The part of parenthood that Dr Spock never told you about

In between pretending to finish my dissertation, I’ve discovered a low-cost summer activity that doesn’t involve going outside and sweating: catching up on half a decade of television. After 4 years of not having a TV at home, I’ve realised there are actually a few good things I’ve missed.

So I borrowed the first four seasons of Weeds off a friend, and have been working my way through it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If Weeds is a sitcom, the “situations” are twisted, and the “comedy” even more so. In Seinfeld, we laughed at Soup Nazis and George’s lack of luck with the ladies. In Weeds, people get shot dead and dissolved in baths of acid – and we still laugh.

Growing shedloads of pot in suburbia – what could possibly go wrong…?

In case you haven’t seen it, basically, Weeds is a show about suburban mom Nancy Botwin – after her husband dies suddenly, she turns to dealing marijuana to her friends and neighbours in order to make ends meet. But her efforts to support her family via a modest weed-pushing operation rapidly fall apart as alcoholic friends (Celia), idiot accoutants (Doug), DEA agents and couch-surfing brothers-in-law (Andy) foul her every move.

There’s something refreshing about a TV comedy that tracks the slow disintegration of a suburban family and their hangers-on. Weeds is very much a show for our time: at the end of season 3, (screened in 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to hit), the Botwins’ identikit suburb of easy-credit homes burns to the ground (something to do with Mexican mafia revenge, biker gangs and Nancy with a petrol can… oh never mind).

The last thing you want to deal with when you’re on the run from the Mexican mafia..

Illegal immigration, Mexican drug wars, euthanasia, police corruption, narcotics (lots), and sex (even more): life is complicated in Schwarznegger’s California. We’re a long way, geographically and spiritually from Saturday evenings with Bob Saget or the amiable but inane antics of Friends.

If occasionally the storylines lacks energy, the series is kept alive by a dynamite script. Andy spouts unlikely slacker wisdom at crucial moments, Nancy’s best enemy Celia goes postal every few episodes, and Shane (borderline sociopath and Nancy’s 13 year-old son) makes the most of being on cable with a dirtier mouth than the rest of the cast combined. And could you imagine Clifford Huxtable having this conversation (NSFW) with Theo?

Celia is actually stabbing Nancy in the back in this photo

But the show belongs to Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Nancy. Her character, who has the best of intentions but no business plan, seems only capable of digging her family into deeper trouble. Although her problems are of her own making, you feel truly sorry for Nancy, and somehow responsible for her predicament as her world teeters on the edge of the abyss.

So, Weeds has been well worth staying inside for. Maybe TV isn’t completely useless. I’ve heard The Wire‘s worth seeing too – anyone have some DVDs I can borrow?

Promising the Moon

Florida as a whole doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me: a vast flat strip-mall full of beaches, theme parks, swamps and cops in pastel polo shirts driving Ferraris. But there is one place amidst this general tawdriness that geniuinely impressed and inspired: Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

A Saturn V is immodest in size, brutally functional in its design and arrogant in intent. Seen up close at KSC, it’s a completely wonderful machine, the engineering backbone of the single most impressive technical feat in the history of our species.

Here’s me standing next to one of the Rocketdyne F-1 first stage motors. A Saturn V had FIVE of these puppies, each one of them developing more thrust than an entire space shuttle:

On the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, there’s been debate about whether humans should go back to the Moon, or further. A counter-argument often used is that manned spaceflight is a waste of money, and that we should be focusing our attention, resources and energy on solving problems on Earth first.

Such reasoning is flawed. The opportunity cost of not going back to the Moon or to Mars is NOT prolonged starvation, war or global warming. Cancelling the $100 billion ISS would never result in that $100 billion being spent instead on AIDS research or education in African countries.  And aerospace engineers wouldn’t suddenly turn their enthusiasms towards creating new forms of clean energy.

But there is a pot of money and a set of expertise that could profitably be turned to space exploration: defense spending. 

