Archive for October 2009
For some years, my spouse has had The Dixie Cups’ Iko Iko on her iPod. It’s the version from the movie The Big Easy, and was first recorded back in 1965. I moved it to one of my playlists recently, but decided to see what I could find out about the song. I ended up spending an entire evening studying the fascinating history of Iko Iko.
Despite what my ears had been hearing, the song is not traditional or a child’s nonsense song but rather is from 1953, written by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford. The lyrics, at least at their simplest level, are about the Mardi Gras “clubs” and their competition. “Spy boy” and “flag boy” are rolés in Mardi Gras tribes or clubs. The rest is Cajun patois and no one, not even Sugar Boy Crawford or Dr. John, knows what it means.
The Dixies Cups recording was mostly an accident. As Dixie Cup Barbara Hawkins tells it, they were in a New York City studio for a recording session when they began an impromptu version of Iko Iko, accompanied only by drumsticks on a coke bottle. Hawkins said, “We were just clowning around with it during a session using drumsticks on a coke bottle. We didn’t realize that Jerry [Leiber] and Mike [Stoller] had the tapes running.” The tape happened to be running and session producers Leiber and Stoller added bass and drums and released it.
There have been at least two lawsuits over the song. Crawford sued The Dixie Cups, settling for a 25% royalty. And The Dixie Cups sued their former manager, Joe Jones, and successfully established he had no rights to the song.
It’s been covered by dozens of acts, ranging from New Orleans artists like Dr. John and Buckwheat Zydeco, that you might expect, to acts like The Grateful Dead to Warren Zevon, Cindy Lauper and Dave Matthews. A search of the song title on iTunes turns up 45 versions. Not bad for an extemporaneous song recorded in 1965.
All of which points to two conclusions.
1. There is a fascinating history around the most pedestrian things. For example, what sounds like a child’s nonsense rhyme can involve sex, alcohol and Mardi Gras. And litigation.
2. I really need to develop intellectual self-discipline.
Book Review: Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee
Lots of writers have tried to convey Alaska to non-Alaskans. Few have succeeded. Those who have are the ones who have chosen to illustrate small parts of the larger whole, and selected the right parts. Margaret Murie comes to mind. But 18 years on, Coming Into the Country is still the best.
I own and have read everything McPhee has written. I subscribe to New Yorker mostly for the annual or biennial piece by McPhee. I like the geology series very much, and parts of Birch Bark Canoe still make me laugh out loud, but Country is his best book.
McPhee’s many gifts including finding and understanding interesting, compelling people, and writing about them eloquently and non-judgmentally. He uses those people and what they say to convey his larger themes. Stan Gelvin and his dad, Willie Hensley and, of course, the folks in and around Eagle. He somehow wrangled a seat on the state capital relocation committee’s helicopter. He somehow charmed the irascible Joe Vogler into candor. I talked with Vogler – who has since been murdered in a gun deal gone bad – about McPhee’s interview, and he told me that McPhee took no notes during interviews over a week, and yet “pretty much got it right.”
I’ve lived in Alaska most of my life. I’ve read the gushy stuff (Michener, for example), the political diatribes (Joe McGinnis, for example), and the gee-whiz tourist fodder. McPhee, instead of trying to paint the whole state, paints a series of miniatures which give you a much accurate glimpse than the writers and hacks who try to “describe” Alaska.
Maybe it’s that America’s best non-fiction writer brought his special tools and skills to the right opportunities; maybe it’s just luck. It all came together in this book. The last bit, his walk down to the river and the growing worry, verging on panic, that this is wilderness, that a bear could be around the next corner, that he is not in control and can never be in control; the eloquence and the message are what makes Alaska. No one has described it better.
If you want to try to understand Alaska, its people, its politics and why I live here, this book is the best place to start. This book is a great writer’s greatest book.
