Sunday, June 12, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 5

America, a haiku...

Well the road trip is over. I know what you’re thinking: “OMG Justin, you guys just started LOL!1! Wasn’t your last blog entry from all the way back in Santa Fe!?!?!” Well, you’re right. The last half of our trip was a whirlwind of activity - driving 10-14 hours each day, sleeping in shitty motel rooms in the middle of nowhere, and stopping at various hotspots just long enough to grab dinner and a caffeine hit. And it was all for this little guy:

That’s Abe, Lauren’s new dog and the reason for our rushed return home. We had known the whole time that he would be coming into the picture when we got back, but it wasn’t until the night of the 7th that we learned the lengths that we would have to go to in order to make it work. We were in Austin at the time, enjoying beers with our friends Sarah and Tim, when Lauren got a call from the dog shelter. As it turned out, Abe was to be transported from Chicago to Connecticut along with another group of dogs. He would be arriving at 4:00PM on the 11th, and it would be our only chance to pick him up. In other words, the race was on.

The next morning, Lauren and I got into the car with a newly revised plan. We would spend the next four days going at a breakneck pace, stopping for dinner in New Orleans, Nashville, and Washington D.C. along the way. We would ride that poor Miata with authority, surviving almost solely on beef jerky, Cliff Bars, and peanut butter & jelly. Come hell or high water, we would make it back to get that dog.

And so it was. As I write this final act of our travel blog from the comfort of my parents’ home in Wrentham, I am finally able to sit back and marvel at our success. But we aren’t done yet. I started this blog to share my experiences and thoughts on America’s varied landscape, and I intend to finish that job... via haiku.

That’s right. As our grand finale, I present to you a haiku on each of the places we visited. Without further ado:

Los Angeles
Think you're an actor?
How's bartending sound instead
Good luck being poor

Grand Canyon
So many people
Something about a canyon
Let's get out of here

Canyon De Chelly
If there were a God
This would be his greatest gift
So awesome it hurts

Santa Fe
Stupid white tourists
Love campy Indian stuff
Wolves howling at moon?!

Beautiful people
Spending all day at whole foods
Hipsters and gays too

New Orleans
Bars starving for cash
Strippers grab you by the arm
Too bad they aren't hot

Country music fest
Lots of Hicks in cowboy boots
Sing about their trucks

(Note: Nashville is actually an amazing city, second only to Austin on this trip. The people at the country music fest were mostly tourists)

Washington D.C.
Didn't meet Obama
But I'm sure he wanted to
Guess I'll forgive him

Thursday, June 9, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 4

Santa Fe and the Story of Tom

Note: I have been a bit lazy with the blog, so keep in mind that this portion of the trip actually happened a few days ago. Since the events of this story, we have already gone through Austin and are now in the New Orleans area. That will come too.

Of all of our stories so far, this one may be the most remarkable. But it requires a bit of setup.

Lauren and I have the unfortunate predicament of being poor. But when life gives you lemons, you eat the stupid lemons and you damn well like it. Such was the case when I put us up on, an open community of travel enthusiasts committed to simple notion of hospitality. There are hordes of people out there who take great pleasure in hosting wayward souls from around the world, and who were we to deny them the gift of our company?

Our search for lodging led us to a man named Tom, a frequent host of CouchSurfers with a list of glowing recommendations long enough to open his own bed-and-breakfast. He enthusiastically offered to let us stay, under the caveat that he would be hosting another traveler at the same time – which was fine with us. We arrived the afternoon of the 2nd, excited to see our new digs but at the same time feeling more than a little trepidation. The directions we had been given led us off the highway a few exits before Santa Fe, where we proceeded down a seven-mile stretch of Rt. 14 before turning down a long dirt road. It was a relatively rural area, with adobe houses scattered about in no discernable pattern. As we rounded the last bend of the thin dirt road, our final destination came into view – an unassuming adobe home with a dilapidated pickup truck in the driveway. Tom hadn’t picked up his phone, so we correctly assumed that he wasn’t around. But (coincidentally) waiting for us was the other CouchSurfer that he had mentioned, Kari, casually digging through her belongings in the trunk of a newer looking Jeep. She was thin, perhaps in her mid-thirties, with a quiet demeanor and an outfit that invoked visions of an Appalachian hippie. During our brief introduction we learned that she was an aspiring farmer from Chicago, traveling the country to learn where she wanted to settle down. Fortunately, she had been staying with Tom for a few nights and was happy to show us the ropes. After instructing us to take off our shoes, she took us through an unlocked screen door into an interior that nearly knocked us off our feet. Spacious rooms overlapped to form a wide-open layout, bathed in natural light from a back wall almost exclusively consisting of windows and broad sliding doors. White adobe walls rose into a ceiling of thick, wooden beams to create an organic look, while luxurious vegetation, stained glass, and worn musical instruments contributed to the serene ambiance. It was just as much of a temple as it was a home.

After about five minutes of gawking, Tom sauntered into the house, his appearance and countenance perfectly matching what I had come to expect from his CouchSurfing profile. He was in his late 50’s, with windswept grey hair, soft blue eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard flanking a wide smile. You could instantly tell that this was the kind of man that had never shaken a hand in his life, only hugged. After brief introductions, he offered us each a Heineken and we took seats around a long dining room table made of thick, naturally treated wood. As we sipped our beers, we took the opportunity to get to know each other a bit. Through our conversation, we learned that he had owned multiple bars and restaurants in the Santa Fe area, only recently selling them off to make a living doing construction. The house, as it turned out, was his own work. He talked about his daughters, all of whom from previous relationships, and his love of jazz and world music. The most interesting thing we learned of, however, was his sense of spirituality. He was a devout Christian unlike any other I had met – an unreserved liberal with a deep respect for the historical aspects of his faith and an attitude toward the supernatural that ranged from lighthearted amusement to downright skepticism (with the exception of his fascination with the more mystical disciplines of holistic healing). His was a joyful attitude that was both pleasantly contagious and borderline obnoxious.

