Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006


Yesterday's New York Times arts section had a fascinating story about an internet mystery. About eight months ago a video started showing up on video sharing sites, including YouTube. It showed a young man in a blue t-shirt and baseball cap sitting in his bedroom by his computer, playing a hellishly difficult rock arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon, of all things, on electric guitar.

It quickly became an Internet sensation. On YouTube it has been viewed over seven and a half million times. If it were a commercial release it would have gone platinum many times over. One of the striking things about it was the guy's seeming modesty. There is none of the rock star histrionics that seem almost mandatory for guitar solos. He just sits there with his head down and plays his ass off for five and a half minutes.

It had all the ingredients to be a massive Net phenomenon. A bitchin arrangement, with background track supplied by the computer, an awesomely virtuosic performance, and that extra special touch, an air of mystery. Because what everybody wanted to know was, who the hell IS this guy?? The title card identifies him only as "funtwo." The cap visor covers his face almost all the time, and he's sitting in front of a window with blazing sunlight coming through, which obscures what little you can see the few times he lifts his head. All you could tell for sure from the skin of his arms is that he wasn't a black guy. Here's the video.

Of course, the Times ran the story because they'd tracked him down. So who was he? Click "read more" to find out.

Jeong-Hyun Lim, a 23 year old self-taught South Korean living in Seoul. The arrangement was actually by a Taiwan guitarist with the net name of JerryC. Lim decided to work up a performance of it, put it online, and see what everybody thought. As the article observed, it's a fascinating glimpse of a subculture I had no idea existed. Not Asian guitar gods, because I know one here in New Orleans, June Yamaguchi from Kyoto. No, guitar fanatics who make videos of themselves and send them to each other and post them online, so that everyone can critique each other. There are thousands of these things floating around, which is fascinating.

I think this has just become one of my favorite performances of an otherwise horribly overexposed piece.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lands Snakes!!

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is developing an entertaining habit of shooting itself in the foot with its web-based campaign commercials. The last one had to be withdrawn when the DSCC realized that millions of hispanic voters would probably not appreciate being linked to Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il.

Now we have another one. It's always amusing to see politicians trying to cash in on the lastest pop culture fad, especially those whose own kids probably see them as hopelesslly clueless. And so we have Snakes On A Senate, with animated snakes representing Republican Senators Rick Santorum, George Allen, Mike Dewine, and so forth.

I wonder how long this one will last? Probably as long as it takes the DSCC to realize that in its wisdom it has effectively adopted as its 2006 campaign slogan, "I'm sick of these muthafuckin senators in this muthafuckin Senate!!"

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lewis Black on Quail Hunting & You Know Who

Let's see if I can make this linking to YouTube thingie work. If it does, you will get some choice words on quail hunting from Lewis Black, the angriest man in the world and arguably the funniest.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fire: A Conundrum

I've got way too much time on my hands if this is what I'm worrying about, but here goes. We're in the realm of etymology, word and phrase origins, and this has been bugging me for a while: With cannons, artillery, rifles and pistols, why do we Americans say "fire" when what we mean is "shoot?"

As far as I know, ours is the only military tradition that does this, though the phrase has caught on just through the influence of American culture. But if you watch the classic movie Sink the Bismarck, all the British officers are shouting "Shoot!!" as a command. In German it's schiessen! or schiess auf!, derived from the verb schiessen, to shoot. In Italian it's sparare, shoot, nothing derived from fuoco, meaning the stuff with flames. Again, in French it's tirer or d├ęcharger, not feu or a derivative. And that exhausts the limits of my library's translating dictionaries.

I have a theory. Our first war, the Revolution, was against the British, a foe that spoke the same language and had the same military traditions. Hell, some of our officers had trained side by side with their officers.

On a battlefield of that time, the only way to get orders to your troops was to run or ride madly around shouting them at the top of your lungs, or have your junior officers pass the orders along in the same way. I'm no soldier, but I can't imagine anything worse from a commander's viewpoint than to have your troops uncertain whether they should be shooting or not. In the smoke, chaos, and terror of battle, with enemy officers at the other end of the field shouting, "Shoot! Shoot!" at their own artillerymen, it must have been critical to come up with a command to your men that could not be confused with the British officers' commands to their own men.

So why "fire?" Think about a cannon of the period. A cast iron tube open at one end, loaded with powder and ball, and with a tiny hole primed with powder at the other, closed end. To set it off, you touched a lighted torch -- literally fire -- to the hole, which carried the spark to the main charge and boom!

