3.31.2009

Music Review: PJ Harvey & John Parish's A Woman a Man Walked By

by Rick Rockwell

Ever since the early 1990s, PJ Harvey has been making music with impact. Supposedly, her debut Dry (1992) was a favorite of the late Kurt Cobain, and certainly her songwriting and attitude gave the latter stages of grunge a boost. Even before her debut, Harvey was making music with John Parish in his band Automatic Diamini. Harvey and Parish have collaborated numerous times since, including the co-billed Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996). Also, Parish produced Harvey’s breakout To Bring You My Love (1995) and White Chalk (2007).

So from the start, there’s a sense of familiarity that floats about this second co-billed effort from Harvey and Parish, A Woman a Man Walked By.

“Black Hearted Love” the first single from the release, which kicks off the album, transports the listener back to the mid-90s when Harvey and Parish could do no wrong. The song is as incendiary as a hot coal smoldering: a dark, minor key tale of love and mortality scored by an orchestra of skittering, edgy guitars.

This sets the tone appropriately for what will follow.

And what follows is an experimental tribute to Harvey’s musical heroes. On many of the songs, Harvey’s vocals seem to be channeling other voices. In the past, she has damned critics for comparing her to poet and punk priestess Patti Smith, but her delivery on a number of songs certainly has Smith’s tonality. However, a closer listen reveals one of Harvey’s acknowledged influences: none other than Captain Beefheart.* Harvey has always wanted to sing and compose like a female version of that psychedelic-blues-rock artist, and she certainly carries it off here. The profane title track recalls Frank Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp” (which featured Captain Beefheart on vocals) or any number of tracks from Beefheart’s underground classic Trout Mask Replica. Harvey’s barking aggressive rant on “Pig Will Not” is a nod to “China Pig” from Trout Mask Replica if not various other Beefheart tracks, which use porcine imagery and canine vocal ferocity. (Harvey credits Beaudelaire’s “The Rebel” with inspiring the song.)

And then there’s “April” which recalls another of Harvey’s heroes, Bob Dylan.** Parish arranges the musical backdrop on “April” to accent this comparison, with Eric Feldman’s organ pushed forward in the mix (the album is engineered by Flood† a long-time collaborator with Harvey and Parish). The song would fit Dylan perfectly, circa Highway 61 Revisited. (Long-time Harvey fans will note she covered the title track of that Dylan classic on her grungiest release Rid of Me.)

After all this, if the listener gets the idea they are on one long musical ride back through the 90s with the center of the universe set at the mid-60s then they are likely appropriately grasping Harvey and Parish’s intent. Some critics seem unmoved by A Woman a Man Walked By, saying it is too familiar, not cutting new ground. Given the deep literary and musicological waters Harvey and Parish ask a listener to navigate on A Woman a Man Walked By, the best way to see this new release is just the latest musical island set on a wide panoramic sea these two musicians have been charting since they began performing together almost two decades ago.

And this new release is not easy sailing. Harvey’s lyrics and Parish’s soundscapes are disturbing and provocative. The album concludes with a bit of a musical couplet: the funereal “Passionless, Pointless” carving a lyrical death mask, while “Cracks in the Canvas” lapses into spoken word mourning.

To their credit, Harvey and Parish have wrought another multifaceted musical puzzle that will take many listens to completing unlock.

*Captain Beefheart is the stage name of Don Van Vliet.

**Of course, Bob Dylan started out first as Robert Zimmerman.

†Mark Ellis goes by the pseudonym Flood.

(Promotional photo of PJ Harvey & John Parish from Island Records. Harvey & Parish open their European tour with an appearance in Brighton, UK on April 15. To see the video for "Black Hearted Love," please check below.)














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3.30.2009

Soccer: Brazil, Ecuador & the World Cup Qualifier

by Melissa Mahfouz
Special to iVoryTowerz

What happened Brazil? Did you come to play? Where were those killer shots, rhythmic finesse, and unprecedented passing combinations that distinguish your country above all others in the world of fútbol? The game against Ecuador (played Sunday, March 29) was certainly a run for your money.

These are the qualifying matches among ten nations in South America for next year's World Cup to be played in South Africa. Four teams from South America are guaranteed a shot at the Cup and qualifying play continues through October. But Brazil (the only country to win five World Cups, with the last championship coming in 2002) slipped to fourth place in the qualifying standings with its play against Ecuador.

Qualifying matches are chaotic, and the 1-1 tie between underdog Ecuador and dominant powerhouse Brazil proved to be quite a contest. Brazil clearly was the expected winner, but the team lacked cohesion and its normally fluid passing was nonexistent.

Both teams came away from the tie with something however. Ecuador needed the points in the standings to give it a chance to qualify for a playoff to get to 2010's Cup. Ecuador squares off next against Paraguay which currently leads the South American group in the standings. And although Brazil only managed a tie, the team reclaimed its pride a bit; before this game it had never scored on Ecuadorian turf in a qualifying match.