The first evening of our stay was quiet and relaxing. Lauren and I went to get beer while Tom cooked us a delicious meal – pasta and scallops with fresh sausage and caprese. We sat at the dining room table where we were joined by Kari and a young woman named Nina, who was renting from him in a separate guest house that he had built on his property. Amazingly, Nina was even more bizarre than Tom - a 23 year-old healer from Vermont with a soft voice and a sense of tranquility that far exceeded her age. Together, we spent the evening listening to jazz music, sharing stories from our travels, and learning of Nina’s odd fascination with astrology and pseudo-psychology (Lauren and I secretly smirking with disbelief the entire time).

After our first night’s sleep in a real bed since the EconoLodge in Flagstaff, we headed out to explore Santa Fe. You would expect the city itself to be the coolest part of New Mexico, but it really wasn’t. While it was staggeringly beautiful with its sparklingly clean streets, open-air markets, and two-story adobe buildings, it was touristy to the point where it made you wonder if you were really just walking through a cleverly designed Disney reenactment of the real thing. Art galleries swarmed you like Starbucks stores, offering cheesy Native American crafts at prices that would make your head bleed. Meanwhile, fancy jewelry stores attempted to ensnare you with overly enthusiastic saleswomen drowning in makeup and hairspray. But once we figured out how to avoid these pitfalls by sticking to breweries and one particularly awesome gelato place, it all came together quite nicely.

That evening, Lauren and I returned to Tom’s place sporting a few hot pizzas from his old restaurant, ample beer, and a serious intent to spend our last night in style. Nina joined us at the dinner table once again, along with Tom’s 5 year-old daughter, Anja, and friend, Tim. After a number of beers we went out to the back yard, where Tom lit up his fire pit and he and Anja grabbed their guitars (Anja’s being small enough to fit in her tiny hands). They began to play some blues, Tom teaching his daughter chords along the way. There we sat, basking in the cool desert breeze and the warm glow of the fire under the vivid night sky. The next morning, Lauren and I were on the road once again.

I tell this story because I feel that there is something genuinely special about experiencing a new city in this manner – avoiding the tedium of a hotel room and making a new friend along the way. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t all rosy. Despite the fact that we had a great time with Tom, he was clearly attracted to Lauren in a way that would have made both of us uncomfortable had I not been there. He didn’t make any moves that suggested forcefulness or downright audacity, but there were plenty of those awkwardly long hugs that reeked a bit of desperation. Still, knowing what I do now, I would gladly take my chances on another CouchSurfer. There wasn’t a single moment that I felt unsafe, and we left with some trinkets for our trip that we wouldn’t have been able to get any other way: some excellent memories, a new friend, and a pretty sweet stack of jazz albums that Tom had burned for me.

Tom and Anja with their guitars.

Just some beautiful woman I met in Santa Fe. Note: the breweries there were awesome.

A wedding procession leading through the park... with MARIACHIS!

The sunset leaving Santa Fe. While you can't see it here, it was blood red due to forest fires come up from California and Arizona. Just freakishly beautiful.

Friday, June 3, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 3

Mind the Gaps

I’ve been to a number of places in my life – India, Australia, Italy, Aruba, Rhode Island – but Arizona was the first time I felt that I was truly on a different planet. It’s like Mars, only less hospitable and with fewer people. But it’s as beautiful as it is foreign, and that’s saying a lot.

It was an uninspiring start to this leg of the trip. We had high hopes of leaving L.A. bright and early, making the 9-hour drive to the Grand Canyon in time to set up a tent at a nearby campsite before dark. A foolish plan, as it turned out. By the time the sun set we were still hours away, leaving us no choice but to set up shop at an EconoLodge in Flagstaff – proud home of a Chile’s and a Casa Bonita. It was a 2-hour drive from the Grand Canyon, meaning we would have to cut our stay there short if we wanted to make it to Canyon De Chelly in time to camp out the next night. Luckily, that wasn’t so difficult. The Grand Canyon was grand… and then we left. There were tour buses, a massive visitor’s center, a tollbooth that charged a $25 entrance fee (made out of wooden logs so as to look organic), and a canyon tucked in there somewhere. It wasn’t until afterwards that things got interesting.

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Canyon De Chelly was many things: beautiful, remote, educational, and a bit depressing. We took the scenic route, a largely uninhabited road going straight through the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache reservations. There was magic in the mere thought of trespassing through these magnificent lands, hallowed by the presence of those who had lived with the Earth, and who dared to stand up against the white man’s promise of jager-bombs and reality TV shows. But that magic was quickly tempered by the bittersweet reality of things. These reservations were hardly luxurious. Amenities were scarce, and for every gas station (truly an oasis in Arizona) there were many more pairs of mangy dogs engaged in life-or-death battles over scraps left by passing cars. But at the same time, there was something inspirational about this group of people so content in their sovereignty and isolation. These are not the Native Americans you read about in your history textbooks. While the spiritual mystique of these lands may have dwindled, the ability of their residents to remain both modern and completely homogenous at the same time is nothing short of a miracle.