Book Review: Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett
The wizards of Unseen University, a portly and elderly group used to five meals a day (not counting the Cheese Cart), have discovered that one of the grants that supports UU requires them to participate in a football game, on pain of loss of funds. Faced with the alternative of a vegetarian diet, even UU’s Wizards understand they must assemble and mount a team. Which gives Terry Pratchett an excuse to do for team sports what he has already done for banking (Making Money, the postal service (Going Postal), newspapers (The Truth), overheated patriotism (Jingo) and religion (Small Gods), along with an impressive list of other subjects. Sports get the Pratchett Treatment: it’s held up the fun house mirror that is the Discworld, giving us views and glimpses of ourselves that we would otherwise never see. And another chance to laugh ourselves silly.
Delightful (and less delightful) new characters are introduced, including Nutt, a young … person of mysterious origins; Glenda Sugarbean, the night cook at UU who has other talents; Trevor Likely, who can kick a tin can in amazing ways; and Juliet Stollop, the beautiful, if dim, UU serving girl. And there are appearances by the usual UU faculty – except the Dean; don’t ask about the Dean. When you add Veterinari, Lady Margolotta from Uberwald, and even Rhys, the Low King of the Dwarves; well, you have a feast for connoisseurs of of the Discworld and a fine introduction to those who are new.
Unhappily, other reviewers seem to insist on reviewing this novel through the prism of Sir Terry’s illness. Famously, and I am happy to say, very publicly, Sir Terry has a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It has affected his ability to type but not, patently, his ability to write. This is an excellent Pratchett. It’s easily good enough that his fans will argue about whether or not it is one of his best.
And in that regard, consider the title of my review, a phrase uttered by Veterinari near the end of the novel. The Patrician is disappointed that he cannot hire Glenda Sugarbean as his cook but, he notes, “What is a pie to a happy ending?” Each new Discworld novel is a delight, a surprise and a blessing. A new Discworld story is a Happy Ending in itself. In the case of Unseen Academicals, it also happens to be a wonderful story, exceptionally well told. I am inexpressibly pleased to report the Master is still in the House.
Very highly recommended.
It appears that Sarah Palin received the $1.25 million as an advance for her book more or less at the same time she decided to resign.
Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of probabilities. – Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Feel free to make draw your own conclusions.
I went to law school in Cook County, Illinois. One of the inadvertent lessons I was taught was to be deeply suspicious of law enforcement. Lessons began on arrival: the first thing I saw, before even getting out of the taxi from the airport, was a Chicago Police Department cop taking a bribe for fixing a parking ticket. The following year, when Big Jim Thompson was U.S. Attorney and trying to clean up Mayor Richard J. Daley’s corrupt regime, every cop – every single cop, from the precinct captain to the lowest patrolman – at the Chicago Avenue Precinct was indicted and convicted of soliciting and receiving bribes.
The Center for Wrongful Convictions at my old law school was founded long after I had left. Supported by the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern’s School of Journalism, they’ve proven the innocence of some 11 people, some of them sentenced to death. Their work persuaded an Illinois governor to suspend indefinitely all executions. My distrust of law enforcement and the proven track record of the Center have led me to make charitable contributions to the Center for some years now. And don’t get me started on the death penalty.
But the prosecutors and cops are apparently tired of being proven to be incompetent. The Center has submitted strong proof to the Cook County Circuit Court that Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a security guard in 1978, is in fact innocent of the charges. Instead of addressing the merits of the evidence, or, better still, admitting they might have made a mistake, the Cook County state’s attorney has subpoenaed the school records of the journalism students, seeking their investigative memoranda, e-mail messages, notes from multiple interviews with witnesses and class grades.
The excuses offered by the District Attorney are silly and lame. The guilt or innocence of Anthony McKinney doesn’t turn on student grades. This is intimidation, pure and simple. This is a patent effort to discourage the Medill Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. It’s Chicago Machine politics at their worst: “get in my face and I’ll make you regret it.”
