podcast is previously copyrighted but used with permission. Other copyrighted material is reused following fair use guidelines. Any copyright holders who do not wish to have their material used should contact the programmers directly at ivorytowerzradio@att.net and it will be removed. The programmers do not support filesharing and encourage listeners to buy music from the artists featured in this podcast.





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The Microsoft Surface: Convenience or Depersonalized Programming?

by Emily Norton
Special to iVoryTowerz

To the technologically inclined, the Microsoft Surface™ may mark a golden age in computing products. According to Microsoft, its Surface™ is a touch-screen tabletop that allows effortless access to "digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects." For example, with the brush of a finger a couple can order cocktails simultaneously, or one could retrieve a map of the city. Set down a camera and watch the pictures spill onto the screen. While the Surface is not yet available for consumer home use, it can now be found in "the retail, hospitality, automotive, banking and healthcare industries," the company tells us. To upscale entertainment venues (Harrah's is a big fan), this is a brilliant innovation; it is the quintessential symbol of modernism and high class.


Tres chic? Oui! Convenient? Yes. Expensive? Most Definitely. The standard product sells at $12,500, while the developer edition with five included seats costs $15,000. At those prices, I'm sure they are suffering the strain of our depressing economic situation. Microsoft anticipates consumer sales in two to four years, but if the economy continues to charge downhill, it's likely that its release will need to be postponed, the company admits.

Surely I should be sympathizing with Microsoft in this unfortunate turn of events, but I can't help thinking that maybe it's not such a bad thing for the Surface to be forced into containment. When I watched the commercial for the new product, I immediately connected the product to Player Piano, the novel by Kurt Vonnegut. These over-equipped computers are super slick, but I can't help the worrying that the Surface is a sign of Vonnegut's predictions embodied: computers and machines will one day rule the world, and we will be choked by an abundance of sickly sweet convenience and boredom.

Microsoft boasts that their hero product is "easy for individuals or multiple people to interact with in a way that feels familiar, just like in the real world." Perhaps I'm just old-fashioned, but this statement makes me nervous. Will we be replacing real people who have real jobs with virtual reality? The way this product already works, if mass-produced, there would be no need for waitresses, salesmen, etc. We must further decide: Do we continue to allow human interaction to be forfeited for the price of convenience?

(The photo of a Microsoft Surface™ in operation is by andypowe11 via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a video parody of Microsoft's new product, please check below.)







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2.20.2009

Mexico: Drugs, Death & Disorder

by Dan Aspan*
Special to iVoryTowerz

The escalation of drug related violence in Mexico is beginning to bleed into the United States. So much so that National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation addressed this issue in detail last week. It is staggering not only to realize how often this type of violence occurs but also to consider how heinous these acts can be. Consider the recent slaying of state police officer Carlos Reyes and his family, which occurred outside the family’s home in southern Mexico. And just last month, a man referring to himself as the “Stewmaker” told Mexican authorities that he had dissolved more than 300 bodies in chemicals while under employment by a powerful Mexican drug trafficker. The man claimed he was paid $600 a week for his services. And recently, The Huffington Post reported that the effects of this brutal battle for drug supremacy in Mexico have overflowed into the United States.

The situation is bad enough without considering the impact the drug war is beginning to have on people inside the United States. The scope of this grisly war is astonishing, and the reality of the situation is scary. It isn’t just Americans living close to the Mexican border who are victims of the struggle. Cities as far away as Anchorage, Alaska and Boston, Massachusetts are believed by authorities to be linked to the Mexican drug cartels. The ubiquity of the drug war is almost as mind boggling as the havoc being unleashed on law enforcement, government officials, and the general public.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States implemented the Merida Initiative, which grants Mexico aid from the United States to training and equip its anti-drug authorities. Although President Barack Obama supports the plan, it may not be enough to give Mexican President Felipe Calderon enough to successfully win this struggle. In fact, the range of the drug insurgency across Central and North America suggests that the United States may have no choice than to engage in a more direct involvement with the situation. As the body count continues to grow and more police officers become targeted, the urgency of the situation is only going to increase.

