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bronzed shoe statue

A statue honoring Muntadar al-Zaidi, the guy who threw a shoe at George W. Bush, recently built in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. (via Eyeteeth)

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The first day of winter was December 21, 2008. The last day of winter will be March 19, 2009. So we’re more or less in the middle of winter. Yet today, the high temperature here in Miami is 81 degrees, and the humidity right now is hovering close to 90%. It’s hot and sticky, and this is just not right.

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Instructions for celebrating the Chinese new year.

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Notes on torture

This episode of the Diane Rehm Show was billed as, “a look at how the Barack Obama administration may modify or dismantle anti-terror tools adopted under President Bush,” but ended up being a completely predictable discussion about torture. Mark Thiessen, a Bush staffer, argued that “the program” is completely responsible, the people behind it are “heroes,” that it was applied to an extremely small group of people, and that it saved thousands of American lives. detainess at Guantanamo Bay Mike Posner, of Human Rights First, gave the canned “we don’t have to sacrifice our principles to keep ourselves safe” argument. And reporter Jess Bravin should have played referee, but was just a little too careful and didn’t have nearly enough to say.

What struck me was something that was never directly acknowledged in the conversation. All three commentators seemed happy to conflate two different questions: “Should we torture?” and “Does torture work?”

Thiessen claimes that in fact there are situations where standard interrogation techniques simply do not work, and in those cases the extended techniques often produced results. Posner claims, as do so many others, that in addition to all the other reasons for which they are deplorable, that the so-called extended techniques in fact do not produce results.

What became clear is that in fact the evidence is not conclusive about whether torture does, at least in some cases, get people to reveal information that they otherwise would not. This super-important point really ought to have been the pivot of the entire conversation, and future conversations about this should be framed thus:

There is a lot of stickiness about the legal definition of torture, and about just what exactly the US does and how often, and about what is routine and what is reserved for extreme cases, and it all gets unpleasant very fast. But the unpleasantness is no reason not to keep the issues straight, and to keep the argument clear. And in this we have been failing, and we need to try harder. We need to get some sort of definite handle on how effective different techniques are, and then move on resolutely to the ethical and practical issues.

* It’s interesting that these conversations often revolve around something that gets called the Jack Bauer exception, raising the separate issue of whether a situation presented not just in a hypothetical, but in an actually fictional account, ought to be relevant to this sort of national discourse.

Posted: Thursday January 29, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [6]

 

The New York Times floats the idea of turning newspapers into non-profit organizations. Nice idea, which I liked even more when I had it, back in 2005. Also find if funny that the New York Times would be mentioning this idea at this particular time, when Michael Hirschorn just reported in the Atlantic that there is a small but not indistinct possibility of the Times going out of business, perhaps as early as May. (Thanks, Squathole)

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Pompous vs. full of yourself

There’s a subtle but significant distinction between being “pompous” and being “full of yourself. By way of example, James Lipton is pompous, but not so much full of himself. In contrast, Thomas Friedman is full of himself, but not necessarily pompous. (Not that both guys are not, in their own way, great.)

Posted: Monday January 26, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

A completely unexpected argument about Billy Joel. I’ve read the Chuck Klosterman article, and while it was fun to read, I don’t care about Billy Joel either way, and I don’t understand why these people are so worked up.

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“In business, we like to convert time to money, and the reverse. But in practice, time and money are different. We can get more money, save it, move it between accounts and use it on demand. These operations don’t apply easily to time. … You can’t earn an extra hour to use on a busy day.” — Reid Hastie’s article about meetings in the NY Times

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Great moments in post-modernism, pt. 2 (Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car)

We all have our concerts we regret missing. That one amazing show we knew we should go to but ended up missing for whatever reason… for me it was Alice Cooper when I was in high school, but most especially Zoo TV. This is the story of three U2 albums: Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. If you knew me at the time, and you got me started about U2, you’d hear my analogy between the Beatles and U2. How each had their “black and white” phase, both sonically and visually, and how their overwhelming popularity pushed each group to really explore and experiment (unlike lesser acts, who’s success forces them to retreat and to try to repeat the formula that brought them the success).

