Thursday, December 29, 2005

double true

Rather than recap and catalogue the endless riches of "Lazy Sunday," I just wanted to note that, inspired by Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell, my sister and I invented a slang term for the five dollar bill.

From now on, the five is called a "slider."

As in, "We can't do the paid parking - I dropped that last slider on shallots at Whole Foods," or "I have a slider, I'll cover the tip."

Got that?


P.S. You can get "Lazy Sunday" on the iTunes Music Store, or at If they had an annual red-carpet sketch comedy award, this thing would win for 2005. And the award would be a gold-plated statuette of a cowbell.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How Do You Sleep?

Three recent articles deal with the hotel industry’s Cold War-style amenities escalation. Two from fairly reputable papers, the SF Chronicle and the Washington Post, and a more sympathetic but rambling account in the East Bay Express.

For folks who don’t know about this, here’s the gist from the Chronicle.

Travelers are raving about the enormous, fluffy new beds that the nation's biggest hotel chains are spending millions on as they one-up each other in an escalating mattress war...The same beds that are so kind to travelers' backs are wreaking havoc on hotel housekeepers who wrestle with the behemoths -- not to mention the amazing array of pillows, duvet covers, down comforters, 300-thread-count sheets, shams, bed skirts, bolsters and bed scarves that need daily tending...Federal statistics show it's a real problem, and a study published in July by UCSF researchers found 3 out of 4 hotel housekeepers experience "very severe" pain...The problem, according to union representatives, doctors and those charged with keeping those beds made, is housekeepers are being forced to clean the same number of rooms per shift even as the beds grow ever bigger and more elaborate, requiring more time to change. The housekeepers are hurting themselves trying to keep up.

In upscale hotels, this problem has been obscured for so long that chronic injury and medical complications, as well as frequent over-reliance on pain medication have become the status quo in hotel housekeeping. And it’s not limited to housekeepers. According to the BLS, hotel workers suffer an on-the-job injury rate second only to healthcare workers.

The hotel industry, as it struggles to make amenities more and more luxurious, is literally breaking down the bodies of the women and men (it’s overwhelmingly women, and low-income, immigrant women at that) it employs.

I brought all this up not because if its relationship to my job, but because I think it’s worth probing the concept of luxury, and its “unseen” cost. Luxury is the next frontier, or rather the only remaining frontier, for American companies looking to beat out their foreign competitors (assuming they aren’t interested in challenging the various norms of the market). It’s critical that we recognize both the visible and obscured cost of luxury, in whatever segment of the economy. We have a tendency to equate the cost of luxury with its price, when of course the relationship is much more complicated. This holds true whether we’re talking about sprawl, household appliances, hotel amenities, technological development, or whatever luxury offers consumers something above and beyond their expectation. Paying for the luxury somehow seems to both justify it and distance consumers from its consequences.

To me, UNITE HERE’s rhetoric and framing of housekeeping workloads effectively closes that gap, and thus offers an ideal example for how to approach this kind of problem. It confronts consumers with the less savory side of their own satisfaction. It forces them to recognize not just the impact of their thirst for luxury, but also their basic identity as consumers. Their comfort relies on underpaid, backbreaking physical labor, and their money makes them partially responsible for the welfare of those who serve them.

Lots of implications for the Wal-mart campaign as well, but that’s another thing.

Friday, December 23, 2005


I saw this movie with Camille last week. I don’t know if you were aware, but “Syriana” is actually Farsi for “Traffik.” Seriously, the critics’ comparisons between Steven Gaghan’s script for Traffic (the American adaptation) and his script for this new film have completely understated the case.

All the same elements are there:

- insulated American family torn apart by exposure to the seamy underbelly – with disastrous consequences.

- brown person, acting as a humanizing counterpoint, struggles on the other side against the effects of white bureaucrat’s policy and power struggles – with disastrous consequences.

- investigator(s)drawn deeper into the puzzle through personal involvement – with disastrous consequences.

- wistful/subtle human moments, thrown in at random to remind us that all the characters are alive, and have concerns we’re supposed to remember.

- absurdly intricate political, legal, financial maneuvering.

- every character pre-equipped with personal dimension and professional objectives, tailor-made for dramatic conflict.

But the first movie was much better. Good enough to give the original BBC mini-series a decent run for its money. Syriana, though entertaining and beautiful to watch, and really well acted by everyone, still gave off the overpowering impression that there was one, maybe even two better movies buried in it somewhere.

The hinge, the emotional hook for a film like this ought to be the relationship between macro-economic/political/cultural forces and the personal motivations of those affected by them. The movie tries repeatedly to get this right, but for me it kept falling flat.

The main problem is believability. I have no qualms with the suggestion that energy companies dictate foreign policy, or that we kill our enemies to promote our interests, or that regulatory bodies are in bed whoever they’re supposed to regulate, or that economic hardship and tantalizing French fries can combine to create a recruitable terrorist. But if you’re going to put these suggestions forth, it should be done credibly and compellingly, in a way that fleshes out the underlying motives rather than reducing them to caricature. The Manchurian Candidate remake suffered from the same problem.

One last question: Steven Soderbergh was (obviously, to anyone who’s seen it) associated with this film.

Is his name pronounced Soderbergh like how someone from Providence would say “soda pop,” or Soderbergh as in the soldering iron of justice?

    Wednesday, December 21, 2005

    the skinny

    Here are the top ten important developments in my life, presented in descending order of importance.

    1) I am engaged to be married.

    2) I am currently running the hotel boycott for UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco.

    3) I am applying to law school.

    4) I have officially been exercising at a gym for the last whole, entire year. There is no visible change. Except it hasn't prevented me from losing a little more hair.

    5)...which brings me to number five. I am losing my hair, slowly. Folks who've known me for a long time probably won't notice the difference. I could give a fuck, frankly. Just like to get it out in the open.

    6) Having achieved some vague proficiency on the guitar, I'm now learning the mandolin. If necessary, go ahead and read that sentence again.

    7) After you've prepared the various ingredients of an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich, you can't just slap them together and eat it. You have to give the sandwich ingredients some time to get to know each other. The whole thing has to pull together and accept that it's a sandwich, and not separate breakfast (or in my case, dinner) ingredients. I can't stress this enough. In fact, if I was making this list again, I'd put this one higher. Dammit.

    8) Achewood. Achewood Achewood Achewood. Achewood.

    9) There's a lot more fake meat in my diet now. Between Morningstar Farms, which makes eerily believable bacon and sausage, and Golden Era on O'Farrell St., this has been a banner year for suspended disbelief. Of course, I have no clue how close in taste and texture this stuff really is, since it's been so long since I ate the real thing. It'd be like if someone gave me a fake Squeeze-It (TM) and asked me to compare it to the real thing. It's just been too long, man.

    10) Our cat has developed into a bloodthirsty biting machine. Compare and contrast the following:

    Scene from 998 Divisadero, #201, ca. 12/04:

    Alek: Hey, furball. You look like you wanna wrestle. Huh? (waves arms in cat's face) Wanna wrestle? Oh, you're getting in some good chomps now. Yeah, you're chomping good now. (to fiance) Hey, check out Chompsky over here.

    Camille: (silence)

    Alek: She's manufacturing some serious consent! (beat) Chompsky!!

    Camille: (sighs)

    Scene from 998 Divisadero, #201, ca. 12/05:

    Alek: Okay, I'm going to get up and take a shower...


    ...Ow! Oowww!!!! Stop attacking my calves! Get, off! Ow, fuck!! That hurt, goddamnit!

    Camille: What's going on?

    Alek: Nothing, just -- (dull thud) -- Son of a BITCH!

    Camille: ... are you OK?

    Alek: I hit my head on the door.


    Alek: Stop biting me!

    it wouldn't be newplastic...

    ...without periods of total inactivity punctuated by spasmodic appearances of content.


    Update to follow.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2005

    old plastic

    So sorry.

    I badly wanted to keep this weblog going through my transition to a new job, but things have been far too busy and, frankly, I can't get perspective. I'm dividing my time between San Francisco and San Jose, trying to get my arms around a difficult and draining job. All of you who have done full-time organizing know how much it insulates you from the rest of the world -- it's a challenge to maintain a personal life at all, and my determination to do that (I'm sorry to say) far outweighs my desire to project half-truths, insults, and jumbled political analysis into cyberspace.

    So, it's time to recognize the inevitable and put this blog on layaway, for when I have more money or leisure.

    If NewPlastic re-emerges again in the future, which it very well might, I'll let everyone know.

    Until then, keep on.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2005

    The Papal Platform

    Daniel Munz over at Politics and War made an important point amidst all the hubbub around what JPII did and didn't stand for.

    I’ve seen the same phenomenon, writ larger, coming from both the left and the right: The Pope should have been more responsive to women’s needs; the Pope shouldn’t have been so suspicious of capitalism; the Pope should have been more sympathetic towards [random partisan cause/viewpoint]. Well, I’m here to say: Cut it out. None of this stuff is the Pope’s job, and the reason it’s not is the most valuable lesson liberals could possibly learn from his passing. Reading Linker’s piece, and listening to the left and right claim him for his own, something really odd started to emerge: They were all talking about the man as though he were a Senator, not a Pope.

