Morning Music: A Big 10-8 Place

A Big 10-8 Place - NegativlandNegativland’s third album A Big 10-8 Place is widely considered their first great album. A lot of it is reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Revolution 9.” But I’ve always thought of that as Lennon trying to do Stockhausen without actually understanding Stockhausen. Negativland are fully in the tradition of musique concrète, but from a pop music standpoint. This is especially true on tunes like A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One. But that tune is pretty subtle.

Similar, is the other long song on the album, 180-G, a Big 10-8 Place, Pt Two. It is a 15 minute long sound collage with directions on getting from San Francisco to Concord (the band’s home town). But I must admit, having grown up here, I don’t much follow the directions. They talk excessively about “180 and the letter G.” I don’t know what they mean. Hwy 180 is down by Fresno. But it’s not supposed to make sense. There are various other aspects of the directions like, “You’re going to have to shoplift.” It’s an amazing piece of music. Do check it out.

I really want to introduce you to “Clowns and Ballerinas.” But I don’t want to give you the wrong idea of Negativland. Then again, I’m not sure it is possible. It’s like the blind men and the elephant. Negativland is so many things all at once. And the best thing to do with them is to listen to a whole album — or at least an album side. The first side of A Big 10-8 Place starts with “Theme from a Big Place” then goes into “A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One” and ends with “Clowns and Ballerinas.” So I’ve made a playlist so you can listen to the first side of the album. I think you will see what I mean — how it works as a whole better than it does as a collection of songs:

Anniversary Post: SS Ideal X

SS Ideal X - Container Ship

On this day in 1956, the SS Ideal X was launched. It was the world’s first successful container ship. Actually, before that, it had been an oil tanker from World War II. But it was purchased by Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and converted into a container ship. It carried 58 containers. Compare this to the biggest container ships today that carry in excess of 10,000 containers. It is truly remarkable.

Now the Ideal X was not the first container ship. That would be the Clifford J Rogers. But I don’t think that’s quite fair, because it didn’t transport the standard twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers. And the whole purpose of container ships is that they are standardized. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be important.

If you are an American and you are out of work, it is probably because of container ships. Well, not completely. There are lots of political reasons. But without container ships, those wouldn’t matter that much. Think of the total crap that comes to this country from China — things like toy rings that kids get in gumball machines. The only reason that it is profitable to make this junk is that the transportation costs are greatly reduced. Container ships allow that.

All this talk of globalization being about allowing companies to get the cheapest labor is true. But if it was expensive to transport the goods, it just wouldn’t happen. And one thing you will notice is that America still does a fair amount of manufacturing of cheap stuff. It is just that it is on a small scale. It might be reasonable to produce a million plastic rings in China, but if it is only 100,000, the transportation costs make it cheaper to produce here.

I certainly think that container ships have had a far bigger effect on the world than computers. And of course, if resources were shared somewhat equitably, container ships would have been a much bigger benefit to everyone. Instead, they have more or less facilitated taking money from the poorer people in the developed world and giving it to the poor people in the developing world. And that’s overall a good thing. But along the way, it shouldn’t have been that the rich have simply gotten unimaginably richer — largely because of a technological advance that they had nothing to do with.

Happy birthday container ships!

The Scam of the Interactive Commercial

Interactive Commercial

Every time I lie down on the couch and put on Hulu to watch Bob’s Burgers, I get that screen asking me if I would like to have a very quick interactive commercial or a much longer string of normal commercials. It’s really annoying for a number of reasons. But the main reason I do nothing is that it would require that get up every five minutes to interact with the computer. I’m relaxing, watching Bob’s Burger’s for Christ’s sake. I can put up with the commercials. I don’t want to jump up all the time just so I don’t have to watch a few extra commercials.

But there is more to it than that. I’ve done the interactive commercial in the past. And it has been a nightmare each time. For one thing, they make it very confusing. It isn’t a thing where they ask you if you’d if you like golfing and then tell you to buy a particular putter. Now, it is, for example, a film trailer. There is a 30 second countdown. But there’s also a “close” button. If you use it, it starts the whole thing over with a new 30 second clock. But once you figure out that you shouldn’t do that, I guess it is okay.