As we arrived at Canyon De Chelly that evening, it became immediately apparent that this wasn't the bustling hive of tour buses and rascal scooters that the Grand Canyon had turned out to be. Instead, we found ourselves in the quiet town of Chinle – a tiny Navajo hamlet at the base of the Canyon rim. Our lodging for the night was a local campsite, where, because of the Navajo nation’s attitude toward alcohol, we had to be extra shifty-eyed about our remorseless drinking. But damned if we were going to be caught dead camping without our copy of Kung Fu Panda and a bottle of $6 table wine.

We awoke that morning with high spirits, eager for a day spent at Canyon De Chelly. The site, as we had come to learn, was the home of numerous Anasazi cities built directly into the canyon walls roughly 1,100 years ago. It is a 700-foot drop into a stunning valley of lush forests and shockingly fertile farmland, still occupied by Navajo tribespeople who utilize the land in much the same way as it was used so long ago (with the exception of the tourist influence). Simply put, it was one of the most incredible things I have ever had the gift of seeing. Strict restrictions placed on sightseers helped to preserve billions of years of geological history, as well as thousands of years of cultural history, in their purest form. Most of the canyon was only viewable from the top of the rim, stretching across 15 miles of well-preserved road. Each bend of the canyon gave way to a completely unique view featuring expertly engineered Anasazi cities built high up into the canyon walls, gently-shifting sandstone adorned with the markings of careful erosion and brightly colored lichen, and tiny ranches occupied by the region’s current residents. And a 1.5 mile hike down to the base of the canyon (the only area where tourists are allowed to enter unguided) made the visit physically exhausting as well as visually inspiring. Were I a more spiritual man, I'd swear there was something mystical about that place.

And with that, I leave you with some breathtaking photo evidence:

The Grand Canyon. Yay.
A Navajo craft fair found on the side of the road. We had to stop.
Spider Rock in Canyon De Chelly. Met a really cool Navajo guy named Crek (pronounced Craik) who lives down here.
Ruins at the bottom of Canyon De Chelly. Built in A.D. 900, it is by far the oldest man-made structure I have ever seen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 2

A Beer to Send us Off

It's our last night in L.A. I'm drinking orange juice straight from the carton, sitting indian-style on the floor of an empty apartment with a belly full of sushi and sake. Our two days here have been spent living like rock stars, which is fitting considering the next two weeks will be spent living out of a Miata.

L.A. is like a mistress to me. She's enchanting to spend a night with - maybe even a few - but I could never imagine living with her. Those few nights, however, are off the charts. Scattered amidst all the packing and last-minute cleaning were some truly unforgettable moments: savoring local IPA's and fried risotto cakes at The Darkroom, drinking New Belgium Flat Tire on an outdoor patio in Santa Monica, and soaking our feet in the warm Pacific waters during sunset.

But for every tricked-out Range Rover and gated mansion, there are about a million waiters and bartenders who just barely missed the cut. It's a city of dreamers, divided into those who made it and those who dreamed just a little too big. And that dividing line is nowhere near the middle. Still, the mania of this town is infectious. Listening to a few jaw-dropping tales from even the most unassuming of locals makes you realize that, regardless of what side of the monogrammed gate you're standing on, everyone feels a part of that dream.

And now, the slideshow:

As a close friend and wise man once said, "double-double fries and coke."

The silhouette you see is actually Sean Penn. So much smaller in person than in the movies.

Enjoying a beer at some enormous sports bar.  The photographer: Also Sean Penn.  The dude was everywhere.

Monday, May 30, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: A Tale of Mania and Misconduct across the Greatest Country in America


Alright ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seatbelts. We're about to go on a journey to de-mystify the far reaches of this great land of ours. At 5:30 yesterday morning, with naught but a duffle bag and a backpack, I left my cozy apartment in Somerville to board a Virgin America flight to the savage, untamed land of Los Angeles. Not for gold, nor celebrity-endorsed Botox specialists, but for adventure. For the next two weeks this will be a travel blog chronicling two woefully underprepared suckers as they brave the American southland.

My partner in crime throughout this debacle is Lauren, the comely young lass you see below.

Mr. Froggy is our resident survival expert. We'll be drinking our own pee in no time.
Poor Lauren has been a bit out of sorts lately, so we're getting her out of this cesspool of fake tans and poorly-written screenplays and back to the gleaming cesspool of misogynistic "yah-dudes" and brown-colored snow that we like to call Boston. And we're doing it in this:

That's a speed dent. It makes the car go faster.
We haven't even started yet and already a snag: because of the ducktail spoiler, we had to jury-rig the luggage rack with bungee cords.
So stay tuned, because on Tuesday morning Lauren and I will begin piloting our comically undersized chariot East toward the rising sun. I hope you'll join us for the ride.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Most Beautiful Widget: The Commercialization of Art and Music

Nothing is sacred in this country. Anything and everything that can possibly be commercialized, has. Not that there's anything wrong with that; after all, innovation is simply learning how to capitalize on things in new ways. But one of the most fascinating modern innovations is the convergence of commerce and art, in all of its many forms - the pinnacle of human expression and creativity turned profitable. The forces of industrialization and individual uniqueness could not be more polar opposite, and the efforts of many to resist have created a wondrous dichotomy. On one hand you have the stereotypical starving artist, the passionate idealist who sacrifices all hope of financial stability for the sake of creating beauty. On the other hand you have the brand, the person whose mass appeal to all but the most discerning of consumers makes them a goldmine waiting to be tapped. The difference between these two, simple aesthetic and true meaning, can be blurry. One demands to be seen, heard, or experienced by all while the other seeks only to exist. But there is one area in particular where the clash between culture and counter-culture has become game-changing - the music industry.