    Dan claims, and I agree up to this point, that

    It is not his job to be maximally inclusive - as Linker puts it, to acknowledge that “[many] positions have moral weight” - or to represent everyone’s viewpoint or concern. It is his job to make pronouncements of Church doctrine, based solely on holy scriptures, his own moral intuition, and the divine guidance that is provided to him. Nothing more, nothing less, and no obligation to represent any viewpoint but his own.

    But here's where we diverge, which you'll see in the comments. Of course the Pope is a politician, because anyone playing in his league has to be. But his real responsibility is to lead and protect the church based on those three elements (scripture, intuition, divine guidance). I don't know what God told the Pope about abusing pre-pubescent Catholics, but I'm guessing that He didn't say "Just look the other way, it'll blow over." As for condoms, it's not in the Bible, and you can even ask these guys.

    People have since told me that, given the political realities of the Catholic Church, the Pope could never take a stand for condom use to prevent AIDS. But we know well how successful this very Pope was at subtly bypassing the Church's archaic dictates in favor of a more humanist approach. People told me, and I believed them for a while, that what the Pope said didn't matter to the ground operations of AIDS-relief organizations...but it did (and this link is from less than three months ago).

    The bottom line is, the Bible gives him leeway to endorse birth control to prevent AIDS, and nothing excuses his pathetic response to sexual abuse within his ranks.

    I admire JPII tremendously for his efforts and accomplishments, but in light of these failures I placed little faith in his moral intuition or his interpretation of scripture, and, obviously I don't think he and God were on the Nextel everyday.

    Thought that would have been great fodder for one of those late-in-the-episode SNL sketches that beat a single half-formed joke to death over the course of fifteen minutes.


    "John Paul, it's God."
    "One second, man, I'm six minutes into my 8-min abs."
    "You fat liar."
    "Okay, I'm done. Did you page me before?"
    "Shit." Boo-BEEP. Fuck, I don't know how to work this thing."


    Tuesday, April 12, 2005

    Lama vs. Boss

    JPII is universally recognized as the human being seen in person by the largest number of people, ever.

    So, who's second?

    Basically, as with many thorny questions facing modern humanity, it comes down to a choice between Bruce Springsteen and the Dalai Lama.

    Friends of mine will know where I come down on this one.

    I will do a review of the new Springsteen album, unlike all the other ones I promised but never wrote. Just so you know, I made notes for those reviews, extensive notes, but never have time to sit down and write them. From now on when I go to shows I'll just publish my notes verbatim, so it'll be more immediate and authentic. Plus you'll be privy to such critical aesthetic insights as "Move your fucking head, woman!" and "This would probably sound better if I was drinking."

    More on the pope tomorrow.

    from the latest hi-atus...

    Sorry it's been so long. I was worried that my job would take away time from doing this, and I was right. I know the content has been vaguely slipping recently as well.

    Believe me, it hurts me more than it hurts you.

    Especially since it doesn't affect you at all.

    So, I mighta been overly ambitious in promising only a slight reduction in posting frequency, but don't get it twisted -- the newplastic weblog takes some catnaps but it's still alive and ready to rumble like Koko B. Ware.

    From now on, look for a couple posts a week, more when there's time and less when there's not.

    That's all.

    I'll be back.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2005

    my readers = thieving bastards

    As we approach the end of March, I was checking my domain stats to see who all is visiting the site and why.

    I was glad to see that, as with the last two months, my number of visitors is steadily increasing. And, as before, I'm simultaneously validated and embarassed by the search phrases which yield links to my site. For every "Senegalese music and politics" (hooray!) search string, there's also someone out there looking for "little girls fucking," or a completely baffling phrase like "simultaneous and sequential strategic thrusts starbucks."

    And, obviously, I'll transfer the total current balance of my bank account to anyone who knows why somebody would open the Yahoo browser and type in the word "pantswetting." Unless it actually was Lawrence V. Jackson looking for help with a problem which may or may not be afflicting him due to the gross tonnage of asskicking his employer has received recently.

    More to the point, I wanted to take a moment to let you all know that people are stealing my scholarship hardcore. After the blog, my analysis of Mozart K.332 is the most visited section of my website, with the other analytical essays close behind. I'm desperately hoping that some of these folks are from Yale and taking the same courses from the same professors that I was, so when the paper eventually gets read the prof. will be like:

    "Wait a minute, that's the same dumbass, garbage idea Alek tried to pass off as legitimate...Hmmm, I better get to the bottom of this. Teaching Assistants! To the Subcontracted Batcave!"

    Alright. Clearly I can't wrangle this post into cohesion.

    Stop stealing my papers.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2005

    lights out! Guerrilla Radio!!!

    You remember that song?

    "lights out/guerrilla radio/turn that shit up!"

    That song knocked me on my ass. This post should be about how that song, and by extension, all of Rage Against The Machine's The Battle of Los Angeles knocked me on my ass, and why, but now that my salary's paid by hotel worker union dues instead of lawyers I have to stop slacking off at work.

    In fact, I only mentioned it here because is crashing all over the place and I haven't been able to post in two days. So I was idly contemplating whether guerrilla blogging would work, and wondering if it'll could take off in Chiapas or Chechnya. They could pass recipes back and forth.

    Regardless: I wanted to let my attentive readership know that while the quality of New Plastic Weblog will never waiver (see guarantee), the frequency will probably need to be scaled back to 3-4 posts per week.

    I know, I know. Where will you get random, poorly-researched musings on what makes radio loud, or half-hearted reviews of live performances by bands about which the reviewer has already made up his mind? Not to mention, where will you get an unending stream of union-babble (which is like psycho-babble, but sweatshop free)?

    The thing is, I have less time now that I'm working at Local 2, but I still feel (no disrespect to others in the blogosphere) that simply posting links to interesting current events isn't worth it. Y'all can read the news online yourselves. My position so far has been that if I don't plan to add something substantive to a current controversy/development, I won't post up a link about it. Of course, I like to keep my definition of "substantive" flexible enough to include unprovoked vicious personal attacks on people whose politics I dislike.

    But never fear. Once I've got a decent sense of my work schedule I'll be ramping it back up to 5/week.

    In the meantime, Jesse Jackson has embarked on his most recent bout of economy-sized shark jumping.

    Mountain of medical science/due process, get out of his way.

    Friday, March 25, 2005


    They're coming. They must be reading my blog.

    Oh, man.

    Thursday, March 24, 2005

    tired of taking it to the bridge?

    Here are a few recommendations of bizarre but rewarding music that is most likely off your radar. This post was inspired by my recent exposure to "The Most Unwanted Song" (described below). People with a healthy and/or nerdy interest in music will enjoy these.

    Negativeland - Dispepsi. I never listened much to Negativeland, I think because their deliberate efforts to provoke copyright litigation seemed contrived. But the truth is I ignored them into I heard Dispepsi yesterday, which was awesome. It's a sound-collage on the subject of Cola Wars, marketing, consumerism, and market greed, set to music and interspersed with original songs. Incredible richness of archived sound footage from commercials, talk-radio, news broadcasts, and interviews, as well as internal memos from Pepsi marketing. Hilarious, thought-provoking, sad, angry. Serious background work went into this album, and it shows. Plus it's pretty groovy.

    Komar & Melamid (w/Dave Soldier) - The Most Wanted Song/The Most Unwanted Song. You might have heard about this on This American Life, but in essence: two guys did an online poll of likes and dislikes in music, then composed the Most Wanted and Most Unwanted song. The most wanted song, incorporating as it does every one of the elements that people like (moderate tempo, volume, smooth instrumentation, lovey-dovey lyrics, etc.), is fucking awful. The Most Unwanted Song, however, is a wonderful achievement and unbearably hilarious. I'm not kidding, it's physically impossible not to laugh when an operatic soprano (opera hate) begins kicking rhymes (rap hate) about being a cowboy. And, of course, since it's the Most Unwanted Song it's also over 20 minutes long. The precise moment when I fell on the ground uncontrollably weeping from hilarity was when the kids singing holiday songs scream out the following: "Ramadan, Ramadan, lots of praying but no BREAKFAST!" That is an actual lyric.

    John Oswald - Plunderphonics. You can't buy a new John Oswald CD anywhere because he's been sued so many times that he now gives them away to avoid litigation. However, he graciously allows other small record labels to bootleg and release his albums, which are entirely constituted of uncleared, pre-released, recognizable sound material (albeit heavily manipulated). Dolly Parton sings "The Great Pretender" with a pitch-modulated male version of herself. Every grunt, growl, and scream from James Brown collide with hiphop samples of Brown, making a stuttery funk that pays tribute to the Bomb Squad and Eric B. while also presenting them with a biting critique of their parasitism. Michael Jackson's "Bad" becomes a Reichian phase pattern. And Carly Simon duels with Chocolate Starfish over who does a better version of "You're So Vain." Luckily, the gimmicks rarely get in the way of compositional craft, so Plunderphonics is anything but a novelty. It contains a great deal of humor (including the now-unfortunate Michael Jackson lyrical pastiche "your butt is/love"), but overall the mood is fairly serious. Get the "Plunderphonics 69" two-disc set if you can find it on Gemm or elsewhere.

    That's all for now. I can burn some of this stuff for anyone who wants. Review of last night's Rainer Maria/Minipop show coming up tomorrow or the next day.

    Wednesday, March 23, 2005

    together again, for the very first time

    here are some folks that, had they worked together, would have made wonderful music. Note: these are all artists that could, based on time period, geography, etc. have realistically collaborated (or could still). Please hit me back with your own in the comments section. Or, if you're shy, you can just email your additions to me. Soon as I get them, I'll just post them up here along with your full name and my general thoughts on your personality, physical appearance, etc.