Ecuador also deserves accolades for its much-improved World Cup bid. Having begun the qualifying round with a three-game losing streak, the team has pulled itself up by its bootstraps in efforts to have a seed in South Africa. Now the team has Paraguay to face, which will surely be a hard-fought game with precision being vital. As for Brazil, despite its current place in the standings, it’s expected that the team should advance to the tournament and entertain spectators with samba-esque field techniques. 2010, here we come!










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3.29.2009

Prop. 8: The Slings & Arrows of Showing Your Colors

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Last October, I posted a “No on Prop. 8” sign on my front gate — with staples spaced every inch along the edge to assure anyone who wanted to steal the thing would have to work hard for it. The general election came and went, but the sign has remained; not because of the staples, but because I am determined to keep it up until we overturn the California ballot initiative’s resulting constitutional amendment that denied marriage to the approximately six percent of our population that is gay. Okay, and because I’m a stubborn wench.

When I first put up the sign, I expected a neighborly frown or two in response, so I was pleasantly surprised when the UPS driver came to the door, rather than leaving a package in our designated drop-off spot, to tell me he likes the sign. And were I not suffering from middle-aged pee syndrome, I would have jumped up and down when a gal from the opposite side of the block, with whom I regularly swap mis-delivered mail, dropped off a letter and said, “I really like your sign. Thanks for putting it up.”


I was disappointed, though, when none of my local friends posted similar signs or bumper stickers. They feared the signs would be stolen and their property vandalized. And, indeed, when someone scribbled on my chili-red VW bug, in an effort to reverse the positive message of an Obama bumper sticker, I suspect my friends felt as vindicated as my self-satisfaction was diminished with each angry stroke it took to scrub the black marker from my car.

Nonetheless, while I can understand my friends’ discomfort, given the overt disdain some local leaders, media and letter writers in our town of Fallbrook, California regularly express for gays — along with immigrants, Democrats, feminists and any other designation they find threatening — I believe the failure to challenge prejudice perpetuates it.

So, the other day I ordered a bunch of “Don’t Be Gaycist” bumper stickers and, when they arrived, I taped one inside the windshield of my car and headed to the grocery store. As I puttered down the street, I automatically readied my hand for those little steering-wheel waves we toss in small towns, but to my dismay, instead of reciprocal smiles, my car and I received uncharacteristically averted eyes and even glares from folks who did not acknowledge the cheerful vibes we were putting out.

My wave hand instinctively withdrew to a self-protective posture, and I felt, well, I wasn’t sure what I felt, other than really, really uncomfortable.

I pulled into the Major Market parking lot, did my shopping and returned to my car.

That’s when recognition struck. As I put the gallon of extra-virgin olive oil and the phallic French bread in the passenger seat, it hit me like a ton of fear-fired bricks. I had made myself a target of the angry mobs of “God hates fags” sign bearers. I had thumbed my nose at the downtrodden masses virulently riled up by hate mongers into tying gays to barbed wire fencing and pummeling them into oblivion. I had stood up in proud declaration and rendered myself as vulnerable as a lesbian stumbling into the arms of gang-banging troglodytes who imagine their penises imbued with the power to screw gay women straight. I had plunked down my wheeled soapbox at the figurative Speakers’ Corner of Fallbrook and loudly offended the local populace by proclaiming them prejudiced against gays.

Oh ye gods, had I gone too far? Had my obstinacy overpowered my good sense? I knew what I was feeling: It was fear, and I wanted to get the hell home and remove the offending message before my obstreperous protest proved the death of me!

Except, well, I had to take pause.

The local populace is bigoted against gays to a disturbing degree. Prop. 8 passed with 52.3 percent of the statewide vote; in Fallbrook, it passed with 67.9. That’s a damnable number, and I have to wonder how many of the 11,298 Fallbrook voters it represents acknowledge their votes were discriminatory; I wonder how many people across the country would acknowledge the same intolerance. It’s a prejudice that cries for challenge of some sort or another, fear or no fear — and I happen to have just the thing for it.

I’m not taking the “Don’t Be Gaycist” sticker off my windshield; instead, I’m putting a few more on, and I’m encouraging my friends to do the same. Then we’ll practice ducking.

(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:


(The political poster is by Shepard Fairey who has donated its use to organizations promoting gay rights and the repeal of Proposition 8. This version is from Join the Impact.)








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3.28.2009

iVoryTowerz Radio: Seductive Sounds

Aaahhh, temptation. Again, some might wonder if the underground podcast is converting to an AM/Top 40 vehicle. But those in the know, realize this is just another subversive diversion. What's in question this week is a certain type of music. Call it make out music. Call it smooch music. Call it the sound of seduction. However you may classify it, the music hits more than a few reflective romantic notes this week. Don't worry. Sit back. Relax. Let us help you find that proper mental groove as we lay down the patented eclectic mix. This week the podcast covers 40 years of soul, funk, metal, new wave, indie rock, folk rock, and just good ole straight up rock 'n roll. We hope this helps you set the proper mood. Enjoy!



