Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Nick Cave/Shane MacGowan - What A Wonderful World

I just sang this one the other day myself, Karaokeed my bony ass off at a very nice Christmas party. I'm not sure what to make of this version. I run through the entire list of question words without any answer words springing to mind. But that's the Twenty-First-Century for you. Everywhere you turn, it's surprise, surprise, surprise.

World English Extravaganza

I am proctoring tests this week, which is always fun. These are “re-tests,” a second bite at the apple for students who failed the final the first time around. One of the tests today was an English test, EN 305, some kind of writing class.

By now I have a lot of experience of what they call “World English.” Listening to it, reading it, even speaking it on occasion if I think that I can help my listener by simplifying the verbs and leaving out the prepositions, which leaves you with sentences like “he go market.” It’s always fun.

For this test, the students could choose between seven subjects to write a short essay about. That’s technically a mistake, ending a sentence with a preposition, but we native-speakers make mistakes all the time too. Besides, “. . . seven subjects about which to write a short essay” sounds like shit on a stick. One must be flexible.

The most popular subject choice was, “Characteristics of a Good Mother,” almost to the exclusion of all others. One test came in very fast, always a bad sign. The essay was very, very short. The sentences were, let’s say, interesting. How’s this: “She don’t smoking and going out everyday.” At least it had a period though. In this brief essay there were sentences with periods, some without, and some with periods as big as bowling balls, perhaps for emphasis. The sentiments expressed were sweet. The conclusion was, “Everyone should accept her mother, during she live and take care her.” I think so too.

These poor students, English grammar sure kicks most of them to the curb. Articles are especially hard. They are either missing or inserted on the chance that they may be required. There are none in Thai, hence the confusion. Someone told me last week that many of our students are choosing to study Russian these days, and the terror of articles could be a reason. Russian has none either, as in the exchange: “what is?” “is pencil.” (“Shto eto?” “Eto karandash.”) In my university German classes, if we left out an article the professor would admonish us that we were not studying Russian, sometimes prefacing this remark with a shouted, “where is my weapon!!!”

Myself, I can’t imagine a Thai student wanting to study Russian. I mean, why would they? Love of Russian cinema? I certainly can’t imagine any Thai wanting to go there, and any Russian that you are likely to meet outside of Russia probably speaks English. Maybe for jobs in the tourist business, or talking to one of the very popular Russian prostitutes.

One student chose the topic: “Compare Marriage with Living Together.” She added a sub-title: “Marriage is more disaster than live-in relationships.” This was a good little essay too, heartfelt and very direct. She described some of the things that disturbed her about marriage, like all that fighting, lying, and the cheating, and she observed that most people these days just get divorced anyway after a while. She felt that one would be better off to take all of that time wasted on anniversary parties and family gatherings and devote it instead to building a business. The essay was compelling. She might not know it, but I think she’d make a great wife.

There was a part two of the test, but it was way too hard for all of them. “Summarize the following essay in two paragraphs.” The essay was about breathing meditation, which is something that all Thais know a little about. They may not do it, but they’ve heard about it, and depending on where they went to school they were more or less forced to do it. It was a long, windy essay. On one test, part two consisted of two sentences, one of which was, “In this essay dissessed about breathing meditation is a way to be people to do for relaxaion.” The word “dissessed” appeared in the other sentence too, so it wasn’t a typo.

This job is sure fun.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Not Ignoring Christmas

No, not me, no Grinch I. It's a wonderful opportunity to say thanks to everybody who helped me through another year. Including you, my readers.

So thanks! And Happy Birthday, Mr. Nazz! Many happy returns, for all of us.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cool Blog Alert: We Are Respectable Negroes

Second alert; first review, actually. This is a wonderfully erudite and important blog that concerns itself mostly with race relations in America. Sometimes the focus is historical; other posts discuss the current situation, the facts-on-the-ground as we speak. I would say that it is critical reading for Americans in general, and I can tell you that it is very entertaining if, like me, you find the inter-racial aspect of our culture fascinating.

Regular readers know where I stand on Black/White relations, and I won’t go back over that here.