    Kate Bush/David Byrne
    Rachel's/Leonard Cohen
    DJ Spooky/Bernard Parmegiani
    Laurie Anderson/Greenwood bros. (Radiohead)
    Morton Feldman/Sun Ra

    and my alltime hail mary nothing-on-the-line backcourt dying wish request:

    George Gershwin/Dave Tarras

    Man, how tight would that have been? Only in dreams.

    (p.s. I just finalized the boycott organizing details, so I start my new job with UNITE-HERE this coming Monday. Here's more info on what I'll be doing)

    Tuesday, March 22, 2005

    From Fiddler on the Roof to Beatbox in the Hood

    From Fiddler on the Roof to blah blah blah blah. Any panel discussion that starts with "From Fiddler on the Roof to..." inevitably ends up like a Shabas dinner when you were ten -- boring, irrelevant babble from old people punctuated by moments of keen, unbearable embarassment.

    That certainly covers much of the panel I attended last night at the JCCSF (same title as post), but luckily it had a few wonderful moments too. The guests were Theodore Bikel, Hankus Netsky, Jewlia Eisenberg, and DJ SoCalled (who one old lady, in a moment of surreal hilarity, referred to as "DJ" like it was his first name).

    Like many panels I've attended, the people on stage were smarter than anyone else who spoke, and should have been left, unmoderated and unquestioned, to their own devices. Instead they had to struggle through incoherent questions and badly-parsed cliches just to say something interesting. I wish I'd brought a notebook because Netsky and SoCalled actually built a decent dialogue on their divergent aims regarding musical reconstruction. A few things that did stick with me:

    - Theodore Bikel saying that Fiddler on the Roof is great theatre, but it's still a "substitute schtetl," which many (Jewish and not) use to assuage their guilt or fulfill their quota of Jewish awareness. He called it "paying someone to Jew for you," which sounds more bitter out of context than it was intended. He believes that Fiddler can be an excellent starting point, inspiration, or confirmation in the journey of Jewish experience, but it "better not be the endpoint."

    - Hankus Netsky decrying the dismissal of Jewish arts in contemporary Academia, and the relegation of music to the back burner in Yiddish theatre specifically.

    - SoCalled reminding the audience that Copeland and Bernstein are "wonderful Jewish American composers...who wrote like white people."

    - SoCalled objecting to the label of "Jewish hiphop," not because it pigeonholed him, but because it misunderstood the nature of hiphop music. This was a perfect comment (roughly quoted): "Hiphop is about representing who you are. I'm Jewish, and that has come to heavily inform the hiphop that I make, but it's still hiphop. It's time for the ghetto to end."

    What was missing from the talk, but what presumably gets said quite a bit, is the remarkable tool hiphop has contributed to the American Jewish struggle for identity. As last night's introductory monologue from Aaron Davidman (of Traveling Jewish Theater) observed, our religion is about wrestling with ourselves and God. The ability of hiphop (through sampling, wordplay, and cultural association) to continuously re-engage history fits perfectly into the ongoing metaphysical Wrestlemania that defines our religion. SoCalled tried to explain why it made such a natural match, and why it should not be dismissed, but there was too much Bikel-related asskissing nostalgia for that point to get through. Not to say he doesn't deserve it. But SoCalled and others are right to warn the older generation that the next wave of Jews need something besides Tevye to hold onto.

    Oh, also. Buy all of SoCalled's albums, because, instead of falling prey to all the gimmicks you might expect, they kick total ass.

    Monday, March 21, 2005

    I'll change my name to Waspy McKillThoseGuys

    That is, if I want to get on a jury around here.

    A prosecutor revealed last week that, apparently, it may have been standard practice to exclude Jews and black women from juries on cases involving capital punishment. Your first question might be:

    "Yo, that sounds a little multiculturally questionable, but if the effective purpose of jury selection is to give both sides an equal shot at building a receptive jury, how come it's wrong for prosecutors to challenge jurors they think are likely to sympathize with the defense?"

    Well, I hope that's not your first question. Because in the courtroom, like in the classroom, workplace, and lunch counter, discrimination based on race or religion is (at least nominally) prohibited by law. And in all of these arenas it's often tough to provide evidence of discrimination, so explicit public testimony from a prosecutor makes a nice change.

    Needless to say, the issue has created an enormous amount of turmoil. But there's one question which hasn't been widely addressed, as far as I can see. I won't speak on black women, but are Jews actually less likely to support the death penalty? From the extensive public opinion research I've done so far (to my foreign readership, that's pronounced "Google"), Jews seem to be roughly in line with national trends on capital punishment. I wish I could say different of my people, but hell, it's not like that's a first for me.

    So I wondered why prosecutors would stick with this formula if the polls don't bear it out. Geographical difference undoubtedly affect jury selection techniques. Also, it may be that the strength of opinion (i.e. how much they care) makes more of a difference than the basic for/against.

    Anybody out there know more about this? Hit me with some comments.

    Friday, March 18, 2005

    i can't escape

    I know people are sick of reading about this damn corporation, but they're just getting their ass kicked so hard that my manhood requires me to post about it.

    Walmart paid $11 million today to settle an impending civil immigration case involving the use of "illegal" immigrant workers. This was a no-brainer, since Walmart has been the subject of a four-year federal investigation for using the workers in the first place, not paying them or covering their injury insurance, and...wait for it...LOCKING THEM INSIDE THE STORES DURING THE NIGHT-SHIFT. This is actually a more common practice than you'd think, but the Wal-Mart suit helped bring this hazardous and degrading "anti-theft technique" to light.

    As always, though, when Walmart loses it tends to still win. In this case, the $11 million settlement is the largest civil immigration settlement to date, but Wal-mart avoided any criminal charges on the issue.

    Eh. Regardless, this settlement demonstrates again why the legal battle against Wal-Mart will form such a crucial part of the overall Wal-Mart campaign. We need a sea change in public perception of Wal-Mart, a wholesale recognition and condemnation of the enormous gap between what America's largest employer preaches and what it practices. High profile suits, while of course providing justice for Wal-Mart's victims, also bring the continuing injustices -- and our willing dismissal of them -- into stark relief. So even when cases like this don't present us with a complete win, they set the framework for an ongoing fight and bring us a few steps closer to the inevitable reckoning.

    So to speak. I enjoy talking about the Wal-Mart campaign in Messianic terms.

    Thursday, March 17, 2005

    Otherside, Invisible Cities, etc. 3/16 at 12 Galaxies

    Though the show itself had its ups and downs, it’s been almost two months since I’ve seen some live music so I remained completely content throughout. Plus, 12 Galaxies (on Mission St. in San Francisco) has Full Sail on tap.

    The venue is bizarre, to say the least. It’s sort of like seeing a show in an Iroquois longhouse, if you can imagine. The shape doesn’t adversely affect the sound in any serious way, but it creates a feeling of emptiness even with a good-sized audience. Given that it was a Wednesday night four-act show starting at 9PM, the crowd was decent. Had my girlfriend not been under the weather I would have had someone to talk to, but nice folks were all around.

    Okay, music. The opener, Habit Forming, did an excellent job of completely weirding everyone out. I had a blast imagining them as the band for Peewee’s Playhouse – a position in which they would have excelled. They’re a local dance-rock outfit with vague funk and metal leanings, and no discernible self-awareness. The highlights were a fragmented song-cycle dedicated to Josie Wales and an absurd, jerkily dance-able cover of Slayer’s “Angel of Death.” As usual, I was much more interested in hearing other people play Slayer than in listening to the actual albums themselves.

    Fastpass, the second band, burned through about twelve uptempo indie screamers, a la The Thermals or the Get Up Kids of a few years ago. I can’t offer a lot of comment here because this particular indie subgenre tends to leave me lukewarm. Great to bounce around to, difficult to remember afterwards.

    The main reason I went to the show was to see The Invisible Cities live, since their album has been in non-stop rotation at work and at home for the last month or so. Like I said before, this band has a huge talent and tons of potential. The live show covered all the same emotional territory as the album, and I was glad to experience in person the unique moments of reckless joy, doubt, humor and quiet resignation that made Watertown so special. The absence of some of my favorite cuts was mitigated by a run-through of what seemed like a newish song, “A Squared Plus B Squared.” It’s about triangles, among other things, so awesomeness immediately followed. Anyway, reviews (even informal ones) make it nearly impossible to communicate the nature of the music, so I’ll again fall back on the tired old mainstay of accessible-but-still-slightly-insiderist comparison. Ahem: The Invisible Cities sound roughly akin to a mixture of Exile in Guyville, Life’s Too Good by the Sugarcubes, and Yo La Tengo’s mid-nineties LP, Painful. If that doesn’t explain it, I guess I’m not surprised because writing it certainly made no sense. Anyway – buy the CD and do your best not to completely adore it, I dare you.

    As for The Otherside, when they started playing I went to The Otherside of the room, where the bar is. I liked the band fine, but the sound system wasn’t doing any favors for their particular brand of dark, jagged alterna-rock. Plus by then it was 12:45AM and I had to get home. You can find some of their stuff here, which sounds considerably better than it did last night. This will sound strange coming from someone who worships Mahler and Nine Inch Nails, but The Otherside came across as altogether too serious for my taste.