The thing about music is its scope. The popularity and accessibility of the medium has given rise to a staggeringly lucrative industry, while at the same time fueling an "indie" resistance so passionate that it almost singlehandedly influenced the revival the hipster subculture. Behind it all are the five major corporate labels - Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Live Nation - whose attempts at mass production have resulted in billboard charts literally full of indistinguishable cookie-cutters. Theirs is a system that works for some. Artists can make a killing cashing in on their tight bodies and carefully crafted images, all without having to learn a single chord. Consumers are rewarded with a sound that is catchy and familiar to them. But the forces that built Justin Bieber's bank account are not harmless. The subtle tricks used by these kings of commerce have degraded the art form as a whole, both for artists and listeners alike.

The defining element of a "major" record label (as opposed to an indie one) is the fact that it owns the means of distribution. As a result, it can be difficult for aspiring musicians to have their art heard or bought without making a deal with the devil. This applies to both live and recorded music. The former is overwhelmingly dominated by Live Nation. They are not only the largest promoter of live music, but they also own Ticketmaster and most of the large venues in the U.S. This gives them unprecedented power to influence ticket prices and tack on extra fees, something that some artists have fought against with limited success. According to the Chicago Tribune: "Since Ticketmaster and Live Nation came to dominate their respective industries over the last decade, concert prices have more than doubled and service fees for processing tickets have climbed to as high as 50 percent per order. In 1995, Pearl Jam tried to boycott Ticketmaster because the agency was charging more than $2 for an $18 ticket. The band found it nearly impossible to tour outside that system because Ticketmaster was locked into long-term deals with most major concert venues nationwide."

In the recording studio things are no better. In a typical deal, the record label will provide the artist with an advance in exchange for recording a pre-determined amount of songs or albums. The label will oversee the process and pay all costs including recording fees, marketing and promotion, and manufacturing and distribution of physical media (CD's, vinyl, etc.) if necessary. The artist will also receive royalties based on online or in-store sales, merchandising, and so forth. But the catch is that the artist must give up ownership to their own music, something that often comes with additional layers of control over varying other aspects of their likeness - everything down to what they wear to how they walk, talk, and act. They become walking endorsements of themselves, where their very image is a marketing ploy meant to appeal to a targeted demographic.

But the true artists aren't the only ones that suffer. Competition among corporate labels has led to some pretty cheap tricks in the recording booth that affect the sound of the music itself. The two big culprits are auto-tune and something a bit less familiar known as dynamic range compression. Auto-tune, first popularized by Cher as a gimmicky voice effect, has turned into pandemic of synthesized talent among performers that have none. It is a means of pitch correction that can substitute a poorly sung note for one that is exactly perfect. The abuse of this technology has allowed for the birth of a new breed of performer that relies solely on aesthetic, neither writing nor correctly singing their own songs - giving record labels a broader selection of marketable candidates to represent. And it has become particularly rampant in the pop genre, making it uniformly flawless to the extent that it completely removes from the equation one of the finer aspects of any art form - imperfection.

The other trick commonly used in the studio is quite a bit more subtle. Dynamic range compression (DRC) is a technology that has been applied to music, TV commercials, and a number of other mediums allowing engineers to increase the relative loudness of audio content. It is a response to a psychological study by Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson demonstrating that human listeners, when presented with two recordings at different levels, are subconsciously drawn to the louder one. The technique compresses the amplitude range of a recording so that the loudness can be increased without exceeding the clearly defined maximum peak amplitude limits placed on all digital media formats. It is the same thing that makes television commercials so much louder than the actual show. The "loudness war," a term used to decry the use of DRC in music recording, has been addressed by many notable artists and audiophiles who resent the fact that some musicians have been forced to take part against their will. As Bob Dylan put it: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."

Amidst this assembly line of mechanized voice-overs, generic major chords, and scantily clad bodies lies the indie movement. Having roots all the way back to the post-war era in the United States, it has gathered enough steam to represent a legitimate alternative market. But indie music is not immune to exploitation, and now it too is at risk of becoming commercialized. Unlike their larger counterparts, indie labels do not own the means of production. Instead, they subsist through partnerships, licensing deals, and agreements with those that do. Today, indies represent just over 18% of U.S. music market share. But while many of these were started by purists looking to clean up the industry, others are "vanity" or "boutique" spinoffs from major labels looking to cash in on an audience that thinks they know better. It is a brilliant play to the susceptibility of young consumers to anything that is perceived to be outside the mainstream.

Fortunately, there will always be an underground. Musicians looking to avoid the quagmire of unsavory agreements and engineering hocus pocus now have easy, cheap access to home recording equipment that can produce truly professional results. And there is no shortage of outrage from artists and luminaries that have the clout to fight back. More and more DRC-free albums are sprouting up, and non-profits such as Turn Me Up! have emerged with the mission of giving artists the power to preserve the dynamic range of their music. As consumers, our responsibility is to stay informed. Commercialized music absolutely has its place, but the choice of whether or not we wish to enjoy it should be deliberate. Until we remove the wool from over our eyes, we will never have that power.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Now that Osama bin Laden is Dead, Where's Our World Peace?

This morning I awoke to the kind of raucous celebration only ever demonstrated during World Series or Superbowl victories.  The Afghan Assassin, the Jester of Jihad, the Turbaned Terror himself - Osama bin Laden - is finally dead.  Now that that's over with, we can pronounce terrorism done for and world peace successfully achieved, right?  Wrong.

