Friday, November 28, 2008

Stick with me and I'll make you big.

A review of Bumping into Geniuses my life inside the rock and roll business, Danny Goldberg, Gotham Books 2008.

I picked this book up for the obvious reason – I remembered Danny Goldberg's name from Led Zeppelin articles – and stayed to read it through. Goldberg started as a music journalist, albeit not a very successful one, became a publicist and a manager. He eventually climbed up through the ranks of Big Music to the top – president, CEO, something like that (he mentions title inflation was a problem). On the way he worked for Led Zeppelin, KISS and Kurt Cobain. His facility as a journalist means he knows how to write and keep the story interesting, and his life story certainly hasn't been devoid of people to write about.

My first thought, on beginning to read, was that Danny Goldberg would turn out to be a real PR guy – a smooth-talking liar, the fast talker with an eye on his 10% and no real liking for music apart from what the stars can earn for him. I was wrong; for a start, it's not called "10%", it's called "ten points". Goldberg gives the points formulas for managers, promoters, publicists, writers, arrangers, and so on – and does it in such a way I remained as entertained as I was when he was talking about Kurt Cobain or Jimmy Page. I was wrong about the other bit, too – he loves rock music and seems genuinely, unaffectedly happy when he can get good music into other people's hands. There's just one moment where this wavers: talking about Styx and apparently forced into gabbling by an outbreak of honesty, he says, "I cannot deny that my interest was largely fueled by images of the millions of dollars I could make by commissioning their income, but when I did the requisite homework I was genuinely moved by their most recent album, Paradise theater." The fact he's honest there leads me to believe he's telling the truth about his love for the others.

Where I'd heard of Danny Goldberg before was in terms of his famous coup in telling the world that Led Zeppelin had beaten the Beatles' 1965 Shea Stadium attendance record for their show at Tampa Stadium in 1973. The phrase "bigger than the Beatles" has always been a blockbuster, and Goldberg was clever enough to flog this to news outlets at a time when no-one could be induced to utter the words "Led Zeppelin" on air (and could scarcely be motivated to print them). It was a breakthrough for Zeppelin and for Goldberg, even though, as he says in this book, "the contrast with Shea Stadium was a reflection of the size of the stadiums, not the relative popularity of the groups". He didn’t tell anyone that then, of course. Much later in the book he describes his "validation" at Led Zeppelin's 2007 O2 show, where the music was preceded by a short 1973 newsclip in which the "long-forgotten local newsman breathlessly explained that Led Zeppelin had 'broken the Beatles' record'."

In this book Goldberg gives his own take on a number of incidents in the Led Zeppelin mythology, starting with his hiring in 1973 because of the lousy relations between the "uncool" Led Zeppelin and the hippie press, exacerbated by the Rolling Stones' fawning mainstream media coverage. The Stones, who hung out with Princess Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote, earned Newsweek covers. Led Zeppelin could hardly get an inch of copy, and if they did it was positively hostile, a situation that led to drunken members of Zeppelin occasionally abusing journalists verbally, or even physically, which – guess what! – did not improve the tone of the reviews they were getting.

He gives a first hand account of the incident where John Paul Jones looks out at the kids arriving for a gig and says, "Come on, kiddies, and bring us your money," and Robert Plant admonishes him, "Jonesy! Those are our fans." He tells how Bonham or Grant would grab him by the balls and say, "How's your knob?" He describes the impossible task of keeping groupie photos taken at the Rainbow from being published and possibly seen by the band's wives, and the even less likely to be successful orders to have not only every mention of "Swan Song" removed from Brian De Palma's movie The Phantom of the Paradise, but also the scene where a musician is electrocuted on stage. (Peter Grant had suffered very badly after the accidental electrocution of Les Harvey on stage; however, unlike the words Swan Song, he did not own a copyright on generic depictions of electrocutions.)

There are less well known anecdotes. He mentions that while Peter, Jimmy and Jonesy "sought refreshment in the dressing rooms" during Moby Dick, "Robert usually stood on the side of the stage watching his boyhood friend reinvent rock drumming on a nightly basis." That's probably the sweetest and most moving story anyone's ever told me about touring Led Zeppelin. It's so different from the usual tales of debauchery and infighting.

I won't tell all the Zeppelin stories – read the book, if you're interested. In other chapters Goldberg discusses his personal and professional relationship with Stevie Nicks, Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Beep Fallon, John Cougar Mellencamp and others. His diversions into the business side are short, clear and educational, and his anecdotes are unpretentious and telling. Here's one:

Howard told…Mellencamp, "If you want to be a star, you need to be like a hooker and make every interviewer feel they are the best you've ever met. […] To be a star you need a story that helps other people understand who the hell they are and gives validation to parts of themselves they thought were insane."