    That's all. I hate writing reviews, but I desperately want people to listen to new music. Speaking of which, look forward to upcoming reviews of Corey Harris, The Decemberists, and Toychestra. (I'm really excited about Toychestra)

    Wednesday, March 16, 2005

    Walmart breathes a sigh of relief

    While "we," collectively, are still most definitely coming for their ass, it will probably be a little while before I enter that fight myself. Instead, I'll be helping these guys in their fight for decent jobs and respect at work.

    Yup, starting at the end of this month I'll be re-joining my friends at UNITE HERE as a boycott coordinator in the Bay Area. I'm sad to leave Leonard Carder, but it was time for me to stop working for the people's law firm and start working for the people directly.

    Which isn't to say that Wal-mart doesn't need to get their show bumrushed. (help with the reference for my mom, and josh).

    For one thing, they're arguing that the enormous sexual discrimination suit against them cannot be adjudicated nationally because it will violate their constitutional right to defend each individual claim. Excuse me while I vomit into my shoes. First of all, they're wrong. If this constitutional protection applied to class actions then they wouldn't exist, since class actions are specifically intended, where issues of common law and fact apply to a large group, to avoid adjudication of all the individual claims. Wal-mart, having failed to prevent class certification, is simply attacking it from another angle. And they will lose.

    However, that doesn't mean they'll necessarily lose the case. Since Wal-Mart's promotion system is unregulated and informal, proving discrimination in promotions will be more difficult for the plaintiffs. But Wal-Mart women will get justice one way or another.

    Anyway, wish me luck taking on the hotels. And thanks for all the recent encouragement. Keep on reading!

    Tuesday, March 15, 2005

    The Norton Anthology of Total B.S.

    Gale Norton and I have something in common. We both did something stupid yesterday. Though sick with flu, I stayed up way too late reading Daredevil comics from the mid-eighties period, when Frank Miller took full creative control and it started getting good.

    Gale Norton, meanwhile, embarassed herself in the national press, at the worst possible time. Her editorial, wincingly titled "Call of the Mild," describes all the technological advances that will allow energy companies to drill huge holes in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while leaving "no significant impact." Perhaps she felt it was well-timed, since Nicholas Kristof just pronounced environmentalism dead in the same paper, and Americans (ever fickle on this issue) don't seem to want oil companies drilling in ANWR at the moment. But her argument is weak, and rather than pushing hard on the foreign-oil dependence (which seems the only likely argument to win the public over) Gail Norton chose to try to convince us that extracting many billions of oil barrels will have no significant environmental impact. The consequences of transporting the oil alone are impossible to accurately gauge, and certainly cannot be guaranteed to have no significant impact, not to mention the exploratory drilling, waste management, risk of contamination.

    But there are a few more insidious problems with Norton's direction in this debate, some of which were addressed by today's NYT editorial.

    As the NYT points out, the possible yield from ANWR is, at best, only a tiny percentage of our growing oil consumption. Norton implies that drilling ANWR will solve, or at least begin to solve, the problem of foreign oil dependence and consumption growth, but she embeds an enormous lie between the following sentences:

    As part of a comprehensive energy strategy of promoting conservation and reducing dependence on foreign oil, we must increase our energy production here at home. The 1002 area is potentially the largest untapped source of oil and gas on American soil

    So, first, Norton implies that "increased energy production here at home" refers exclusively to oil. This, of course, is false. Clean and renewable energy stand to increase our energy production far beyond the capacity of a new oil source, with little to no environmental impact. Clean energy doesn't have a strong lobby yet, but that's another matter. Second, Norton implies that our foreign oil dependence is due to a lack of "tapped" resources, rather than to a lack of resources altogether combined with exponential consumption growth. ANWR may be the "largest untapped source" in the country, but that actually says nothing at all about the problem.

    The NYT also rightly observes that Norton's aggressive campaign to sell the public on arctic drilling reveals the "shallowness" of Bush's energy plan, particularly its myopic focus on increasing immediate oil supply. While simply condemning this focus as "wrong" is a good start, I think it's worth making perfectly clear why the Bush strategy focuses so hard on increased domestic supply. Domestic energy companies have an enormous influence on politics and campaign finance, and they want to bid on new, lucrative development projects like drilling ANWR. Right now, the oil industry wields a little more power in Washington than bio-diesel advocates, so they're probably gonna get their way on this one. Don't get me wrong, I totally think that Bush is stupid enough to ignore both science and economics, and decide that ANWR oil will actually provide singlehanded solution to the supply problem, but his stupidity has never prevented him from figuring out which side of the bread contains butter.

    All things considered I think Norton and Bush will have a tough time convincing the public that ANWR can be safely drilled. However, they're much more likely to be able to convince the public that we don't give a shit about the arctic caribou, especially when placed in the context of skyrocketing prices at the pump. So keep your eyes peeled for more bad science and worse economics from Gale and friends. You'll be able to recognize them because they'll be introduced with awful, awful literary puns.

    Monday, March 14, 2005

    Little Darlin', I feel that ice is slowly melting

    Or, in our case, "Little Darlin', I feel that fog is failing to burn off so I can see two fucking feet in front of my car."

    That's San Francisco.

    I won't be contributing anything useful to the blogosphere today, so please take the time you would have used groaning in displeasure or imagining me naked (I don't know all that much about my readership) to visit my links.

    You'll find an impassioned and fairly eloquent rant on how the Democratic Party does take black voters for granted over at Little Wild Bouquet.

    Anna Burger, Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU, discusses women leaders in the labor movement, the Illinois family care workers union election, and the urgent need for childcare at Unite to Win.

    And, Marten & Faye are about to get a new apartment over at Questionable Content, which is a poor substitute for them getting straight freaky in the back of the coffeeshop, but will have to do.

    Oh also, Zach is vainly defending his choice of Sarah Michelle Gellar's heaving bosom over plot depth and good writing, so Six Feet Under fans may want to weigh in on my side. Buffy fans, continue pasting glow-in-the-dark decals onto your shower curtain to make it look "spooky."

    Friday, March 11, 2005

    wal-mart obsession

    I know I post about this a lot, but hey. You knew who I was when you married me.

    We had a conversation today, on the way back from the hearing, which posed some difficult questions. I won't relate it all, but I'll just summarize the train of thought we were following, and why it took us to a tricky strategic juncture.

    1) It's a given that the fight against Wal-mart is about more than organizing workers, and people besides unions have a clear stake in its result. Moreover, just as unions have played a critical role in the fight to prevent store openings, collective bargaining agreements will probably succeed in part through coalition- building with neighborhood, environmental, and consumer groups.

    2) This coalition structure poses a problem. Unions primarily oppose Wal-mart development because the jobs are undercompensated, non-union jobs. If we had collective bargaining agreements with Wal-mart, the labor movement would be supporting their development efforts. That's how we do our thing. But won't that be selling out our coalition allies, who care about open space, sprawl, traffic, and the danger to small businesses?

    3) Well, heck. We could just be magnanimous and stay out of it, and let the other groups bar Wal-mart development on their own. After all, there's plenty of Wal-mart shops open already. We can just organize those, right?

    4) Oops, no. Two problems. First of all, our support for Wal-mart developments is the carrot, and sand-bagging them with zoning laws & rulings is the stick. Take away the carrot and we won't get too many contracts. Second of all, the zoning laws vary from place to place, and places where we can get a toe-hold in the zoning boards are few and far between. Plus, it's easier to organize right from the beginning instead of going into an existing shop. Either way, we're not going to give up a hundreds of new members that easily.

    5) So, assuming the organizing component of the Wal-mart fight starts to succeed, or succeeds beyond our dreams, there'll be some thorny coalition issues that will continue. And getting that second contract won't be half as easy without the community behind it.

    6) Here's where I take some consolation. If the coalition is strong, and smart, they'll recognize that it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Wal-mart will need to meet everyone's conditions in order to develop, at which point the only unsatisfied folks will be those that won't tolerate Wal-mart under any conditions. In my opinion, that's an unrealistic proposition even in our best dreams, and those folks were going to get sold out no matter what. Also, it is possible for unions to broaden their objectives to include open-space preservation and small-business support. It may not happen at the beginning, but I wouldn't be surprised to see those kinds of deals as the campaign continues.

    That is, of course, assuming that Wal-Mart doesn't continue whipping us to smithereens like they have been.

    An attorney at my firm wrote her thesis on using zoning law to bar Wal-mart, so I'm looking forward to reading that and learning more about the ins and outs of this. I know you're on the edge of your seat.

    we win

    We won class certification on the Best Buy case this morning. I worked on this case for about five weeks, reading all their material, preparing summaries, studying the arguments, and eventually putting it all together for filing -- so I had some personal stake. The real winners, of course, are the 900 Best Buy assistant managers in California who'll now get their day in court.

    We had a dumptruck full of legal arguments as to why assistant managers were improperly classified as exempt workers (and thus required to work overtime without compensation), and my job was to take those arguments and match them with the evidence gathered during discovery to produce a credible, substantiated claim. I know that sounds dry, but it makes a lot of difference.

    In fact, if I'm being honest, I don't think the evidence was unequivocally on our side. The opposition's argument, that 900 people in dozens of different stores could not possibly perform the exact same tasks in the same proportion, had a lot of merit. Now I'm all for slapping Best Buy with a class action lawsuit and kicking them around a little, especially if it builds precedent for future class-actions against big-box retail, but I'm not entirely sure that class certification makes sense for this case. Bear in mind, I don't have much experience on this topic, so I'll defer to the judge, but I'm just saying that it seems to me like it could have easily gone the other way. This ruling wasn't a sure thing. The truth is we probably won in large part because we put the best case together, and the other side did some stupid stuff that hurt them throughout.

