Sunday, May 31, 2015
A girl I went to high school with spent a semester in Australia. She must have blossomed there, for when she returned home, she magically had an Australian accent. Predictably, we would have none of it. Kids might be cruel, but they also have great bullshit detectors. Nobody likes a phony — not even in Middletown, Maryland. The accent receded; the mockery endured.
This, I suspect, has always been the case. But at least since the invention of Holden Caulfield, phoniness has been the unpardonable sin. Meanwhile, authenticity has become our greatest virtue. . . .
We just spent a week celebrating the career of David Letterman, a man whose entire raison d’être consisted of being the first post-modern late-night comedian — a guy whose humor hinged on being in on the joke and ironic (not like all the phonies on TV at the time!).
This, of course, brings us to Hillary Clinton, and her fake Southern accent. There might have been a Southern accent where Tom Petty came from, but there wasn’t one in Illinois or New York (you know, the places where Clinton grew up and represented in the U.S. Senate?) . . .
The revolt against the phoniness of American life goes back to at least the 60s, which is why it’s odd that Hillary Clinton is so transparently engaging in “show business.” But for Generation X, in particular, the ethos of authenticity practically defines our generation. It’s why Kurt Cobain in a cardigan was cooler than KISS in makeup. It’s why single camera sitcoms with laugh tracks (once wildly popular) now feel so damned cringeworthy. It’s even why John McCain, with all his flaws, seemed much cooler than George W. Bush in 2000. . . .
[T]he GOP (should they nominate someone like, say, Marco Rubio) has a chance to actually “out-cool” Hillary.
(That video is from 2007.)
"The Second Avenue subway is the only line in the city that doesn’t have rats — yet. They move in when the people come and leave trash."
(Warning: That's a New York Times link which could affect how many NYT articles you can read this month.)
Saturday, May 30, 2015
Joseph R. Biden III, the former attorney general of Delaware and the eldest son of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., has died of brain cancer. . . .I remember being touched when Vice President Biden, in the 2008 vice presidential debate, alluded to the fact that he, Sarah Palin, and John McCain had sons who'd been deployed to Iraq (transcript):
Mr. Biden’s death marks a second tragic loss for the vice president, whose first wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident in 1972 when the station wagon they were driving in to go Christmas shopping was hit by a tractor-trailer. Beau Biden and his brother, Hunter, were also injured in the crash, but both survived." . . .
In a short, emotional speech introducing his father at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Mr. Biden recalled the tragedy that had touched his family, describing the moments after the crash.
“One of my earliest memories was being in that hospital, Dad always at our side. We, not the Senate, were all he cared about,” Mr. Biden said. “He decided not to take the oath of office. He said, ‘Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can’t get another father.’ However, great men like Ted Kennedy, Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey — men who had been tested themselves — convinced him to serve. So he was sworn in, in the hospital, at my bedside.”
We measure progress in America based on whether or not someone can pay their mortgage, whether or not they can send their kid to college, whether or not they're able to, when they send their child, like we have abroad — or I'm about to, abroad — and John has as well, I might add — to fight, that they are the best equipped and they have everything they need. And when they come home, they're guaranteed that they have the best health care and the best education possible. . . .Joseph "Beau" Biden kept serving as Delaware's AG while serving in Iraq.
May God bless all of you, and most of all, for both of us, selfishly, may God protect our troops.
(Photo via Brian Frosh, cropped by Wikipedia.)
The FBI and a few other federal agencies spent almost two years on a bumbling investigation of whether there was "obscenity" in the lyrics to "Louie Louie."
This is a good reminder that government restrictions on free speech are bad not only for all the obvious reasons, but also because enforcing those restrictions uses up a lot of money that could have been spent on something more important.
The singer, Jack Ely, died last month at age 71. The New York Times reports:
Jack Ely would later insist that as a 19-year-old singing “Louie Louie” in one take in a Portland, Ore., studio in 1963, he had followed the original lyrics faithfully. But, he admitted, the braces on his teeth had just been tightened, and he was howling to be heard over the band, with his head tilted awkwardly at a 45-degree angle at a single microphone dangling from the ceiling to simulate a live concert.