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



Playlist

“Are You Going to Go My Way” by Lenny Kravitz
"Ernie's Jam" by The Isley Brothers
“It's Your Love" by Melinda Doolittle (request)
"I Can't Stop Loving You" by Kem
"Are You Ready?" by Sly and the Family Stone
"The Impression that I Get" by The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones
“Give It Away” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Do What You Do” by Mudvayne
Jeff’s New Wave: “I Think We're Alone Now” by Lene Lovich
“Fields of Coal” by And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
“For the Price of a Song” by Marah
"Comes and Goes” by Les Savy Fav
Cover Me: "High School Confidential" by Puhdys
"Golden State" by John Doe with Kathleen Edwards
"Oh Lonesome Me" by M. Ward with Lucinda Williams
"Four Strong Winds" by Neil Young

(Mp3 Runs - 1:18:57; 73 MB.)

(Photo by Daniel & Carla
of Bradenton, FL via Flickr, using 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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Vegetarianism: The Healthy Alternative

by Z*

While my compatriots are celebrating Nowruz (Persian New Year) munching on meat-loaded national dishes, I savor every bite of my crunchy homemade spinach salad sprinkled with roasted almonds and dried fruit with a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Yes, I’m a vegetarian and this week I proudly celebrated my first year anniversary of my myth-busting meatless diet.

At first, I decided to keep it secret. Part of it was my uncertainty that I could stick to my new diet. But more importantly, I did not want to be attacked by questions like, how do I get my protein, why did I decide to become a vegetarian, did I just realize how meat ended up on our plates, and why can I not simply enjoy being at the top of the food chain.

My secret did not last long and very soon people around me started campaigning against my decision. Led by my mother, my relatives formed a coalition that bombarded me with a conventional truth that people cannot survive without meat (especially not people from the Middle East or the former Soviet bloc). So in counter-attack I resorted to an excuse that proved to be the most effective: “I just don’t feel like eating meat, and once I do, I surely will eat it.” And they retreated.

What I find curious about my case is that my diet started solely as a conscious crusade against animal slaughterhouses. But later it evolved into complete meat aversion. Even when, while interning during the summer, I had to eat plain rice every day for lunch, I was not tempted to eat meat.

And there are too many good reasons not to become or stay vegetarian. For environmentalists, vegetarianism is a way to reduce greenhouse emissions, land and water overuse. For the health-conscious, a vegetarian lifestyle means decreased risks of heart and kidney disease among other benefits. Even urinary tract infections have been linked to meat consumption. (And let's not even discuss in any deep way the revelations this week about the mortality of those who favor red meat in their diets.) And then there is a third category of meat haters. These are the rarest kind of humans, whose attitude is best summed up by a distinguished Czech writer Milan Kundera in his famous novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals."

While I relate to all three types of reasoning to be vegetarian I also like it because it is more adventurous. The relative lack of variety of vegetarian-friendly products forces you to spend more time pondering what to eat. Now I enjoy hunting down tasty colorful recipes and even coming up with my own. Vegetarianism is easy and rewarding, you should give it a try.

*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 is by jeltovski of Canada via morgueFile.)










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3.27.2009

Video Game Review: Fallout 3's The Pitt Expansion

by Phil Kehres

Fallout 3 – The Pitt expansion (rated M for mature, available for download on Xbox Live & PC — Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Release date: March 25, 2009.

Fallout 3’s latest downloadable expansion, The Pitt, is a big step up from the last one, Operation: Anchorage. (For the full review of Operation: Anchorage, please go here.) The Pitt sticks to the strengths of Fallout 3 and expands on them, providing the player fascinating new areas to explore, unique non-player characters to interact with and difficult moral choices to make. Though the main experience lasts only four to five hours, The Pitt remains open to the player after completion of the main quests. Unlike Operation: Anchorage, then, the download is well worth the 800 Microsoft points (MS points: 800 = $10).

The Pitt is all about the story. After downloading it and booting up an old saved game from the Fallout 3 main game, the player will receive a distress call. Upon finding the source of the call, you’ll encounter a man named Wehrner fighting off a band of nasty Raiders. When the Raiders are defeated, Wehrner explains to you his dilemma: he has come from The Pitt — the post-apocalyptic wasteland version of Pittsburgh, PA — in search of someone to help him cure the mysterious diseases and mutations that are afflicting the citizens of The Pitt. The catch is that The Pitt is a city of slaves overseen by ruthless Raiders and their overlord, Ashur. Wehrner accompanies you to The Pitt, where you’ll have to disguise yourself as a slave to enter the city and search for the cure.

You’ll enter the city through a virtual send-up to the iconic real-life Fort Pitt Bridge. The Pitt looks a bit different than the Capital Wasteland of the main game, with more oranges and reds saturating the color palette. Plumes of fire and smoke billow from industrial furnaces and steel scaffolding dominates the skyline. Overall, though, it still looks and plays just like the Fallout 3 you know, which is a very good thing. The Pitt plays like a true extension to the main story rather than the linear one-off simulation in Operation: Anchorage. It excels everywhere the first expansion fails. You will encounter new characters with unique back stories, new enemies such as Trogs — former humans twisted into savage beasts by the deadly plague affecting The Pitt — and explore new areas like a slave-run steel mill. One of the quests even has you fighting for your freedom Mad Max-style in a cage filled with barrels of toxic waste.