A 20% cut in the US defence budget ($515 billion in 2009) would fund current NASA activities ($18.7 billion) six times over.  And most of the contractors who might lose business through defence cuts (firms like Lockheed, Boeing and BAE) would be exactly the firms with the technology and skills to bid for work in an expanded space programme.

This is not just an American effort, however. The same level defence cuts applied across Europe, Japan, Russia and China, and the subsequent redeployment of brain power and manpower could be transformative for the world economy.

By rights, a space programme should be a politician’s wet dream. High-value jobs. New technologies. Adding to the knowledge economy. And it’s not just jobs for scientists and pilots…there’s thousands of factory floor jobs involved in stitching spacesuits and running wiring through space capsules. The French for fiscal stimulus package is “plan de relance“. Relance – re-launch.

Like Robyn Gallagher, I’d love to see men and women walk on the Moon or Mars during my lifetime. A Mars programme will certainly have to be an international project. The Americans did it on their own with a Saturn V, some chewing gum and a pocket calculator in 1969. In the 21st century it’ll be even better, because we’ll all be along for the ride. To infinity and beyond!

Apollo 17 photos from NASA / Apollo Lunar Surface Journal

Alan Wilkis, Back to the Future!

Alan Wilkis – Snuggle Up to Nail Down
From Pink and Purple EP [Buy] [CD Baby]

Last year we reviewed Alan Wilkis‘ slightly eccentric début album Babies Dream Big, and adored its big-tent mix of pop stylings. In 2009 the Brooklyn-based musician and producer is back with an EP entitled Pink and Purple, a deep dive into the synthesised swamp of Reagan-era soundscapes and electrolysed beats.

Wilkis always sounds like he’s having a great amount of fun, whether its dressing up as Rick James backed by the Nintendo Sisters on Snuggle Up to Nail Down (complete with ridiculous-but-appropriate autotuned vocals), or filtering percussion through a DeLorean’s flux capacitor on the EP’s title track.

On N.I.C.E., Wilkis’ white-boy disco fiend is out on the town looking for his material girl, and everything on the scene is pitch-perfect: the swirling synth pads, the rap outro and “Ooh boy, show me whatcha got” female BVs. You could argue that it’s pastiche, but these days, pastiche counts as modernism. And with music as wilfully wrought as this, Wilkis takes it to another level.

Perhaps Wilkis’ choice of 80s schtick sounds a little insincere on the sub-bossa ballad Time Machine, but when Pink and Purple focuses on filling the dancefloor, the EP works very very nicely indeed, and comes across as a more coherent work than his 2008 album. Check it out on Wilkis’ site, or listen on MySpace.

Brubeck Does Orange County

Any musician who’s been in the game for any length of time has stories about extraordinary gigs they’ve played. I was sent this piece yesterday, a description by Paul Desmond of an engagement with the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Orange County (New Jersey) State Fair.

Dave Brubeck Quartet at Newport, 1956 (via scarlatti2004)

Desmond was not only a talented musician, but widely-read and witty, as evidenced by this report. Here’s an excerpt, and you can download the full 2-page article as a PDF:

Dawn. A station wagon pulls up to the office of an obscure motel in New Jersey. Three men enter – pasty-faced, grim-eyed, silent (for those are their names). Perfect opening shot, before credits, for a really lousy bank-robbery movie? Wrong. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, some years ago, starting our day’s work.

Today we have a contract (an offer we should have refused) for two concerts at the Orange County State Fair in Middletown. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Brubeck likes to get to the job early.

So we pull up behind this hay truck around noon, finally locating the guy who had signed the contract. Stout, red-necked, gruff and harried (from the old New Jersey law firm of the same name), and clearly more comfortable judging cattle than booking jazz groups, he peers into the station wagon, which contains four musicians, bass, drums, and assorted baggage, and for the first and only time in our seventeen years of wandering around the world, we get this question: “Where’s the piano?”