The United States will be faced with a decision in the coming weeks and months as to how much it will invest itself in this issue. With the American economy dominating the domestic political arena in the United States, it would come as a surprise for Obama to make any solid policy moves on the issue in the short term. But for the people of Mexico, and the people of the United States who are suffering from this situation, help from the United States couldn’t come soon enough.

*Dan Aspan is the producer of Latinocast, a weekly podcast about Latin America.

(For more on the Merida Initiative, please see: "Guatemala's President Colom Genuflects in D.C." and "McCain, Obama & the Same Old Latin American Tango.")

(The graphic was created with the Despair, Inc. parody generator, and uses a photo from eschipul of of Houston, TX via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)







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2.19.2009

MLB Steroid Scandal: A-Rod Digs a Deeper Hole

by Suzie Raven

Major League Baseball’s steroids soap opera, currently starring Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez, isn’t over yet. Instead of quitting while he was behind last week, he further sabotaged his reputation by creating more questions about his past. (For more background on A-Rod's original confession and the debate surrounding it, please see the post "Steroid Scandal: Can A-Rod Be Punished?")

A-Rod keeps reiterating the fact that he didn’t know what he was taking, but in a press conference earlier this week, he admitted, "I knew we weren't taking Tic Tacs."

I’m glad he can tell a Tic Tac from a Performance Enhancing Drug (what some folks call a PED). If he couldn’t, then he would have more problems than we previously thought.

Rodriguez, who is currently the third baseman for the New York Yankees, also said his cousin injected him with an unknown substance from the Dominican Republic from 2001 to 2003. Who lets someone inject them with a needle without knowing what the syringe contains? That sounds like a terrible idea, and one that does not fit a professional athlete who is perpetually concerned about his body.

Later, he referred to the substance as “Boli,” claming he thought it was an energy booster.

An energy booster that requires an injection? I’m no medical expert, so if someone were to suggest that I take an energy booster through a needle, I would certainly ask some questions. (And tell them that I’m okay with a Red Bull, but that’s just me). Yet A-Rod wants us to think he was content in his naivety, continuously saying he was “young and stupid.”

Even medical experts are perplexed, saying they have never heard of boli.

“Nobody asked what 'boli' was. Somebody should have said, 'Look, what is boli? Is it shorthand for Dianabol or Primobolan?' Now we're left with more speculation,” said Dr. Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List and Methods Committee.

By referencing his mysterious cousin and this mysterious “boli,” Rodriguez dug himself a much deeper hole than he was already in. Major League Baseball (MLB) can’t punish him for taking the drugs, as the current steroid policy wasn’t in place until 2004. However, it can punish him if he distributed the substances to other players. The league plans to investigate the issue further in the upcoming weeks.

I support wiping A-Rod’s slate clean so he can take a swing at the Hall of Fame if he stays clean, but I was far more convinced of this possibility a week ago. Last week, he sounded like someone who made a mistake and wanted to start again. This week, he just sounds shady.

(The photo of Alex Rodriguez is by Googie Man and is used with a GNU Free Documentation license. To hear a part of the press conference A-Rod conducted this week in Tampa, Florida, please check below.)


















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2.18.2009

Livni & Israel's Rightward Shift: Is Peace Possible?

by Melissa Mahfouz
Special to iVoryTowerz

It's official. The change that is part of 2009 is no longer confined to the new Obama administration in the United States. My evidence: Israel's recent February elections that resulted in a significant transformation of the Knesset. The difference: The Knesset shifted to the right, dramatically. The catalysts for such a shift are innumerable: the recent attacks in Gaza; Hamas' spreading power within the Palestinian Authority, and the list goes on, and on, and on.