The highlight of The Pitt, however, is the feeling of moral ambiguity that encompasses your character in certain situations. Without giving too much of the story away, suffice to say that you’ll be faced with some very difficult choices after you earn your freedom from slavery. The choices you make won’t affect the in-game karma meter, but the story is engrossing nonetheless. It feels like Fallout should, much more so than the shoot-em-up action of Operation: Anchorage. My only complaint is that the enemies in The Pitt are no match for a fully leveled-up character. The issue is minor, however, as you’ll be more focused on the story. This is not to say, however, that you won’t love mowing down mutants with new weapons and gear like the AutoAxe, a deadly, serrated rotary saw. Furthermore, you can actually explore The Pitt after the main story quest is completed, engaging in sidequests and interacting with characters. You can even leave and come back, a feature that makes The Pitt feel much more like a worthwhile investment than Operation: Anchorage.

The Pitt functions very well as expansion of the rich Fallout mythos. Gamers are rewarded with the requisite achievement points, perks and weapon and gear caches but, more important, are treated to a fulfilling gaming experience. I have no problem with shelling out $10 for this, especially considering the egregious prices we’ve been charged lately for trashy content.

Final verdict: 4/5

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

(Promotional screenshot of The Pitt provided by Bethesda Softworks. To see a trailer for The Pitt, please check below.)















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Alcohol: Underage Binge Drinking & the Consequences

(Editor's Note: This is the second part of a short series on the drinking age. This part incorporates the views of someone with a 20-something viewpoint. To read the first part of the series from a writer with an older generational view, please go here.)

by Suzie Raven

Prohibition was designed to decrease alcohol consumption and crime, but studies show that both increased during the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1984, the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act created a national drinking age of 21 by allowing the federal government to withhold ten percent of highway funds from states with lower drinking ages. The 1984 legislation also intended to curb underage binge drinking.


It hasn’t worked. If raising the drinking age to 21 was truly effective in combating underage binge drinking, 1,700 college students would not die in alcohol related deaths each year. There are a multitude of sad stories, including that of Lynn "Gordie" Bailey, one of several University of Colorado pledges who was encouraged to drink four bottles of whiskey and six bottles of wine in 30 minutes on what is called “bid night” in 2004. The 18-year-old was found dead the next morning.

"The 21-year drinking age has not reduced drinking on campuses, it has probably increased it," says Middlebury College President John McCardell. "Society expects us to graduate students who have been educated to drink responsibly. But society has severely circumscribed our ability to do that."

Students cannot learn how to drink responsibly if they are told they cannot drink at all, but will still be drawn towards the allure of alcohol. For many students, going away to college means an unprecedented amount of freedom and the sense that they can engage in taboo activities without consequence.

"When you are older, it's not as cool to be drunk," a University of Colorado student told ABC News. "But when you are in school, you are so excited that your parents aren't there, that you feel you can't get into trouble and you are invincible."

The United States has one of the highest drinking ages in the world. In many European countries, it is normal for teenagers to have a glass of wine at dinner with their parents, so they learn how to drink responsibly. A study conducted in the U.K. shows that drinking does cause some problems in Britain, but “very few young people die from the direct effects of alcohol.” The hazing that too many American students such as Bailey experienced does not exist to the same degree in countries where students do not feel they have to prove themselves to their peers.

Reduce the appeal of what some see as getting away with it and you will reduce underage binge drinking. I’m not a psychologist, but this logic seems simple to me. It also seems obvious to me that since Prohibition did not work for the United States as a whole in the 1920s, it won’t work on people ages 18-21 in the 21st Century either.

(To read this series from the beginning, please go here. For other posts of a similar vein, please see "Reviving the Underaged Drinking Debate" and "Marijuana: The New Proposition.")

(The photo is by thesaint of Gillingham, U.K. via stock.xchng. The photo was discovered using everystockphoto.com.)







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Alcohol: Lowering the Drinking Age to 18

(Editor's Note: This is the first part of a short two-part series on the topic of the drinking age. To read the second installment, please go here.)

by Jeff Siegel
*

This is, oddly enough, one of the newest and most interesting approaches to fighting alcoholism. The theory, as propounded by a surprising number of experts, including some police as well as university presidents who are part of the Amethyst Initiative, says it may be the best way to fight an unprecedented wave of binge drinking and similar problems among college students. Take away the legal barrier, and you’ll take away a lot of the thrill and the incentive.

Or, as the police chief in Boulder, Colo., home to the hard-partying University of Colorado, told 60 Minutes: “The abuse of alcohol and the over-consumption of alcohol and DUI driving...are the areas we've got to focus our efforts. Not on chasing kids around trying to give them a ticket for having a cup of beer in their hand."


The drinking age issue, of course, is nothing new. It’s even not just about the drinking age anymore. In my part of the liquor world, where I write about wine, the dark forces that oppose more equitable laws that regulate wine distribution always play the underage drinking card to preserve their monopoly.

As Megan Haverkorn, the editor of the trade e-letter Wine & Spirits Daily wrote: “We believe the drinking age requirement at least deserves some dispassionate debate and research among policy makers. Whether it’s the right decision or not, the issue shouldn’t be squashed without giving it the attention it deserves.”