Good book, thumbs up, five stars etc.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sour Grapes

A Biography of Led Zeppelin When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall, Orion Books UK 2008

I finished Mick Wall's book. It's long, 450 pages not including the indexes, but has little new to say. It covers the early gigging days of the individuals in Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin's formation in great detail, the life of the band in good detail and then hurries through the post-Zeppelin days touching briefly on the times when Zeppelin members played together and hardly at all on solo efforts. At the end, there's an astonishingly bitter wrap-up taking in the 02 Led Zeppelin Reunion in 2007 and Jimmy Page's current life. There are a few pictures, all of them in common circulation, some with weird captions that make sense after you've read the text but don't relate to the picture at all. (e.g. one picture of Jimmy Page onstage wearing his Poppy Suit and playing a Les Paul is captioned, "Riding Caesar's chariot on the '77 US tour. According to one journalist, Jimmy 'sauntered unsteadily into the room on obscenely thin legs.'" Caesar's Chariot is the plane Led Zeppelin chartered to get them around the US for the tour. What Caesar's chariot with a small 'c' may be is anyone's guess.)

It starts off hopeful and positive and as it wends its way to the present day it becomes more and more negative, ending up in a sour blast at Jimmy Page and (unusually, as he's generally untouchable) taking some digs at Robert Plant. How did a man like Mick Wall, who wanted to write a better book than the zany, entertaining but hopelessly tabloid-oriented Hammer of the Gods (by Stephen Davis) end up focusing on drugs, curses and deaths, with an unpleasant side order of shit-stirring between Plant and Page in the last few hundred words?

The book needs a copy editor – or rather another one, since he mentions on his blog that he had one. Wall's workmanlike prose is mostly serviceable, but he has a tendency to dangle participles, misplace his modifiers and occasionally use a word that means the opposite of what he intended. The lack of attention means we get text like, "Situated along a steep track that leads through a ravine, when Jimmy and Robert arrived at Bron-Yr-Aur in May they found a stone dwelling so derelict it had no electricity, running water or sanitation." The mind runs in circles trying to reconcile Jimmy and Robert simultaneously arriving and being situated.

Of Plant's car crash he says, "Landing on top of Maureen, the impact shattered Plant's right ankle and elbow," and there's a sentence beginning, "A former member of the Tornadoes, a week later the whole band joined Hale for a surprise forty-five minute set at the club". We also get, "you'd recommended your old friend Jeff, who was just sat around", as though Jeff Beck was a stuffed rabbit; "such laughingly prudish tomes as Hammer of the Gods", instead of laughably; and the younger Jagger described as "no less malleable" than Mick Jagger when Wall means no more malleable.

There's more; I stopped writing them down after a while, but I do have to mention the sentence that concerns a revamp of Train Kept A-Rollin' which "again found the band bending over backwards to rein in their natural inclination to stretch out". Right. Oh, and the description of promoters prior to Bill Graham "herding the kids… like cabbages."

Fact-wise, who knows? I can't be bothered to check it against the Dave Lewis tomes that Zeppelin historians use as date references. When it comes to my own pet subjects, I can do a little better. Wall refers to "Bulmer Lytton" instead of Bulwer Lytton (p. 400), refers to Jimmy Page's ring cast in the shape of an Ouroboros, a snake eating its tail, as "a symbol synonymous with 'evil' throughout all conventional religions" (p. 429), states that a plea of "nolo contender" (sic) means "I will not plead guilty" ('nolo contendere' actually means "no contest") (p. 382), and calls the Boston Gliderdrome the Gilderdrome (p. 361).

He also quotes something from Peter Makowski's interview with Page which makes no sense at all. "You have Isis who would correlate to the early religions. Isis is the equivalent of man worshipping man, which is now where we have Buddha and Christ and all the rest of it, like the three ages. And then the child is Horus, which is the age of the child. Which is pretty much the new age as it was seen." (p. 305) Simple addition shows Page's quote has been garbled - the only ages mentioned are Isis and Horus, but Page says there are three. Page must have actually said something like, "You have Isis who would correlate to the early religions. Osiris is the equivalent of man worshipping man, which is now, where we have Buddha and Christ and all the rest of it. Like the three ages, and then the child is Horus, which is the age of the child."

You can't blame Wall for the quote but if he had really studied up on Page's beliefs you'd think he would have found a better way to explain this fundamental tenet. Alas no: when a similar concept comes up elsewhere, in Bonham's three-intersecting-circles symbol, Wall calls them a "man-wife-child trilogy" (instead of "triad" p. 250) and goes on to say, "It represents the three evolutionary ages, Osiris (past), Isis (present) and Horus (future)". Perhaps Mick Wall is a Mariolator. Most of the rest of us, including Crowley, were under the impression that our currently sanctioned gods are male and the mother-gods lost ground some time ago.

On page 221, after consulting his tame occultist, he says that the Golden Dawn (Uncle Aleister's outfit) is based on ideas from the book of Enoch, "angels who consented to fall from heaven that they might have intercourse with the daughters of earth [causing] the birth of Magic", without Wall appearing to realize that the same story is also in Genesis, and is the ultimate source of the title of his book.

Genesis 6: 4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

He gives the reason for the title as only, "(I)t was actually called: When Giants Walked The Earth. Which is kind of how I look back on those times now. A time of real rock giants, not false gods like Oasis or whoever your current favourite bad boys are but your actual great beasts like Zep, the Stones, The Who... " I don't know why that lack of cross-referencing to Enoch bothers me, but it does, especially as he says "great beasts" in there too.