Read On…[PDF]

Another one of those painfully posed photos, but at least Dave has a piano.


Just finished listening to Chris Lydon’s podcast conversation with George Scialabba. In his analysis of how intellectualism has largely disappeared from view in American society, Scialabba imagines a re-emergence of public conversation about ideas, based on shared locality.

In Scialabba’s opinion, people should be talking about political ideas to each other on the bus, in the coffee shop or at work. The big questions need to be addressed by everybody over a sandwich, rather than assuming that some professor, theologian or journalist is doing it for us.

Central to Scialabba’s argument is the notion that technology is not a replacement for conversation. He points out that most of us still live and/or work in specific physical spaces. The issues and ideas that affect our lives most are necessarily best discussed and solved locally. The internet, while connecting us to ideas and resources globally, could actually be fracturing our ability to identify or deal with the questions that most affect our lives directly.

…some people are on such a fast-track to the future that, when other people are sunk in pre-modern misery, and its just not a healthy prognosis for the species.

-George Scialabba

I wonder if this notion of local debate ties somewhat into my previous post on locally-based economics and its role in community. More thinking required there…

Another interesting idea of Scialabba is that the happy liberal post-modernity in which most of us live is a luxury we can ill afford. Indeed 60-80% of the world’s population are still barely struggling into modernity, both in terms of physical conditions and philosophical ideas. In this context, local conversations become increasingly important because for most humans they are the only tool they have available to better understand their world.

The iPod kids might be characterised as a nation of flighty, ethereal creatures. I’m possibly a card-carrying (if elderly) citizen of this digital Arcadia. We are so comfortable in our multi-tasking, multi-discourse environment that we can no longer identify with those who are not part of the networked world. Perhaps we are also being deafened to the voices closest to us.

(This post is mostly “thinking aloud”. I’m not sure I’ve managed to say anything at all. I’m not even sure if Scialabba is right. But he made me waste an hour writing all this, so that’s some kind of an achievement…)

etnobofin in the New York Times (almost)

Here’s a little Web 2.0 story. Over the past few years blogging has become an increasingly integral part of the media, for better or for worse, and one of the side-effects of this is that content produced by “normal” people (like me, I suppose)  is more likely to be picked up and used by major media outlets.

ReadWriteWeb is a tech blog run out of New Zealand, rated by Technorati as one of the top 20 blogs in the world. They published a piece yesterday about Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Harvard inspiration for Facebook. Prior to Harvard, Zuckerberg was a student at Phillip’s Exeter Academy, and the photo they chose to illustrate the piece was a photo I took last year during my short trip to New Hampshire:

Phillips Exeter Academy in the snow – March 29th, 2008

I found out about the photo’s use via Paul Spence at Genius Net, who tweeted the news overnight. (See, I told you it was a Web 2.0 story)

For extra coolness, ReadWriteWeb content is syndicated to the New York Times site, so although the New York Times version of the story doesn’t contain the photo, I still get a credit at the bottom of the article.  Does this make me a citizen journalist or something ?

Boys’ Lives

Image: Ben Harris-Roxas (Creative Commons)

On a recommendation, I recently ploughed through Robert McCammon‘s Boy’s Life. McCammon is not normally the sort of author that appeals to me, (not being a big fan of horror/fantasy). However Boy’s Life really worked. I loved its uncomplicated melding of magic and mundanity, its vivid descriptive tone and unforced evocation of life in smalltown Alabama in the 1960s.

Ostensibly a murder mystery, Boy’s Life is really a collection of episodes in the life of Cory, a 12 year-old kid who is discovering his calling as a storyteller. The book never loses this sense of wonder, slipping with ease between tales of summer days on the baseball diamond and back-yard conversations with ghosts. Cory’s Zephyr is a Harper Lee-style smalltown, refracted through a funhouse mirror: ineffectual sheriffs, snarling Klansmen and shotgun-wielding junk collectors share the stage with a ferocious river monster, flying dogs, an ancient voodoo witch and (of course) a dinosaur.