Which may explain why what originated innocently as a lovesick sailor’s calypso lament to a bartender named Louie morphed into the incoherent, three-chord garage-band cult classic by the Kingsmen that sold millions of copies, spawned countless cover versions and variations, was banned in Indiana, prompted the F.B.I. to investigate whether the song was secretly obscene, provoked a legal battle and became what Frank Zappa called “an archetypal American musical icon.” . . .
The F.B.I. began investigating after an Indiana parent wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964: “My daughter brought home a record of ‘LOUIE LOUIE’ and I, after reading that the record had been banned on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.”
The F.B.I. Laboratory’s efforts at decryption were less fruitful. After more than two years and a 455-page report, the bureau concluded that “three governmental agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 r.p.m. to 78 r.p.m.”
[Richard] Berry’s words, with a first verse that begins, “Fine little girl she wait for me/Me catch the ship for ’cross the sea,” are in fact completely benign. . . .
Asked to account for the song’s popularity, [Peter Blecha, a music historian,] replied, “You could dance to it, and as kids, with the rumors that there was something nefarious going on, you couldn’t grab our attention with anything better than that.”
(Note: That video shows a different singer, who replaced Ely — but he's lip syncing to the original recording with Ely's vocals.)
Saturday, May 23, 2015
In my mind, the country’s economic policies should have two main objectives. First, we should wish, in our rich society, for every person who is willing to work to receive income that will provide him or her a decent lifestyle. Second, any plan to do that should not distort our market system, the key element required for growth and prosperity.
That second goal crumbles in the face of any plan to sizably increase the minimum wage. I may wish to have all jobs pay at least $15 an hour. But that minimum would almost certainly reduce employment in a major way, crushing many workers possessing only basic skills. Smaller increases, though obviously welcome, will still leave many hardworking Americans mired in poverty.
The better answer is a major and carefully crafted expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which currently goes to millions of low-income workers. Payments to eligible workers diminish as their earnings increase. But there is no disincentive effect: A gain in wages always produces a gain in overall income. The process is simple: You file a tax return, and the government sends you a check.
In essence, the EITC rewards work and provides an incentive for workers to improve their skills. Equally important, it does not distort market forces, thereby maximizing employment.
The existing EITC needs much improvement. Fraud is a big problem; penalties for it should be stiffened. There should be widespread publicity that workers can receive free and convenient filing help. An annual payment is now the rule; monthly installments would make more sense, since they would discourage people from taking out loans while waiting for their refunds to come through. Dollar amounts should be increased, particularly for those earning the least.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Norm MacDonald closed his standup on the Late Show last week by saying this (via):
Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental. If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
[I]n 1980 the comedy world was a very different place. Yes, we had Saturday Night Live, but the original cast had departed and, strange as it sounds now, I felt as if that show had spent its explosive force. My early teen hero Steve Martin was done performing electrifying stand-up and was making movies—still hilarious but now an established show business franchise. Johnny Carson was only two thirds through his reign and at the time it felt as if he would always be with us—charming, poised, and stylish. Johnny was comforting and enduring—the guy you watched with your father.
And then it happened. It was a sunny morning during my senior year in high school. I was late for a 10 a.m. class, and I ran out the door of my parents’ home in Brookline, Massachusetts to jog the quarter mile to Brookline High. Just before the screen door slammed behind me, my sister Kate shouted from inside the house for me to come back. I dashed back inside and into the den, where Kate was sitting on the couch. “You have to see this guy,” Kate said, gesturing to the garish, wood paneled Zenith television from that era that looked more like a casket than a TV. I looked at the screen and immediately everything was wrong.
The guy didn’t look right. His hair resembled an ill-fitting vintage leather motorcycle helmet. His front teeth had a massive gap that looked almost painted-on as a joke. He was wearing the requisite broadcaster’s tie, but khaki pants and Adidas sneakers. His set looked wrong, as if he had thrown it together minutes before the show—strange photos of dogs decorated the wall behind him. And then there was his manner. His smile was not ingratiating, but mischievous and ever so slightly malevolent. He was not comfortable in his own skin at a time when everyone on television, by definition, was comfortable in their own skin. And on top of it all, he was doing a comedy show in the morning. What the hell? Who does a comedy show in the morning? What’s wrong with this guy? Who let this happen?
