length is tyranny

I am saddened that Morgan Tsvangirai is bowing out of the fight.I don’t really know enough about him to know whether he is the kind of guy I’d want running my country. But I know enough to know that I’d pick him over Robert Mugabe in a heartbeat. In fact, I’d take almost any non-dictator politician over almost any person that’s ruled my country for 28 years.

In fact, Mugabe (having ascended to the leadership of Zimbabwe as the hero of a democratic movement and the icon of a country’s aspiration to freedom) is a perfect illustration of history’s most commonly recurring lesson: a long tenure in power is by its nature an oppressive tenure in power.

Saw REM at MSG on TDN; it was TFA

That’s “Thursday Night” and “totally f*$%@!g awesome” if you’re wondering,

I was in a skybox courtesy of my employer. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, it was the first time in my adult life I was really proud of my employer. There were drinks. There was a bathroom. We were among friends (some of whom were quite young, I was happy to see, as a representative of the ancient, original generation of REM fans).

[incidentally: the openers were The National (previously unknown to me, whom I was pleasantly surprised to discover), followed by Modest Mouse, whom I usually don’t mind, but they sucked in concert.]

Two complaints about the skybox experience: (1) audio: why not turn a few of the speakers “upward” – it can’t be that hard to do. (2) visual (even easier): turn on those gynormous screens that are – hello! – even more necessary when you’re trying to look at the faces of three guys way in the back of the arena, way below you, in the dark, than, say, when it’s brightly lit and people are running around in numbered uniforms so you can keep track of them!

Well, actually it was five guys. They had two drummers who did a fine job, but I do miss Bill….

The content of the show, though, was very satisfying. The guys were in really good form. Michael Stipe’s voice was in fantastic shape. Strong, clear, melodic yet gravely. He was belting it out with more nuance and tonal richness than anyone has a right to expect in a stadium this big.

The images on the screen behind them were ok. Close ups of the boys and parades of political messages. I won’t comment on those. In any case, I don’t go to REM concerts for the light show – it’s not Pink Floyd. And speaking of politics, Michael did go on a bit… I tend to share his politics, and I like artists who care about shit, but I can’t handle them crossing the line to preachy. It’s a concert. Come on.

By far the best element was the set list. It was as close to ideal as an “originalist” can hope for from a band who, let’s face it, has some responsibility to their “mainstream” fans who have made them megastars.

One of my younger colleagues expressed some disappointment the next day at the breakfast bar. “I know they are promoting a new album,” she said, “but I was hoping for more old songs.” Here’s what’s funny: yes they sang almost everything that’s on the new album, but that was, like, 8 songs. Most of the nearly-thirty-song program comprised old stuff. GOOD old stuff! There was no crap form Up or Reveal and just one ballad from Around the Sun (“Leaving New York,” which I don’t mind, actually; it has a sensitive appeal).

I think the problem for my young friend is that the “old” songs she likes are the more popular ones from an era (her childhood, undoubtedly) that I would call REM’s Late Mesozoic period, i.e., mid 1990s and maybe a couple of superhits from Document or Green (the Early Mesozoic). Thursday night’s show definitely threw a few succulent bones to her kind. Predictably: “The One I Love”; “Losing My Religion” (which I adore, I’m not going to lie to appear “cool”); “Orange Crush”; a powerhouse performance of “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”; an emotional (and acoustic) “Let Me In”; and a rather soulful rendition of “Drive.” They even closed with “Man on the Moon” for gods sake, what more do these kids want?!

I suppose more stuff from Automatic For the People would keep all the various segments of the fan pool happy. As well as having been a chart topper, it is probably their most artistically accomplished album. But, speaking of Automatic, I could have done without “Ignoreland.” It’s dated and it was a dumb song to begin with. I always suspected it was an attempt to recreate the high they must have felt playing “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” (which, unlike “Ignoreland” doesn’t cross the “preachy” line and which should have been in Thursday’s lineup instead).

But honestly, I couldn’t ask for too much more. They played “Driver 8” “Disturbance at the Heron House” and “Bad Day” – all of which sounded every bit as fresh in Michael’s mature voice as the originals. You know, I actually think it lends itself better to live performance (especially in a less intimate setting) than the chaotic charm of his 20 year old voice. I think he’s better able now to retain subtlety even when howling. Great for a big venue. I was surprised at how incredible those old jangly, raw, minimalist songs sounded in this colossal arena. Who knew “Harborcoat” could sound so large? I’m not kidding, they played “Harborcoat”!

There were three songs each from Life’s Rich Pageant (quite possibly my favorite Album):“These Days,” “Begin the Begin” and “Fall On Me”; and from Reckoning (another great album that came out probably before my colleague was in grade school): “Pretty Persuasion,” “Harborcoat,” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” with Mike Mills taking center stage. It really was very cool.

By the way, here they are singing “Rockville” self-mockingly as young… kids, really — weren’t they cute 🙂

Do I wish they had played “Radio Free Europe” and “Moral Kiosk” and “Gardening at Night” and “Find the River” and “Cuyahoga” and “The Finest Worksong” and…. ? Sure, but let’s not be greedy.