The blog writer is a professor (Sociology?) at an American university, East Coast I think. He teaches classes that feature a large measure of race relations (probably in addition to the usual survey courses). From the writing, it is clear that he is highly intelligent at least, there’s a good chance that he skirts the line of brilliance. He maintains a down-to-earth character in his writing for the site, and he is never preachy. His point of view regarding race relations in America is clear, but it is always tempered by a measure of academic detachment and he never stoops to ad hominum attacks. He sounds like a nice guy; I address him in my comments as Professor.

You can really learn things from the Professor. In a post about “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell,” he made a great point about the historical experience of other excluded groups with military service, including but not limited to Black Americans. Military service, don’t you see, is an accepted pathway to a group being fully accepted as citizens. Denying homosexuals the right to serve was (is?) a way to keep them marginalized. Never thought of it that way, Professor, thanks for that.

Any inter-racial discussion, and especially one that concern the racial issue itself, can be problematic. We on the different sides of it see the issue through different filters. Some of them innocently, because of our differing racial identities and experiences; some culpably, either by choice, accident, or default. This can severely complicate communication, even between individuals who agree on the general outlines of a thing.

The comments on the site are very lively. One thing that becomes obvious is that you can find a racial component in any controversy at all, it’s easy in fact. Whether they are real or imagined is another story. I’ll try to keep my personal experience out of it, that’s a whole other post, but indulge me in one personal example. When I was young and beautiful, I belonged to a big gym in Los Angeles. I enjoyed swimming in the pool. One day a group of youngish Black guys were at the pool. They were very loud, boisterous even, and they casually violated the “no diving” policy, organizing races among themselves. They were disruptive. I admit that my first reaction was: they can hardly fucking swim, they need to have races? My first reaction was: this is a Black thing. I quickly realized, however, that they were athletes of some kind. These guys were in great shape, nothing that can be casually achieved, they were on some kind of team together. So it was an Athlete thing, really, a similarly acquainted White crew would have behaved the same. The racial component was illusory. This happens a lot, to people on either side of the issue.

That communications thing can be tough. As a younger man I was very free in my expression, and I got into trouble all the time talking to my Black friends and acquaintances, and yes I had both. Too often the races approach each other with apparent friendliness but with a threshold issue foremost in mind. This can variously be, “is this a ‘safe’ Black man?” or “is this a White Devil?” There were times when I was cast too quickly onto the White Devil pile. I never felt like I belonged there, but it’s never my call, is it? Leave the balls and strikes to the umpire, I always say.

The Professor takes a very generous view of these things, he seems to be a most forgiving man. A man with a mission, it seems. Not a mission to find fault, or to vent anger, but to provide a forum for discussion of an issue of major importance to us all, Black/White relations in America. It’s a lot of work, and he does it very well. I have a lot of respect for the man, and I appreciate his efforts.

I believe that it is a family issue in America, unlike similar issues anywhere else. Black Americans are not an immigrant group, not some well-focused tribe of recent arrivals. They alone do not know their own history, beyond “African” and “American.” They did not become Americans by choice, but they are the most American element in our racial-cultural tapestry. Germany, England and Ireland are full of people almost exactly like me, but American Blacks are unique in all the world. They are unique, and wonderful, and they are ours. There are people who need to better understand this fact, and I would hope that the Professor's blog is helping them.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Marianne Rosenberg - Er gehört zu mir 1975

The 1975 Euro-Song Contest winner, a real "Abba killer." I just needed to practice my German a little.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Captain Beefheart - Clear Spot

You can read the below post to find out how I feel about this.

Don Van Vliet Has Left The Building

Mr. Van Vliet, whose music as Captain Beefheart has thrilled dozens of musicologists and assorted weirdoes since the mid-Sixties, has crossed the river, he has returned to the Cosmic Mother, to wit, he has died. I am one of the weirdoes, I love the guy. A sweet man, and a transcendental artist in two media, may he rest in peace. He has earned it, not like most people.

Don leaves a vast catalog of fabulous music in a long string of albums and lots of live bootlegs. I use the term “fabulous” advisedly. Much of it was considered “difficult.” But a bit of it was quite accessible, considered by some critics to be attempts at being commercial. Somehow I can’t imagine Don trying to make a commercial success. His influences were so broad that it just came out that way sometimes. This morning I described one of the “commercial” cuts as “cosmic wind blowing through the Temple of Reverb.” (“Zig Zag Heart.”) How commercial does that sound to you?