On the other hand, the book's high word-count means that Wall is free to spend a lot of time going through the band's history in detail. This is the selling point of this book – you couldn't wish for someone to pack in more facts on the Yardbirds, Peter Grant, the history of Tin Pan Alley management in general, and the fighting, intimidation, pushing and shoving that gets a band to the top. The scene setting for the early sixties is superb and even though I've read my share of pop biographies, Wall managed to tell me something new, or at least put something a more striking way, every few pages. His description of Led Zeppelin as a band appealing to youngsters, not the officially empowered arbiters of cool, the older hippies, really hadn't been brought home to me before. A simple mention of a mobile pie stall had me back in England in the sixties in a second. The description of the angry, regret-filled sessions for Presence gave me a deeper understanding of that record. Describing the lack of activism in British hippies (who had no Vietnam to radicalize them) Wall mentions the Oz obscenity trial in 1971 concerning cartoon Rupert Bear's sexual exploits, and he quotes commentator Andrew Marr as saying, "A teddy bear with a stiffy: it rather sums up Britain's answer to revolution." Now that's context – loved it.

Where this contextualization wavers is in the second-person sections. When Wall wants us to understand what a person (Peter Grant, say, or John Paul Jones) was thinking, he puts in an italicized passage addressing the reader as "you". This is a tough sell at the best of times, because "you" find yourself being ordered about by the book and resenting it. That is, if you can figure out who you are.

This means they misjudge you, seeing only the smooth surface. You know this but are unconcerned. Let others say and do what they will, what's it to you? Ideal material for 'unsung hero' status, over the years most people will see only the bass guitar you carry…

Aha! Bass guitar! I am John Paul Jones!

It doesn't help that the "you" sequences are out of sync. As the narrative advances to the present day, "you" are still talking about the time "you" first met the others, "your" session-man days and "your" first tours.

Most of these sections are in "authentic" accents, so there's lots of swearing when you are Peter Grant - lots of nice well-turned prose if you're JPJ. The first is quite wearing, but what's wrong, really wrong, with second person is the overall tone. It's the tone of a whiner. The person who says "you" when talking about himself is almost always a whiner. In my inner ear, these myriad passages all sound like Have Your Say commenters. "You work all your life, scraping and saving, don't you, and these immigrants come over here, take your job and draw the fuckin' dole, don't they?"

And that's the bitter, regret-filled tone the remainder of the book takes. It begins by telling you that Led Zeppelin was magic, Peter Grant was wonderful, Jimmy Page was clever, and then it begins a kamikaze power-dive into the toilet bowl. Drugs are not so much mentioned as dwelled upon at length. Groupies, whips and violence are mentioned prominently. Jimmy Page's interest in the occult is parlayed into a deep, inescapable trap that ultimately dooms him to suffer forever. Robert's car accident is shown as fated, inevitable in some way. The violence at Oakland in 1977 is foreshadowed. Bonzo's death is made to seem fitting, part of some cosmic plan. And when Led Zeppelin are broken up, Mick Wall starts to put the boot in 4rlz. Everything Page does post-Zeppelin is bound to fail, because Kenneth Anger's curse is on him. Robert has been given the magic gift of determining the future for Page, because his "no" to a reunion is more powerful than Jimmy's desire to bring it off. Mick Wall revels in Robert's power, rolling around in it, clutching it to his chest like a lover and describing it over and over in rapturous terms. The power to frustrate Jimmy is elevated to supreme importance. Wall even suggests that the times Robert has said yes to a post-Zeppelin project were solely to slingshot his own solo work into the stratosphere, making Jimmy the unwitting creator of more power for Robert. The last few pages, detailing the O2 show and after, end with a call for demons to attend Jimmy Page for evermore. More Jimmy-humbling, Wall seems to be saying. More power for "you", the golden god, the midlands brickie made good.

Here's an example of the depth of his 20-year friendship-based insight into Jimmy Page:

Inviting me up to the Old Mill House one day – the same house in which John Bonham had died – he showed me around…."Do you like this sort of thing?" he asked, pushing at a button on a control panel placed in the arm of a couch. The wall opposite the couch began sliding back to reveal another wall behind, from which hung three or four large oil paintings. "What do you think?" he asked. I walked over and had a better look. Thick polychromatic splodges of oil on dark, brooding canvas; what appeared to be a series of bodies twisted in torment, as though in hell. “Weird,” I said. “Heavy . . .” I turned to him, waiting for some explanation, but he merely stood there, smiling , saying nothing…I felt I had failed some sort of test. (p. 429)

I guess. They sound like some of Crowley's paintings. Everyone knows he collects them. What's all the Dr. Evil imagery about? This, the story of the "evil" snake ring and tens of other comments all add up. Wall does not want us to like Jimmy Page. Why not?

It seems churlish to review the book based on a cod-psychoanalysis of the writer, but I don't think the book can be read in context without hearing where the writer is coming from. We know that Mick Wall was Jimmy's friend. He says so himself. It seems that the very act of writing a book is regarded as disloyalty by Jimmy Page. Page has had a hard time trusting journalists in the past – they hated Led Zeppelin from before day one, as admirably outlined in publicist Danny Goldberg's fascinating and readable book, Bumping into Geniuses (Gotham Books, 2008). To have his long term friend turn on him in this fashion must have angered Page beyond belief. As soon as Jimmy learned Wall was writing a book, he cut Wall off.