Nobody likes being a buzzkill.  I appreciate the historic nature of this event because of the harm that he has caused many innocent people around the world, the power of his voice and propaganda to incite violence, and because he turned out to be so damn hard to get.  But this was revenge, and revenge doesn't end wars.  I don't doubt that killing him was the necessary thing to do, but in a few years we will not be looking back on this as the pivot point that finally allowed us to take our men and women in uniform out of Afghanistan.  Rather than celebrate in the streets as many in America are doing, I grudgingly accept the grim reality that this needed to be done, regret the price in terms of lives and dollars that we paid along the way, and lament the long road we still have ahead of us.

Some have argued with me that we desperately need a victory right now and should take this opportunity to celebrate.  I can certainly understand that, but my biggest fear is that the media is creating unrealistic expectations for what this means for America and the world.  Just a few Google searches brings up ample parallels between Osama bin Laden's death and that of Hitler.  I know that they share the same May 1st anniversary, but there are a number of reasons why yesterday's events will be anti-climactic in comparison.  Hitler rose to power by capitalizing on the suffocating sense of defeat, desperation, and betrayal among his countrymen following the first World War.  He was a prominent and outgoing leader who built a military machine from his own charisma, and the sense of nationalism that he cultivated allowed him to get away with some pretty heinous acts... for a while.  By the time of his death, many in Germany had come to learn of the terrible crimes that he committed and were just as horrified as we were here in America.  They were ready to shake off that dark part of their history and join the Western world once again.  On the other hand, bin Laden headed an organization built upon decades of international misconduct and religious extremism.  Theirs is a holy conflict that goes beyond mere hatred.  There will be no peace treaty, no end in sight for al Qaeda, and definitely no end to terrorism.  Worse yet, we will continue to see the loss of American and Afghani lives as the war rages on.

So what does this mean for us, should we sit quietly and refuse to enjoy this satisfying accomplishment?  Of course not.  What we should do is avoid unrealistic expectations for what this means going forward, understand that in all likelihood the euphoria that we feel is bound to be short-lived, and behave knowing that our reaction to this has the potential to endear us or antagonize us further in the eyes of the Muslim world.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

NAILED IT: Why Obama's handling of the Libya crisis has actually been pretty good

We'll have to see whether or not the situation in Libya turns out to be another Iraq, but at this point that seems unlikely. As hard as I have been on Obama lately for various reasons, I actually think he deserves some credit on this one. A few specifics:

  • Timetable: Some call Bush's response to 9/11 decisive, I call it impulsive. By going it alone and invading Iraq the way we did, we overstepped our bounds in a country that didn't want us there and completely alienated ourselves from the rest of the international community. While Obama received some criticism for taking so long to intervene in Libya, he recognized the fact that we needed to wait until a consensus was reached by the world that action needed to be taken. He was also smart in waiting for the invitation to arrive from the Libyan rebels before crashing the party.
  • Coalition-building: Jon Stewart recently teased Obama for mentioning in his speech that we would be handing over the reins to NATO on Wednesday the 30th. After all, he's right in that our huge role in NATO means we'll still be fronting much of the bill on this one. Buuuuut NATO also includes pretty much the entirety of Europe, which means we're not only divvying up much of the liability here but also avoiding the PR disaster that comes along with (as Sarah Palin would say) going rogue.
  • No points awarded for regime change: Nobody likes Gadhafi, but for shit's sake look what happened when we decided to oust Saddam. In Obama's 3/28 speech (transcription here) he admitted that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." He even went on to say that "regime change [in Iraq] took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya." Our role is to prevent a genocide and hamstring Gadhafi's ability to bomb his people from the sky. Things get nasty when we start telling people how to set up a government.
  • Truth hurts, but it's better than bullshit: Two lines from Obama's speech stand out to me: "given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action" and "America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him." Yea, there was still plenty of soaring rhetoric in the speech, but it was still better than when Bush used to stand at the podium and pretty much recite crappy Toby Keith songs to an audience who wanted to hear all about how "freedom isn't free blah blah blah blah." Let's be honest, we all want to see the right thing done here, but Obama's job is to weigh morality against practicality. So, yes, part of the reason why we're spending a fortune to intervene in Libya has to do with the fact that it aligns with our own national interests. That has always been the case and always will be, only Obama has the balls to put it right out there.
So that's my two cents. For those who wish to see the speech and weigh in I have embedded the video below.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Devil is in the Details: How the WI GOP Got Their Way

Alas, the battle of WI rages on. What started as a series of protests over an *ahem* unfavorable bill has gone on to become a hallowed battleground in America's class war (along with Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio). The latest is that the GOP senators in WI, amidst a background chorus of millions of Americans wondering "WHAT THE FUCK?!?!," somehow managed to get Walker's bill passed without meeting that pesky 20 senator quorum that we had all been hearing about. Then again, this is America, land of the free and home of the loophole. We're used to seeing these kinds of sneaky maneuvers and writing off the entire standoff as mere theatrics. But this time it's different. The devil is in the details, and I intend to drop a bomb on those who haven't already heard how the GOP managed to turn the tables.

Republicans, ASSEMBLE!!!

But first, the quorum. According to WI state law, any bill that is labeled as budget-related (this is the key here) requires 3/5 of the senate to vote on it. That's 20 senators, for you see the GOP has a 19-14 majority in that state. The incredible part is that all they needed was one Democrat to stick around and they would have been golden. Instead, every last Democrat fled the state. All for naught, but still impressive for a party that can't seem to agree on the correct way to put on a pair of pants.

