Tuesday, January 21, 2020

"Chinese City Uses Facial Recognition to Shame Pajama Wearers"

That headline is from … not the Onion, but the New York Times, which reports:

When officials in an eastern Chinese city were told to root out “uncivilized behavior,” they were given a powerful tool to carry out their mission: facial recognition software.

Among their top targets? People wearing pajamas in public.

On Monday, the urban management department of Suzhou, a city of six million people in Anhui Province, sparked outrage online when it published surveillance photos taken by street cameras of seven local residents wearing pajamas in public along with parts of their names, government identification numbers and the locations where their “uncivilized behavior” had taken place.

City officials quickly apologized, but not before stirring nationwide ire over the use of a state-of-the-art digital tool to stamp out a harmless and relatively commonplace practice — an unusual note of resistance in a country where the instruments of digital totalitarianism have spread largely unchecked.

On social media, the Suzhou department publicly called out, among others, a Ms. Dong, a young woman in a plush pink robe, matching pants and orange pointy flats, walking on a street, and a Mr. Niu, who was singled out for donning a black and white checkered full pajama suit in a mall.

“Uncivilized behavior refers to when people behave and act in ways that violate public order because they lack public morals,” read a post on WeChat, a common social messaging app, which has since been deleted.

“Many people think that this is a small problem and not a big deal,” the post said. “Others believe public places are truly ‘public,’ where there is no blame, no supervision and no public pressure.”

“This has brought about a kind of complacent, undisciplined mind set,” it concluded.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Which 2020 Democratic presidential candidate should I support?

Help! I can't decide which Democratic presidential candidate to support, and I'd like to take a position before the Iowa caucuses on February 3.

I've narrowed it down to 2 candidates: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Which of those 2 should I support and why? Feel free to make your own arguments or link to anything relevant, as long as it's specifically about Amy Klobuchar and/or Pete Buttigieg.

I may do a future post about how I decided who to support. But to be realistic, it's unlikely that both of those candidates will still be actively running by the time I have to vote in New York, which won't happen until after 35 other states. If only one of them is still running by that time (April 28), I plan to vote for that person.

UPDATE: Lots of good feedback in the comments on my Facebook post about this.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Live-blogging the last 2020 Democratic debate before the Iowa caususes

I'll be live-blogging the debate here. Keep reloading this post for more updates!

This could be a crucial debate, just 20 days before the Iowa caucuses.

It's also the first debate since US-Iran tensions have flared after we killed Qasem Soleimani.

You should be able to watch it on CNN's website.

I'll be writing down quotes live, so they might not be word for word, but I'll try to keep them as fair and accurate as possible.

9:01 — Why is Bernie Sanders the "best-prepared" candidate to be "Commander in Chief"? He says he opposed the Iraq War, and recently proposed a bipartisan bill to limit the president's war powers.

9:03 — Joe Biden apologizes for voting for the Iraq War: "It was a mistake, and I acknowledge that." But Obama was against it and picked Biden to end the war.

9:04 — Wolf Blitzer points out that Sanders has admitted his vote for the Afghanistan War was a mistake, so how is he any better than Biden? Because the Iraq War was even worse! "I did everything I could to prevent that war," but Biden didn't. [VIDEO.]

9:09 — A pretty dull debate so far — I haven't written anything down on the first answers from Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, or Elizabeth Warren (or Tom Steyer, but I generally don't write down his answers anyway because I don't see how he's relevant).

9:12 — Bernie Sanders makes a strong statement: "The two worst foreign-policy disasters of the last 50 years are the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Both of those wars were based on lies. And what I fear now is that we have a president who is lying again, and could drag us into a war that is even worse than Iraq."

9:16 — Elizabeth Warren flatly says we should "get our combat troops out" of the Middle East. Biden jumps in to point out that not all our troops stationed there are "combat troops."

9:18 — Buttigieg calls out President Trump for adding more troops after promising to "end endless wars."

9:19 — Wolf Blitzer asks Biden if he'd ever "take military action without congressional approval." Biden doesn't answer the question, and instead goes back to the need for "small numbers of special forces," so we have leverage in negotiations.

9:25 — Buttigieg mocks Trump for "gutting" Obama's Iran deal — after his administration "certified that it was working."

9:28 — Klobuchar points out that in the first debate, when everyone was asked to name the biggest threat to the United States, she was the only who said "Iran, because of Donald Trump." (She also said China as an economic threat.)