It now seems as if a peaceful (if that word can ever be applied to the region), even rudimentary agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis is impossible to come to fruition, at least for the time being. The Palestinian Authority and the Knesset are now fundamentally dominated by their more extremist factions. Now, a mere glimpse into regional politics portrays two disparate governing bodies that shall potentially suffer from further internal turmoil; Kadima and Likud, Hamas and Fatah. With this recent development and the Obama administration's "beating around the bush" failure to catalyze multilateral talks, I remain disheartened. Yes, the issue of peace clearly cannot be solved overnight, and yes, clearly it shall take more than a few scratches to go beyond the surface, but this conflict, now surpassing the 60 year mark, needs to become a priority.

The implications of this election are far-reaching. Will the Knesset be willing to meet, with a true vigor, at the negotiating table with the Palestinians? (The new leader of the Kadima party with the most votes in the Knesset, Tzipi Livni, has yet to form a government, if she can cobble together a coalition. Still in her position as the foreign minister, Livni recently noted Israel should be willing to give up land in negotiations to keep its Jewish and democratic heritage intact.) How will Palestine react to the Israeli shift? How will relations between the U.S. and Israel change, if at all? We are waiting for the answers from the region's leaders.

(The photo of Tzipi Livni, Israel's current foreign minister is by the World Economic Forum staff of the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland; the photo is from 2007 via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)












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2.17.2009

Satellite Radio Gets a Reprieve

by Rick Rockwell

Inches away from the guillotine, satellite radio found a savior. But the jury is still out on whether this new economic arrangement is better or worse for consumers.

First, the basics: Liberty Media, the owners of DirecTV swooped in today (Feb. 17) and offered Sirius XM Radio $530 million in loans and stock purchases so the debt-burdened radio firm could pay off debtors and bond holders. Sirius XM had been making noises about bankruptcy.

The best part of the deal could be the end of one corporate culprit who is responsible for ruining the quality of radio in the U.S.

That would be Mel Karmazin, the Chief Executive Officer of Sirius XM. This blog has recounted Karmazin’s faults and deficiencies numerous times. One fact trumps all others: at various companies Karmazin has functioned as Howard Stern’s corporate protector. Karmazin’s foolish plan to pay Stern $100 million a year is part of what put his satellite company in such poor financial straits.

Sure, over time the combined enterprise now called Sirius XM Radio has gathered 20 million subscribers. (Karmazin doesn’t get credit for all that growth, but only for engineering a deal that brought XM Radio, the firm with the most subscribers, under his control.) But the mismanagement of paying big names too much and not investing better in marketing campaigns, not to mention solving the ease of use issue for introducing new technology for people’s cars, workplaces, and homes has proved to be too much for the fledgling satellite radio business.

With Sirius XM owing $3.2 billion in debt, creditors were clamoring for Karmazin’s head. His deal to bring Liberty Media in as the corporate white knight likely saves his job for the time being. But once Liberty cements its control of 40 percent of the company on the radio firm’s board, Karmazin will likely be shown the door. It might not happen until next year, but this corporate radio honcho’s days are likely numbered.

Karmazin was the architect of the satellite radio merger, another ugly sordid tale of the corporate media age. Karmazin convinced the government to approve the merger despite the fact that his firm had not lived up to promises it had made the government and despite his firm’s ill-advised spending on star contracts (Oprah Winfrey also has a three-year, $55 million deal.) and mismanagement. (Ironically, without the merger, Karmazin’s firm Sirius would likely be the one in the tank now, as XM Radio was the healthier financially. XM might have been able to stave off collapse or takeover alone.) But the debt burden of the combined companies was too much, especially in these poor economic times. Karmazin’s timing for the merger was impeccably bad.

Also, a Republican-controlled FCC and a controversy-averse Congress are responsible for approving the satellite radio merger, which created a monopoly. Now that monopoly is being swallowed by one of the satellite television firms. DirecTV has lured customers away from cable, partially due to better customer service. (Cable television firms are often ranked as among the worst for customer service of any business.) That’s a positive aspect of the take-over.

But the negative side is that Liberty Media in swallowing the satellite radio monopoly is creating a larger corporate behemoth with holdings in satellites, internet sites, cable television channels, home shopping, broadcast television, and sports. Further media and corporate consolidation usually isn't the answer to consumer service.