So how did this quorum become irrelevant? Simple. The GOP stripped that little "budget" component from it. In other words, they didn't have to change the bill, just admit the fact that it really has nothing to do with balancing the budget. So the question that remains is this: if this isn't about saving taxpayer dollars, what reasons could the GOP possibly have for slowly chipping away at the workers' right to unionize? Well I don't have the internet completely memorized (only mostly), but nowhere have I seen this question being asked (although FOX does still have a tour de force piece on the Harry Baals building in Indiana hidden on the front page).

Nonetheless, the WI GOP still might not get away with it. The voters there have a terrible case of buyer's remorse, and fortunately the state constitution includes a generous return policy. Any senator who has served their entire first term in office is eligible for a recall, and there are 8 GOP senators that fit the criteria. The process dictates that separate petitions be created for each senator, and within 60 days they must collect a number of signatures equal to 25% of the total votes in the last governors election in each senators' respective district. So far two weeks have gone by since the recall effort was put into place, and Dems are reporting that they have roughly half of the signatures they need in each of the eight districts eligible for recall. As you can see, this isn't just a formality. 

So we could be watching history unfold or this could all just fizzle out... we'll find out in 46 days.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Lesson in Socialism for the Truly Confused

Well I've gone and done it now. I dared to utter the "S word." We hear socialism brought up all the time in this country: "socialism is un-American," "socialism killed the dinosaurs," "socialism causes severe indigestion when consumed in large doses," etc. Frankly, I have been defending it at every opportunity simply because if Sarah Palin fears it then it must be good. But even I don't really know what it is. Were I to believe everything I was told, I would know that capitalism is the way of God (note: I'm not dissing God or religion here, I merely question the validity of the claim that Jesus was capitalist) and socialism is when the government ritualistically summons your grandparents to die. Well in light of what capitalism has done for us lately, I thought I'd so some research.

Cash money bitches!!!! (Source: Banksy)
Before moving forward, though, I'd like to clarify that I am not necessarily advocating for a socialist America (just a mostly socialist America). It's ridiculous to look at this as black and white because no single modern industrialized political system fits entirely into one bucket. We are a capitalist country with welfare programs, state highway systems, public parks and conservation land, national scholarships and grants, and all sorts of socialist initiatives that have served us well. So yes, we can have our cake and eat it too.

So on to the main event: what is socialism? When researching the term, I kept seeing similarities to another one of our greatest national treasures (besides capitalism) - democracy. In fact, socialism is much more democratic than capitalism ever will be. Capitalism favors command, whereby the very few control the means of production and are looked up to by everyone else because they are very very rich. Yes, people can rise to greatness riding on wings of their own resourcefulness (or a trust fund), but they go on to become kings of industry in that they literally have the power to rule the country like kings. Socialism is about equitable distribution of power. There are countless versions and theories, but they all favor majority (i.e. democratic) control of either factors of production (investment, commodities, etc.) or outputs of production (the actual goods and services produced). Or it could simply be a scenario in which individual companies dissolve traditional hierarchy and adopt a system where every worker has equal decision making power (there are actually plenty of companies that do that already in America). In other words, decentralization of power combined with an economic system in which goods and services are allocated based on social need rather than revenue generation. Alas, I was able to find no mention of goose-stepping or death panels.

The first picture that comes up when you Google the term "socialist."
(Source: - check it out, it's a riot)
So what does this mean for us patriotic Americans? Would everyone have to give up their hard-earned wages in favor of equal government handouts? Short answer, no. Long answer, absolutely not. Nowhere does it say that some people can't earn higher wages than others because they have more expertise, work harder, or generally contribute more. But when decisions are made by everyone with everyone in mind, those differentials will be smaller. The top 2% would definitely make less in a socialist economy, but then again only 2% of us get to be them anyway. The majority of people would see their wages and standard of living go up because the money that those privileged few have to give up would be redistributed.

The problem is that we keep getting scared by things that aren't really true. Capitalism and socialism don't have to be mutually exclusive. Privatization still occurs under many socialist ideologies, but only where it is appropriate. We just have to realize that in some cases profiteering simply results in people getting screwed (health care, cable and broadband internet, prisons, etc.). Also, we keep letting jackasses like Hugo Chavez ruin socialism for us. That's like letting Mel Gibson ruin Christianity for everyone else. Most of the fear that exists comes from people who benefit from our current system of exploitation telling us what to believe.

I'll finish this with a story from last night. I was having a conversation with a man who works as a driver for FedEx. He has been there for many years, is extremely loyal to the company, and knows the game of supply chain operation like the back of his hand. He told me that, in order to keep costs low, the company has to cut corners on trivial things like the trucks they drive every single day. His vehicle is the newest on the lot... it's a '94. Most of them are from the late '80's to early 90's, have 300,000-400,000 miles on them, and sit on rotted frames. They are being asked to make more deliveries in less time, greatly sacrificing customer service. And these drivers care very deeply about their customers. But while the company can't afford these nice things, they can afford $7.6 million / year to purchase the Washington Redskins' stadium and $20-25 million to sponsor a Nascar team. None of the workers have a say in that decision. Funny how we reject the idea of a monarchy as a country but put up with it every day of our lives when we go to work. What if all FedEx employees from the CEO down to the drivers were allowed to vote on where that $32 million should be spent? Then again, we wouldn't want to accidentally commit an act of socialism now would we?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Say it Ain't So Glenn Beck!!