He did not walk the earth like you and me, he did not look out onto the vistas that present themselves to us. Whatever he did, he was channeling the eternal truth, which was where he lived. I met him one time while I was working for the long defunct record store chain “Licorice Pizza” in Los Angeles in the late Seventies. He was totally charming, and very polite, but distinctly other-worldly. He appeared not as a conventional human being, but rather like some kind of homunculus that had been inserted into our society by powers that we don’t understand. I asked him to sign the back of my white, short sleeved dress shirt, as big as possible, with a magic marker that I provided. He was very gracious, and happily acted like my request had really made his day. He flattered me that it was a pretty original idea and he told me to be careful not to wash it off, I told him not to worry. I still have the shirt. On that occasion he appeared comfortable in our world, but not quite of it. Some of the other guys had him sign albums, they’re probably on e-bay as we speak.

There are artists whose work we can appreciate without fully understanding it. My usual example is the Sixteenth Century Netherlandish artist, Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch is known for a great number of large religious paintings, used as alter pieces at the time. The compositions take the form of biblical allegories, they are encyclopedic depictions of things like “The Last Judgment,” or “Paradise.” They are disquieting, they are populated by strange beings and demons, and they can be very odd and sometimes horrific. They were commissioned at great cost by the church and painted at a time when the memory of the Black Plague was still relatively fresh in people’s minds, and death and the after-life were great concerns to people of that time. Within a hundred years or so they were consigned to museums because the churches, and their adherents, began to feel that the paintings were a bit too much. The great Art Historian, Bernard Berenson, in his still taught work, “Early Netherlandish Painting,” left Bosch out altogether, noting that “this, too high for my wit, I prefer to omit.” Artists like Captain Beefheart, and the Japanese musician Cornelius, have a similar effect on people.

What can the earthbound music writers really say about Beef? Most of them stick to safe endorsements of “Trout Mask Replica,” an obscure but obviously successful intellectual exercise, while they refer to “fallow periods” with releases of those more “commercial” efforts. I don’t think they get it at all, and they are not as secure in their critical faculties as Mr. Berenson was. At least he acknowledged his failure to understand.

For my money, “Clear Spot” is the high-water mark. Sure you can dance to it, but it’s an intellectual challenge as well. Not that I’m any expert, and I do feel a little sheepish about criticizing the critics, I just know what I like, and I like Captain Beefheart. I’m sorry that he died, and I hope that he didn’t suffer too much. The worlds of music and painting will miss him, if they take any notice at all. It’s a shame too, the man was a saint, and his music certainly puts the lie to the crap that sells.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Self Criticism

Sure, I repeat myself. But doesn't Tony Bennett sing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" every night?

The Victory Of The Paranoid Style

There’s a great old article you can still find on the Net: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter. It was originally a lecture at Oxford, reprinted in Harper’s Magazine in 1964.

Great stuff, great ideas. The style is very adaptable, it has showed up as full-throated hysteria over Masons (the Bavarian Illuminati!), Catholics (rampant Popery!), European monarchs (those Hapsburgs!), international bankers, gold-gamblers, immigrants (those Catholics again!), munitions manufacturers, progressives, communists, and socialists. Surprise! It’s back! Hofstadter characterized it as paranoid, not because its adherents are “certifiable lunatics” in the clinical sense, but rather because it “evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that typifies the style.

There is the irrational, nebulous character of the menace that presents itself; the leap from some reasonably factual basis into the sheerest fantasy; the implacable, almost supernatural power of the enemy. The style has existed for ages. In the 1950’s it showed itself in the right wing extremism of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.

Mainstream conservatism in those days was much more of a centrist concept, more disposed to operate within the accepted patterns of democratic, representative politics. The Goldwater crew, William F. Buckley, et al. These conservatives kept the Birchers pushed to the fringes of discourse, and they finally carried the day with the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the “Reagan Revolution.”

Those fringe elements have recently surged back into the limelight, the whole Tea Party thing especially (there are others so infected). We can blame the mainstream conservatives for this, it was they who pushed the center so far to the right and have shouted so long and loud about how the government is the real problem. I can get pretty paranoid myself when confronted with their hubris, distortions and lies. “Lower taxes! Less government regulation! Free markets! Smaller government! States rights!” In a pig’s eye.