I don’t have a lot of faith in the judicial system in Cook County, either. Big Jim Thompson put a lot of trial judges in jail, too. But I hope the trial judge quashes the State’s subpoenas and sanctions the State’s attorney. I hope, too, that this blatant attack on the innocent and those who support them sparks enough public outrage that Cook County law enforcement learns to put its efforts into prosecuting the guilty, and not jailing the innocent. Or attacking those who try to repair the damage that has been done by clumsy law enforcement.
You know. Truth and all that.
Maria is easily the most famous Giant Antpitta in the world. Despite the species being rare and reclusive, photos of Maria are all over the internet.
That’s because Maria is food-conditioned. When Angel Paz, owner of Paz de las Aves, leads a group of birders a half mile down the muddy trail on his hillside property, and calls out softly, “Maria, venge,” she emerges from the understory. It’s almost magical, how quickly she moves. And she accepts chopped up giant earthworms as her reward.
Just how food-conditioned? She’ll take an earthworm from the hands of a stranger. Maria isn’t “tame.” She’s a wild creature. But she is conditioned to respond to Angel’s voice. The promise of earthworm’s has overcome her inherent shyness.
Ordinarily, I oppose feeding wild animals. It usually ends badly, almost always for the animal; sometimes for people. In the early 1970′s, Stony, a handsome young grizzly, used to help folks at Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park eat their lunches. One day, when someone refused to share their lunch with Stony, he helped himself. A tourist got mauled and Stony got shot.
But Giant Antpittas aren’t big grizzlies, and Ecuador is impoverished and, except for the extraordinary Galapagos Islands, has no tradition of parks or preserving wilderness. What Maria does, in return for Angel’s training and a few earthworms, is feed Angel and his family. Angel, unlike his neighbors lower down the road, is highly motivated to preserve the cloud forest on his property. He doesn’t cut it down to graze cattle. Angel’s children clean the mud off of visitors’ boots for a small fee. Angel’s wife, sister and brother-in-law serve tea and traditional cakes to the customers. There are modest souvenirs for sale. As a result, Angel and his family have a better house, a propane stove and a nice used car. More, Angel, for a fee, has accepted apprentices, and taught them how to do what he has done.
Birders will come and pay his $5 admission because otherwise their chances of their finding the rare, skulky Giant Antpitta in the jungle are very nearly zero. Maria prospers; heck, one of her kids is now food-conditioned as well. Angel demonstrably prospers. And precious wild jungle is preserved by people who would otherwise slash and burn it for pasture. Even if Maria’s loss of fear ends up getting her killed, perhaps that’s an acceptable price in these perilous times. If hundreds of hectares can be kept intact, maybe everybody wins.
If Angel’s neighbors see that intact jungle can be more valuable than grazing cattle on stripped land, that’s a good thing. If Angel continues his training of apprentices, who apply the same technique to other hard-to-find birds that birders will pay to see, it may be an even better thing. If local people can learn that wilderness has value, it’s a start.
New York Times reporter Andy Revkin’s innovative Dot Earth blog is one of the best assemblies of climate and population data on the Web. I’m a big fan, and comment there from time to time. Revkin spoke recently to the Woodrow Wilson Center on the impact of population growth on climate change. He suggested, as a thought experiment, financially rewarding families who have fewer children.
Rush Limbaugh, never one to debate the merits of an issue when he can make a personal attack instead, called Revkin an “environmental wacko” and a “jihad guy.”
This guy from The New York Times, if he really thinks that humanity is destroying the planet, humanity is destroying the climate, that human beings in their natural existence are going to cause the extinction of life on Earth — Andrew Revkin. Mr. Revkin, why don’t you just go kill yourself and help the planet by dying?
Limbaugh’s attack on Revkin is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy.
The ad hominem fallacy was described – probably not for the first time – by Aristotle. It’s a logical fallacy. Essentially, instead of attacking or debating the issue, the speaker attacks the person raising the issue. It’s an attack on the messenger instead of the message.