Achtung was U2’s Sgt. Pepper (simultaneously a complete break from their past work and a complete masterpiece), Zooropa was their Yellow Submarine (even more experimental, but also more hit-and-miss), and … well, at some point U2 went “back to their roots” (ie stopped being interesting), but not before releasing Pop, an album which requires a whole shift in paradigm to understand. So now hear this:

And remember, power moves aren’t about being cool, they’re about being awesome.” (That may be the worst possible episode of The Show to start with if you’ve never seen one before, btw.)

So, over the course of these three albums, U2 stopped trying to be cool, and started to concentrate on being Awesome. The awesomeness is pretty evident on Pop, with unabashed songs like Discothèque and The Playboy Mansion. The attempt to be cool (i.e. detached, in contrast to their earlier earnest work) is in effect from start to finish on Achtung Baby — in fact, it’s what distinguishes it from the ultra-sincere previous studio album, The Joshua Tree.

Musically, Zooropa is the least successful of the three albums. It finds the band in its most experimental and exploratory phase, and the duds come as fast as the successes. But none embodies everything that is right with this period of U2’s music better then “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.” One of the things that’s cool about the song is that it doesn’t even have a proper video; it lives on only as an album version and several live permutations. The basic one is above. Check out how the staging had evolved in short order:

Now we’ve got Bono, in full-on lead singer parody, singing the first verse to himself in the mirror, in some sort of Satan’s dressing room. If anyone’s keeping archetype score, don’t forget Pink from The Wall here. OK, but let’s get to the heart of what’s great here. It’s how directly the faux-nihilism of the concept of the song leads to its greatness. The second person — the “you” of the song — is held in utter contempt by the song’s narrator. Yet the staging, and the setup of the song, makes clear that the “real” singer has at least as much contempt for the “narrator.” The whole thing twists back on itself, and nobody ends up guilty except maybe the un-self-conscious pop star that Bono mocks.

After all that, it’s almost unnecessary to examine the formal qualities of the song itself, but let’s run through them anyways. Refer again to the music-only version of Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car. We open with a bit of obligatory static and some classical music (I don’t even have to refer to my CD sleeve to tell you that this sample was credited simply to something called “Lenin’s Favorite Songs,” in a transparent bit of liner-note showmanship). What follows sounds novel even today, despite being built out of fairly mundane sonic blocks.

The cry-cat effect, in evidence on various guitar parts from all over this era, finds its way to the snare in the main bit of the song. (In technical terms, the effect emphasizes frequencies that are higher the louder the input is. Compare the snare on the first part of this song to the guitar on Mysterious Ways to hear it.) After that, the song is largely built on the bass part. Sonically heavily compressed, the sound is nonetheless a tribute to Adam Clayton’s oft-overlooked creative force.

We get a few other keyboard/sampler sounds, but the only other distinguishing sonic feature is the lead vocal’s reverb advance/retreat. I’m not sure how conscious the untrained ear is to this, but this song is an early blatant example of a lead vocal that vacillates between dry and wet (echoy) sonics for emotional effect.

During the chorus, in the live version, the monitors flash “A-HA” and “SHA-LA,” in bold all-caps, a tongue-in-cheek “This is a Pop Song” deceleration. This is not unimportant, because it marks the single most conceptualized point in U2’s career. It’s the most “meta” they ever got, and maybe the most “meta” any pop star can ever get. Nothing before or since had tried as strenuously to deconstruct (and perchance to mock) the relationship between the cult-of-personality of a music star and the idol-worshiping ID of the pop music fan.

And maybe it’s just as well. Pop is a better album overall, and mines a similar territory, but the emotional space of the narrators of Staring at the Sun and even Last Night on Earth is much more familiar then that of Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car. Mostly forgotten, the song deserves its place as the marker of the most self-consciously and deliberately detached narrator in the pop canon.

Posted: Friday January 23, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [3]

 

I’m having a big argument over at Mustang Bobby’s site about Timothy Geithner and his ‘innocent mistake’.