I appear to have lost the 20-year friendship of Jimmy Page (how dare I try and write a better book than the bog-awful Hammer Of The Gods), Robert Plant (he'll change his mind when he sees it) and related friends. (Mick Wall's blog.)

Wall seems to have over-reacted, in a giant attack of Sour Grapes, deciding Jimmy is worthless and his friendship not worth anything.

Mick has particularly harsh things to say about Page, even though he was once very close to the guitarist. The two fell out when Mick decided to write his book about Led Zeppelin. Initially, the rock writer attempted to persuade his old friend to get involved. But Page refused and has even threatened to sue over the contents of the book. “It has been made plain through mutual friends that I’ve burned my bridges with him,” says Mick. “But you know what? I’m 50 now. When I was 30, 35, even 40, it was very important for me to keep those doors open with Jimmy. But now it’s far less important. I’ve had 20 years of talking to him and I don’t really need to talk to him again. (From the Sunday Mercury.)

The article goes on to say;

Mick even claims Page… has squandered his immense talent and now rarely plays guitar.… “These days he’s far more likely to have a remote control in his hands. From what I’ve heard from mutual friends, he just sits watching football on the telly. Tragic, really.”

"Squandered"? The man who played on about 60% of Britain's hit singles in the early sixties, formed one of the best loved bands in the rock catalogue, wrote some of the best selling songs of all time, arranged and produced six of the best selling albums of all time, and is a consistent top three guitarist in all professional guitarist polls? What the hell do you have to do to fulfill your potential in Wall's world?

Wall appears to be consumed with that jealousy the perpetual hangers-on develop. They realize eventually that the validation they are receiving is because they are in the same room with handsome, talented, successful, rich, skilled people. These qualities, however, do not rub off. Self-esteem issues develop and the only way to save face is to get out, and cash in. If it means losing the artist's friendship – and it often does - they proclaim loudly like a LOLCAT, "I toataly MENT to do that!!1!"

Well, thanks, Mick. I bought the book, so it works. But it really is just Hammer of the Gods on Viagra, though, mudsharks, drugs and big airplanes, with a side helping of the sourest grapes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Devil's In His Hole

In 1975, after their American tour ended, Led Zeppelin were told that they would have to become tax exiles. A relatively common term in the mid-seventies in Britain, this signified a group of people whose temporary earning level put them in the highest tax bracket, and who would have to be domiciled outside of Britain for the remainder of the tax year in order to avoid paying most of their year's earnings as taxes.

After their Earls Court shows (which are peppered with Robert Plant's bitter references to the tax man) Led Zeppelin's members split up to travel the world. Robert Plant, his wife Maureen, his children Karac and Carmen, and Jimmy Page's daughter Scarlet were in a car accident in Rhodes. The family was flown back to England for treatment and very shortly afterwards a still seriously-injured Plant was flown to Jersey in order to maintain his non-domiciled status in the well-known tax haven. For six weeks or so, Plant remained at the house of a millionaire lawyer colleague.

The album Presence was recorded shortly afterwards, with Plant still on crutches. More than one song on the album, particularly Achilles Last Stand, has been described as "intensely autobiographical". According to Mick Wall in When Giants Walked the Earth, Achilles went under Plant's working title of The Wheelchair Song" and blames the exile for what Mick calls their current malaise. One line refers to "the devil's in his hole".

Mick doesn't mention this, but the Devil's Hole is a place on the Jersey coast. (Jersey is historically French speaking and in French the cave is known as Le Creux de Vis, which I'm told translates to "the screw hole", rich in double entendres but probably just meaning borehole or awl-hole, right?) Plant can't have walked down to it, mostly because he couldn't walk but secondarily because the difficult passage down to it has been closed for years. The cave is a famous landmark featured on picture postcards, a blowhole where the waves have blasted a tunnel through the cliffs. A ship wrecked close by in 1851, and the figurehead washed up in the cave, resembling a devil. This was carved into the wooden figure of the devil by Captain Jean Giffard and remained there for many years during which tourists could pay to climb down the cliffs and visit him.

Since tourists are not supposed to go into the cave today, a devil figure – though he looks more like Pan to me – has been placed in a pond at the top of the cliffs at The Priory Inn. Here's an excellent picture, but since there are prints for sale, I won't reproduce it for copyright reasons. It's worth a click.

The whole verse in Achilles, however, doesn't appear to refer to Jersey.

Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss,
The devil's in his hole

As a former Brit myself, I believe the image summoned up by "streets that steam and hiss" is of New York. There's a Devil's Hole State Park in upstate New York, but it's not below the streets of Manhattan!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Oh Well

I'm still only half-way through it. But Mick Wall's When Giants Walked the Earth has an interesting insight on Black Dog:

...musos stroked their beards appreciatively over the peacocking, lugubrious riff - originally in 3/16 time, smirked Jones, "but no-one could keep up this that!" - and Plant's acapella vocals, based on Fleetwood Mac's recent hit, "Oh Well"...
Oh Well, of course. One of my favorite tunes but I had never thought about the two of them together. Apart from being in a very tappable four four, it does have a similar structure. Here's Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac with Oh Well.

He's very modest isn't he? He can sing, he is pretty and I like thin legs.

And here's Page himself Oh Welling with the Black Crowes and Joe Perry in 1999. (Thanks, C!)