That’s what the mainstreamers talk about in public anyway. What they really want is to reduce the Federal Government to “something that is small enough to drown in a bathtub.” I forget who said that, it was back in the Reagan era. The real agenda, of course, is corporatism, the ascendency of the big corporations. Figuring that out is basic police work: who benefits? The talk of “States Rights” is a distraction. If the Fed’s are powerless, who has the juice to restrain the corporations? No one.

Now these new Tea Party, far-right paranoids are back with a vengeance. They may have been encouraged by the mainstream conservatives, and certain politicians and news media outlets, but in large measure the movement is spontaneous explosion of the paranoid style. They do frequently parrot the Republican Party line about lower taxes and smaller government, etc, but they often take the ball a lot further down the field, far enough that they are beginning to scare the bejezzus out of the mainstreamers.

What do they want? Certainly they are not being rational. They seem to demand that our government cut them off from important benefits, like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance. They complain that President Obama has raised their taxes (he has actually lowered them), that he wants to take their guns (nothing like that has happened, nor is it contemplated), they seem incensed that he has taken small steps to make it easier for them to afford health care. They long for a return to “Constitutional Governance,” but it is never clear what they mean by this. Certainly they never mention either of the two, great Constitutional errors of our time: corporate personhood and the unitary executive.

When these new paranoids gather it is like some giant zombie party. No one seems to be able to say what they want (beyond freedom!), or what they believe in (beyond America!). It’s all unfocused rage at someone who is taking away their freedom (!!!). Looking at the crowds, and listening to them, “they” are under-educated, uninformed, relatively prosperous White Americans.

Something, indeed, is being taken from them. What they are losing, and who is doing the taking, are good questions, fit subjects for debate. Obama? Immigrants (again)? Socialists? Liberals? No, no, no and no. Look again, people! And “you” are helping them.

It’s a great article, you should look it up. It reads like it was written this morning.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Television Little Johnny Jewel, Pts. 1 & 2

Some really wonderful music happened in the Seventies. Somehow, some of the practitioners got some really, really good ideas and went way out there following them, with little or no thought of commercial potential.

This Television was a blessing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Glimpses Of Parallel Universes

Those cosmologists, what a bunch of dreamers they are. All that talk of a multiverse, some potentially limitless number of parallel universes, alternate universes, alternate realities, based on quantum mechanics and populated by wild ideas like “string theory,” it’s hard to take them seriously sometimes. They must have been hovering too long over strange mathematics, we think. Got themselves hypnotized. But they keep coming up with the weirdest ideas. You and I could exist on an infinite number of Earths, and every action could result in an infinite number of outcomes. Could any of this be remotely true?

I meet people sometimes that tempt me to think that it might just be true after all. They say things, believe things, that make me think that they must be living in one of those alternate realities, they must be looking out over vistas that would be strange to me. For example, today I attended a big meeting of the Faculty of Law at my university in Bangkok. We’re implementing a version of the European Qualifications Framework, but that’s another story. The presenter was a member of the Faculty of Humanities, an education professor I think. She might as well have been a visitor from an alien reality.

At one point she asserted that all of our students could speak and understand English very well. I don’t have to trust my own limited hearing comprehension of Thai to know that she said this, my neighbors immediately turned to me and said things like, do you believe it? is that your experience? We had a good laugh.

Because that is not my experience at all. “Our students,” and there are 850,000 of them (eight hundred and fifty thousand, that’s not a misprint), mostly cannot speak English at all beyond some salutations and a couple of hundred words at best. Tales from a parallel universe indeed, I wondered what the weather was like on her planet.

It’s the same in the U.S. now. I read things everyday about politics and the economy and I wonder, what planet are they from? Are they talking about my America? My President Obama? Or do they live in some glorified Star Trek episode where something went very, very wrong, and everything came out a little bent.

You can read the truth, it’s out there, but somehow it is all but drowned out by the same bizarre falsehoods, rumors, innuendo, and slander. The explosion of the deficit, for example, is actually due to 1) the wars; 2) the Bush tax cuts; and 3) the recession, but you will mostly hear that it is due to the criminal socialism of President Obama. It is frequently blamed on “Obamacare,” which hasn’t even started to kick in yet.