Like every comedian of my era, I watched Dave’s subversive, untamed morning show with delightful incredulity. The show didn’t last long, but quickly morphed into his late night program—and then Dave was really off to the races. Throughout college, everyone my age watched Dave and discussed his show the next day. The late night talk show had existed at that point for 30 years in more or less one form, but Dave and his writers completely re-invented the format.
Dave’s show was that rare phenomenon: a big, fat show business hit that seemingly despised show business. Dave didn’t belong, and he had no interest in belonging. He amused himself, skewered clueless celebrity guests, and did strange, ironic comedic bits that no one had seen on television before. Everything about that show was surreal and off-kilter. Where late night television had once provided comfort, this man reveled in awkwardness. Cher called him an asshole. Andy Kaufman ran screaming from the set. Chris Elliot lived under the stairs. Throughout one episode the entire show rotated a complete 360 degrees, for no reason whatsoever. By 1985, when I graduated from college and was ready to try my hand as a comedy writer, Late Night with David Letterman had been the Holy Grail for several miraculous years.
With time came those insipid Late Night wars and the ensuing media obsession over ratings and guests. Personally, I never cared about any of it. I never saw late night comedy as a cockfight—someone makes me laugh or they don’t, and whoever won Tuesday night is irrelevant. Similarly, when Dave became tabloid fodder because of his personal life, the whole story felt pointless and dreary.
So let’s keep it simple: Not one single writer/performer in the last 35 years has had Dave’s seismic impact on comedy. Every day, I read that a new comic has ‘changed the game,’ and admittedly there is an absurd abundance of talent and creativity out there right now. But in today’s world of 30 late night programs, it’s tempting now to take Dave for granted. Do not. Dave was a true revolution—and I believe his innovations are up there with the light bulb and the Twix bar. Like all revolutions, it was such a seismic shift that it was disorienting and a bit messy at first, and it has taken us time to realize the sheer magnitude of the shift.
And so, as Dave departs, I can’t help but remember that strange vision on my television way back in 1980. Immediately, everything was wrong, wrong in every way—and because it was so wrong the world since has been a better place.
(Photo by US Department of Defense Mass Communication Specialist, 1st Class, Chad J. McNeeley, cropped by Wikimedia Commons.)
I can only read the first paragraph of this article since I don't subscribe to Harper's, but I'd just like to say that this sentence captures something I've often thought about Obama, which has seemed so glaringly obvious to me that I've wondered if I'm crazy or everyone else is missing this or not willing to say it:
He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
I'll bet I know what song he's going to sing . . .
(Correction: I originally said he'd be the last guest — he'll be the second-to-last musical guest. Also, no guests have been announced for the last show, so there might be surprise guests.)
UPDATE: I was wrong:
Friday, May 15, 2015
B. B. King, whose world-weary voice and wailing guitar lifted him from the cotton fields of Mississippi to a global stage and the apex of American blues, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89.
It was reported on Mr. King’s Web site that he died in his sleep.
Mr. King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognizable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato, notes that coiled and leapt like an animal, and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love.
“I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions,” Mr. King said in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (1996), written with David Ritz.
In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (“I’ll still live on/But so lonely I’ll be”) — were poems of pain and perseverance.
The music historian Peter Guralnick once noted that Mr. King helped expand the audience for the blues through “the urbanity of his playing, the absorption of a multiplicity of influences, not simply from the blues, along with a graciousness of manner and willingness to adapt to new audiences and give them something they were able to respond to.”
B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a sharecropper’s shack surrounded by dirt-poor laborers and wealthy landowners.
Mr. King went out on the road and never came back after one of his first recordings reached the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1951. He began in juke joints, country dance halls and ghetto nightclubs, playing 342 one-night stands in 1956 and 200 to 300 shows a year for a half-century thereafter, rising to concert halls, casino main stages and international acclaim.
He was embraced by rock ’n’ roll fans of the 1960s and ’70s, who remained loyal as they grew older together. His playing influenced many of the most successful rock guitarists of the era, including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Clapton and King play his signature song, "The Thrill Is Gone":
King with John Mayer ("Every day I wake up, I put B.B. King on, just to remember how to do it right. . . . It's like stealing something from somebody right in front of them!"):
A sample of King's "How Blue Can You Get?" provided the chorus for the enigmatic 1996 song "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand" by Primitive Radio Gods:
Here's King playing it at Sing Sing Prison on Thanksgiving:
Now some videos for guitarists — King shows how he achieves his famous vibrato:
How his string bending was inspired by T-Bone Walker:
How he was influenced by two early jazz greats, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt:
King's "ambiguous third":
More from the NYT obit:
In addition to winning more than a dozen Grammy Awards (including a lifetime achievement award), having a star on Hollywood Boulevard and being inducted in both the Rock and Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, Mr. King was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, awards rarely associated with the blues. In 1999, in a public conversation with William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mr. King recounted how he came to sing the blues.
“Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon,” he said. “I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.
“I’d have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they’d say: ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.
“But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I’d make 50 or 60 dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.”
A Slate article from a couple years ago explains how they're like anti-vaxers:
Like most fringe groups, the anti-circumcision faction is almost comically bizarre, peddling fabricated facts, self-pity, and paranoia. The intactivists also obsess about sex to an alarming degree. Still, some of their tactics are shrewd. The first rule of anti-circumcision activism, for instance, is to never, ever say circumcision: The movement prefers propaganda-style terms like male genital cutting and genital mutilation, the latter meant to invoke the odious practice of female genital mutilation. (Intactivists like to claim the two are equivalent, an utter falsity that is demeaning to victims of FGM.)
Anti-circumcision activists then deploy a two-pronged attack on some of humanity’s most persistent weaknesses: sexual insecurity and resentment of one’s parents. Your parents, you are told by the intactivists, mutilated you when you were a defenseless child, violating your human rights and your bodily integrity. Without your consent, they destroyed the most vital component of your penis, seriously reducing your sexual pleasure and permanently hobbling you with a maimed member. Anti-circumcision activists craft an almost cultic devotion to the mythical powers of the foreskin, claiming it is responsible for the majority of pleasure derived from any sexual encounter. Your foreskin, intactivists suggest, could have provided you with a life of satisfaction and joy. Without it, you are consigned to a pleasureless, colorless, possibly sexless existence.
Intactivists gain validity and a measure of mainstream acceptance through their sheer tenacity. Their most successful strategy is pure ubiquity, causing a casual observer to assume their strange fixations are widely accepted. Just check the comment section of any article pertaining to circumcision. When Slate’s Troy Patterson wrote a piece thoughtfully weighing circumcision’s pros and cons, he was attacked for supporting a “barbaric practice” of “mutilation” that “ought to be illegal.” A lighthearted Dear Prudence column suffered the same fate. Intactivists pummeled the Amazon rankings of a book about the history of AIDS that mentioned circumcision as a proven preventive measure. Check any Internet message board and you’ll find the same ideas peddled as unimpeachable fact: Circumcision is amputation, a brutally cruel and despicable form of abuse. It damages penises and violates human rights. And it irrevocably, undeniably ruins male sexuality for life.
The problem with these arguments is that they’re either entirely made up or thoroughly disproven. None of intactivists’ cornerstone beliefs are based in reality or science; rather, they’re founded in lore, devilishly clever sophistry dressed up as logic. The facts about circumcision may be hard to find on an Internet cluttered with casuistry—but they are there. And they prove that even as intactivists dominate the Internet, the real-world, fact-based consensus on circumcision is tipping in the opposite direction.
Take, for example, the key rallying cry of intactivists: That circumcision seriously reduces penis sensitivity and thus sexual pleasure. Study after study after study has proven this notion untrue. Some men circumcised as adults actually report an increase in sensitivity, while many report no appreciable difference; virtually none noted any notable decrease. Men circumcised as adults also almost universally report no adverse effect in overall sexual satisfaction following the procedure. (That fits with what my colleague Emily Bazelon found when she asked readers for their circumcision stories a few years ago.) And genital sensitivity in response to erotic stimulation is identical in circumcised and uncircumcised men. Don’t trust individual studies? A systematic review of all available data on circumcision came to the same conclusion. Intactivists, then, aren’t disputing a few flimsy studies: They’re contradicting an entire field of research.
So much for circumcision’s supposedly crippling effect on sexual pleasure. But what about its effect on health? Intactivists like to call circumcision “medically unnecessary.” In reality, however, circumcision is an extremely effective preventive measure against global disease. Circumcision lowers the risk of HIV acquisition in heterosexual men by about 60 to 70 percent. And circumcision reduces HIV risk over a man’s lifetime, unlike condoms, which must be used during each sexual encounter. It’s no wonder that the World Health Organization has pushed circumcision as a key tool in the fight against HIV.