9:29 – Biden is asked if he'd "meet with the leader of North Korea without preconditions." What's the point of that question, when none of the candidates would possibly say they would? Biden says he won't meet with Kim Jong-Un, who called Biden "a rabid dog who should be beaten with a stick." Bernie Sanders quips: "But other than that, you like him!"

9:36 — I admit I've been zoning out on the rather dry discussion of who's for what trade deals.

9:44 — Bernie Sanders is asked about reports that he told Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that a woman couldn't win the presidential election. "Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't say it!"

9:46 — Moderator Abby Phillip, apparently not believing Sanders, asks Warren what she thought when Sanders said a woman couldn't win: "I disagreed!" She points out that the men on the stage have lost a total of 10 elections, while the women on the stage (she and Klobuchar) have never lost an election. And Warren is the only one on the stage who "beat an incumbent Republican." Wait, Bernie Sanders points out that he beat an incumbent Republican! This leads to an awkward moment when Warren asks: "When?" "1990." Warren has a lull while she seems to do some math in her head, before she points out that 1990 was 30 years ago. Then she says she's the only candidate on the stage who's beaten an incumbent Republican "in 30 years." I don't remember her saying that, so we'll have to check the video… [VIDEO.]

Me watching the debate:

9:58 — Biden scolds Sanders for proposing "doubling the entire federal budget every year." But Biden's next sentence is: "There's a way to do that…" and then he describes his plan. That makes it sound like he's saying his plan will double the federal budget!

10:04 — The moderator has a blunt question for Sanders: "How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?" Klobuchar joins in: "I think you should say how you're going to pay for things, Bernie!"

10:06 — Buttigieg is asked how it's "truth in advertising" to call his plan "Medicare for All Who Want It," when in fact it would force everyone who's uninsured to pay to be covered by the public option. "It's making sure there's no such thing as an uninsured American."

10:08 — Warren says the Buttigieg and Biden health plans "are an improvement, but they're a small improvement. That's why they cost so much less" than what Warren is promising. Buttigieg strongly disagrees: "It's just not true that my plan is 'small'!"

10:14 — Tom Steyer gives a shout-out to the Sanders and Warren plans, and says about health care: "This is not a complicated problem.… We're spending way too much because corporations own the system.… This is cruelty for money."

10:27 — Klobuchar says the Warren/Sanders idea of free public college for everyone "isn't thinking big enough." She lists jobs that have been underfilled, like home health aides and plumbers. Her point seems to be that Warren/Sanders are too college-focused, at the expense of pure job training.

10:49 — The moderator is asking the candidates about their potential weaknesses. Buttigieg is asked why he has "next to no" support from black voters. "The black voters who know me best are supporting me."

10:50 — Won't it hurt Sanders in the general election that he calls himself a "socialist"? Sanders says Trump is a socialist too — his socialism is about "giving hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry."

10:54 — Klobuchar is asked how she'll "inspire" voters with her "pragmatism." She talks about being in the Midwest, and she'd tell Trump: "You've treated these workers and farmers like poker chips.… These are my friends and neighbors."

10:56 — The moderator brings up Biden's questionable debating skills: "The debate against [Trump] will make tonight's debate look like child's play. Are you prepared for that?" Of course, Biden stumbles over his words in his answer.

11:05 — Klobuchar uses her closing statement to take an implicit shot at Sanders and Warren: "It is easy to draw lines in the sand and sketch out grand ideological plans that will never see the light of day."

11:06 — Buttigieg emphasizes that we need to not just defeat Trump, but "send Trumpism into the dustbin of history too."


I don’t like Elizabeth Warren's argument that she and Amy Klobuchar are the most electable because they’ve never lost an election.

Barack Obama lost an election. Bill Clinton lost an election. They ended up doing OK when they ran for president.

When Tim Kaine was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, he boasted that he had won every campaign in his life. Didn’t work out too well in 2016.

It might be better to have a nominee who’s experienced a crushing electoral loss, who can learn from their mistakes, who doesn’t feel invincible.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Charlie Hebdo mass shooting, 5 years ago

The Charlie Hebdo massacre happened 5 years ago today.

12 people were killed, and others were injured, including a journalist who was shot in the face.

In response to a New Yorker article about it, I wrote this blog post at the time: "Revering the irreverent."

Friday, December 13, 2019

The 100 Best Songs of the 2010s (Top 10)

We've come to the end of my list of the best songs of the decade.