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Everyone has been on the edge of their seat waiting to hear if Obama would be allowed to keep his Blackberry. The Answer: he gets a brand-new, customized Blackberry with a “super-encryption package.” (via rainey305)

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Artist Neville Gabie has spent the first of 4 months at the Halley Research Station in Antartica. He’s making great one minute videos there and posting them to tumblr. The one of him suiting up to go outside is appropriate for this, one of the coldest days of the year here in Miami, when the high is expected to be 63° F. (via Tomorrow Museum)

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Thoughts on coming Barack Obama presidency

This is the first time in my life that the guy I was rooting for became president. I liked Barack Obama from the get-go. I was rooting for him before Iowa, when there was an 8-person slate of Dem. candidates. Not particularly optimistically, but he was the guy I’d have picked, and somehow everyone else agreed with me. And as I’m sitting here on the eve of the inauguration, I wanted just to explain why I like Obama. What I told people was that he was the guy most like me that was running, but of course that’s just silly. There’s also the idea, attributable to someone or other, that a random person plucked from the populace would make a better president than any random person who was elected, and Obama seemed the closest to that “random person” then any other politician in striking distance. But this too misses the real essence.

What it comes down to is that Obama seems like the guy, when all is on the table, that is really best for the job. Clinton got the job through sheer political craftsmanship. Regan got it because people liked him, brains be damned. The Bushes got it through the unrelenting power of political connections. But Obama got the job just by straight-up being the best damned guy for the job. (The annoying smart guy, as Jay so lovingly put it.)

I’ve got no illusions — in 8 years you people will elect another idiot. We’ll continue to have mostly less-then-ideal presidents. Hopefully after 8 years of GWB we’ll no longer believe, as I used to, that who’s president isn’t really of that much consequence.

So do this with me. Let’s revel, just one last time, in the sheer breadth and scope of the badness of the George W. Bush presidency. Let’s pick a topic at random. International relations, science, civil liberties, bleh bleh bleh… let’s go with Bush’s relationship with the press:

OK, we’ve got that out of our system. Now, let’s welcome our new president. If all goes according to plan, you can watch the inauguration right in this little window, courtesy of Hulu. See you on the other side!

Update: Jay on inauguration day, just as I was raggin’ on him.

Update: Bleh, Hulu’s on autoplay, and it’s got crappy FOX news. Try MSNBC, or see Jason’s guide.

Update: Viva Obama.

Update: Text of the speech.

Posted: Monday January 19, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

Weekendly clickables VI

Posted: Sunday January 18, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

ISLAM: The Way of Life of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.” So read buses running in Broward County right now. (Here is a photo.) A fairly idiotic statement, considering Islam was founded hundreds of years after Jesus lived. But whatever — 1st Amendment, and all of that, right? Well actually, yes. We can take some comfort in hearing that the best person the Sun Sentinel (and the Herald) could find to speak in favor of pulling the ads is one Joe Kaufman, who “once called for nuclear attacks on Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq” and “wrote that ‘pure merciless force’ was the only way to deal with Muslims.” Nice to see that censorship has such a transparently nutcase spokesman. Not particularly related: atheist bus ads in London.

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Malcolm Gladwell at the 92nd Street Y

Malcolm Gladwell gives a preview of his new book, Outliers. The book has been getting mixed reviews, but on the basis of this discussion I think I’m going to give it a whirl. (If you’re watching, you’ll want to skip to about the 5 minute mark, where the talk really begins.)

If you haven’t read much Gladwell, I’d of course recommend starting with The Tipping Point. See also the archive of his writings for the New Yorker and his infrequently updated blog.

Update: Oh look, the first chapter of Outliers is online.

Posted: Thursday January 15, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

Critical Miami says: time to buy

About three years ago,* I advised everyone in Miami to sell their house, pocket the money, and wait a couple of years:

[F]ind a moment (and find it soon), to sell your house, put your stuff in storage and rent an apartment for a year (maybe two or three), then buy your house (or one similar) back, for a maybe $200,000 profit.