Social Security and Medicare, which almost everybody agrees are good things when they need them, are consistently demonized as the twin agents of the end of the world. In truth, Social Security is fine, the trust fund is healthy, at some point decades from now it might, might run into a small glitch. Medicare could run into trouble sooner, ten or twenty years, but it’s certainly not bankrupting us now.

All of the shrill voices that are warning about some kind of impending socialist Armageddon are wrong, comically wrong, and it makes me wonder sometimes: what’s the weather like on their planet? The impending Armageddon is real, but it has nothing at all to do with President Obama’s imagined socialism, nothing even to do with budget deficits, or trade deficits, and certainly nothing to do with the pittance that Social Security pays to old people who have worked for America for a lifetime and paid into the system that, if they are lucky, allows them to either pay their rent or buy food, but not both. Our Armageddon is due to the current ascendance of the rich, big business, the big banks, and our venal, corrupt, self-serving so-called elected officials, who sell us out for a few measly tens of millions of dollars, which is peanuts to the people who thereby purchase the rights to pull their strings.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

More Borrowed Material: Findings

This column appears in Harpers Magazine and can be read on the web site. It's good stuff, very droll.

November 29, 2:16 PM · From the June 2010 issue of Harpers Magazine
By Rafil Kroll-Zaidi
Scientists performed surgery on the hoods of cobras to determine how ribs turned into hood bones and rib muscles turned into hooding muscles. A number of the snakes awoke from anesthesia during the surgery, which the scientists found “disconcerting.” An escaped monocled cobra in Germany succumbed to exhaustion after being caught by double-sided tape. After the roof collapsed on a rabbit show in Nyköping, Sweden, many of the rabbits—including British giants, dwarf hotots, Himalayans, and lionheads—mated amid the ruins. A young Floridian bald eagle was recovering after being struck by a golf ball. The Poultry Research Unit at Mississippi State University reported success in more efficiently heating the houses of broiler chickens. The Welsh planned to continue killing their badgers. Greek researchers tracked brown bears who rub against telephone poles and occasionally gnaw through them. Zoologists revealed the existence of an Amazonian leech with giant teeth, tiny genitalia, and a preference for living in people’s noses. Otolaryngologists placed gyroscopes in the mouths of dolphins and on the horns of bulls. Researchers discovered that horned-frog tadpoles scream in distress. “We have,” said the lead researcher, “definitely underestimated their abilities.”

British researchers were using bee hotels to train bees as bomb sniffers, and biomaterials scientists reported progress in their quest to produce bee silk. Beewolves use antibiotics. The southern cuckoo bumblebee was seen in Scotland for the first time in fifty years. Bumblebees have the fastest color vision of any animal, and sociable queen bees have bigger mushroom bodies in their brains than do solitary queens. Swarming decisions among large honeybees are determined by an oligarchy, and flocking decisions among pigeons are determined by prestige-weighted votes. Earthworms travel in herds. The medial prefrontal cortices of women who claim not to care about body image are activated by photos of unfamiliar fat women. Male fallow deer groan “honestly.” Mother birds warn unhatched chicks about the quality of their lives-to-be. Entomologists described the technique whereby masked birch caterpillars proclaim leaf ownership. British minorities who have many supportive relatives are likelier to fear death. Alzheimer’s sufferers who are made happy retain those feelings even after they no longer remember why they are happy.

Engineers found that lightning encourages the growth of mushrooms, physicists suspected a parity violation of the strong force, and geologists suggested that Earth’s magnetic poles were once at the equator. Lava lamps should work on Jupiter. Astronomers photographed an eclipse of the star Epsilon Aurigae, attributing the occultation to “a thin disc of opaque dust trailed by a massive and unseen companion.” An island claimed by both Bangladesh and India vanished into the ocean. China and Nepal agreed on the height of Mt. Everest. War was making Iraqi children shorter. People who feel powerful underestimate the time it will take them to complete a given task, and great apes understand that they sometimes make bad choices. Studies of humankind’s original states—in China, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Peru—suggest that the emergence of bureaucracy catalyzed predatory imperial expansion. Archaeologists in Italy unearthed a 1,700-year-old, 1,000-pound lead coffin whose contents remain unknown.