While I'm here, here's another bit of Peter Green, with a better picture.
Danny's broken a string and Peter just rips this out as an improvisation
while he fixes it. It's spellbinding.

If you've forgotten what Black Dog sounds like ... how could you?... then try this one, the Jimmy-Page-Quick-Costume-Change version.

Civic Literacy.

I'm not completely Civicly Literate, with 27 out of 33 correct on this quiz from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)'s American Civic Literacy Program. That's a score of 82%.

Then again, I'm about as good as people taking it online - the average score for this quiz during November was 78%. And I'm far, far better than elected officials (44% correct) and ordinary joes sent the official version to complete (49% correct). And no, I didn't google for answers. I suspect that some might have done, however, hence the significant difference between the official results and the online results.

The ones I got wrong were entirely in the first section - knowing what was in some-old-guy-with-a-stovepipe-hat's letters and so forth. None of the later ones were incorrect. I assume that not going to school here did me down a little.

The write-up on the dreadful performance of the elected officials is here on Yahoo News. Beware, the test is biased, but I think part of civic literacy is knowing that you are supposed to find a happy answer to a free trade question, not start throwing things at the screen and ranting communistically into your beard. Caveat quizzee.

(Found via More Words Deeper Hole.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Exterminate - Forty five years of Doctor Who and the Daleks

1963 is one of my favorite years. That was the year it all changed, and not just for me, apparently. Philip Larkin put it this way in his Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP

At five I was a little too young to realize that two of those things existed. The Beatles I was big on. Forty-five years on, 1963 looks like the watershed year it was.

This day, on 22nd November, 1963, President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. I have a vague memory of that – not the assassination itself, but of my family being strangely subdued and my grandmother buying a memorial book, Four Days, which I still see around. My family lived in Yorkshire, England. The impact of that deed was worldwide.

Also on that day, the Beatles' second LP, With the Beatles, was released. I already knew about the Beatles. Now there was a phenomenon with impact. I missed most of the other 1963isms. The dreadful weather; General De Gaulle's Non to British hopes of joining the Common Market. I remember the White Heat of Technology Speech by the new leader of labor, Harold Wilson, but I'm sure I heard of it much later. One of Britain's many communist spies, Kim Philby defecting to Russia, the Profumo Scandal, and the authorization of Britain's third TV channel, BBC2, with a mandate to edumacate the masses or something, I don't know, I didn't see it for many years afterwards. In fact I don't remember ever watching ITV, the second channel. BBC (the first one) was all we had. (I'd occasionally sneak round to houses with lower parental morals in order to catch an ITV programme, but that's probably another story.)

But tomorrow, 23rd November, is the forty-fifth anniversary of the day the world REALLY changed. On that day, the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. And then, as Philip Larkin put it,

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

Dr Who debuted on the BBC, in glorious black and white. It was the story of an old duffer and his niece, made far more strange and beautiful than the usual BBC story by the fact that the old man – the doctor – was a traveler in time and space. His vehicle was disguised as an emergency telephone booth, a rather steampunk attempt at fitting in with 1960s planet Earth. I'm no otaku and I can't remember a single original Dr Who storyline, although I do remember the (1965) motion picture in great detail. All I knew of it was Dr Who fought the Daleks, and that was enough. Here's a clip from the 1965 movie.

This clip opens with a flipbook of the book The Dalek World, which - oooh! - I have.

After that, I insisted on getting Dalek material in my own chosen medium, the written word. I still have some of it – a couple of Dr Who annuals, which I reread recently and was surprised to find were simple in terms of word-length but complex in terms of moral values, depiction of unpleasant events and so on, and the Dalek Pocketbook and Space Travellers' Guide,

which had a fair amount of facts (as then believed) about the solar system and was therefore my introduction to science. (Thanks, I think, Dr Who!) Unlike most, I did not hide behind the sofa when the Daleks appeared, and unlike 99.9% of people at the time, I knew that the effect that produced the Dalek voice was ring modulation. (My father worked in audio electronics.) I don't know why. Chicks dig Daleks, what can I say.

Hey, I used to have a little black battery-operated Dalek like the one she's holding…

The BBC has some historical photos and background on its site here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Problems I didn't even know it was possible to have, part I

The BBC reports the case of a supermodel who does not have a bellybutton. There is a picture. Tens of thousands (almost) of readers write in to say they, too, do not have a bellybutton, or navel, or, in one case, naval.

Full story here.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fields of the Nephilim

Gen 6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
I bought a book, against my better judgment. Wait. The phrase "against my better judgment" assumes that I have a better judgment. One imagines it professionally pressed and hanging up, covered in a flimsy nylon bag, in the coat cupboard we use as the server room here at Casa Hopwood, to be brought out only on Sundays and funerals.

Actually, I don't have a better judgment, just a pair of matched judgments that are a few tens of ethical millimeters apart, giving me stereoscopic judgmentovision from appropriate distances. When I first heard of it, Mick Wall's riposte to the unworthy previous biographers of Led Zeppelin When Giants Walked the Earth sounded like a dumb idea. It was bound to be a hatchet job, along the lines of the infamous Hammer of the Gods (by Stephen Davis), but with the added cachet of being written by someone who could talk Cockney and had probably hung around the Speakeasy. Mick Wall has a blog, and a brief review of it convinced me he did know what he was talking about. But his frank admission that he'd lost Jimmy Page's friendship over the publication of the book suggested I was right to think of it as HOTG on steroids.