Oh, and the guest appearance by Johnny Marr was a special treat.

the long habit of invention

After initially stumbling on clumpier-than-expected Martian soil, the Phoenix lander has successfully revised its soil-delivery methods to fit the conditions on the ground, so its research can continue.

What’s awe-inspiring about that (aside from the fact that we have robots smart enough to fly to Mars, navigate the atmosphere to land properly, explore the surface, conduct research, and adjust to conditions as necessary!) is that it’s so typical of us. Trial and error. Experimentation. We’ve always done it.

Apparently (and not surprisingly) there is now evidence that Early Humans Experimented To Get Bow And Arrow Just Right” in a fairly systematic way. Not surprising, but amazing.

Even with the benefit of thousands of years of math and thought and recorded language already developed by others, it is still truly impressive that people invent computers and spacecraft and techniques for performing brain surgery on wide awake patients.

In some ways, though, it’s even more incredible that someone invented that first spear. Someone figured out you can make stuff. Someone had the bright idea that burning the meat makes it easier to chew! Someone (much later, but still pretty awesome for its time) thought: lets break open each grain of wheat, scrape out the stuff, pulverize it, mix it with water, and then shape it into some form — maybe similar to how it looked in its husk in the first place!

In defense of the candidate I am not supporting

It’s been some time that people have been clamoring for Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race. Ostensibly because it would be best for the party to have a united front. By that logic, though, why not just have one candidate to begin with? Why bother with primaries at all?

I should clarify, for those who don’t know, that Clinton is not my candidate. She was, once upon a time (and I was nonetheless on record being critical of her in many respects). But long after I have changed my mind and cast my primary vote for Barack Obama, I have to go on record pointing out the sheer volume of unfair press and lopsidedly negative analysis she has received over her long campaign.

Let’s start with the characterization of her relentless pursuit of the nomination as somehow unreasonable or inappropriate. It started a while ago, when Obama’s lead was quite marginal. Frankly, it’s STILL pretty narrow. Why should she have stepped aside for someone who hadn’t beaten her yet? Yes, it would be great for the party if she did, but just because the party (or I) might want something from her doesn’t obligate her to give it to us. If Obama wants to lead the party, it’s his responsibility to unite it, not Clinton’s.

Not so long ago, when Clinton (then dubbed the “establishment candidate”) was heavily favored by super delegates, the Obama campaign and others were strongly urging the super delegates not to substitute their judgment for that of the voters. Much was made of the number of “contests” Obama had won and the “will of the people.” Now that Clinton has won a large number of contests and won them BIG, no one seems to have very many qualms about the super delegates ignoring those wins and the pledges that go with them. In fact, each landslide Clinton victory seems to precipitate a proportional super delegate movement away from her, with the talking heads blithely discussing her demise as though it had already happened.

Pundits deride, or dismiss in an offhand way, Clinton’s (admittedly self-serving) arguments (1) that caucuses (which Obama tends to win) are less democratic than primaries (which she does better in); and (2) that the popular vote – not just the delegate count – should matter in picking the nominee. But self-serving or not, are they really such bad arguments? Caucuses are less democratic (they are structured in a way that deters participation particularly among poorer and less educated people.) Typical caucus turnouts are generally a tiny fraction of typical primary election turnouts. This means delegates chosen by caucuses represent far fewer voters than those chosen in primaries. Which leads us to the question of whether the delegate count, when it is unrepresentative of the popular vote, should be paramount in nominating a candidate. In some cases, as in Texas, the candidate with more popular votes (an actual majority in fact) got fewer delegates.

I should clarify also that I think Clinton has – sadly for former admirers like me – sometimes shown herself to be a rather cynical opportunist, donning many masks and telling many politically expedient tales. She has been an unreliable liberal (contrary to what the conservative pundits have said, but all the worse for it in my book). She has adopted too hawkish a foreign policy posture on a number of occasions (although I understand you kind of have to as a woman – but as a woman, I say, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t anyway, then why not just do what’s right?). Worst of all: she has at times preyed on racial fears and capitalized on racial divisions when it became opportune. I really think none of these things represent who she is at heart. But they do point to a person with integrity issues. We had eight years of integrity issues. That’s more than enough. Contrast this with Barack Obama, who has emerged from every ugly drama into which he has been drawn with intact dignity, magnanimity, grace, and even nuance and complexity of thought! Though he has not always emerged politically unscathed….

All of these are good reasons to choose him over her. But they are not legitimate reasons to expect those who do support her to just roll over. These are not reasons to call her laugh a “cackle” and to perpetuate the fiction that she “turned on the waterworks” in New Hampshire (no man who has a tinny laugh or whose voice occasionally crackled with emotion would ever be subjected to so much derision over it).

These are not reasons to minimize her accomplishments. The claim that she wouldn’t be where she is today but for her eminent husband is doubly insulting because in a twisted way, it is true. It is true, not because she didn’t have what it took to make it on her own merits – everything in her background bespeaks a smart, ambitious, well-connected, and extremely capable woman. In fact, Bill probably owes as much or more of his success to her as the reverse. The only reason that she needed her husband’s coattails at all is that she is a woman, and even in 2008, a woman must get a man’s imprimatur to be considered credible.

So, those are my ramblings as the votes come tumbling in . . . . Good night.