For example, if I were to say in response to Limbaugh’s statement that you should ignore him because he is a ex-junkie, a pompous, pill-popping, obese idiot, I’d be engaging the in ad hominem fallacy myself. It’s undeniably entertaining, and the statements may even be true, but it is irrelevant to the issues under discussion. It’s a change of focus that abandons the primary topic. It’s admittedly entertaining, and since Limbaugh is in the business of being entertaining, it suits him well. But don’t mistake it for debate. Or intelligence. Or logic. Or useful political discourse.
Revkin’s correct response should be to point to the fallacy. In a lot of ways, a debater who resorts to the ad hominem fallacy is admitting he or she has no logical response to the primary argument of his or her opponent. The planet is undeniably badly over-populated. By all science tells us, the earth cannot sustain 9 billion people for long. Limbaugh couldn’t rebut the point. So he attacked Revkin instead.
It’s always tempting to respond to an ad hominem attack by defending the speaker. The personal attacks are almost always unfair. I believe Revkin to be about as fair and balanced a newsreporter as there is. And certainly much better informed than Limbaugh. But if you defend the individual, you are falling for the fallacy. Interestingly, NPR makes this mistake. The speaker is not the issue; the issue is the issue. The best response is always to drag the focus back to the topic, away from the speaker.
So long as we let the Glen Beck’s and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world get away with the fallacy, they will use it. And political discourse will continue to suffer as a result. We have to call it out each time it happens.
But Wickersham’s Conscience has friends who are honeymooning in SE Asia. Those friends dined last night with one of the investors who “enjoyed” a private dinner with the Ex-Gov and the Ex-First Dude. Their report:
- At Caribou Barbie’s lunch speech, close to 40% of the hall emptied out, insulted at the banality.
- Apparently those who stayed did so only because they were stuck in center seats.
- At the end, she would take one question only, a slow pitch right over home plate, delivered by the head of CL Hong Kong, her inviter. The investors were furious.
- At the private dinner, Todd never once opened his mouth, not even to exchange a pleasantry. Sarah was asked her opinion on Afghanistan, and what her opinion was of Mr. Obama’s policies, his troop build-up there and so on, her response was “Afghanistan is very difficult, and it’s important.”
- Asked then about China, and US relations with same, her response was “China is very important – it’s important to understand China”.
- Asked then by the one woman in the dinner about domestic policy, she responded that it was important that sex education be left outside schools and relegated to families.
- Asked about how she could reconcile the Republican Party and her avowed claim as being for small government, when the legacy of the Reagan through Bush administrations was the size of the national debt; first her adviser jumped in and said that wasn’t fair, that she couldn’t be blamed for prior administration’s misdeeds; she then both proceeded to lay blame on Reagan as well as GWBush for mis-spendings, but then praised Reagan as being her role model.
- Her responses being as limited in scope and depth as they appeared to be, there then was a collective understanding of the dinner party to switch to a kind of talk-show format, and the next questioner asked her how she felt when first being approached by the McCain party to be considered for the job. Ms. Palin lightened up and recounted “Oh, I was at the mall with three children and I thought it was a question about Track and Iraq and we were really excited and it was such an honor and…” and she went on and on for some ten minutes describing everything up until her arrival in Phoenix….
In the words of my honeymooning friends, the ten persons at that dinner may be different from you and me. They may not be persons you like. They may not be persons anyone likes. They do, however, represent not tens, but hundreds of billions of dollars of investment capital. The decisions they make on where and how to place their investments, for better or worse, redound to the world you and I live in, and the decisions they make are predicated on the information they receive from interactions like those with the Palins.
The impressions they received at this dinner was that the United States came quite close to having as its #2, and possibly #1, someone who demonstrated no ability to express thoughts, someone with no ideas of her own, someone whose understanding of global affairs or economic realities is at the high school level.
My friends conclude: Now, of course Sarah Palin did not become elected and she is not responsible for our government’s decisionmaking….but the extent to which she remains as a force in the US’s political future is the extent to which these investors, having seen her in action first-hand, and the colleagues with whom they confer and whose insights they listen to, will deal with United States and our investment possibilities – including the US dollar – with caution, at best, in the years to come.
Speaking for myself any my fellow Alaskans, I am mortified.
