Friday, 30 September 2011

Big Old City

Like the good Professor Crispy at one point,  I've been listening to a lot of Taylor Swift.  While some of her songs are pretty mediocre (not a huge fan of Picture to Burn, for instance), when she hits it she really hits it - none of that awful obvious autotune or lyrics that perform absurd contortions to fit the beat.  Also: she's practically the only pop artist left who hasn't flirted with dubstep.

Crispy thought it was a male child speaking to an abusive father - at the risk of some armchair psychology, that's probably projection.  The music video tells a different story: a girl in small-town America, weathering bullies and saving up for college; sort of like a mini it-gets-better campaign.  Is the young girl with short hair who applauds at the end a representation of Taylor herself, imagining the joys of city life (seen in the Chicago-esque stage and performance)?  Probably, yes.

Edited to add: after a few more listens, the 'child (of indeterminate gender) speaking to an abusive father' theory is starting to grow on me.  The references to alcohol, ranting in a bar, the probably-singular 'you' all conspire to prove me wrong.  My apologies, Professor.

Anwar Al-Awlaki Dead

Well, this appears to have happened at last.  Some choice quotes from the article:

He was one of the most dangerous men alive, apparently.

He was credited with inspiring or directing at least four plots on US soil in recent years - is that more or less than the FBI?

Now we know that his fingerprints are also all over failed plots to target British and European interests - well, uh, metaphorical fingerprints.  Rhetoric is dangerous!

The US president, Barack Obama, authorised a request to target Awlaki in April last year, making him the first US citizen to be a legal target for assassination in the post-9/11 years.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Trains on Time

Professor Crispy wonders how the media can so consistently fail to understand why people might be suspicious of government.  (There's a parallel here between this and continuously asking 'why do the terrorists hate us?', by the way.)  Well, I imagine for a certain sort of person it is genuinely difficult to conceive of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia as the same kind of thing as his country. 

If you live with sufficient comforts - police that tend not to harass you, steady employment or reasonable welfare payments, nice houses with nice neighbours - then that's what you associate with government.  The institutions of power can't possibly be killing people overseas; they're so friendly!  I don't believe that the cops unjustly killed that poor man; my uncle is a policeman and he would never do that.

Unfortunately, governments are not people, and the existence of a few good people somewhere in the vast hierarchy of control (Elizabeth Warren, maybe?) no more proves the overall benevolence of government than Oscar Schindler proves that the Nazis were pretty cool guys.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Single Voting Point

I know that I should stop reading the comments on Balloon Juice, but my god are they hilarious.  Some choice cuts:

Quit complaining about how Obama disappointed you and start making it possible for him to impress you. - Loneoak, #21, who is pretty impressive himself.

Fine, call it the fear factor, or hold your noses or any of those other arguments that you have to tell yourself in order to feel like you’ve taken the appropriate Brooksian arguments to their logical conclusion and face the unmitigated truth that the people on the other ticket are just flat out fucking odious and you wouldn’t even trust them to water your plants for a weekend much less watch over the country. - piratedan, #38, who used up his daily comma allowance in the first six words.

This is a process, not a single behavior in a single voting point at a discrete point in space and time. - gwangung, #41, who is missing the point.

And finally, from ABL herself:
there’s absolutely no question that both sides are beholden to corporate interests. the question becomes, which “corporatist” will work to advance progressive goals. the answer to that question is NEVER “a republican one.”

Can't argue with that!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Global Writing Outcomes

Over at Balloon Juice, Freddie deBoer writes a lengthy post about pedagogy.  Apparently the research shows that teaching grammar does not help people, uh, learn it.  As unlikely as that seems (certainly the smidgen of French and Latin grammar I picked up has been useful to me), I'm not going to question the veracity of said research; presumably they scienced their way to some kind of empirical truth.

Let me just point this gem out, though:  

Grammar instruction does not lead to better reading outcomes

This is the worst kind of jargon, especially egregious in a post about improving reading and writing skills.  Where does that word 'outcomes' come from? Whom does it serve? What is the difference between improved 'reading outcomes' and regular 'improved reading'?

Freddie's question isn't terrible - what should a teacher do to help kids with serious grammatical problems when the evidence suggests that direct teaching of grammar is useless? Teaching people is often impossible for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the student's own willingness to learn, and I think that anybody who makes teaching their job is brave (though perhaps a little quixotic). Still, if we want students to improve their, uh, local and global syntactical outcomes, we should probably stick to understandable English ourselves.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Now What I Spit; It's Medicine For The Sick

I had a dream last night that record stores sold poetry instead of music.  The plastic CD cases held little booklets of poems, neatly typed and set out.  Some of the poetry was written by a group of people, collaborating to produce a varied and eclectic collection of verses, while some was written by a single person.  Some of it was fun, upbeat poetry, with bouncing dactyls and light-hearted subject matter.  Some was depressing - ranging from self-pitying glurge to painfully honest expressions of existential angst.