I think these were the 10 best songs of the 2010s. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. For the Spotify playlist of all 100 songs, click here.

10. Ellie Goulding — "Lights"

The dance-club song of the decade.


9. The Shins — "Simple Song"

"Well, this is just a simple song" — why put it in the top 10? How can you explain why you do or don't have an emotional response to certain music? Somehow, this song gives me chills when the piano comes in and the singing gets higher on: "I know that things can really get rough, when you go it alone…"

Click here if you want to listen to the song without the speaking that's added in this dark-comedy video:

8. St. Vincent — "Rattlesnake"

I don't have a strict rule of only one song per artist, but if I did then St. Vincent would be one of the most flagrant violators: my top 100 list has two of her solo songs, plus her collaboration with David Byrne. She isn't the only artist in my current top 10 who was also on my list last decade, but she's the only one who was in the top 10 for both decades.

St. Vincent is not just one of the great indie singer/songwriters, but also one of the most interesting guitarists around. 10 years ago I wrote about the decreasing importance of rock guitar, which has only continued decreasing, but St. Vincent shows us that you can still be relevant while using heavy guitar in unexpected ways.

7. Hozier — "Take Me to Church"

Lots of discussion of the lyrics at SongMeanings. Wikipedia notes that the video "follows a same-sex relationship in Russia and the violently homophobic backlash that ensues when the community learns of one of the men's sexuality."

Take me to church

I'll worship like a dog

At the shrine of your lies

I'll tell you my sins

And you can sharpen your knife
Hozier's soulful singing of the "Amen, amen…" part — relatively calm at first but passionate when the section is repeated later — clinches "Take Me to Church" as one of the high points of this decade of music.

(Cover with female vocals.)

6. Bent Knee — "Being Human"

This band from Boston is hard to categorize. Wikipedia says they play "multiple genres" including "art rock," "progressive rock," "industrial rock," "avant-garde," and "baroque pop."

Bent Knee has the confidence to take real risks.

5. Lana Del Rey — "Summertime Sadness"

This song is compellingly emotional by being simple and direct.


4. Jónsi — "Animal Arithmetic"

After sadness, this comes bursting through — a song of pure, exuberant optimism.
Every time, everyone, everything's full of life

Every day, everywhere, people are so alive

We should all be, ohhh, alive! ...

Exist all in love and life!
In the second verse, Jónsi sings in his native language, Icelandic (as he often does in the band he's best known for, Sigur Rós).

3. Adele — "Rolling in the Deep"

Adele has one of the most powerful voices of the decade.

2. Janelle Monáe — "Cold War"

The video for this song from her 2010 debut album starts with no sound, until the screen tells us we're seeing "Take 1." The singer/songwriter described the process: “I remember crying during ‘Cold War’ [on the] first take. I didn’t know how that happened but it just did.... Then everybody else started to cry.”

I like the idea (however unlikely) that someone who hasn't paid attention to any music of the last 10 years is going through this whole list in order, so their whole view of Janelle Monáe was based on her contribution to "We Are Young," and then they get to this song…

(Mellow remix.)

1. Lorde — "Royals"

So many young musical prodigies try to impress us with their talents by emulating adults. One of the great things about how Lorde from New Zealand broke into the public consciousness at age 16 is that she seemed to feel no need to do that. She didn't sound like she was aspiring to mature respectability. She presented herself as a young person hanging out with other young people — but a unique young person who happens to be uncommonly reflective and expressive. This is just one of the standout songs from Lorde's debut album. That album is a pop masterpiece precisely because it doesn't feel like it's trying to be a masterpiece.

Bruce Springsteen radically transformed "Royals":

And honorable mention goes to this brilliant parody by Weird Al Yankovic — "Foil." You might think it's just one more Weird Al song about food, but wait till halfway through… Notice how he cleverly keeps two phrases from the original song.

String quartet:

That's all — thanks for listening! To go back to songs #11 to 20, click here — and check the bottom of each post to keep going back or forward in the list.

Again, here's the full list of 100 songs plus runners-up. There's a Spotify playlist of the top 100 (with some bonus tracks at the end), and a separate playlist for the runners-up.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The 100 Best Songs of the 2010s (11-20)

Now we're in the top 20 best songs of the decade...

(Click here for the whole list so far, with a Spotify playlist.)

20. Tame Impala — "Let It Happen"

Here's the official video with a much shorter edit of the song — but you might not want to watch it if you have fear of flying!