I appear to have lost the 20-year friendship of Jimmy Page (how dare I try and write a better book than the bog-awful Hammer Of The Gods), Robert Plant (he'll change his mind when he sees it) and related friends like - apparently - Cookie, who ceased all communications the moment I fessed up and told her what I was doing.
So far, so not convinced.

Then my other judgment, the greedy completist one, kicked in and demanded I buy it. So I did. It got here yesterday - unfortunately for it, arriving after a slew of reviews in the papers that made it sound like crap - and I've got almost 1/8 of the way through it in the first day. It appears to be called "When Giants Walked the Earth" for the simple reason you need to be Peter Grant-sized to lift the damn thing and spread the pages. It's huge. It must be 170,000 words, I swear.

I can't 'review' it in one go, so I'll just put things here as I get through it. Remember I have the two judgments, though, so I reserve the right to change my mind.

Mick Wall has had a Good Idea. For the bits that would be boring as he said/she said exposition, he's taken a leaf out of the fanfic writer's handbook and written short sections in the second person. So, a chapter will be all about how "you" ran the NAAFI when you were in the army, you were a wrestler, you negotiated contracts etc. because in that chapter "you" are Peter Grant. Since Mick Wall is not a natural fanfic writer, it hasn't occurred to him that second person is the hardest POV to write in because readers will unconsciously rebel against identifying with people who do things they wouldn't do, such as hang out with Don Arden or be a bodyguard at the 2is. It is a bit of an effort to sit in your car at lunchtime eating a Lean Cuisine and have to "be" 1968 Robert Plant or John Bonham, but it is, I have to agree, marginally more thrilling than other ways of putting a biography together, so I'm not totally fed up with it yet.

There's another way in which this stuff reminds me of fanfic. Consider this passage from the book:
Things warmed up when you [Jimmy Page] started playing records. You told him [Robert Plant] about your idea for taking the Yardbirds and building on it, going in a whole new direction. The kid nodded along, "Yeah, great", though it was fairly clear he didn't know any Yardbirds' songs - not from your time with them, anyway. But you sat there on the floor together, letting him flick through your LPs, pulling out stuff...He was still nodding, still sitting there pulling on a joint and going, "Yeah, man, groovy," but you could tell he didn't really know what on earth your were on about half the time. He'd heard of Joan Baez, all Dylan fans had heard of Joan Baez, but what did she have to do with the New Yardbirds? He was just a big curly-haired kid with a big curly-haired voice from somewhere up there in the Midlands.

So you picked up your acoustic guitar, said, "I've got an idea for this one", and began playing your own arrangement of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You", and slowly, slowly, it began to sink in. Not all of it, but enough to get him started, get him thinking about it on the train back to Brum or wherever it was he came from. Then you said he could crash for the night if he wanted and he did.

Yes! All right! And then...?

Unfortunately, the second person Jimmy narrative stops there and it goes back to reportage. I wonder if Wall's aware of the hundreds of second-person Jimbert slashfics that have covered this exact Boathouse scenario, the first meeting of impecunious young Robert and the flush, wordly-wise older southerner - and how many have turned on that same last phrase: "Do you want to crash here tonight?"

If one of us had been writing it, of course, it wouldn't have ended there. But Mick Wall, who I'm sure will get to the sex and drugs and rock and roll a bit later, draws a discreet veil over that first night.


I gather there's also a lot of stuff about magic in here too. Will we learn that Jimmy Page worshipped evil and was a generally evil all round evil person who was shadowed by evil and haunted by it (evil)? I hope so! (Rubs hands.) I love it when biographers cover the important stuff! :) Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


In comments yesterday, I said I'd never quite understood how Clapton got Cream's Crossroads out of what he heard on Robert Johnson's Crossroads. I put it down to genius – Clapton, after all, was God.

I went looking for a vid this morning. When I found one, I found I did know how he did it. The version of Cream's Crossroads which comes up first on YouTube is not the vinyl version - it's a 1968 live performance that's very unusual. It's an intermediate version between RJ's and vinyl EC's riff. For the first 20 or so seconds, Clapton leaves in the underlying boogie structure that bridges the gap between the two versions. It's like he's left the scaffolding in place. I couldn't see how he thought of that riff, but with the structure holding it up, I can! I checked about thirty other performances, and he doesn't do it this way any other time!

The Missing Link Crossroads

Here's the vinyl version (no video)

And of course Mr. Johnson's version.

Off on a tangent: Paul Bunyan had a Blue Ox called Babe that was forty-two axe handles and a plug of tobacco across the forehead. I can say that and not be lying and yet not think it's actually true. When a YouTube commenter says Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, are they living in Mythspace, like me recounting Paul Bunyan, or do they really believe it?

I may not want to know the answer to that.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Make a Wish

It's fire season.

The Santa Ana winds aren't blowing very hard, but it is very warm - around 90 today. I have a work colleague here from back east and I was explaining to her this morning that it's fire weather and it would be hot. She was too busy staring out of the window. She pointed a shaky finger at a big black bird on the pathway light post about a foot from the window and said, "Is that a...vulture?"