    Which, incidentally, makes me all the more proud, because I know that the force of our arguments carried through despite evidentiary inconsistencies, and my research was feeding into that directly.

    Poking some holes in a big retail chain felt good.
    Yup. I'll have some more of that.

    Wednesday, March 09, 2005

    vehicular predestination

    Given the ubiquitous "What Would Jesus Drive?" bumper stickers here in the Bay Area, I started wondering whether St. Peter takes what you drive seriously when he's figuring out where to put you. I personally am a firm believer in vehicular predestination, at least in so far as it extends to people whose car purchases ought to damn them forever.

    What Would Jesus Drive? A Honda Insight, obviously, or one of those electric cars that look like lacquered rejects from the soapbox derby. But the question of "What Jesus Wouldn't Drive" has been left open for biblical scholars like myself to interpret. So, here's a list of vehicles you might own, and what kind of time they'll be buying you once you're gone.

    Hummer - This is easy. You're going to hell, which for you will consist of endlessly driving through a concrete tunnel that gets narrower and narrower, with the wretched squeal of metal on concrete your eternal company.

    Pickup trucks (w/union sticker) - "Welcome, IBEW/Carpenters/UA/ILWU member, to the kingdom of heaven. Enjoy the woodshop."

    Pickup trucks (evidence of mud and/or lumber) - St. Peter will probably send you back down to sign a union card.

    Pickup trucks (parked in Manhattan townhouse lots) - Hell.

    SUVs - "SUV hell." (Like regular hell, but hotter and more hopeless)

    Station wagons - "Welcome to Yosemite Valley, conscious consumer. You'll be spending the rest of time in this earthly paradise, with no cares or obligations. Here's some gorp."

    Toyota Rav4 - The home-made bumper sticker of my highschool classmate Andy Hentz put this more eloquently than I ever could. It was a two line poem, which read: "You drive Rav4/I hate you." God feels roughly the same way.

    Harley Davidson et al - You will go to purgatory and drink a gallon of motor oil for every time you needlessly revved your engine at 4:00AM. That ought to take you right up till J-Day.

    Segway - Heaven obviously, but you have to roll yourself around on that ridiculous thing until the second coming, so it's a "six of one" kind of deal.

    Bicycle - "It must come as a surprise to be denied entrance at the pearly gates, Lance, but the truth is it doesn't matter how many times you overcome cancer or win the Tour de France. You voted Republican. Now go stand on the X."


    Tuesday, March 08, 2005

    the blogoshield

    Sometime this week a Superior Court judge in Santa Clara will rule on whether California's Shield Law -- which protects journalists from being held in contempt for refusing to honor a subpoena of unpublished information, like sources -- applies to blog journalists.

    A few bloggers published some information about unreleased Apple products and are now being sued for the sources who may have leaked the information.

    Blah blah, I could care less about Apple's guarded secrets ("it's another, smaller, weirder version of the iPod!!!"), but obviously this case matters in the current media climate, where web logs have emerged as an unrivaled source for hidden news and investigative journalism. So, denying them journalistic protection would constitute a serious threat to the principles of free press.

    See, here in California we decided that the protected existence of free press was more critical to the health and welfare of our democracy and our society than the ability of courts to successfully subpoena unpublished notes and sources. It's something of an arbitrary trade-off, but the expectation is that journalists will use that protection to make sure the public receives an accurate and balanced picture of the world in which they live. The Shield Law protects a journalist, and not a fence for stolen goods, because society and its lawmakers have deemed the information worth protecting in the case of the former and not the latter.

    People don't consider bloggers journalists because lots of them are crackpots. Unfortunately, so are lots of "legitimate" journalists who receive protection from the Shield law simply because they're employed by something that at least refers to itself as a news-gathering organization. But the Shield Law covers any "publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed unpon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service," as well as any "radio or television news reporter or other person connected with or employed by a radio or television station." There's nothing here that explicitly exempts crackpots, bad journalists, or even one-person self-published operations.

    Another faulty assumption at work here is that since the technology opens up "journalism" to anyone, the bloggers' credibility and integrity must unavoidably suffer. This is also unsupported, and what's more, if credibility and integrity were at issue in the Shield law, then it would simply explode from subjectivity. Not to mention the fact that "journalism," as defined as the periodic public dispersal of gathered information, has always been open to anyone.

    So, it's up to the court to figure out whether blogs fit the tradition mold of news-gathering organizations. The Chronicle article suggests that one criterion might be the exercise of editorial control, though that seems a little vague to me. Perhaps the assumption here is that editors are the people who intervene on the public's behalf, ensuring the accuracy and balance of the information. Maybe I need to learn more about this, but unless news editors sign some contract with the FCC to check their sources, I don't see why they would qualify as gatekeepers of journalistic integrity.

    It's probably worth noting that the trade-off I'm describing is theoretical, and won't likely be the main bone of contention in the Apple case. The judge seems poised to either rule against the Shield Law itself, position this case as one of the allowable exceptions to it, or decide that it does not apply to blogs. If he chooses the third option, simple "reporter's privilege" will not help the bloggers because their evidence certainly goes to the heart of the matter. I dunno.

    I personally am not likely to be sued for my sources anytime soon. I'd have to be, y'know, a journalist for that to happen. If it does, though, the detailed legal argument above will, I'm confident, provide me with a blogoShield so strong it'll make our missile defense system look like oh wait never mind.

    Monday, March 07, 2005

    arnold gets his ass beat by a bunch of girls

    More or less.

    For 10 years members of the California Nurses Association -- who are incredible and will stomp you into the dirt if you fuck with them -- lobbied for a nurse-to-patient staffing ratio in California hospitals, and in January of last year they won. For every six patients, one nurse. This was under our Totally-Recalled former Gov. Gray Davis. Then Schwartzenegger came in and used an executive order to implement emergency regulation, effectively preventing the ratio from being enforced, as well as guaranteeing that it would not drop to 5:1 in January 2005 as expected. It didn't help that Schwartzenegger publicly reffered to nurses as "special interests" while dismissing them. Oakland Children's Hospital Nurse Martha Kuhl told Newsweek: "I spent my day treating kids with cancer. I guess you could call that my special interest."

    So the CNA sued, and for the last two months they have been targeting Schwartzenegger in force. Last Friday, Judge Judy Holzer Hersher issued an injunction against the emergency regulation, and told Arnold that instead of appealing he should just go sit in the back of the class and babble incoherently about steroids like an idiot. It's possible I was reading between the lines a little there.

    Three significant things:

    1) Patients and nurses are safer. More staff means less overworked nurses, better hospital security, safer medical procedures, etc. Incidentally, less overworked nurses means less turnover, so the sustainability of the job may begin to alleviate current nursing shortages.

    2) This union knows how to put a militant legislative campaign together. There are all kinds of lessons here, including effective public targeting and an excellent message campaign.

    3) Schwartzenegger is getting weaker. His efforts to subvert the legislature are now pissing off plenty of folks besides Sacramento lawmakers. Groups like the CNA are becoming a backbone in what will be a difficult effort to unseat this guy in November. Nurses, firefighters, teachers -- they can sway California pretty hard when they want to, especially when they coordinate a sophisticated media campaign.

    I'm dying to see this guy eat it, so the topic of him eating it will likely come up again on the New Plastic Weblog.

    Don't eff with the CNA.

    Say you miss me too

    I had to do some heavy wrangling, but I've resolved all my server trouble for the next year, I hope. Needless to say, the problems were in fact...


    But who cares now? I'm up and running, and best of all, I can resume regular updates to the original New Plastic Music website, which has gone long-neglected due to a complex combination of factors.

    For people interested in the internal complexities of minority students and financial aid reform, we're all waiting on Julie Gonzales (also known as Julie C) to post up her controversial response to the Yale sit-in. I've taken the liberty of presenting a few onomatapoetic chicken noises over at her blog, and I'd encourage you to do the same.

    I'll be back.

    Friday, March 04, 2005

    radio trivia

    This issue came up recently, and only today did I bother to find the answer to one of the oldest mysteries of teenage life.

    Why do songs sound better on the radio?

    Anyone out there with a working knowledge of audio processing already knows the answer to this. Those with a defective knowledge of audio processing, like me, have probably developed a complex and ultimately stupid set of explanations for what is essentially a simple I did.

    You all know what I'm talking about. That song you loved in Junior High (for me it was "Today," by the Smashing Pumpkins) that always sounded wrong except when it was blasting over your favorite crappy alternative station.

    Why do songs sound better over the radio?

    The answer is, predictably, corporate greed and a hatred of music. That's my answer to everything, by the way.

    Okay, so let's look at the relevant institutional actors.

    1) Record Companies - How do they primarily market their music (at least the audible component)? Radio, MTV, Retail listening stations. Above all, they want it to be LOUD. Because, God forbid, the song/video that came before might do more damage to their target demographic's ear canal, and they'd lose the sale. So they pressure record producers to compress, compress, compress. Compression is an artificial way to make music louder by amplifying all the audio material and slicing off the very loudest bits, eliminating the quiet parts and making the whole thing sound louder. They're pre-tailoring it for car radios, listening stations, or any other medium that requires the music to punch through a lot of ambient noise.