The whole thing is meant to confuse you, however. There isn’t really much in the way of interaction, other than the fact that you do have to interact with it. If you just let it go on, it will never stop. At the end, you are in a loop like in a DVD menu. And you are left in that state, you may think you can click “close” because that’s the only thing that makes sense. Instead, you have to click something on the screen. The “close” button doesn’t go away after the 30 seconds transpire. You have to click something and only then will the button appear that allows you to get back to Bob’s Burgers.

Another interesting thing about it is that the “normal commercial break” is never the two minutes they claim. On average, it is about 1:15. And sometimes, it is less. Sometimes there is no commercial break at all — it just goes right back to the show. So over all, the best the interactive commercial does is cut your commercial time in half.

It’s worse though! It takes time for the interactive commercial to load. And then, it takes time to “interact” and click the button to return to the show. But even more frustrating is that the interactive commercial has crashed on me twice, causing me to have to start the entire show over again. So in addition to not getting such a great benefit, the interactive commercial offers the potential for television viewing catastrophe.

There is something else about the whole process: the choice screen itself. You have to wait for 15 second to make your choice. Those who want the interactive commercial, can just click and get rid of it. So I suppose that works in its favor. Hulu is willing to slow down normal viewers just for the opportunity to get people to use their interactive commercial. This annoys me even more. But on top of this, we have a man’s voice that is distinctly louder than the show telling us that we have this great opportunity to “interact” and get “right back” to the show.

This is the kind of short-term profit thinking that defines the modern world. And it makes me just want to wait until the whole season is available on Netflix. But I do continue to watch it, because it is Bob’s Burgers. But that’s all I watch; I don’t stick around for The Simpsons anymore.

Morning Music: Negativland’s Points

Negativland - PointsNegativland’s second album, Points, goes more in the direction of pure sound collage. It’s really remarkable stuff. Listening to it, I try to remember what technology was available. It was 1981, so it was mostly tape recorders and analog synthesizers. I’m on record as being against synthesizers from the early 1980s, but this is because it was when the digital ones came out. And so you got a lot of stuff that all sounded the same. But analog ones had been around for a long time and people did different things with them. Negativland did a lot of interesting stuff on Points.

The song I want to highlight is quite odd for the album, “The Answer Is…” It sounds like they discovered their grandmother’s electric organ. And, in fact, I’m sure that’s exactly what they did. But it just goes to show that you can do great work with any tool at all. But in addition to sounding like a little concert in your grandmother’s living room, there is a little bit of Ronald Reagan saying, “The problem isn’t being poor, the problem is, um, the answer is…” They cut it there. It’s perfect because that was generally the answer that Reagan had.

Remember, this album came out in 1981. It was probably recorded shortly after Reagan was elected. What a great way to come into adulthood! Looking back, it’s so embarrassing. Reagan really was a mediocrity in all ways. This song is a great tribute to him. Anyway, check this out. It’s probably unlike anything else you will hear this week, month, year.

Anniversary Post: the Spanish Speaking Wars

Mexican–American WarToday, we get a twofer. On this day in 1846, the Mexican–American War started. And also on this day but in 1898, the Spanish–American War started. Okay, that’s not exactly true. In 1846, the first battle of the Mexican-American War — the Thornton Affair — took place. Effectively, Mexico had declared war two days before. The US Congress didn’t declare war until 13 May. The US Congress actually did declared war against Spain on 25 April 1898. Spain had declared war two days before.

What I think is interesting about these wars is that growing up, I didn’t really know what the difference was between them. They were just these minor wars fought against Spain in different countries. Well, that’s not exactly true. Mexico was independent from Spain by that time. But it was close enough. And more important, these wars weren’t minor. Tens of thousands died in both.