I replied, "Yeah, it's a turkey vulture. Don't worry, they don't attack you unless you're dead. The other 20 in the flock are over there." I pointed out the rest of them, drying their wings on the lawn. You get used to the things. At work it's likel iving in a cartoonist's desert set with the rattlesnakes and opuntia and vultures.

Anyway, we sorted out what work she needed to do and I left her to it. About three o'clock a helicopter went over, too low to be commuting, and someone checked the CHP scanner. Sure enought, there's a fire on the 2 lane highway which is the only route past my work. It's at Milestone 12, we're at Milestone 10. That means the road would be closing at the first mile to anything coming our way and closing entirely at the other end.

I live at the Milestone 1 end, so there was still chance to get out in that direction. As I milled around bumping into myself in the sort of confusion you get into when you realize you haven't made any evacuation plans, three more fire calls came into the CHP *and* a reported vehicular accident, all on the same highway. I called up my colleague and said, "You remember I said it was fire season. (Hearty fake chuckle.) Well, there's a fire. The road will soon close and you might be trapped here all night?"

Sensible woman, she said she'd leave right away. I thought about it for five minutes and left myself. On the way back to Milestone 1 I passed 16 fire tenders coming the other way, and a couple of ambulances heading up towards, and hopefully two miles past, my workplace. It took me forty minutes instead of 20 to get home. But, IAM HOME, which is the main thing.

Of course I forgot to get her cell phone number, so I'll have to call every hotel in town, and let her know. "Say, er, if the company building still exists tomorrow, I'll see you there at 7 am.(Hearty fake chuckle.)"

Oh, the title of the post? The helicopter that we heard was dumping fire retardant ahead of the fire. As it came over our property and dipped lower, it blew all the fluffy seeds from the dandelions and similar plants up into a Ridleyscott of gossamer airfluff. My supervisor, who watched the helicopter fly over, said to me, "When you blow the seeds off a dandelion clock, you have to make a wish."

She has an unusual take on the mobilization of the emergency services, but not a bad one, I think.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A lien on my soul

My family's musical traditions were a murky stew. My mother's family mostly sang and listened to Music Hall songs - I can still sing rather more of My Old Man Said Follow the Van or recite more of Stanley Holloway's The Lion and Albert that you might imagine - and my dad was solidly Matt Monro and Frank Sinatra. Skiffle, which had revolutionized Britain, had passed them by, with the possible exception of "Chewing Gum" (I think that got grandfathered into Music Hall), and Elvis was regarded as joke, one of those youngsters you can't tell if he's a boy or a girl, can't sing without heaps of reverb and is sure to sink into the mire from which he accidentally arose, like some quiffed vacuum fluctuation.

In the bumbling way kids do, or at least did pre-Wikipedia, I found rock and roll, learned it had blues roots and decided to dig around. BB King and John Lee Hooker and the hundreds of other major influences on rock seemed to go unsaid in those days. Too obvious to mention, perhaps, for the grown-ups who were actually playing music. The one man everyone mentioned was Robert Johnson.

So, I picked up King of the Delta Blues Singers volumes 1 and 2 at an early age, without actually having heard any other original American blues that I can recall. They were recorded in 1936. The songs of Robert Johnson's I'd heard by British artists were recorded from 1967 on. A thirty year period, in which those playing his stuff had also listened to Elvis, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and a host of other musicians forming a bridge. I hadn't, and Robert Johnson might as well have been a Martian for all the similarities a naive 13 year old could detect between say, his Malted Milk and Black Sabbath's Paranoid. Luckily I was an avid Science Fiction reader, so the problems of First Contact didn't throw me. It took a while to apply this discipline, and it took even longer to grow up enough to know what Robert Johnson was singing about, and why he sounded so hunted, even haunted, on every track. It took about ten years, then, to figure out why he was the one every rock musician mentioned first.

Led Zeppelin famously borrowed his lyric "squeeze my lemon" in The Lemon Song and a little less famously, because it was performed for a BBC session and not released until many years later, they covered his Traveling Riverside Blues. They doubled the "l", as British people do, and added in words from other Robert Johnson songs and even other blues songs, as Robert Plant is wont to do, and fundamentally changed the guitar part from compelling to absolutely sublime, as guitar gods do. I recorded it from a BBC broadcast and had it on cassette tape for many years before it was released, and it is still my favorite Led Zeppelin song. There's something about the structure, the way it fits together and seems sort of inevitable, like a beautifully designed roller coaster, the highs and lows scripted and set in motion to play out perfectly, the musical equivalent of one of the executive desk toys in spinning chrome.

Here it is. Led Zeppelin's Travelling Riverside Blues.

Now, Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge has been suggested as a singer for Jimmy Page's, John Paul Jones' and Jason Bonham's new band, the "To Be Decideds". Does he like Traveling Riverside Blues? Yes, he does!

Alter Bridge’s management offered a terse “no comment” to Classic Rock’s official enquiry regarding the rumours; the fact that the band included Robert Johnston’s ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ (from whence Zep borrowed the immortal “Squeeze my lemon…” line) seems to imply the deal has already been done. And, so long as it was temporary, why the heck not?

He plays it straight, with just a little adjustment here and there to make it smooth.

Edit: replacement video. The Copenhagen link died.