Since the American military is the only one that has its origins in such a unique moment in history, ours is the only one that uses "fire!" instead of "shoot!", and of course it's been generalized to all firearms, long past the time of cannons discharged with torches. It's interesting that with archery even we never talk about "firing" an arrow. We always shoot it. Bringing gunpowder into the equation seems to be where everything changes.

But, aha!, you say. What about the German military in the movies? What about, say, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with the big fight inside, outside, and around that outrageous tank, and the Nazi officer screaming "Feuer!!"

If there's one German word every American teenage boy knows, it's scheiss. It's a slightly different spelling from schiess, and a different pronunciation, rhyming with "shine" instead of "sheet," but it's too close for comfort. I think Spielberg must have known how disastrous it would be, how easy to change thrilling excitement into derisive laughter, if his target audience even suspected that that officer was, in effect, ordering, "Ready! Aim!! SHIT!!!" So it wasn't realistic or true to German tradition, but the change just had to be made.

Well, there's the theory, anyway. It's logical, and it holds together, but is it true? I'm well aware of the dangers of folk etymology. I've tried researching this on the web, but gotten nowhere. So if you're into military history, or, maybe, have a brother who is (you know who you are), maybe we can find out.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Whistleblower

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a story. Joe Darby was a military police officer stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in January, 2004 when another soldier gave him a CD with the infamous photos on it. After some serious thought he turned them in to the Criminal Investigation Division, and the rest is history. Literally. He's kept quiet about it since, but in the current issue of GQ, he finally speaks out.

What he says is both fascinating and disturbing. He says there was no conspiracy to keep what was going on from higher officers. They didn't know because they just didn't care. Couldn't be bothered to keep track of things, to actually supervise the soldiers and facilities they were responsible for. He tells how government agents -- obviously the CIA, but he's unwilling to actually say that -- could come in in the middle of the night, "interrogate" a prisoner to death, and leave it to the Army to deal with the body, clean up the mess, and take the blame, if any.

There's something else that's very clear, though Darby doesn't harp on it. Sullivan often says that SecDef Donald Rumsfeld is a bungling fool and should have been fired years ago. When Darby blew the whistle, CID went to great pains to keep his identity secret, especially after Abu Ghraib blew up into a global scandal. They promised him he would remain anonymous, but he was scared to death nevertheless. Awful lot of weapons around in a war zone, awfully easy to arrange a fatal accident. He was literally sleeping with a 9mm pistol in his hand.

He was eating in the mess hall one day with a couple hundred guys, with the TV turned to congressional hearings on the Iraq war. Rumsfeld was testifying, and actually spoke Darby's name out loud, identified him as the whistleblower. Every soldier within earshot just froze and stared at him. If he was scared before, he was terrified then, and told the Army they just had to get him out of the country. They did, and he's safe, but if that fucking idiot Rumsfeld had been trying to get Darby killed, he couldn't have done it better.

What a fool.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


An automatic mechanical dishwasher is an incredible luxury, you have to admit. For thousands of years, ever since we invented things to eat off of, we've had to clean them or get sick from the dirt. But now in our lovely modern world, when the thing breaks and we actually have to put water in a sink with soap and wash the plates with our hands ... we feel so affronted. So put upon. It's such an imposition!! We're such weens.

Yes, my dishwasher died today.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Restoring the Balance

OK, let's relax with some politics. (Tells you where I'm coming from, doesn't it?) Here's an intriguing article by a guy named Doug Muder called Ten Ideas for 2008. Muder is a New Hampshire politics junkie and unapologetic liberal. Not the cartoon liberal that Rush Limbaugh flogs on his show, but the real kind. He's posted a lot of articles on his website, and this one gives important food for thought for liberals and Democrats (they're not the same thing), about reframing the terms of the debate.

This ties in with something that's bothered me for years. The most infuriating thing about liberals is their willingness to let themselves be defined in the public mind by their enemies. (See: Rush) Muder says it's past time to change this.

Two examples. Moral values and codes of sexual conduct are not the same thing, but conservaties routinely use "morality" as a code word for sex becuase, hey, sex sells. Liberals should not be afraid to use the word "immoral" in their arguments. For the richest country in the world to let poor people die because they can't afford healthcare is immoral. For President Bush to break the law whenever following it would be inconvenient is immoral. Why not say so?

Second, Christianity is not fundamentally a conservative religion. It is a liberal faith that has been largely hijacked by conservatives. Since when was Christianity about following the letter of the law but not its spirit? Since when was getting as rich as you possibly can a Christian virtue? The Republican brand of Christians resemble, more than any other figures from the Bible, the Pharisees who heckle Jesus throughout his ministry. They certainly don't resemble him or his disciples. So there's a slogan for you: "The Religious Right; 21st Century Pharisees."