So, here we are, three years later. Neverminding for now that the housing market took the whole economy with it, let’s see what the smart money’s up to these days. I work up early this morning to cook up a graph for you people, with data from the trusty housingtracker.net:


Housing asking price median, 2005 - 2008, $425,000 - $260,000

I chopped the bottom half of the graph to make it more dramatic — the housing is in the tank. This graph actually understates the situation, because it’s showing asking prices, not sales prices. I should also say that during this period, housing inventory in the area went from 12,000 to 50,000.

Now, listen carefully: it’s time to go shopping. Remember the factors that led to the bubble? Idiotic interest-only mortgages, gross overbuilding, and what seemed like terrifying hurricane seasons as far as the eye could see. The picture today? (1) mortgage idiotics universally recognized and being dealt with to the tune of trillions of dollars from the federal government, (2) overbuilding spectacularly finished, and (3) relatively calm winds for the last two seasons. To boot, (4) an incoming president that everyone seems to think Can Fix Things.

Respectively, these factors mean: (1) lots of money for people to borrow to buy homes being injected straight into the economy’s mainline, not the least of which is near-zero interest rates, (2) there are more unocupied homes now then they will be for probably another decade, (3) people will begin moving to Miami in droves again, and (4) the economy is ultimately about mood and expectations, and both are in the process of getting a major boost.

So, what’s the smart money doing? Maybe not buying a house or condo today, but it’s starting to look around. It’s checking out the listings, and getting a feel for the market, and planning on buying something pretty damn soon. I’d say sometime in the next six months. I know the right edge of the graph still looks like a plunge, but the thing is that while the economic recovery will be slow and steady, the housing market will recover probably first with a sudden upward jerk in prices. And if you wait for that first jerk up, you’re going to be one of the droves of people entering the market, and you won’t get the really good deals. The time for those is now.

* Actually, check out this post from June 2005.

Posted: Wednesday January 14, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [10]

 

January Artwalk

January Arthop

Not related to the Artwalk, but by my place on the beach, Shakespeare Miami was performing what sounded like a very decent version of MacBeth. Wow. Now, on to the show.

January Arthop

At Locust Projects, Loriel Beltran stripped down all the walls, then thin-sliced the painted layers and meticulously stacked them onto boards. This one, built from a wall that had been painted red sometime in its past, evidences a slight pinkish tone. Not pictured, the patched remains from the wall where Jen Stark’s piece had once been installed.

January Arthop

In the project space, Mike Swaney’s zany installation.

January Arthop

Agustina Woodgate’s titanic hopscotch game winds through Wynwood. There were actually quite a few kids at the artwalk this month, which was sort of fun.

January Arthop

Wendy Wischer’s installation in the project room at Castillo.

January Arthop

These are just the normal murals we have here. Programming note: when I have my new camera, things like this will be in focus. Whatever; this is a 2/3 second exposure.

January Arthop

The $499 art sale at Spinello, replete with price tags on every item.

January Arthop

A little samba band perfrorms in front of Artformz. Seen but not photographed: Abby Manock’s Counters at Gallery Diet, a mesmerizing video and exhibition of props used in its creation.

Posted: Monday January 12, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

You can order supplies of Carmex in the original glass jars directly from the company (but supplies are running low). (via TaulPaul)

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For those of you who enjoy voting in online polls, I hesitatingly point out the Post of the Month poll over at South Florida Daily Blog, wherein my Art Basel photo post is somewhere in the runnings.

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The BennyHillifier replaces the sound of any YouTube video with Yakety Sax, which for some reason is almost always an improvement. Try it with 100 faces, South Park’s history of the USA … even Chris Matthews becomes bearable. (via ArtFagCity)

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“Paranoia is just another word for ignorance.” Hunter S. Thompson motivational posters.

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This is the funniest thing I have heard so far this year.

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A fitting near-conclusion to a disgraceful history: AOL shuts down scores of user websites with minimal warning. And Jason’s right — everyone spending hours and hours on Facebook is risking the same fate. There need to be laws for how sites hosting user content are shut down, just as there area laws governing physical evictions. (via Waxy)

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New Year's Day Absinth

New Year’s Day Absinth. I have no idea why they’re spelling it without the ‘e’ at the end. A Czech historical glass I got as a present from my parents. 50mm, f1.8, off-camera flash. Scratched up table. Bourgeoisie clutter.

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