Spanish-American WarThe Mexican-American War started after years of tension following the Texas Revolution in 1836. And specifically, there was a dispute over where exactly the border was. The war became much broader than this, and Mexico ended up losing almost all of what is today the western United States. Just the same, I think this would have happened regardless. The history of Texas shows this: the Texas Revolution really wasn’t a revolution. It was more Americans flooding into the territory, staging an armed revolt, and eventually becoming a state.

The Spanish-American War was pretty much just the end of the Cuban War of Independence. It is definitely a war that we shouldn’t have fought. Basically, the Democrats and various business interests pushed President McKinley into it. The sinking of the USS Maine certainly added fuel to the fire. No one knows for sure the cause, but one thing is for sure: Spain didn’t want the United States entering that war. So I suspect that it was just an accident that was used — just like today — as an excuse for those who thought they would profit — politically and economically — from the war.

Both of the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War could have been avoided. But the push for war is strong. There is something about humans that makes us want to lash out rather than reflect. And one thing is very true: it is a lot easier to whip up people into a frenzy of anger and fear than it is to calm them. And the ultimate geopolitical outcomes are more or less what all parties knew they would be — bigger, better equipped armies almost always beat smaller, less equipped armies. But in the process, people die. Lots of people.

We mark the anniversaries of these two unfortunate wars.

The Myth of Supply-Side Economics Carries On

Supply-Side Economics Fantasy

The graph above is taken from Jared Bernstein’s article in The Washington Post, A Graphical Assault on Supply-Side Tax Cuts. I had to change it quite a lot to make it fit the format of this site, but the original graph included the text, “Note: The data in this chart are not real.” That’s important to remember. This is what we would see in economic data if supply-side economics worked.

The graph shows that as you decrease the top marginal tax rate, the growth of the economy increases. And on the other side of things, as you increase the tax rate, the growth of the economy decreases. This is really very simple. And we hear almost nothing but this kind of supply-side economics from conservative politicians. They claim that their tax cuts for the rich are going to stimulate the economy.

This is the argument of the supposedly reasonable Republican, John Kasich. His vague tax plan is supposed to create a 3.9% growth rate. The last time we saw this kind of sustained growth rate was during the dot-com bubble. But it is amusing that Kasich offers such an exact number. Jonathan Chait mocked it perfectly, it is “way more responsible than those crazy 4 percent growth promises made by Jeb Bush!”

But there’s a larger issue that I’ve been talking about for a while. Who cares what happens to GDP? We are all aware of the following graph from Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel. My question continues to be: why do we still pretend that we are living in that 1948-1973 period? Productivity does not help out workers, so why should workers continue to care that GDP is going up?

Productivity Wages Divergence

Jared Bernstein provided a counter to the first supply-side economics fantasy graph. He did it with six graphs of actual data. He looked at: employment, investment, productivity, real per capita GDP, real median income, and real per capita revenue. In all cases, the graphs show the same thing: a small correlation in the opposite direction. That is to say that in as much as the data indicate anything, it indicates that higher top marginal tax rates are good for the economy.

Here is the data for real per capita GDP growth — pretty much what the fake data above was supposed to represent:

Real Per Capita GDP Growth vs Top Tax Rate

Bernstein is clear that this doesn’t prove that raising top tax rates will improve the economy, “But the fact that the simple empirical record is uniformly hostile to the supply-side story should put the burden of proof squarely on those arguing that supply-side tax cuts will be pro-growth.” And he ends with a nice comparison of the employment growth in Kansas versus that in the surrounding states since Kansas got on board the supply-side train and provided massive tax cuts to the rich. The result: Kansas has seen 0.8% growth while the nearby states have seen 1.7% growth — over twice as much.

Like most conservative policy, supply-side economics lives on because conservatives want it to live on. Every even remotely good idea that conservatives have had has been co-opted by the Democratic Party. So the Republicans really are left with nothing but bad ideas — at least when it comes to the economy. But supply-side economics is just comical. But as long as the media continue to allow politicians to get by with these outrageous claims, we will continue to hear the claims.