There's one issue Muder doesn't address, but which Thomas Frank does in an op-ed column in today's New York Times. That is conservatives' unshakable view of themselves as scrappy outsiders, fighting a brave but disadvantaged battle against an all-powerful Washington liberal elite. For many years this was true, of course, but it hasn't been for a long time. In the past quarter century there have been exactly two years in which the Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House, the first two years of Clinton's presidency. Look at Washington today, and you see conservatives dominating all three branches of government, backed by incredibly rich and powerful business interests, with individuals happily gaming the system and milking it dry, becoming insanely rich in the process. And they certainly are all about excluding those who are Not Their Sort Of People. If that isn't an all-powerful conservative elite, then what the hell is it??

Both pieces are worth reading, even if you're a Republican. Because the issues raised are all valid ones, and if the Republican Party does not address them, well, it may still be able to hold on to a degree of power, but it won't deserve to.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hitting Close to Home

A friend of mine, a very well respected photographer for the Times-Picayune, made the New York Times this morning, but not in a good way. John McCusker was pulled over not far from here in a traffic stop Tuesday evening and, despondent at his own losses and the misery he's had to witness, he tried to get the cops to kill him. He begged them to, over and over, and even pinned a cop between his car and a patrol car in an attempt to provoke them.

“He never stopped saying that, and made every attempt to hurt the police officers with his automobile because that’s the only weapon he had,” [NOPD crisis negotiator James] Arey said. “Our officers are well trained to recognize crises and attempts at ‘suicide by cop,’ and that’s what this was.”

He was eventually subdued with a Taser and is in custody under a suicide watch.

This is terribly upsetting to me. John is a passionate fan of New Orleans jazz and a researcher specializing in Kid Ory. He's been a guest in my home, and I have talked with him about jazz many, many times. In all the years I've known him he has never been anything but a cheerful, well-balanced man. And yet what has happened to him is now commonplace.

This city is slowly going mad.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Me: Beheaded and Going to Hell

I'm afraid that will be my fate after linking to these cartoons. You remember cartoons. Those ones depicting Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper, and led to murderous riots all over the place. Those.

Well, you can look at those elsewhere, but someone connected with the Freethinker magazine, "The Voice of Atheism Since 1881," apparantly decided, you want blasphemy? I'll give you blasphemy, in the form of Jesus and Mo. It's a crudely drawn cartoon whose two characters are Jesus and Mohammed. They're a bit bothered by how they're perceived by their modern followers.

They seem to be roommates and drinking buddies, and if they're not lovers they're skittering around the edges:

And when they're not playing video games, they're having arguments with the atheist barmaid at their favorite tavern:

Here's the link to the start of the series. From what I read in the papers, I can expect scimitar wielding avengers to show up here in New Orleans soon for my temerity in posting these. And once they lop my head off, well, down I go.

Mel's Meltdown

The New York Times Arts section has an article today about the fine art of celebrity damage control, focusing on Mel Gibson's attempts to recover from that infamous anti-Semitic tirade following a drunk driving arrest. The model for how to do it right is Hugh Grant, arrested in 1995 for what they discreetly call "performing lewd acts with a prostitute." He immediately went public with it all on Jay Leno's show, where his "bashful British contrition transformed the sheepish Mr. Grant from naughty to nice."

All true, but the author, Dennis McDougal, leaves out a very important difference between the two cases. I'm not surprised he left it out, as it's not a very complimentary thing to say about his readers. And that is the fact that getting a blowjob in a car from a Hollywood hooker is something millions of men secretly wish they had the nerve to do. Of course they went easy on Hugh. And I suspect that millions of women know this about their men more than their boyfriends and husbands imagine, and are willing to tolerate the fanstasy as long as it remains that, a fantasy not acted upon. So while they might be a little harder on Hugh for actually acting out the fanstasy, in the end they gave him a pass too.

But getting quoted say the "fucking Jews ... are responsible for all the wars in the world" is another matter entirely, one that inspires revulsion much more than sneaking admiration. Ol' Mel's going to have a really hard time of it, one he richly deserves.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How To Piss Off Dad

Refer him to this article.

(Well, maybe not your dad, but my dad.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Name That Ship

Alden told a story this evening that is in the category of "too good to check," a category that journalists don't want to admit exists. But it does. I'll check this sometime, but not tonight.