    2) Radio stations - The FCC gives them 200MHz of bandwidth, and what they can get out of it largely determines their ability to attract an audience. So, they're also worshipping the gods of LOUD, and they also compress. They sacrifice dynamic range for a punch in the gut, because they want to wrench your attention towards whatever music they're playing (same theory for the loudness of TV advertisements). The compression fetish is even more common amongst "oldies" and "mix" stations, because they need all their songs to sound the same. In order to make "Heard it Through the Grapevine" sound as loud and present as "Genie in a Bottle" (just kill me now), they need compression. Also radio stations understand that, for the most part, their broadcasts are projected over crappy speakers. Multi-band compression will boost the bass to adjust for tinny-ness, while putting the whole, squashed mess into a comfortable, non-squawk range for your TV speakers and dentist's office.

    3) Artists & producers - They want to sell their records, and they need (1) and (2) to do it. This is a no-brainer.

    So it's a symbiotic relationship. Albums are mastered 10 times and polished to achieve that gut-punch no matter what. Stations pick music that is already pre-compressed, or will sound good when squashed to hell.

    The result? On one hand, music with dynamic range gets distorted or is never made in the first place. On the other, everything that does get played comes out flat and LOUD. If you wonder why some people tell you that "rock all sounds the same nowadays," that might be the reason. Personally, I think the disgust directed towards Top 40 radio for its homogeneity comes partly from the compression fetish.

    Does music sound better on the radio? On objective, audiophile terms, it actually sounds worse. But it all depends what you like.

    Wow, that was more boring than I thought.

    For some reason, this topic had an air of mystique and nostalgia when I thought about it in my head. Not so much now.

    Okay folks, move along, nothing to see here.

    wow, mom!

    (that's what i wrote on the top of my high-school graduation cap)

    My mother has submitted her two cents on the old Summers issue.
    Here it is:

    This here is "hi mom," one of those most
    likely to disagree with Alek on this subject. But I find
    Alek's reasoning quite reasonable, and I too found the
    transcript enlightening. It struck me that Summers was
    right on the money when he talked about childcare and

    But I would add 2 things to Alek's argument. As president
    of a coeducational university, his first thought, even in
    a private conference, should be his effect on his students.
    His comments can not be anything but chilling to ambivalent
    or self-doubtful women thinking about the sciences.
    For that alone, he should be tossed out. Second, he should
    have made the point about biology in exactly the opposite way.
    He should have said: IF research shows any biological
    differences, then the only question is how can we make use
    of those differences to expand science and bring particular
    creative contributions of women into it. But IF research shows
    those biological differences to be minimal, then the only
    question is how we can provide reasonable accommodation to
    overcome whatever obstacles they present and put everyone
    on a level playing field. Making biological statements with
    no sense of history is, to me, a history teacher, offensive.
    The relevant history here is, for example, Title IX. Women can
    not play sports like men for biological reasons. But when you
    give them equal resources for developing athletics, they
    improve exponentially and also create a new genre of sports
    which becomes in many cases much more interesting to audiences
    and which develops the sport itself. Enough said!


    Thursday, March 03, 2005


    Attached hereto is the complete and unedited text of a junk email I received this morning.

    tin congressman doorknob aaa annotate dumb bach cain stickpin project curvaceous addressograph denizen committed chess affront enunciable offensive cutout adenoma bye australite jehovah valeur through merrimack delicacy invaluable cayuga crabapple calumet barnard collusion snort gallonage cognac auspicious negligee cosmetic albright

    What is the funniest possible sentence that can be grammatically constructed using only the words above? (extra points for using both "Albright" and "curvaceous" together)

    "smoke on your pipe and put that in"

    My organizing colleagues at Yale saw some substantial movement on financial aid reform following their sit-in last week.

    Starting next year, Yale will eliminate the parental contribution for families making less than 45,000, increase funding for international students, and improve their recruitment effort in low-income areas.

    As usual, Yale administrators denied any connection between the last few months of intensive campus pressure and the recent changes. But I'd invite you to compare the announced changes with the platform ratified by the Yale Undergraduate Organizing Committee and backed up by over 1,000 students. You may see some similarities.

    Obviously, the pressure created by reforms at Harvard and Princeton also contributed to the move, but no-one should ever dismiss the power of Yale exceptionalism, even within the Ivy League. As in the past, Yale could have made a half-hearted effort at closing the gap so as to not appear completely inactive. But the changes proposed today, though still incomplete, are more comprehensive than any others in recent memory.

    We can thank the bravery and disciplined organizing of Yale students for that. As my good friend Abbey would say, those little guys are on fire with passionate love. We'll see more from them on this and other issues, I'm sure.

    (by the way, the title of this post is directed at all you West Side Story fans out there -- my feelings on musicals range from vague disgust to outright horror, but WSS is an exception)

    Wednesday, March 02, 2005

    To Robert Reich: Watch out for that shark on your way over it

    I always suspected that this guy was closet DLC...or maybe not so closet. I haven't read his book or any of his statements as Labor Secretary, just what he's said and written since then.

    Robert Reich's Monday editorial, entitled "Don't Blame Walmart," is a piece of cowardly, rhetorical hackitude. And I would know.

    You can find more comments from Josh over at Little Wild Bouquet, but I think he went too easy our vertically-challenged friend, so I'm gonna toss my two cents in the ring.

    Reich's editorial puts forth three central claims:

    1) We should not blame Wal-mart, because "isn't Wal-Mart really being punished for our sins?" The American economy is a "Faustian bargain" that pits our consumer desires against our sense of social responsibility, and the former wins out more often than not.

    2) "The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one."

    3) Instead of "going to battle," we need a "sensible public debate" about ways to balance out our consumer desires with our conscience.

    Rather than organize my thoughts, which I regret I don't have time to do, I'm going to just lay out a handful of points which Reich has either fumbled, dismissed, or ignored altogether. Crotchety bastards will want to turn their set up now.

    - First of all, assuming that we want any change from this system at all, Reich should know that "sensible public debate" isn't likely to bring it about. Neither, as Reich rightly observes, is "going to battle," but here he has misinterpreted the motives of Wal-mart's opposition. Maybe some folks out there want to shoot Wal-mart in Reno just to watch it die, but I'd assume that most of the community and labor activists fighting big-box retail are doing so to demonstrate that they're willing to put their strength behind the principles they believe in. Wal-mart is targeting their community, and not the other way around. People in Inglewood and Queens and Jonquiere are just standing up for themselves.

    - Reich's dichotomy of consumer and citizen need not be as stark as he's drawn it. The idea of a foregone conclusion in the consumer vs. conscience struggle, fixable only by government intervention, is selling all of us short. Reich might remain faithful to while his local bookstore closes its doors, but that just means he's a lazy, fair-weather activist. Just because he (and the majority of Americans) do not make socially-conscious consumer choices doesn't mean they're incapable of doing so. Reich's point was that even he, Clinton's Labor Secretary who knows better, can't win against his consumer demons. Well, all that proves is that he's a wuss, and it's yet more embarassing because unlike most of the people he claims to represent, he does know better.

    - "The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one." The ONLY way? You've got to be kidding. Okay, even forgiving the fact that Reich shows no knowledge of current organizing, you'd think a Labor Secretary would have some knowledge of American history, which demonstrates over and over that the power of boycotts, strikes, and public pressure campaigns can bring business to its knees, or at least to the bargaining table. Government regulation, meanwhile, has given us free-trade zones and a labor law so toothless it has to feed itself through a straw. I'm not saying we don't need legislative reform, but it'll take organizing strength to get it proposed, passed, enforced, at which point it'll probably still suck and we'll need organizing strength to preserve our rights anyway. So we might as well start building it, since Reich saying "he would support" certain reforms doesn't really do much for the 1.3 million current Wal-mart employees.

    - Has Reich actually looked at Wal-mart's labor and economic practices? Matching consumer demand for cheap products may justify a lot of cost-cutting, but Wal-mart is a little out of the ordinary. I think we're within our rights to "blame" them, considering that they systematically discriminate against women, constantly use illegal anti-union techniques, and use their leverage to secure ridiculous tax and zoning agreements that can drive local economies into extinction. Consumers may be largely ignorant, but nowhere in our social contract did we label those practices as acceptable in a free market.

    - Reich's column pre-supposes a perfect transparency of information for consumers which, needless to say, does not exist in America. Most of our economy relies on an elaborate process of masking and misdirection. So much so, that the uncomfortable truths of, say, meat-packing and Kathy Lee Gifford, become a point-of-sale joke instead of a legitimate consumer issue. "It says made it Honduras. Some poor kid probably sewed it with his teeth. Ha ha ha ha ha." We need a massive educational effort, not a "sensible public debate", to combat these effects.

    - Reich assumes that shopping at Wal-Mart is a conscious decision, in order to justify his claim that consumer desires are to blame for the ills of big-box retail and other corporate greed. Maybe it's a conscious decision for him, or for me, but a significant amount of Wal-Mart customers don't get to choose between Wal-Mart and expensive U.S.-made or fair-trade products. Many people shop there, and, for that matter, work there, because of economic need. Without an organized effort to reveal the effects of Wal-Mart on workers, families, and communities, the only information available to Wal-Mart customers is the price. So of course they pick it, especially if they have no choice. That's not greed, it's necessity, and thus no justification for laying the blame entirely on the consumer's doorstep.