Even after his ridiculous claims about 3.9% growth due to tax cuts to the rich and unstated deregulation to The Washington Post, they wrote, Republicans Don’t Like Kasich Because he Sounds Like Obama. As Dean Baker noted, the paper was making a claim about Kasich’s tone, not his policies. Of course, reporters don’t actually know what kind of temperament that politicians have. “They should be sharing this information with readers so that they will understand that Mr Kasich is making promises that are out of touch with reality.” Instead, we hear about how calm he is.

Meanwhile, he’s allowed to use supply-side economics to say that he will growth the economy at 3.9% per year based on no evidence at all.

Morning Music: A Musical Genius Dies

Richard LyonsI know a lot of you are really saddened by the death of a music legend last week. So I figured that we should commemorate Richard Lyons’ death by listening to a week’s worth of Negativland.

According to Rolling Stone, Richard Lyons had been fighting cancer for over 12 years. He had a very aggressive kind of skin cancer, which sucks, given that most forms are relatively trivial. He apparently did not suffer much. But he was only 57.

Richard Lyons formed Negativland in 1979 with his high school friend Mark Hosler. They lived just down the road from me in Concord. The band itself is normally described as “experimental.” That’s true, but doesn’t mean all that much. But you just have to listen. Some of it is hard to call music at all. Their focus has always been on sound — not that there is too much of a distinction there.

It’s hard to know where to start with Negativland. The first self-titled album is fascinating. It’s a sparse combination of music and found sounds. Some of it reminds me of stuff that Laurie Anderson would do later. For example, “4” (all the songs on Negativland are simply numbered) reminds me of Example #22. I hear a lot of things that remind me of other music — stuff that comes both before and after — but it’s hard to put my finger on it exactly. Overall, the effect is riveting.

I can’t find individual tunes from the first album. So I’ve embedded the whole thing. It’s worth listening to. But I’ve cued it at “6.” I don’t have much of a reason for doing it, other than that it is the only song that has what could be called lyrics. And they include the oddly hilarious, “Seat be sate; play Black Sabbath at 78.” The lines are delivered by David Wills, the third founding member of the band.

Anniversary Post: Library of Congress

Library of CongressOn this day in 1800, the United States Library of Congress was established by the Adams administration with a grant of $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” and for renting and decorating a room. It’s grown a bit beyond that today. But the basic idea is very good — typically, it was one of James Madison’s. This used to be an idea that wasn’t controversial. You know: Congress needs to know stuff.

For most of our history, we saw Congress accruing more and more things to help it do it’s work — most especially staff. But in recent decades, this has been cut back. You know, we can’t spend actual money! As a result of this, more than anything else, our laws in Congress are now primarily written by lobbyists. This is even more true at the state level. This is what we in the business call “short sighted.”

So Congress (and other legislatures) don’t have to pay direct costs to get legislation written. Instead, it pays thousands of times more to special interests cutting in special deals for themselves, which both cause them not to be taxed as much and to be given more money directly. Ever wonder why Exxon and GE never seem to pay taxes? They’re just getting paid back for all the help that they provide Congress!

There is no doubt that today, the Republicans would never agree to fund the Library of Congress. The party, and the conservative movement more generally, has become totally anti-intellectual. This is what happens when your ideas just don’t stand up to scrutiny and you are unwilling to do anything about your bad ideas: you just ignore everyone who isn’t ideologically committed to your ideas. I understand why one would be a conservatives. I do not understand why one would support the Republicans at this time. It just isn’t rational.

Happy birthday Library of Congress!

Jared Bernstein’s Terrible Sentence

Jared BernsteinThis is the first post that I’m going to write about Jared Bernstein’s article, A Graphical Assault on Supply-Side Tax Cuts. Tomorrow, I will discuss the economics of it, because it’s great and important. But today, I want to talk about writing. In particular, I want to look at a single sentence that he wrote. It really is terrible.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to beat up on Bernstein. All of us who write a lot write a lot that is bad. And generally, people don’t have editors to improve their work. And when they do, the editors don’t have enough time. And that’s on top of the writer not having enough time. This is the age of content creation — it’s all about quantity. Quality matters only so much as it needs to be good enough. But I didn’t create this age; I’m just living through it. And if you want to look at things from a positive standpoint, given the lack of resources (time most especially), the level of writing is amazingly good.