People on the internet - regular people, not academics - had heated discussions about their favourite and least favourite poets, often descending into outright abuse.  The man on the television condemned the latest trend towards trochaic poetry, viewing it as an attack on the iambic foundations of art and civilization.  When a child poet burst onto the scene and captured a younger audience, fans of all kinds of poetry joined together to deride his work as mere doggerel, emblematic of the coarsening of poetic culture today.

Then I woke up.  Imagine if music was treated the way we treat poetry: relegated to the domain of prissy intellectuals and limp-wristed homosexuals, indicative of a weakness of moral character.  Imagine if people listened to and enjoyed music in their youth, but were expected to grow out of it when they became 'serious' adults. Imagine no public music: not in elevators, not in supermarkets, almost never on the radio.  Hip-hop is of course excellent, and I suppose that lyrics are a kind of popular poetry, but it doesn't seem like enough.  Millions of people are growing up without an appreciation of the beauty of language - without a sense that such an appreciation is desirable or even possible. What can we do about it?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Ron Paul Is Not a Libertarian

Or is he? Thanks to Clarissa for the idea - we'll see if it's a formula for guaranteed success.

There's a link up in the sidebar now (or will be soon) to the place where I write reviews about my city.  If you want to read more of my incredible prose style and piercing insights, you're clearly a person of calculated and discerning tastes, and your wait is over.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Growing Up, Nobody Ever Does

Why I would rather live in Seattle, part 86:

Notice the squeal of the beat at 42 seconds to emphasize base, and the kick drum making its entrance an instant later at the words kick drum (of course).  The real hook, though, is at 47 seconds, in the slight pause before bump:

Hot box, let the bass | bump.

I've bolded the accented syllables.  After the initial iamb - hot box - there's a breath over the comma before the anapaest - let the bass.  Two stressed syllables in a row breaks the flow of the line, so there's a second before Macklemore comes in with bump.  Not only does the pause work like a charm, metrically, but it also represents a bump in the rhythm of the line.  There are certainly other ways to flow - look at Aesop Rock, who is always an instant behind the beat and seems very happy to be there.  But you need a near-flawless rhythm to pull off subtleties like this - in a line full of little pauses and jars, a deliberate gap won't stand out - and Macklemore has it.

Perhaps this is a feature of Seattle hip-hop. After all, Geologic (of Seattle outfit Blue Scholars) has a similarly careful style. Unlike Geologic, though, Macklemore's delivery is highly-strung and emotional.  Such a combination of passion and skill is rare and valuable.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Penicillin and Anarchy

Anarchists tend to assume that the utilitarian argument goes their way.  The sheer number of deaths caused by wars between states is viscerally convincing: how, we ask, can anyone think that the modern state fixes more harm than it causes?  There’s a simple response to this.

What about penicillin?

The number of lives that penicillin and associated cheap antibiotics have saved is spectacularly high, especially in Third World countries.  You could mount an argument – not knowing the facts, I’m unsure as to the outcome – that penicillin, in some sort of macabre utilitarian calculus, is somehow worth the Holocaust and Hiroshima combined.

I’m not saying this poses an intractable problem to anarchism – after all, most anarchists don’t base their position on utilitarian grounds.  Autonomy is sacrosanct, a life saved does not outweigh a life taken, etc.  Still, it’s an interesting point, and one that robs the most confronting anarchist argument of some credibility.

Perhaps it’s possible to argue that most of the lives penicillin saves are endangered by state policies in the first place; that our modern state apparatus tends to fix some of its own problems and use that as justification for existing in the first place.  Without armed policemen, who will save us from thugs and bandits?  And so forth.  This seems more tenuous though.  There’s something about a list of the dead that brings out the rebel in all of us, the voice that says ‘this cannot stand’.  It’s harder to bring that rebel out in a debate about economic policy in the Third World.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Frail Deeds

From the excellent Slacktivist: "Every critique does not need to be accompanied by a fully realized alternative. The lack of such an alternative does not render the critique invalid, or insulate the thing critiqued from criticism."

Obviously he wasn't talking about anarchy - Fred Clark remains a lesser-evil supporter of the Democratic Party - but this applies totally to criticisms of anarchy that focus on the impossibility of living without the state.  If you're not going to criticize anything that's inevitable, what are you doing raging against the dying of the light?  If you're not going to criticize the unchangeable, why are you reading stuff like this?