The full version of the song (below) sounds at one point like a CD is skipping over and over. But Tame Impala finds beauty in what might seem to be a mistake.

19. Kimbra — "Miracle"

You might not recognize Kimbra in this video (musically or visually) from her song in my runners-up list, "Come Into My Head," or from her guest appearance in Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know."

(Kimbra alone in the park.)

18. Fiona Apple — "Hot Knife"

This song seems ridiculously simple, but becomes dizzyingly intricate.

The video was directed by P.T. Anderson, who also directed Boogie Nights (1997) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

17. Justin Timberlake — "Can't Stop the Feeling!"

A good pop song needs a good hook. A great pop song like this is nothing but hooks.

16. The Beach Boys — "That's Why God Made the Radio"

Jim Peterik, who wrote this gorgeous song with Brian Wilson and others, described its origins:

[Brian and I] were at an Italian restaurant and we were talking about radio and how great songs used to sound through the AM radio coming through your oval speaker on your Plymouth Valiant and I said, "Man, that was the best sound of all," and Brian said, "Yeah, that's why God made the radio." Of course, I wrote that down. He didn't realize how brilliant it was, or maybe he did, but that's when we wrote that song.

15. Grizzly Bear — "Sleeping Ute"

It's too bad there isn't a video for this song, which could have had a good video in a natural setting; the music is so evocative of exploring new surroundings.

14. Soundgarden — "Bones of Birds"

This is my favorite song from Soundgarden's last album before Chris Cornell's death at age 52.

(Here's a list of my 20 favorite Soundgarden songs, and my post about their commercial breakthrough album.)

13. Phantogram — "Same Old Blues"

One of the things that most interests me in music is a song's structure — the different sections and how they work together. Pop songs often have a predictable structure with a verse, then a pre-chorus, then the chorus as the catchiest part of the song, etc. I like how in this song, it's hard to label the song sections; no one part is the obviously catchy chorus that stands out from everything else, and yet it still feels like a pop song (albeit a dark one) with distinct, catchy parts.

(Album version.)


12. Beyoncé — "Love on Top"

One chord elevates "Love on Top" above most pop love songs ("Honey honey, I can see the STARS all the way from here…"). A similar chord change is found in the chorus of Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" ("They can feel it all OVER"). But Beyoncé makes it all her own. On top of that, the series of key changes in this song is stunning. Beyoncé is one of the great singers of our time.


11. Owen Pallett — "The Great Elsewhere"

The first lines are a take-off of Edwin Starr's "War":

What's it good for?

Absolutely nothing!

<— 21 - 30

Top 10 —>

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The 100 Best Songs of the 2010s (21-30)

Some of the best songs of the decade…

(Click here for the whole list so far, with a Spotify playlist.)

30. Taylor Swift — "Don't Blame Me"

(Rock cover with male singers.)

29. Foo Fighters — "Something from Nothing"

I like how the music reflects the song title by starting with almost "Nothing" (a lightly strummed guitar on its own) and gradually building up to "Something" …

28. fun. (feat. Janelle Monáe) — "We Are Young"

One of the anthemic singalong choruses of the decade.

(Live unplugged.)

(A cappella cover by Pentatonix.)

27. Billie Eilish — "When the Party's Over"

Billie Eilish is not yet 18 years old, but she's captivated the world of pop music. Her brother and collaborator, Finneas, wrote this song of haunting simplicity.

(Heavy cover by Our Last Night.)

26.  Mikal Cronin — "Turn Around"

I first heard "Turn Around" playing in a CD store, and I asked an employee what it was. He showed me the album MCIII, and I bought the CD on the spot. I had never heard of Mikal Cronin before, but this song was that good.


25. Arctic Monkeys — "Do I Wanna Know?"

One of the defining rock riffs of the decade.

(Dua Lipa turns it into a piano ballad.)

(Reggae cover by Groove Da Praia.)

(Classical version by the Vitamin String Quartet.)

24. Portugal. The Man — "Feel It Still"

(Cover with female singers.)

23. Black Pumas — "Colors"

They're new, and they're great. This song is from their 2019 debut album.

22. Tori Amos — "Shattering Sea"

What's so amazing about really deep songs?

(My blog tribute to Tori Amos.)

21. Beck — "Dear Life"

This feels like it could have been one of the Beatles' piano-driven songs by Paul McCartney, like "Lady Madonna" (which was already a retro song inspired by Fats Domino).

<— 31 - 40

11 - 20 —>