Having said all this, I don’t know the answer. On the one hand, I remember when the drinking age was 21 in Illinois, where I grew up, and 18 in neighboring Wisconsin. It was a rite of passage to hop in the car on your 18th birthday and drive across the state line to get liquored up. And if I did it, and I was a boring, responsible 18-year-old, you can imagine what everyone else did.

On the other hand, there is good evidence that underage drinking is out of control. The Amethyst group notes that “a culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ — often conducted off-campus — has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

One of the most telling points on their side is that drinking bans tend to increase alcoholism. During Prohibition, the U.S. rate actually increased, and economists have discovered something called the Iron Law of Prohibition: The more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. Which sounds a lot like binge-drinking, doesn’t it?

*Jeff Siegel is also the author of the blog, The Wine Curmudgeon; this part of the series is adapted from a posting on that blog.

(To read the final part in the series, please go here. For other posts of a similar vein, please see "Reviving the Underaged Drinking Debate" and "Marijuana: The New Proposition.")

(Photo by swanksalot of Chicago, IL via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)








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3.26.2009

Clinton in Mexico: The Truth about the Drug War

by Dan Aspan*
Special to iVoryTowerz

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is making some interesting statements as she gets comfortable with her new job. On Wednesday, March 25, Clinton did something that generally isn't done in the arena of United States foreign policy — she blamed the United States for being a part of the drug trafficking problem that has crippled the Mexican government. She also said the United States has a responsibility in helping the Mexican government crackdown on drug trafficking and violent drug-related killings which have spilled across the border and affected both Mexico and the United States. Additionally, Clinton suggested that the United States would be interested in actively supporting their southern neighbor, saying the U.S. will stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Mexico in the battle against major drug cartels.

Clinton’s comments came on the same day in which she boarded a plane bound for Mexico, as part of her effort to work with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and other Mexican officials in resolving the problem. I do not want to sound naïve; it is quite possible that Clinton’s words are just the regular political blabber that Mexicans have become accustomed to hearing from Washington, without seeing any action to support those words. However, there is evidence that Clinton’s words may amount to something more. On the same day Clinton set off for Mexico, the Mexican military caught a man labeled as one of Mexico's major drug traffickers.

After doing so little for so long, it is refreshing to see the U.S. take an active interest in a country other than itself. With every newspaper and TV station inundated with deflating details about the United States economy, I can at least find some solace in the fact that the United States recognizes the problems of other nations (especially neighbors) as well. The real challenge lies in the weeks ahead, to see if these comments from Clinton amount to more positive progress for Mexican authorities and more active involvement from the U.S. government. The economy and Wall Street are not going to be any different tomorrow morning than they were today. The situation will take months, probably years, to improve. But with a few more days like the one Clinton steered this week, Mexican and American law enforcement, citizens, and leaders can reap the benefits of a safer place for their countrymen and families.

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

For more background on the War on Drugs and Mexico, please see these archival posts:


(The graphic was created with the aid of the Despair, Inc. Parody Generator. The photo in the graphic is from *CliNKer* of Mexico City via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a background report on Mexico's Drug War from LinkTV's Global Pulse, please check below.)















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3.25.2009

Iran & Obama's Rapprochement

by Melissa Mahfouz
Special to iVoryTowerz

President Barack Obama’s reinvigorated diplomatic efforts with Iran are leading to a much-needed restoration of U.S. credibility. Despite the criticism that the Obama administration is reaching out to a belligerent and fundamentalist regime, the fact remains that the forging of renewed and effective diplomatic communication with Iran is vital to the stimulation of peace talks and nuclear disarmament. President Obama’s address to Iran occurred at an opportune moment with the celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. Yet, the question remains if the president’s message is truly substantial or too idealistic for U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

Several inhibitors seem ubiquitous with U.S.-Iran diplomatic efforts. The United States is still greeted with skepticism. Support for Israel, both militarily and financially, the recognition of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and a hypocritical stance on nuclear armament continue to come to the forefront of Iran’s political wariness with U.S. rhetoric, no matter how upbeat and promising it sounds. To add more fuel to the flame, Iran is still seeking an apology from the U.S. and the recognition of wrongdoing from the 1953 ousting of President Mohammed Mossadegh in a CIA-directed coup. The U.S. had declared Mossadegh as a communist in a large part due to his resistance to crude oil solicitations by the British after Mossadegh had nationalized Iran's oil industry.

What needs to be done is already in the beginning stages of actuation. The Obama administration has recognized the legitimacy of the Iranian government, and has made an unprecedented effort to reach out to the general populace. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also been recognized as the leading political figure in the Iranian regime, rather than allotting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sole acknowledgment. If a diplomatic foundation can be established, issues such as nuclear proliferation and Iran’s underlying influences in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be brought to the negotiating table. In time, we shall see if President Obama’s assertion of a “common humanity that binds us together” comes to a political fruition.

(The graphic was created with the aid of the Despair, Inc. Parody Generator. The photo in the graphic is from Daniella Zalcman of New York City via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see President Obama's Nowruz address to Iran, please check below.)