The suspense is occasionally stunning: some events in the novel are so completely unexpected that they strike with near-physical force.   Sometimes it seems that McCammon can’t resolve or propel the narrative forward without summoning hideous dei ex machina at the last minute. But this is barely a failing: it is in these moments of crisis that McCammon’s writing is strongest.

As a semi-autobiographical novel of a child growing into the world and confronting the gift and necessity of writing, Boy’s Life bears some comparison to David Mitchell‘s Black Swan Green.   Mitchell’s story of a year in the life of Worcestershire lad Jason Taylor is darker and more tightly-woven. But in both novels the boys’ imaginative universe is a small town, populated by near-mythical characters, presented against a backdrop of real-world outside events (in Zephyr it’s the civil rights movement and Vietnam; in Black Swan Green it’s 1980s Thatcherism and the Falklands War).

In an endearingly English way, Black Swan Green thrives on loose ends, ambiguity and Jason’s unease with his role in the world. The novel orbits around a dissolving marriage and inevitable divorce.

By contrast, Cory rides roughshod into danger and mystery, calls things as he sees them and seems implausibly unperturbed by frequent physical injuries. Boy’s Life possesses an almost conservative concern for family unity, culminating in a clunky epilogue in which the narrator returns to Zephyr 25 years later and we discover what’s happened to the main characters in the interim (basically: college, wedlock and socially respectable jobs).

Black Swan Green is, as a piece of art, more far subtle and definitely more interesting (I own an autographed hardback copy, ’nuff said). But Boy’s Life is immediately satisfying: a heartfelt romp through boyhood. In its best moments it’s dizzyingly good. Just watch out for dinosaurs.

Image: whateverthing (Creative Commons)

Musings in the Macro-Economic Maze

Credit: Kal (The Economist)

There’s nothing like a big old financial crisis to re-ignite an interest in economics. I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the detail of what all the analysts say, but the implications are fascinating and frightening. First of all, it’s increasingly clear that the situation we face is indeed the deepest and most  fundamental economic crisis since the Second World War.  It’s global, and it’s a gazillion times more complex than any of us understand.

Much of what I’ve been hearing over the past few days has focused on the thesis that the United States may be in a better situation to handle the crisis than Europe.  James K. Galbraith (son of another J.K. Galbraith) argues convincingly that, at the very least, the United States is a single federal entity, and thanks to FDR 70 years ago, some of the key delivery mechanisms required for Obama’s big-spending reignition package are already in position.

By contrast, Europe is a loose collection of nation-states, only some of whom share a common currency.  If the EU is to cooperate more closely on economic policy (as even Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF is now advocating), it will likely have to break many of the clauses of the Maastricht Treaty, and perhaps even devolve some executive decisions to Brussels and the European Central Bank: something that EU leaders may find difficult to sell to increasingly anxious populations.

Even in terms of sentiment, it seems America is more optimistic at the moment than Europe. Loïc Le Meur, speaking to France Inter after Davos, senses that Americans are more confident than Europeans about their ability to ride out the storm.  Perhaps this confidence is the temporary afterglow of Obama’s inauguration, or it could be that America is genuinely more ready than Europe to pull together and make some hard decisions.

But regardless of who is better prepared to deal with crisis, the goal can no longer be the reestablishment of “normality”.  The current crisis has proved that the status quo ante (light regulation that favours special interests and pure-play Friedmanism) does not delivered sustainable wealth to more than a favoured few.

Capitalism per se is not going to disappear, because there is no better system to replace it.  But the post-WW2 version of capitalism has failed in addressing two issues that are vital to the survival of the human race – environmental protection and equitable distribution of resources.