Sarah is looking for work. She’s posted her resumé on LinkedIn. Oddly, Sarah omitted any reference to her speaking skills in her resumé. So to help all those prospective employers, here’s the Ex-Gov’s response to Katie Couric’s question to her about the federal bailout package:
That’s why I say I, like every American I’m speaking with, we’re ill about this position that we have been put in. Where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Um, helping, oh, it’s got to be about job creation, too. Shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions, and tax relief for Americans, and trade — we have got to see trade as opportunity, not as, uh, competitive, um, scary thing, but one in five jobs created in the trade sector today. We’ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All of those things under the umbrella of job creation.
(Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of the VP candidate did not have to change a single word. Fey won an Emmy using Palin’s own words, spoken in Palin’s own cadences. Fey even got the “deer in the headlights” eyes right.)
One last caution to all those prospective employers: she’s been known to quit with little notice.
I received a comment (to a different post; I don’t accept posts on Commentary pieces) from an anonymous reader (I have readers? Who knew?) this morning. Anonymous accuses me of being “too hard on Sara [sic].”
Am I being to tough on our quitter ex-governor? Do I unfairly accuse her of taking silly positions? Of staking out incredible claims without the slightest research? Of being shamelessly opportunistic and laughably clumsy at the same time?
It’s true, I accuse her of all that and more.
Am I being unfair? She has thrust herself – and works very hard to keep herself – in the public eye. She seems to crave the attention. She’s a kind of reverse Cassandra: everything she says is wrong in one or more fundamental ways.
So, no, I don’t think I’m being unfair. All she has to so is keep quiet. Or simply publish a well-reasoned, well-researched article. Until then? Fair game.
The Anchorage Daily News reports today that our ex-gov posted on Facebook Tuesday, telling the President this is “not the time for cold feet, second thoughts, or indecision.” She urges him “to act as commander in chief and approve the troops so clearly needed in Afghanistan.”
You can practically watch the neurons fire, can’t you? She’s thinking, “my constituency supports the troops, so I’ll be popular if I support the troops.” She sees no irony in urging others to “stay the course” when the biggest single decision she’s made in her life was to quit.
Most Americans have different expectations of their commander in chief. We want him to consider carefully the best path, to make a prudent, reasoned effort to identify a course of action best for our country, before exposing more soldiers to hostile fire. Some us remember Vietnam, where we allied ourselves with a venal, corrupt, election-stealing regime and spent the lives of 54,000 soldiers.
And Sarah continues to suffer from something like poor impulse control or attention deficit disorder. Relying upon leaked reports that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has argued that success demands a substantial expansion of the American presence, up to 40,000 more troops, without actually reading that leaked report, she jumps to the conclusion that it’s 40,000 troops or lose. Even McChrystal’s boss, Gen. David H. Petraeus, hasn’t supported McChrystal.
But Palin saw a chance to attack Obama. Never mind nice talk about supporting the President in times of war. Never mind possessing all the facts. Never mind history. Speaking of history, Sarah, Question: Who was the last general to successfully prosecute a war in Afghanistan? Answer: Alexander the Great, 324 BC. Think about it.
Wow. A lot of thunder and smoke about a perv who couldn’t abide by his sworn testimony to the court, and ran away.
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed–
BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead.
- Christopher Marlowe, “The Jew of Malta,” Act IV, Scene i, ll 40-42 (1589?).
Is it the most appropriate use the State of California’s limited resources? Probably not. But should he get off because he is rich, or a great artist, or it was a long time ago, or “the wench is dead”? Also probably not.
The Cubs went meekly, losing the final game of their season to the Snakes. They finished 7.5 games behind the Cards, and at 83-78, only five games above .500.
So Taguchi drops a fly ball © Paul Beaty, Associated Press / October 4, 2009
As the temperatures drop and the skies get darker, I can only think of the late Bart Giamatti’s lines from The Green Fields of the Mind:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
Precisely correct. For the 102nd time, “Maybe next year.”