Despite all of this corporate soap opera, some of the programming on satellite radio is actually worth saving. The foundation is there for a wonderful system that is far superior to the vast wasteland of commercial radio. But history is not on the side of consumers hoping for the corporate bosses to figure out that good programming trumps deal-making every time.

For more background, please also see:


(The artist's rendering of a communication satellite in orbit is from NASA and is in the public domain.)









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Kyrgyzstan, Maslow & Russia's Great Central Asian Game

by Z*

Finally, the pieces of the Manas puzzle are coming together. And the picture is ugly.

After Kyrgyzstan's announcement closing the U.S. airbase at Manas International Airport, it seems that the Kyrgyz government is now determined to cut its ties with the United States. The closing of the airbase also means terminating agreements with 11 member states of an international anti-terrorist coalition, whose servicemen have been deployed at Manas, not far from the country's capital of Bishkek. Altogether the intended closure and announcement were not graceful diplomatic moves please take a moment to see it through the eyes of good old Abraham Maslow.

From Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, we know that, first and foremost, people are driven by basic physiological needs. The next level of needs is safety and security. Then come social needs, esteem needs and, finally, self-actualizing needs. Having one set of needs unsatisfied, one cannot seek satisfaction for the following level.

Kyrgyzstan’s closure of Manas is mostly driven by fundamental physiological needs. In these times of economic crisis, it is understandable for a nation to ensure its own survival. And the much-needed help came from Russia, which still denies having anything to do with so-called “sovereign” Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close the U.S. base.

However, the past week left no doubt that Russia did want Kyrgyzstan to kick the Americans out of the country.

However, before that crucial move there was the little matter of payment. First, the Kyrgyz government delayed its ratification of the base closure, while at the same time awaiting the approval of a new Russian aid package (worth $450 million). Put in the spotlight, Russia hurriedly crafted an amendment to its 2009- 2011 federal budget. This widely overlooked amendment redirected funds to Kyrgyzstan, money that originally had been designated to help other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). With these blunt fiscal changes, obviously, Russia’s genuine goodwill comes into question. The aid is less a symbol of Russian friendship to its former satellite, Kyrgystan and more a direct payment to take some anti-American action. Too many coincidences point to the fact that whenever we hear Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his attempts to justify his decision to close the base what we are really hearing is the Russian voice of Moscow's policy at work.

With this new aid from Russia, Kyrgyzstan might fulfill the basic needs of the nation. The next level of Maslow’s needs is safety and security. But security can be defined differently. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, it seems that security is defined as security of presidential office. Bakiyev’s term is to expire this fall or next year (the date is currently the source of domestic debate). In either case, Bakiyev has made it clear he will run for re-election for it is his right to serve for two consecutive terms. Therefore, for Bakiyev, all the talk of kicking Americans out, being tough and reviving the economy is a great pre-election public relations campaign.

Higher up the hierarchy of needs, we see clearer why Kyrgyzstan is acting this way. Social needs and esteem needs make the country wish for love, affection and recognition. While the U.S. does not listen to what the Kyrgyz government is yelling on the top of its lungs, motherly Russia on the other hand fulfills that longing for love and affection. For the mainstream media in Kyrgystan, it seems creating the image that their president plays an important global role is key. Giving the Americans a kick certainly reaffirms that importance. Bakiyev reiterated his quest for recognition in his recent press conference: “We are a sovereign nation. We must have some respect for ourselves.”

However, in this case, Kyrgyzstan’s policy shows why it will never reach the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization. At this stage, one is less concerned with the opinions of others and is thus fulfilling their potential. Being so easily manipulated by Russia and driven by flawed needs (security of office for the president over security of the people in the country and the region) seriously undermines Kyrgystan's development and its cooperation with the world for the common well-being.

*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.

(The photo of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev meeting with Kyrgystan's President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is from the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office in the Kremlin and was released in 2008; the photo is in the public domain.)










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