But this sentence made my stomach clench:

I and many others have spent years debunking this unfortunate yet highly influential theory, but let’s begin by noting that reasonable people make the reasonable argument that, under certain conditions, a tax cut that raises the after-tax wage or lowers the after-tax cost of capital could boost the supply of these critical variables, increase growth, and spin off some revenues.

This is a paragraph badly disguised as a sentence.

I run into this kind of sentence from otherwise good writers all the time. I run into this kind of sentence in my own writing. Generally, first drafts of writing are like speech. And so you often find a first draft riddled with these highly circuitous sentences. It’s because the writer is trying to find what they want to say. After several tries, I figured out that all Bernstein is trying to say is, “I fully admit: sometimes tax cuts partially pay for themselves.” But he gets lost with phrases and clauses so complex that people are confused before he gets to his main point.

Note that this isn’t just confusing because he’s talking about an arcane subject. Let’s rework the sentence with my favorite non-technical subject:

I and many others have spent years debunking this unfortunate yet highly influential preference, but let’s begin by noting that reasonable people make the reasonable argument that, under certain conditions, mint ice cream that cleanses the palate or refreshes the senses could supply these wanted attributes, taste good, and be worth buying.

It’s still a mess, even though it’s easy to figure out that the writer is arguing that while mint ice cream isn’t very good, it might be all right under certain circumstances.

I was quite accurate when I wrote above that it was a paragraph disguised as a sentence. And this is a critical issue in writing. You can get as complicated as you want, but people need to be fed one idea after another. This is why sentences need to be relatively short. And this is why they need to be linked.

Here’s my rewrite of Bernstein’s monstrosity:

I and many others have spent years debunking this unfortunate yet highly influential theory. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to it. So let’s begin by noting that under certain conditions, a tax cut that raises the after-tax wage or lowers the after-tax cost of capital could boost productivity. And that increased productivity could result in more tax revenue.

Note that I couldn’t save “reasonable people make the reasonable argument.” Unless you are being poetic or funny, you have no business writing a clause like that. Note also that I had to do a lot of rewriting at the end. The sentence falls apart — appearing to be a list of three things but really being just two things that Bernstein thinks are “critical variables.” I’m sure he will be embarrassed if he ever rereads that article. Because I like him, I hope he never does.

As I’ll discuss tomorrow, the disclaimer really isn’t even necessary.

Anniversary Post: New Coke

New CokeOn this day in 1985, Coca-Cola introduced what became known as New Coke. But before I get to that, it is also the 11th anniversary of YouTube. I find that hard to believe. Even though 11 years is a long time, and I was on the internet for almost two decades before it appeared, it seems like YouTube was always with us. It’s hard for me to imagine life without it.

What I most remember about New Coke were the Bill Cosby ads. He had been the main spokesman for Coca-Cola. So I figured that when New Coke came out, they wouldn’t use him — at least at first. But no! They came right out with commercials of him saying, “Now you know me: I always loved Coke for years and years. I like this Coke better!”

Well, the New Coke was just a sweeter Coke. It tasted more like Pepsi. And at that point in my life, I liked the sweet taste of Pepsi. As I recall, I liked New Coke more than Pepsi. Now, I can’t drink Pepsi — it’s ghastly. What was soon to be called Classic Coke and now is just Coke, really is far more drinkable. But I don’t much drink any of it. I’m more a tea and beer man now.

The story of New Coke is that the original soda was losing market share to Pepsi. In blind taste tests, people did prefer Pepsi. So Coca-Cola decided to change the taste of the drink. This is a great example of how supposedly smart people often don’t know what they are doing. They should have know that people’s preference in soda (and pretty much everything else) is not rational. People didn’t make a rational choice between Coke and Pepsi.