But that’s not circumcision’s only benefit. The procedure also protects men against a variety of other STDs, significantly reducing their odds of contracting herpes and syphilis. Moreover, circumcision is highly effective in preventing transmission of HPV in men, which in turn reduces their risk of penile cancer. And circumcised men are far less likely to contract genital warts* or develop urinary tract infections. Fewer circumcisions mean more STDs and infections—and billions more in health care spending.
As both a personal and public health matter, circumcision is clearly in men’s best interest. But intactivists, predictably, aren’t having any of it. Like anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, anti-circumcision activists reject all science that doesn’t fit their angry, victimized orthodoxy.
* I added this link to replace a dead link in the original article.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Monday, May 11, 2015
Friday, May 8, 2015
Measles is often painted as a trivial disease by the anti-vaccination movement. It is not – it kills or causes brain damage in two or three out of every 1000 cases, even in wealthy countries. Here's another reason it isn't trivial: having measles destroys your immunity to other diseases – and some of those are far more deadly. The upshot? Getting your child vaccinated will protect them from much more than just measles. . . .
The measles virus is known to kill the white blood cells that have a "memory" of past infections and so give you immunity to them. It had been thought that those cells quickly bounce back, because new ones appear a week or two after someone gets over measles. However, recent work in monkeys that have recovered from measles shows that these new memory cells only remember measles itself; the monkeys lose cells that recognise other infections. If humans get similar "immune amnesia" after measles, childhood deaths from infectious diseases should rise and fall depending on how many had measles recently, and how long the effect lasts. . . .
The prospect of a child losing its hard-won immunity to a host of threatening diseases might be the nudge some parents need to recognise that the measles vaccine is essential.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
On Friday David Brooks argued that costly big-government efforts to alleviate poverty haven't done much to improve conditions for those living in Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighbourhood where Mr Gray lived. "Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it," Mr Brooks writes. "[T]he real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighbourhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition." Ingrained codes of behaviour have "dissolved", he argues, leaving residents of impoverished areas "without the norms that middle-class people take for granted."
Paul Krugman is very annoyed by this line of thinking, though he does not mention Mr Brooks by name. "It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values," Mr Krugman writes, "as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values." According to Mr Krugman, thinkers like Mr Brooks have it back to front. The decline in values Mr Brooks laments is plainly a response to a hopeless lack of economic opportunity for the working classes. "[I]t should be obvious," Mr Krugman avers, "that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs."
This is an important debate, but it is not the debate to have now.
As much as they bicker, Messrs Krugman and Brooks both agree that just about any occasion can be used to mount a favourite hobbyhorse. Mr Brooks is ever on the lookout for a chance to push the all-important role of culture. Mr Krugman scans the horizon itching to point out "the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality". Culture and inequality certainly have something to do with the Baltimore riots, but Baltimoreans did not suddenly take to the streets to protest their poverty. They rose up to protest an apparently fresh instance of a very specific pattern of injustice. . . .
It is, in fact, a problem of both culture and inequality, but not as Messrs Brooks and Krugman are in the habit of discussing it. It is the problem of an insular, truculent police culture and the grievous harm it has done to the citizens the police were meant to protect. It's a problem of inequality under the law. In 2005 more than half of Baltimore's black men in their twenties were either in prison or on parole, according to one study. This is largely the consequence of tactics in the "War on Drugs", including changes in sentencing guidelines, which have disproportionately hurt young black men. . . .
So why are Messrs Brooks and Krugman using the occasion of Baltimore’s protests to squabble over whether values explain material conditions or material conditions explain values? There's a soft bigotry — let's call it the "soft bigotry of lazy abstraction" — in their indifference to the specifics of Baltimore’s problems.
Monday, May 4, 2015
Sunday, May 3, 2015
Friday, May 1, 2015
Ben E. King has died at 76. He was the original singer of "Stand by Me" (later covered by John Lennon), which he cowrote with the famous songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller.
But my favorite of his songs is "Spanish Harlem" (sung but not written by him):
The New York Times obituary quotes him:
“I still think my whole career was accidental. I didn’t pursue it. I feel like I’m cheating sometimes.”