We went to a party tonight at a bar on Magazine Street called Alexander's, a farewell party for a dear friend we've known for over twenty years. Though a native Orleanian, Kelley is moving back to her ancestral homeland of Ireland this week and decided to throw a bash, complete with traditional jazz band. (She literally grew up at Preservation Hall.) When we walked in, the drummer and bandleader Barry Martyn, another old friend, was remarking on how she was not flying to Ireland, but sailing. This prompted Alden to take the mic and tell this story.

During the 30s and 40s Alden's father, being a moderately successful New York corporate real estate broker, served on a number of corporate boards. Mostly you were there to accept the luxurious lunch and the c-note in an envelope, and rubber-stamp what the company wanted to do. One board he was on was of the Cunard line, which has built and run the most extraordinary Atlantic liners that ever were. (Alas, they are now owned by Carnival.) So he was told this story.

In the 30s, Cunard was planning the largest and most luxurious liner that anyone had ever seen. They had a tradition of naming their ships with names ending in "ia," like Titania or Brittania. They had planned to name this glorious new ship the Victoria, but thought it would be prudent and good form to ask the permission of the current monarch, Victoria's grandson King George V. So they sent a delegation to the Palace, describing the project and asking permission to name the new ship after "England's greatest queen."

George V promptly replied, saying that permission was of course granted, and that his wife would be honored and delighted.

So the Queen Mary it was.

Fateful Race in Connecticut

As just about everybody knows, Senator Joe Lieberman is in serious danger of losing the Democratic primary election tomorrow to a guy named Ned Lamont, who has never held office but has a lot of money and a willingness to spend it. It would be nice if he had a brain. Here's Martin Peretz of the New Republic:

Here, for instance, is [Lamont's] take on what should be done about Iran's nuclear-weapons venture: "We should work diplomatically and aggressively to give them reasons why they don't need to build a bomb, to give them incentives. We have to engage in very aggressive diplomacy. I'd like to bring in allies when we can. I'd like to use carrots as well as sticks to see if we can change the nature of the debate." Oh, I see. He thinks the problem is that they do not understand, and so we should explain things to them, and then they will do the right thing. It is a fortunate world that Mr. Lamont lives in, but it is not the real one. Anyway, this sort of plying is precisely what has been going on for years, and to no good effect.

One of the signs of the immature and unsophisticated is the belief that if someone disagrees with you it just has to be becuase he just doesn't get your point. There's just no other possible explanation. And that the proper action therefore is to repeat yourself, a little more slowly, as many times as necessary. Why do we keep electing people who think this way?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Just sick of it

I am getting so fucking sick of the lawlessness of the current administration. Look, I've never liked Bush and never expected to like his policies. But in politics you win some, you lose some, and when you lose an election you can expect to see policies you wouldn't have approved of. Fact of life. But is it too much to ask that the President at least have some respect for the law? With this bunch, apparantly it is. Sometimes they seem to go out of their way to violate the law, even when it isn't necessary.

One current story is about the War Crimes Act of 1996. (There's an article about it in Salon here, though you may have to sit through an ad to access it.) Though the U.S. signed on to the Geneva Conventions in 1949, for decades there was no law requiring universal adherance to it by Americans. The military was required to follow the Conventions through the Universal Code of Military Justice, but not civilians. The War Crimes Act closed that loophole, allowing for the prosecution of any American, including any elected official, who violates the Conventions, especially those aspects regarding decent treatment of foreign prisoners.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, ruled that the US really and truly is bound by the Geneva Conventions, even in its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. It's amazing the court even had to make such a ruling, as it's been agreed for, oh, a couple of centuries that any treaty ratified by the Senate has the force of law. So now some of the folks in the administration are getting nervous, because they could be prosecuted under the Act. In fact, they've been nervous for some time. From the Salon article:
Publicly released memos show that as far back as Jan. 25, 2002, [current Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales, then the White House counsel, worried that the president's policies could trigger prosecution under the act.

Gee, they were set on a course of action that might mean breaking the law, were they? You and I, in such a position, would probably consider changing our course of action. At the very least, if we didn't and we got caught, we could not expect a judge to be lenient.

So what did they do? Next sentence:
That led the White House to declare, over the objection of the State Department, that al-Qaida was not protected by the conventions.

What a nifty solution!! You're in danger of breaking the law, so just declare that the law doesn't apply to what you intend to do. I'm sure going to use that argument next time I get caught robbing a liquor store.

I just wish this sort of thing were an aberration. Unfortunately, it isn't.