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3.24.2009

World Baseball Classic: Which Team Really Rules?

by Suzie Raven

Japan can say it has the best professional baseball team in the world. Wait, but didn’t the Philadelphia Phillies win the 2008 World Series? Yes, but Japan won the World Baseball Classic (WBC) for the second time in a row on March 23.

I’ve been a die-hard Phillies fan all my life, so I’m the last person to try to steal their thunder or say another team is better. However, I can still recognize that the Toronto Blue Jays presence in Major League Baseball hardly makes a series between the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays a “World” Series. The World Series hasn’t been international since the Blue Jays played the Phillies in 1993, but the WBC actually features all-star teams from around the world.

The WBC is a chance to see famous players from Major League Baseball (MLB) like Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox play, but also watch countries like Panama and the Netherlands compete. Then, it throws in it’s own unique drama, like injuries to Pedroia and Chipper Jones (of the Atlanta Braves) that upset their regular season coaches. One of my favorites was the tension of watching Red Sox star pitcher Daisuke ("Dice-K") Matsuzaka start for Japan in the semi-final game against the United States. Dice-K and Japan won that game, eliminating the chances of the U.S. for a world title.

For avid baseball fans anxiously waiting Opening Day (April 6th), the WBC provides a fix of competitive baseball and new teams to watch. Who knew the Netherlands is good enough to beat the Dominican Republic twice and nearly beat Venezuela and Puerto Rico?

The WBC obviously does not have the same fervent international following as soccer's World Cup. A near sell out of Dodger Stadium for the final game was considered a success because it means the event is growing. I’m not even mad the U.S. didn’t win — I’d rather just see the WBC take off even more by the next series in 2013. Besides, my Phillies are still World Series Champions.

(For another view of the WBC, please see: "Fidel Catro, Baseball Writer.")

(The photo of Japan beating China in the first round of the 2009 World Baseball Classic is from Cuba's Escambray, a provincial newspaper. As all of Cuba's newspapers are state-owned, the photo is in the public domain.)












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March Madness 2009: An Apathetic Fan's Perspective

by Phil Kehres

For years, the only thing March Madness meant to me was getting angry about being inundated with constant hype over schools I didn’t go to. How could people care so much about a sporting event where 90% of the participants will never sniff the pros? I couldn’t fathom it. Then I went to Greensboro.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men's basketball tournament never stoked much interest in me. Sports to me has always been about pride in my city as much or more than it has been about the love for the games or specific players. I’m a fan of the symbolism attached to sports teams and events — the way a logo, a uniform or a stadium can represent pride in your hometown or state. I have a closet full of Cleveland sports jerseys, and my personality is unbearable any time the Indians, Cavs or Browns are on TV. I’ve given my heart to Cleveland sports, only to watch it burn repeatedly like the Cuyahoga, and I keep gladly coming back for more. But I didn’t go to a Division I college? And doesn't my city have real pro sports teams. Why should I care about any of these teams just for the sake of March Madness?

Lacking ties to any of the participants in a sporting event, my rational side takes over. This is why, in general, I prefer pro baseball and basketball over pro football and every college sport. Due to their rigorous seasons and playoff format, I feel Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) crown a deserving champion more often than not. Though the New York Giants are one of my favorite football teams, something felt wrong about seeing them be crowned National Football League (NFL) champions over the previously undefeated Patriots in 2007. It’s pretty easy to see, then, why March Madness — a single-elimination, do-or-die tournament — never appealed to me.

Then I went to Greensboro. I saw the University of North Carolina (UNC) play Louisiana State University (LSU) and Duke play Texas. I saw a sea full of Carolina blue shirts. I heard Carolina fans cheering raucously for Texas, reveling almost as much in Duke’s near misfortune as in UNC’s victory. Most importantly, I felt it. From the second I stepped into Greensboro Coliseum, the irrational, emotional fan took over. UNC, a team I had only tacitly rooted for previously, suddenly became the source of jubilant clapping, high fives and raging enthusiasm. It didn’t matter that most of these guys won’t make the pros. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t gone to UNC. It mattered that I was part of something so big and so seemingly unstoppable. These people — and I’m not just talking UNC fans, I mean Duke, LSU and Texas too — had poured their hearts into something so seemingly simple as a 64-team tournament. Whether it was school pride, city pride, state pride — it didn’t matter. These people believed in something bigger than themselves — it was very nearly a religious experience. I realized that sports, at their best, give you something to hope for even when times are tough.

March Madness is the embodiment of hope in sports. I may never watch another college basketball game after this year, but the emotional fan in me has a new-found respect for the tournament.

(Editor's Note: March Madness resumes with the Sweet Sixteen round of games beginning Thursday, March 26. In that round, Duke plays Villanova in Boston on March 26. And UNC will take on Gonzaga in Memphis on March 27. CBS broadcasts the tournament. The full television schedule can be found here. Various satellite systems and the NCAA online also feature full coverage of the tournament.)

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

(For a commentary on the first round of tournament action, please see: "March Madness 2009: First Round Excitement.")
