Everyone is talking about a moral, as well as a systemic realignment, and I wonder if we are capable of achieving it.  There’s a strong impression that our generation is going to be judged by the way we behave in the next few years.  The words of Lula da Silva from his 2004 speech to the UN seem remarkably appropriate:

“A generation is remembered not only for what it accomplished, but also for what it failed to accomplish. If resources are so much greater than our achievements, how can we explain to the generations to come why we did so little, when so much was within our reach? ”



Arbouretum – False Spring
From Song of the Pearl : Thrill Jockey [Released March 2009]

2009’s first love affair with an American indie guitar band has struck early, in the form of Baltimore’s Arbouretum. Their third album Song of the Pearl is released in March and the lovely people at Thrill Jockey threw a preview copy over the fence at me (yes, some people still think that I only blog about music!)

Normally I’m not one for big crunchy guitar-scapes unless they’re framed by good arrangements  and attached to great tunes. Song of the Pearl has this in spades. Arbouretum is built around the writing of David Heumann:  to judge by his other projects Television Hill and Human Bell, Heumann is a songwriter (and photographer) to be reckoned with.

If Heumann’s songs hold Song of the Pearl together, the disc is underpinned by Heumann and Steve Strohmeier‘s guitars, whose interweaving textures recall (for me at least) the best moments of Sonic Youth or Neil Young with Crazy Horse.

Song of the Pearl sounds like an album from another age.  Perhaps intentionally, its eight songs and 40 minutes fit nicely on a 33rpm record. The dirge-like ballad Tomorrow is a Long Time has the sort of relentless melody that could have floated out of the Appalachians on a log. And the epic psychedelic folk-blues that informed Led Zep’s No Quarter haunts songs like Down By the Fall Line.

Arbouretum’s  previous two albums seem worth checking out too. Here’s the video for Mohammed’s Hex and Bounty off their 2007 album Rites of Uncovering:

Freddie and Me

Freddie Hubbard, 1938 – 2008

Rochester, NY – 1976 (Image: Tom Marcello)

Freddie Hubbard – Keep Your Soul Together (Excerpt)
From Keep Your Soul Together: CTI [Buy]

There was a time when I didn’t know who Freddie Hubbard was.

I was just starting to learn about jazz. A friend’s father (himself a well-known pianist and jazz broadcaster around town) thrust two dusty cassettes into my hand, which I duly took home and thrashed to death in my bedroom.

One tape was a copy of Miles’ Someday My Prince Will Come. The other was Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles. The Herbie tape had a hastily scribbled playlist and personnel listing: Herbie… Ron … Tony… Freddie. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, I’d heard of. But this Freddie guy… playing the … cornet?

Pretty soon Freddie Hubbard was a familiar sound in my house. His solos from that album – on One Finger Snap, Oliliquy Valley – were melodies I could sing in the shower. At that time, all trumpet players sounded fresh and exciting to me. Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, Clifford Brown were all early additions to a small trove of cassettes that filled the family home with sound on evenings and weekends and annoyed my sister in her room down the hallway.  Freddie, with his loud-high hard bop style, probably annoyed her more than most.

At university we formed little jazz bands that played cafés around town. Somehow we managed to persuade the owners that we were actually good, and sometimes the owners even paid us.  By that time, we had discovered Freddie’s early 1970s recordings for CTI, and Red Clay inevitably ended up on our setlist.   We played it EVERY gig. Along with Chameleon, Wayne Shorter’s Footprints and a couple of Cole Porter ballads.

And then one January day, one of the band was killed in an accident. He was the youngest of us. Hell, the oldest of us was only 23.  We put together a band that played at his funeral.  Stevie arrived there before us, and we did our soundcheck next to his coffin. We played four songs before the start of the service. One of them was Red Clay.

Now Freddie Hubbard’s gone too, to join the ever-expanding jam session in the sky.  Through his most powerful recorded work (from, say, 1961 to 1975) many of his phrases have spun themselves into the DNA of all young jazz trumpet players today.  I never got to see him play live, but more than most trumpeters, it felt like I knew him a little bit through his records and the way they influenced me and my bandmates.   So, thanks, Freddie.  We’ll remember you.