So Bill Cosby lost that gig. But on the upside, he had more time to drug and rape women.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

Romy and Michele's High School ReunionI watched Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion last night for the first time since it was out — almost two decades ago. My response to it this time was exactly as it was the first time I saw it. It’s an incredibly funny and charming film. At the same time, it’s a structural mess. About 50 minutes in, the film inserts a ten minute long dream sequence. That’s a little strange, but it’s followed by a non-dream sequence that is, if anything, more unbelievable. I remember when first watching it thinking that it too was a dream sequence.

This is all unfortunate, because the screenplay does an admirable job of tying up loose ends. I think the problem is that the second act depends upon Romy and Michele having a fight, and it is hard to imagine the two of them staying mad at each other. Hence: a dream sequence! In the reality of the film, the two only manage to stay mad at each other during the end of the drive to the reunion. The moment that Romy finds herself in an embarrassing situation, Michele runs to her assistance. And that is the heart of the film: the strength of these two women’s friendship.

Although both Romy and Michele are airheads, they are also classic nerds. As many of you know, my definition of a nerd is someone who is so interested in whatever they do that they don’t realize how uncool they are. All the two of them are aware of is that they are not part of “the A group,” but it doesn’t occur to them that they uncool. And that’s good, because they are cool. They are having a good time doing what they enjoy. For me, the high point of the film is when Michele (the more clueless of the two) tells Romy:

I never knew that we weren’t that great in high school. I mean, we always had so much fun together. I thought high school was a blast! And until you told me that our lives weren’t good enough, I thought everything since high school was a blast.

And in addition to everything else, they are very creative. For 12 years and probably more, they’ve been designing and sewing their own clothes. That’s where the nerd factor really comes in because that is an activity that is unusual, but which seems to them like fish to water: of course they would make their own clothes. It doesn’t matter to me, but being a movie, they must get social acceptance for it, so the Vogue editor compliments them, “They have nice lines. A fun, frisky use of color.”

There are lots of other aspects of the film. All the nerds triumph in life while while the cool kids mostly don’t. And there is the fact that everyone is horrible to each other — even the heroines. Although it is hard to see it as serious. For example, the two of them make fun of the film Pretty Woman, but Michele cries at one point, “I just get really happy when they finally let her shop.”

But the main aspect of the film besides friendship is female empowerment. Even star quarterback Billy Christensen is subordinate to mean girl and alpha A group member Christie Masters. But even nerd turned billionaire Sandy Frink is just there for plot purposes. Once Romy and Michele get in his helicopter, you don’t even see him. And at the end, although he has loaned them the money to start their own clothing boutique, he’s nowhere to be seen. It is just Romy and Michele and the foul-mouthed, chain smoking, cynical Heather Mooney (Janeane Garofalo) buying probably the first piece of non-black clothes in her life. As Michele says, “For me, it’s like I’ve just given birth to my own baby girl, except she’s like a big giant girl who smokes and says ‘shit’ a lot. You know?” I do. These two are more iconic than Thelma and Louise.

Anniversary Post: In God We Trust

In God We TrustOn this day 152 years ago, Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1864. This was when Congress decided it was really, really important to print “In God We Trust” on our money. And why was it so important? Well, for three-quarters of a century, the Christian fanatics had been complaining about God not being mentioned in the Constitution. And so every time something bad happened, they started screaming about how the United States had offended God. It was just like today only not nearly as bad.

In 1864, the Civil War was going on. And that had nothing to do with slavery and economics and all that. No, it was just that God was unhappy. So to pacify the crybabies, Congress passed the law and put “God” on our coins. Because, you know, there is nothing that says “Jesus!” like money.

Then, in the midst of the Cold War, in 1956, “In God We Trust” replaced E pluribus unum as our national motto. Today, of course, conservatives would be outraged that America was pandering to people in Latin America and Spain. But then it was all about the Soviet Union being filled with Godless communists where as we were a “nation of believers.” So we got rid of the truly profound notion of “Out of many, one.” And we replaced it with, “Hope for the best!”

So we mark the anniversary of one of Congress’ more minor betrayals of the founding principles of this country.