    - Finally, Reich's implicit argument is that we are somehow pre-disposed towards personal greed. Hence, the harmful effects of Wal-Mart are a result of our mortal sin. As I said, that's quite an insult to humanity. Certainly we're pre-disposed to laziness and dismissal, and these are serious sins, but not of such a magnitude that they absolve everyone else involved. That is why cultivating awareness and agitating for change -- which involves "blaming Wal-Mart," among other things -- represent a critical part of the struggle to take responsibility for the welfare of our communities and bring justice to all corners of our society.

    So, I'm all for a national dialogue on consumer responsibility. I just don't want Robert Reich leading it.

    He can stand on a chair in the back.

    Tuesday, March 01, 2005

    a little internat'l development humor

    Okay, I know I promised that I wouldn't just regurgitate current events via newslinks. But, like my father says each time he breaks one of his many promises not to send me shit he cut out of the newspaper, this is just too good to ignore.

    The content of today's NYT article on possible successors to Wolfensohn at the World Bank is, in and of itself, scary and depressing. But the Times managed to slip in two one-liners which I thought were, in context, hilarious.

    With this appointment, President Bush will have a chance to name his own person to lead the World Bank. (By tradition, the United States names the head of the bank while Europe names the director of the International Monetary Fund; all the countries left out of the process would like that tradition changed.

    Wait, other countries don't like that setup? No kidding.

    And, inserted as an afterthought in the article's final sentence:

    Ms. Fiorina would also add a touch of glamour to the post, since she is probably the only candidate famous enough to be known in business circles by her first name, Carly.

    As the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and later United States Ambassador to Indonesia, Mr. Wolfowitz did oversee policy covering the developing world. But neither Mr. Wolfowitz nor Ms. Fiorina is an expert in development.

    This makes sense, right? When it comes to the highest decision-maker in a Bretton Woods institution, you want someone with first-name recognition, like Oprah. Or Liberace.

    And, as the article points out, being an "expert in development" shouldn't be particularly important for the leader of the World Bank, anyway.

    Monday, February 28, 2005

    I made this silly list because 150 people died in Iraq today

    Thank goodness for weblogs, distracting us from greed, suffering, and injustice. They are to politically conscious urbanites what shiny, dangling objects are to raccoons. I would know -- I have a weblog, and a family of raccoons lived inside a tree behind my house when I was a kid. So I've got all the bases covered.

    It occurred to me as I was listening to the Postal Service this morning on the way to work that Ben Gibbard has about the most annoying, ingratiating voice I can think of. Some people can get away with that, and some can't. Hence this list.

    Annoying Voices:

    i forgive you

    - kate bush
    - ma$e
    - percy sledge
    - dean wareham
    - cyndi lauper
    - ringo starr

    shut up now

    - ben gibbard
    - ja rule
    - nico
    - celine dion
    - pharrell
    - barney

    (Incidentally, "The Postal Service" is just about the dumbest name for a band since "Ace of Base." They should have just named themselves "The Census Bureau" or "The United States Department of Agriculture" and gotten it over with)

    Saturday, February 26, 2005

    more on wal-mart in colorado

    Thankfully the NYT delved a little deeper into Wal-Mart's anti-union strategy in today's story, by our old friend Steven Greenhouse. The facts presented there give me slightly more hope for an NLRB appeal, even with the currently stacked board.

    However, as the bargaining unit shenanigans in Colorado demonstrate, unions attempting organizing drives at Wal-mart are going to have to do one of two things: a) develop their hurry-up offense, so they can condense organizing drives and election schedules to avoid bargaining unit dilution, or b) get card-check agreements.

    Which gets chosen depends entirely on the structure of the campaign overall. Unions could attempt store-wide drives on individual locations, simultaneous drives in specific departments across the country, any permutation and combination thereof, or a completely different plan (i.e. regional campaigns, sequential department drives per store, etc.). The recognition method will need to match the organizing approach, which in turn will have to fit within the overall structure of the campaign. If that makes sense.

    I'm sure this will continue to be discussed on this weblog and elsewhere in much more detail later on, especially as the campaign structure emerges.

    I don't believe, as some folks will likely argue, that the election loss in Colorado demonstrates why stores should be organized wholesale. The same goes for the Jonquiere store and its bearing on the opposite opinion.

    We don't know yet what's going to work. But, as previously mentioned, we are definitely coming for their ass. Lawrence V. Jackson, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Executive Vice President for Human Resources, commence fear-induced pantswetting now.

    Friday, February 25, 2005

    this is the matter with kansas

    Kansas's Attorney General Phill Kline, that's two "l's," is demanding records from Kansas abortion clinics. Kline has subpoenaed all abortion records for patients under 16 and patients receiving late-term abortions. At a press conference yesterday, Kline explained that "as the state's chief law enforcement official it is my obligation to investigate child rape in order to protect Kansas children."

    Okay, I'm going to try to give this claim honest consideration, ignoring the fact that this guy is a virulent anti-abortion advocate and that he may be investigated for violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

    Well, maybe I'm not.

    But I will point out some things which don't seem to be receiving much coverage on this.

    Obviously, Kline is practicing misdirection, trying to package his assault on late-term abortions behind the more media-friendly child abuse prevention issue. But the two concerns are completely separate, with different circumstances for patients and different laws governing them. Even in Kansas, it seems like the precedent requiring healthcare providers to release records is much more potent in abuse or neglect cases than in cases involving "illegal" abortion. The latter is even shakier when you consider that Kansas law permits late-term abortions if the mother-s health is threatened -- which gives pro-choice doctors some leeway and makes the concept of "illegal" late-term abortions more subjective.

    But, moving on to the child abuse issue, the rationale is that in Kansas any sex under the age of 16 constitutes a sex crime, and thus pregnancy would provide evidence of child rape. It's not at all clear to me how possessing evidence that a crime occurred will help the A.G. prosecute that crime, unless the clinic releases literally every personal detail they have on their patients, including their sexual history, who paid for treatment, previous jobs, marital status, other medical information -- all things that, while they might help a little, don't seem to justify a subpoena, especially when it will violate medical privacy. It still seems a roundabout way of prosecuting child abuse crimes, compared to the more traditional alternatives.

    For one thing, while underage pregnancy may equal evidence of sexual abuse in Kansas, it's obviously not the only evidence. Especially since instances of sexual abuse may not result in pregancy for underage girls, definitely will not in underage boys, and (with apologies in advance for this observation) will also not result in pregnancy for pre-pubescents.

    I guess my point is not to minimize the evidence Kline has subpoenaed, but rather to put its magnitude in perspective. (like that? that's a little ivy league bullshit spin for you to enjoy) It seems significant to me that Kline hasn't embarked on a broader campaign to stop child abuse. It would be equally questionable, but Kline hasn't taken the next "logical" step and attempted to subpoena OB/GYN records of underage pregnancies carried to term. Nor has he subpoenaed school guidance counselor records or depositions from 7th-grade living-skills students. I wouldn't put it past him, though. Nor has he, to the best of my limited knowledge, made a public show of pursuing more traditional routes to preventing child abuse. In fact, I'd guess that he's a strong opponent of health education and counseling in Kansas public schools. So all this prompts us, rightly, to wonder how committed Kline truly is to his stated cause. I think his motives are a little closer to what we might suspect -- he's waging a war on the precious few pro-choice doctors and clinics left in Kansas.

    That's nice. This guy needs to stop using his position to persecute women and concentrate on spelling his goddamn name correctly.

    gloating day over

    Wal-mart soundly beat a group of tire-workers trying to unionize in Loveland, CO. The vote was, um, 17-1. The union contends that Wal-mart interfered with the election, which they undoubtedly did, but still it's sobering news. Even if Walmart wouldn't let a union observer into the voting area, the workers would be more vigorously protesting had a majority of them actually voted for representation. It's not like this was a particularly big shop, so it seems like a pretty clear defeat.

    Course, you can't blame the folks that voted against the union this time. They were probably worried that, if they supported a union, their store would be shut down or their entire department eliminated. You never know.

    Thursday, February 24, 2005

    we are so totally coming for their ass

    I hate to use what Zach would undoubtedly describe as masculinist rhetoric, but Wal-Mart just got pimp-smacked by the residents of New York, New York.

    God bless them. Like their predecessors in Inglewood, a coalition of New York labor unions and community organizations pressured developer Vornado Realty Trust into discontinuing pursuit of a contract with Wal-mart to build an 132,000 square-foot retail store in Rego Park, Queens. This comes after Walmart, in an homage to F. J. Turner, declared New York its "next frontier." The Central Labor Council reacted to that announcement more or less like they'd been tossed a bushel-ful of smallpox blankets.

    I keep hoping they'll announce a Divisadero store so I can quit my job and go kick ass within walking distance.

    (um - don't worry, i have plenty of substantive, non-masculinist insights regarding big-box retail, local economies, and regional labor markets, but today is gloating day...because somewhere, the vice-presidents of Wal-mart are thinking about the future and wetting their pants in fear)

    storming the (ivory) tower

    As I write this, 15 of my friends and colleagues are sitting-in indefinitely at the Yale Admissions Office for financial aid reform. No need to go over the details here, but they're blogging live from inside. Here's wishing them the best of luck - I'm certainly with them in spirit.

    Some coverage from AP already, and more likely on the way from television and national press.