Ladies and gentlemen... today I came across something very disturbing. Something SO DISTURBING that it may just signal the end of civilization as we know it. The and Gawker Media just reported that Fox News may not renew Glenn Beck's contract when it ends in December. Of course, neither of these are considered to be the most reliable news sources in the world. But I ask myself, would Glenn Beck be so quick to write off such an earth-shattering and apocalyptic rumor?!?!?! Glenn Beck would have the courage to see the deeper conspiracy here, that forces too great and powerful for us to comprehend are plotting to silence the voice of truth!!


I would gladly offer proof of this conspiracy, and THERE IS PLENTY OF PROOF. But in lieu of a chalkboard and ridiculous props, I shall honor this leader of men - this watchful protector who guards us from the socialist agenda that threatens to swallow us whole every day - in the best way I know how: with a video montage of some of his timeless theories performed by Jon Stewart

Godspeed, Glenn.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Strange, these numbers don't seem to add up...

So the country's debt is spiraling out of control and sacrifices need to be made. The Republicans have taken the offensive on this one, courageously sticking it to the soulless parasites that caused this mess in the first place - the finance execs whose irresponsible manipulation of the system resulted total economic collapse and whose recent bailing out by the tax payers has preserved their right to live extravagant lifestyles at the expense of everyone else the teachers and public workers' unions. That's right, those bastards have been living the good life on our coin for far too long. Luckily, we're ready to fight back. Governor Scott Walker took the spotlight with his heroic attempts to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights (firefighters and police officers exempted) so that income increases could not be negotiated beyond that which is noted in the Consumer Price Index. Now Ohio and Indiana are doing the same. So that's it, right? Problem solved?

Some men just want to watch the world burn (Source:
As it turns out, not so much. This seemingly honest attempt to attack the already underprivileged backbone of our society may actually be a bit... misguided. As alternatives, liberal politicians and blogocrats have been throwing around some pretty farfetched ideas such as cutting defense spending, clamping down on corporate tax evasion, and letting tax cuts to families making over $250,000 / year expire. But as crazy and nonsensical as those sound, they may be right. Don't take my word for it, though, let's take a look at the numbers.

Using Gov. Walker's proposal as a benchmark, Republicans expect to create $300 million in savings over the next 2 years ($150 million per year) in WI. Assuming these results represent the average for what other states could expect, and that these projections are reliable, this would mean $7.5 billion in savings if all 50 states took the same union-busting measures. How do some of the other proposals compare? (note: defense spending is notably omitted because some things don't even need commentary)

  • Corporate tax evasion: One of the biggest methods that U.S. based multinational corporations use to avoid income tax is called the "Double Irish" or "Dutch Sandwich" (both of which sound like sex positions you'd encounter in a threesome). Our friends at Bloomberg calculate that this accounts for $60 billion in lost revenue every year.
  • Bush Tax Cuts: First of all, these cuts applied to more than just the super-wealthy. Nearly everybody received cuts. What the Democrats had hoped to do last year was maintain cuts for low- and middle-income families, while allowing cuts for those making over $250,000/year to expire. As we all know, the compromise that was struck did not achieve this. But what if they had succeeded? The Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that making the cuts permanent to all would have costed $3.3 trillion over 10 years, while limiting extension only to those below the $250,000 bracket would have costed $2.2 trillion. In other words, tax cuts for the wealthy account for an estimated $1.1 trillion over 10 years. That's an average of $110 billion every year. To be fair, though, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that for 2011 specifically, tax cuts for the wealthy would account for around $40 billion.
I'm sure there are plenty of holes in these equations, but the result is still pretty straightforward. We could save $7.5 billion / year by abandoning our teachers and unionized public servants OR we could save $60 billion by closing corporate tax loopholes and $40-$110 billion by restoring taxes on the wealthy to Clinton-era levels. Then again, we don't want our best and brightest to have to miss any payments on their private yachts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Things Always Get Worse Before They Get Better: The Life of a Homosexual in Uganda

Reading the text of the bill, I remarked to my partner that, according to the proposed law, we deserved the death penalty. Well, we are “serial offenders,” aren’t we? That was the lowest ebb in our lives. I remember that I felt the worst kind of despair. There was even something called the “homosexual touch”—as if our touch could spread homosexuality like a disease. We are lepers, to be shunned. The only thing good for us was death or life imprisonment: that is what our countrymen thought of us.

- Gay Uganda

With so much going on in our own lives and in our own country, it's easy to become isolated. But damn, things could be so much worse. This morning I read a story from a man who refers to himself as "Gay Uganda" (link here) It describes in painful detail the difficulty of being a gay man in a country that morally and legally abhors homosexuality. His form of suffering is one I could never imagine - discovery, denial, guilt, and constant fear. It's a reality that we would do well to understand because it shows us the very real consequences of prejudice and hate. And it is a story that is very apropos given the context of recent events.

On January 26, 2011, Uganda was thrust into the spotlight with the murder of David Kato Kisule, a teacher and high-profile human rights activist who was a leading figure in the underground LGBT rights movement. Shortly before being killed, his picture and address was featured along with roughly 100 other gay Ugandans in the popular tabloid, Rolling Stone, under the headline "Hang Them." Whereas many would be tempted to go into hiding, Kato actually took the case to court. The ensuing legal battle resulted in the dismantling of Rolling Stone and reparations of 1.5 million Ugandan shillings each to Kato and two other plaintiffs. But it also put a target on Kato's back and arguably led directly to his death.