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3.23.2009

Music Review: Dieter Schöön's Lablaza

by Rick Rockwell

Fans of Depeche Mode, looking for something to tide you over until next month’s long-awaited release of Sounds of the Universe? A suggestion: give a listen to Sweden’s Dieter Schöön.

Schöön’s debut Lablaza is being widely released today (March 23) in Europe. Although Lablaza debuted in Sweden in 2007 and then was regionally distributed to the U.K., France, and Scandinavia, Schöön’s label is attempting to find a bigger audience for his interesting work. (Lablaza has been available through iTunes in the U.S. since its debut and is available as an import and as a download from Amazon, but it has not yet been physically released as a CD in the U.S.)

Schöön admits his musical base comes from his admiration of the Mode and he wears this admiration on his sleeve. But there are other influences here too: Kraftwërk, King Crimson, and Radiohead, just to mention a few. Nevertheless, as any musician worth his chops, Schöön transcends his influences and creates something new and interesting in the murky midground between electronica and progressive rock.

Schöön actually works hard to defy categorization on Lablaza. He sings in at least four languages (primarily English, but also Swedish, German and Spanish). Latin influences pop up in unlikely spots throughout Lablaza, often not for entire songs, but for bridges or passages, perhaps influenced by Schöön’s work with some of the members of Sweden’s Soundtrack of Our Lives, a notable band from the Scandinavian music scene known for incorporating Latin and other world music influences into their alt-rock. These Latin-tinged numbers pepper Lablaza and they are some of the albums’ best tracks: “Manuel,” “Mary Jane,” and “The Harbour’s Cold.”

But Lablaza is not all headtrip soundscapes. Schöön’s lyricism often carries the tracks that are more stripped down and set in mostly acoustic tones. “Hogface” is a humorous take on the mentally grueling nature of the artistic process which includes the lament: “…working on this album for the rest of my life!” On “Warm Hearts” and “Jet Head” (where Schöön seems to be channeling Beck) Schöön uses wordplay and alternative pronunciations to produce new lyrical twists. “I’ll Go There” mixes graphic images and despondent feelings that recall the lyrical work of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

Perhaps some will see Lablaza as derivative. However, its edgy, icy atmospherics seem like a perfect springtime postcard from Sweden.

(The promotional photo of Dieter Schöön is from Headspin Recordings. Schöön opens a four-night stand in Paris tonight, March 23, as part of his European tour. To see Schöön’s music video for "Mary Jane," please check below.)












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Marijuana: The New Proposition

by Emily Norton
Special to iVoryTowerz

Living on a liberal college campus, it’s no surprise that many of my peers are vocal about the legalization of marijuana. It follows that the announcement last week from Attorney General Eric Holder about medical marijuana sparked some rejoicing in the dorms. Holder stated federal authorities would no longer take action against medical marijuana dispensaries if they were in compliance with state and local laws. Often these state propositions proved to be superficial; medical cannabis was legal, but frequent federal raids and arrests were still being made on marijuana dispensers. Thankfully, this contradiction has officially ended. While this may seem only a minor alteration of the policies regarding the legalized dispensing of medical cannabis, it suggests hints of lasting positive change.

The biggest bang is the fact that the feds are finally stepping aside. Perhaps unintentionally, they are de-stigmatizing the drug and dipping their fingers into an expensive issue that has begged for transformation for the past three decades. In response to Holder's statement, The New York Times noted that Holder "appeared to shift Justice Department policy, at least rhetorically, away from the Bush administration’s stated policy of zero tolerance for marijuana, regardless of state laws.” I can’t help but to hope that this is a move towards total legalization of marijuana. Let me add I don’t smoke pot. So why would I push for this?

Without trying to sound like Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal, here is my brilliant (though a little naïve) idea to solve two problems at once. If marijuana were legalized in the U.S., we could lessen our deficit and decrease the violence in Mexico by lowering demand for cartel-supplied pot. As ABC News noted: “A 2005 analysis by Harvard visiting professor Jeffrey Miron estimates that if the United States legalized marijuana, the country would save $7.7 billion in law enforcement costs and could generate as much as $6.2 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like alcohol or tobacco.” And that was four years ago! Additionally, if marijuana were to be legally grown, sold, and controlled in the United States, the money flowing out of America into Mexican drug cartels would diminish. By cutting these funds, we could weaken their ability to buy weapons in the U.S., and ultimately suck their power. Basically, legal American weed = less violence, good for the economy, cost effective. Even nonsmokers can’t ignore these potential incentives. Props to the Obama administration!

(For an archival post on the Bush administration's view on marijuana, please see: "Rise Above the Influence.")

(The photo is from the National Institute of Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health and is in the public domain.)











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3.22.2009

Sexual Harassment & Power

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

My high school English teacher was an expansive man, ensnared by the vagaries of a congenital defect. The first class that watched him thrash across the room dragging his clubfoot behind him dubbed him “The Galloping Guinea,” effectively vilifying his ethnicity and his physique in one cruel gesture.

But in the privacy of his office, he claimed the intimacy he could not find in the unforgiving mass of the classroom. Each year, amid stacks of classic tomes and contemporary teenage drivel, he approached a favored student, she seated tentatively before his literate desk, he standing behind her. With his hands on her shoulders, he leaned into the back of her head and quoted Walt Whitman’s narcissistic celebration of self.