    For more info on the issues, check out the Yale Undergraduate Organizing Committee online, where you can read the platform, check statistics, and browse press coverage.

    If Yale doesn't arrest them at the end of the day and take them out, I'll post more details and news as I get it. So far, everyone seems to be fine and happy.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2005

    where the wild things check air pressure

    Last week a handful of billboards went up for, with a picture of a guy riding an enormous Maurice Sendak-like monster with headlight eyes and a chrome-grill mouth, and the slogan "An SUV is not a car." Y'all have probably seen this thing around. Anyway, I assumed that it was a bold and brilliant anti-SUV ad campaign, and for a few days we cheered when we passed it on the Bay Bridge onramp. Then I finally visited the site, and it turns out that it's an SUV safety campaign, and the evil ogre is actually a friendly SUV monster who needs love and attention -- in the form of air-pressure maintenance/defensive driving -- to stay safe and happy. Normally I'd say I'm all for an SUV safety campaign, but entering site gave me the same turned stomach as when I first visited this little hypocritical marvel.

    I may be reading this entirely wrong, of course. But spending lots of money to educate drivers on how to avoid dying (or more likely, killing someone else) when operating a vehicle whose design and structure are inherently, fundamentally unsafe seems a little bizarre to me. Hence the comparison with Phillip Morris. If you want to reduce the consumer risk of a product that has been approved by a federal regulatory agency, stop approving it! This is why the FDA has not approved DDT for use at French restaurants, and why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't let you ride a giraffe down I-95. This is just another instance of government agencies dumping liability onto consumers so as to avoid pissing off major lobbying interests by actually holding them responsible for the safety and legality of their product.

    This ESUVEE campaign also gives off a pungent aroma of assuaged upper-middle-class guilt. Now, if people buy hybrid models and follow all the friendly monster's instructions, it'll finally be okay to own an SUV. For those of you unfamiliar with that assuaged-guilt smell, just think of a Starbucks shade-grown mochachino and you're pretty close.

    I guess the site I was hoping for would probably be called something more like "" Not holding my breath, though.

    this is gonna hurt pt 2

    needless to say, somewhat defending larry summers has stirred up some waves amongst my immediate friends and family. in the interest of, y'know, intellectual honesty, i'll admit that other folks' comments have shed new light on a few points definitely worth considering. See Phoebe's analysis at Illimitably Fiddlistic for an excellent argument of the contrary view -- which I still disagree with, but which is quite well argued. You can find more reasoned and subtle (I hope) commentary from me as well over at her place, where we're likely to be killing this horse for a few more days at least. But as far as New Plastic's concerned, Larry Summers is tabled indefinitely, unless he shows up for some hearings dressed as David Lee Roth. Then I'll probably jump in again.

    Friday, February 18, 2005

    this is gonna hurt

    I hate having to admit this, but I'm about to defend Larry Summers. Harvard's President consented yesterday to release the transcript containing his allegedly inflammatory remarks re: women in science and engineering. Upon consideration, they're actually not particularly inflammatory at all, nor do they actually suggest that "innate ability" accounts for the disproportionate representation of women in the engineering and science sections of the Academy.

    Let me be clear: I do not like this man. He is without a doubt arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and tactless. That doesn't distinguish him from most Ivy League University presidents, but either way I still find him fairly unpleasant in most respects. Also, I think that there are probably many reasons why the faculty have cause to hold a vote of no-confidence in Summers, and they're obviously entitled to do so regardless of what he said at this conference.

    But this uproar over his comments is ridiculous, and in my opinion actually distracts people from the seriousness of the real issues at hand. The main story now is whether Summers is a misogynist pig, and not the groundbreaking research presented at the conference. Before the transcript was released I never expected to come down on Summers' side of this fracas, since I both sympathize with and trust his accusers on the faculty much more than I do him. Not only that, they're probably aware of the Ivy League's complicity in the creation of a glass ceiling for women and minorities in the Academy, so their ire towards Summers et al is certainly justified.

    The thing is, the professors are way, and I mean WAY, over-reacting to Summers' remarks. Nowhere in the transcript does he claim that his expertise outweighs theirs, or contradict the findings presented at the conference. In fact, he constantly reiterates that he's not qualified to judge the statistical evidence, and that his observations arise primarily from some familiarity with the relevant studies and conversations with various folks in the Academy. He posited three contributing factors to the under-representation (four, really), explained his reasoning, and called for more research. No doubt he did all this in a really pompous manner, but if these professors are trying to eradicate that from Harvard's hallowed corridors, I think the ship's already sailed.

    Okay, I know that if Larry Summers isn't qualified to analyze this issue, god knows I'm not. But here's the gist of Summers' remarks. Three of his four contributing factors were completely legitimate, in my view: socialization, discrimination, and gendered career choices. The fourth was the main bone of contention. Summers suggested that studies of standardized testing showed a variance between males and females, and that the standardized test results (and their consequences in terms of progress through the Academy) may contribute to the filtering process that results in under-representation of women. In a nutshell, he argued that since more men than women test into the highest portion of the bell curve, and that prominent research scientists presumably fall into that same degree of standard deviation. He also acknowledged that studies of gender-corrected standardized tests do not exhibit this variance, and made an argument for why that did not resolve the problem. I didn't agree with it, and I'd imagine that many in the room didn't either, but he offered a lay interpretation of the existing research and acknowledged it as such. He didn't even overtly subscribe to or support that interpretation, though he may have communicated as much through his demeanor -- I don't know. He did, however, display some pretty crappy mathematical and scientific aptitude, and I'm sure that offended the audience. His logic was muddled, and sometimes it seems like he was trying to use deliberately oblique wording to cover his ass on controversial territory. If you're interested in a more detailed assessment of the remarks, check out William Saletan's original analysis of the whole mess over at Slate, as well as his breakdown of flaws in the accusations and in Summers' argument upon release of the transcript. The latter, I think, makes my point far better than I will.

    What's missing from all these shrill accusations (and I hate to use that adjective since it's so frequently employed by sexist assholes to discredit legitimate feminist protest, but the shoe fits here) is any consideration of the substantive content offered by Summers during the rest of his remarks. He considered the problems behind discrimination and calls for full measures to combat it. He also exposed the inherent problems involved in reforming hiring searches, without using them as an excuse for the slow progress (as the president of my illustrious alma mater surely would). Finally he argued, from a lay position again, that genetics research often exposes phenomena previously attributed to socialization to be biological in origin. Then, he specifically calls for more research on these topics to get closer to the truth. Of course I would have preferred that Summers call for more research so we'd have the truth and could actually fix the problem, but like I said, that would be expecting a lot from a guy like him. And the conference was focused on social science research anyway, not on the uphill fight for gender equality.

    No doubt, some of my seven readers out there will be surprised to see me defending Larry Summers (hi mom). Let me say once more that I have no problem with him being kicked out the door, and I have no problem with Harvard professors calling him out in public. After all, whether or not Harvard discriminates towards women, we can all agree that it discriminates towards its faculty, tenured and not. They have all the reason in the world to knock him around the Op-Ed page if they want to. But the rest of the country needs to read this transcript and figure out if there's really any reason to be so angry about it. Then, even if they decide there is, I humbly suggest that they spend their time and energy pursuing solutions to the problem rather than spending time on vitriol. Okay, that's hypocritical, even for me. But I still strongly recommend that people read this transcript instead of simply taking the professors' word.

    By the way, wouldn't it be great if Cornell West decided to speak up on this topic and denounce Summers? Then we could have another Ivy Tower Celebrity Death Match.


    Thursday, February 17, 2005

    my baby takes the morning train

    Yesterday I rode BART to work. I was sitting there looking out the window at the scrapyards and shipping lots, which come into view when you emerge from the tunnel on the Oakland side, when I noticed two people standing by the station map. The first, a young woman, was speaking to a young man in a mix of sign language and English. They were discussing the different stops and the directions the train ran from one side of the bay to the other. I could see that, as well as being deaf, the young man was mentally disabled, and so at first I assumed that she was taking care of him for the day or riding with him as part of an education program. Then, as I turned back to the window, I saw another woman signing energetically to her partner in the seat across. I started to look around. At the front of the car sat an old man pointing out the window and signing with authority to a younger man next to him about the buildings we passed. Right in front of me, three girls sat together having an animated conversation and occasionally breaking into silent laugter. Eventually it dawned on me that, having stepped onto the car alone, I was the only person there not part of this group -- and the only person not currently talking to someone else. Of course I wondered why I hadn't noticed earlier, but then realized that stony silence is de rigeur for BART passengers anyway, so it made sense that I, being totally oblivious to the world in general, would not have noticed anything out of the ordinary. More strange, though, was that I was sitting there amidst a torrent of conversation and I had no idea what was going on. I was completely out of the loop. This provoked an intense flashback to riding on buses in Senegal, which never failed to make me feel both strangely peaceful and desperately lonely. In the midst of all this, the Oakland passing by the window seemed bizarre and foreign, like we were in another country, or the same country a century into the future. I barely regained enough self-awareness to stumble off the train at the downtown stop. When I walked into my office a few minutes later it was shockingly gaudy and familiar, like re-visiting a third-grade classroom. I greeted people like it was years since I had been there last. For the rest of the day I still couldn't shake it off, or even put into words what had knocked me out of place. And later that night, just before I fell asleep, I found myself staring out the window into the dark street and listening for something.