Unfortunately, this incident is the latest in a line of human rights disasters in a country that has long reviled homosexuality. The story was first reported in America in March, 2009 when three evangelical Christian Americans arrived in the Uganda capital to give a series of talks on the "Hidden and dark [gay] agenda." The talks were met with rapturous attention, and only one month later a Ugandan politician proposed the Anti Homosexuality Bill of 2009. The exact text of the bill can be read here, but for those who want the abridged version it goes on to define acts of "homosexuality" and "aggressive homosexuality" (the latter including serial homosexuality or having engaged in more than one act) and calls for anything from a 7 year prison sentence to life sentences to death penalty for those that are ruled guilty. The bill passed September 2009.

Upon learning this brief history, my first impulse was to wonder what in the world happened to all the progress we were supposed to have made as a human society. But it would be premature to forget how far we've come. Our own country has seen similar battles for equality throughout its history - abolition of slavery and ethnic equality, women's suffrage, immigration, gay rights, etc. Some of these have seen equal drama and bloodshed, and all are ongoing to some extent. But in each of these cases, one thing remains true: progress will always win. I can guarantee that in a few years, decades, or whatever those opposed to gay marriage in America will be considered among the distant minority. Uganda probably has a much longer battle ahead of it, but things always get worse before they get better. Still, let's not forget the story of Gay Uganda and the consequences that it teaches us. These battles take a heavy toll.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Information Age and Why Anonymous Makes a Good Point

Today I came across an open letter to the world that Anonymous put out online. Anonymous, for those who don't know, is a loose organization of like-minded "hackers" that have become best known for their distributed denial-of-service (DoS) attacks against those that they have identified as enemies of internet free speech. They have recently gained a great deal of renown amidst the ongoing WikiLeaks controversy. Their stance has always been to preserve open exchange of information on the internet, and today's letter eloquently explains why.

I highly recommend that everyone give the letter a good read. I'm sure many would be quick to write this off as a bunch of crazies just flying off the handle, but they bring up a very good point. There are two things that everyone should understand. First, a free and open internet is incredibly important and it is something that we take for granted every day. Secondly, it is very much at risk

The internet is how we get our information, whether that means seeing your friend's post about the chicken teriyaki they just man-handled via Facebook or reading first-hand accounts of protesters in Cairo. It is how we stay informed, connected, and organized. It is a tool that puts incredible power into the hands of the people, and we are reminded of that every day when we access the news. The protests spreading across the Middle East and North Africa - Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Yemen - are all connected in one way:  the use of the web and social media to coordinate and raise awareness. When revolutionaries became a threat to Mubarak's regime in Egypt, his first move was to cut off access to the internet. Twitter postings about the "Jasmine Revolution" in China prompted their government to start deleting all mention of planned protests in Shanghai and 11 other cities. And similar acts of online censorship can be seen in Syria and other countries. Here in the states, we are drowning in shit from media powerhouses that would rather talk about the Oscars and Charlie Sheen's arrest record than real news. How else are we to learn about what's going on around the world?

Poor Qaddafi has every right to be scared (

The scariest thing is that the fight for an open internet is going on right now within our borders. Many have likely heard of the FCC's recent action around net neutrality, something that Senator Al Franken recently referred to as "the most important free speech issue of our time." Internet providers are vying for the right to paid prioritization or even to outright block certain content. Imagine if Comcast allowed YouTube to pay for faster browsing or download speeds. Any up-and-coming competitors would be hamstringed by the fact that they don't have the coffers to afford the same privilege. As Franken asks in an editorial in the Huffington Post, what if Verizon decided to block Google Maps (a free app) on your phone in favor of Verizon Navigator, a paid service that isn't nearly as good? What if Comcast decided to block access to Netflix in favor of their more expensive Video OnDemand service? Hell, what if an internet provider with an agenda could prevent access to the website of a political party or candidate? The FCC, in a phenomenal display of ineptitude, put out a piece of legislation that actually opens the door for this kind of corporate control (at least over wireless networks) and proves their inability to protect our right to digital free speech. And while this is more anti-competitive than downright censorship, it shows that all it takes is a series of misguided or malicious political maneuvers to put us in the same unfortunate situation as that of China or North Korea.

So the question that remains is what we can do about this. As the letter from Anonymous so wisely states, don't sit on your ass. I would say this:  pay attention when you're mindlessly surfing the internet. Ask yourself, did I learn anything valuable? And is this something that I couldn't have easily learned elsewhere? Even more importantly, exercise your right to learn from and share with others online. Go to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or your favorite blog and start saying or reading shit. Leave comments, update your status, post a URL to an interesting website or article, whatever it is just do something. For those who are really motivated, call your congressman or state senator and ask what their position on net neutrality is. What Anonymous is really saying is that nobody is going to keep the internet free but us. And some things are worth fighting for.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Friendly Disclaimer

This is my first blog, and I can see no better way of honoring it than to immediately strip it of its wonder and magic through a cold, heartless disclaimer.  It is with gleeful enjoyment that I warn all readers of the following:

The content contained herein reflects the views and opinions of one person.  Anyone who disagrees can go ahead and create their own blog.  The Ardent Fool takes no responsibility for mental trauma incurred as a result of the following:  offensive views, ample amounts of obscenity, inclusion of blunt and unpleasant truths (e.g. Santa Claus isn't real, electro ab-shocker belts are not a legitimate form of exercise, soylent green is people, and so on), or run-of-the-mill stupidity.

That said, if I do say anything ridiculous or cite facts, I will do my best to source it.  Please enjoy and comment to your heart's content.