This is the press of a bashful hand, this is the float and odor of hair,
This is the touch of my lips on yours, this is the murmur of yearning,

Then he directed her performance.

“So what does Whitman mean? How would you feel if I put my lips on yours, if I pressed my bashful hand to your breast? Would you guess I have some intricate purpose?

Back then, we didn’t have words for such murky behavior, other than “yuck-o,” and I opted for an equivalency diploma.

Some years later I had a boss, quite confident in his prowess with female subordinates in the field. After a presumable business dinner, I found myself pressed to the door of his rental car, with his tongue and thigh in places they didn’t belong. I declined his offer of glory and grind, and suggested an alternate placement for that promotion.

By then, the first sexual harassment cases had been heard and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had issued guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment. But still, just what specific behaviors were we now allowed to challenge?

Absent a clear understanding, sexual harassment law was an unplumbed resource for resolving bad-boy behavior in the workplace and school. Subsequent efforts to refine the definition have produced mixed results, and fear of retaliation has squelched reporting, although the incidence of cases tends upward with increased awareness and mandated training.

Mary Ann Ellis, a California-based human resources consultant, says of the confusion, “People have different levels of sensitivity and different interpretations of what sexual harassment is.” Unlike pornography, we don’t necessarily know it when we see it.

Today, harassers come in all genders and orientations, but women remain the most common targets, and fear of retaliation remains an effective deterrent to reporting, although the consequences of reporting can be as ambiguous as the harassment.

Ellis says, “There can be no retaliation, but there are always consequences for exercising your rights.” She relays the case of a young waitress who was harassed by a cook to the point of reporting his abuse. The cook was properly dealt with, but the waitress’ orders no longer received the attention they previously had and the other cooks shunned her. Neither an ideal outcome nor an uncommon one.

In fact, I once reported a colleague’s crowing about pumping his wife’s various orifices, not because I felt harassed by his idiocy but because I knew the inevitable retaliation would accelerate my exit from an unpleasant company with some severance in hand. Still, the offender and I knew his favored topic was unseemly, and I had told him so. What was he trying to achieve? What is it harassers actually want?

Ellis describes two categories of harassment. “The nastiest kind is quid pro quo: you have to grant me sexual favors or you won’t receive a promotion. Is that really more about power than it is about sex? The ultimate sexual harassment is rape and rape is about power, not about sex.… The other type is hostile environment, and that sometimes isn’t so much about power as it is about people just being oblivious to what is offensive to other people. On the other hand, sometimes it is about power — men wanting to dominate, intimidate the women in [what the men perceive as] their environment. Maybe it’s all about power!”

Okay, maybe it is all about power. To one extreme, harassers are indeed akin to rapists and should be treated as such. But other offenders, maybe they’re just oblivious nincompoops, driven by unevolved biology and insecurities, trying to prove themselves the alpha dogs by marking as many women in their territories as possible.

No reasonable person wants to be the recipient of that mark, but formal complaints don’t always solve the problem. So imagine teaching girls this: When an idiot at work tries to cop a feel or talk trash about his significant other, just whop him upside the head and tell him to bug off.

That is power, without ambiguity.

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

(The graphic was created with the Despair, Inc. parody generator.)







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3.21.2009

iVoryTowerz Radio: Guilty Pleasures

If you truly enjoy rock 'n roll, you understand the concept of guilty pleasures. At a certain age, all rock becomes a guilty pleasure. And of course, we embrace that concept wholeheartedly here. So why not a musical examination of the topic. Can an underground podcast go a little Top 40? Sure, just enough to be a pleasure and still underground. How about some classic buried rock treasures? Those certainly fit too. An excursion into symphonic metal? Fits the bill. By now, perhaps you get the concept. If not, listen along and perhaps we'll find your groove. The patented eclectic mix is here with more than 50 years of rock represented. We have everything from alt-country and indie rock to garage rock, new wave, and psychedelia too. Enjoy!



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



Playlist

“Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night
Cover Me: "I'm a Believer" by Smash Mouth
"Mr. Farmer" by The Seeds
“Running Through My Nightmares" by The Chesterfield Kings
"Kneejerk Reaction" by The Green Circles
Jeff’s New Wave: “Funeral Pyre” by The Jam
"I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down" by Buddy Holly
"Jailhouse Tears" by Lucinda Williams with Elvis Costello
“Seven-Mile Island” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
“Cannibal Queen” by Miniature Tigers
“Microcastle” by Deerhunter
"Hang You from the Heavens” by The Dead Weather
"Closer" by Lacuna Coil
"Going Under" by Evanescence
"Strange Machines" by The Gathering
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Into the Ashes” by Abigail Williams

(Mp3 Runs - 1:18:38; 72 MB.)

Program contains explicit song lyrics and discussions of mature content including graphic language. Rated: R.

(The photo of of Lacuna Coil playing Ozzfest 2006 in New York is by Cap'n Jo
of Hoboken, NY via Flickr, using 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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