Here's the original, in Martian. Robert Johnson in a hotel room in 1937. Second Contact, in this case, as he'd been recorded once previously. Imagine that meeting of cultures! Stanley G. Weinbaum's creatures were not separated by the gulf that's being bridged here by this flimsy magnetic tape - or was it still wire in those days?

I put the others first to build the (alter) bridge in case you haven't heard Robert Johnson before. Please feel free to decide it's infinitely superior to the modern interpretations. I'm used to people saying that.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Life Aquatic

Oceangal forwarded this video on the jellyfish of Palau.

These jellyfish live in saltwater in the center of the island, trapped away from the sea. In their new little homes (there's more than one lake) they seem to have thriven. The jellies are farmers, or perhaps farms, depending on your level of anthropomorphism. They keep algae inside their bodies and live off the by-products of the plants' photosynthesis. In return, they ferry the algae from sunny area to sunny area during the day, and at night take them down to the low-oxygen level of the lake where some of the weirder bacteria live. They pick up nutrients from them for their plants and then go back up to catch rays the next morning. The jellies also catch the occasional copepod and eat it.

Although jellyfish look as though they're going somewhere, they aren't really swimming like a frog or an otter; their bell contracts and relaxes in the same way a heart does, with as much conscious thought as a heart puts into its beat.

Apparently these can barely sting, so snorkelling around in a cloud of them is a nice experience.


At the end of October, in Superhype Awry, I whinged about people's perception that anything Jimmy Page does without Robert Plant will be Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant in it, and therefore doomed. In fact, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones have been careful for 11 months not to say Led Zeppelin reunion or anything remotely similar. That hasn't stopped everyone, even lost Japanese WWII soldiers still hiding out in jungles on Pacific Islands, even Ambrose Bierce, even Lord Lucan and the crew of the Marie Celeste, from going online and telling each other that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones going on tour without Robert Plant would be a misuse of the name Led Zeppelin.

Jimmy must have wanted to clear this up once and for all, because yesterday his spokesman told Rolling Stone, "Whatever this is, it is not Led Zeppelin. Not without the involvement of Robert Plant."

Thank you spokesbeing.

This clarification was instantly successful, as you can see by reading the comments below the article. This commenter, for example: "Touring without Robert Plant is fine, but I think it's really stupid for them to still go by Led Zeppelin, because they simply aren't."

I'm not making that up. The article is above, with the spokesguy's comment as I've reprinted it here, and the comment is below, posted after the dude had presumably read the article.

When I lived in London, I used to go to a pub in Canning Town that featured live bands on the weekends. About once a month, they would have The Blues Band. Singer Paul Jones and bassist Gary Fletcher were from Manfred Mann, Tom McGuinness and Hughie Flint were of McGuinness Flint, and they were supplemented with slide guitarist Dave Kelly, a mainstay of the blues scene (and Jo-Ann Kelly's brother). These were the rockingest gigs I've ever attended. I doubt the pub paid the band much, if anything. They had a good time, we had a great time, and although you'd imagine it would eventually get old, drinking beer and singing along to "What did I do to make you mad this time, baaaaaaaaaaaaybee?", it actually didn't. Sometimes I wish Jimmy and John Paul were just a little less rich and famous, so they could shrug off the fans' hyperactive expectations and just do this circuit, bringing rock 'n' roll fun to people who just like having fun.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Give me your funny paper

I have the American version of a pension scheme, an IRA. They're simple. All your life you put your own money into buying stocks and bonds, and when you retire you have a fortune, it says here. I'll avoid going into the similarities between everyone getting rich by putting money into stocks and everybody getting rich by putting money into one-armed bandits for the moment. (It's not like I had no choice; I mean, I could have put it into houses instead...)

Anyway, the IRA's robot sent me a warning email today. It said, "[I]t may be time to revisit your plan. The equity portion of your investments is currently at 30.91% and your current target asset mix suggests that 70.0% may be more appropriate." Which is good advice.

The really sad thing is, two months ago I did have 70% of my retirement money in equities. I didn't sell them. They just lost so much value that the few bonds I own overtook them. In other words, I'm screwed. My retirement account has lost a fortune in hardly any time at all. I daren't look to see what the actual damage is.

Should I believe the robot and buy more equities? After all, they're cheap. Or should I just find finance workers and, hanging them up by the feet, collect the coins that drop out of their pockets? Yes, that seems much more satisfying.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What a beautiful buzz

From Shine a Light, the Rolling Stones live with Jack White. Loving Cup is one of my favorite Stones tracks and this is a nice version which seems to gain added Stoniness from the non-Stones member. I don't know how White does this - older musicians seem to love having him around, and he seems to add something special to them. He's a musician's musician who's popular with the crowd as well, I guess.

(Edit: Actual clip is now unavailable.)

In this case, a lot of the thrill is seeing how happy he is to play with the Stones. Getting a smile from Jagger, a signal to go into the coda from Keef, it makes his night and in turn he makes mine. Dig the accents - Mick sings the first line, Jack takes the second in perfect Jaggerese, which seems to set off some sort of accent-one-upmanship in Jagger. I suppose it doesn't take much with him, but it was odd to hear a little bit of Boston in amongst all that...that...that whatever-it-is accent he sings this in.

If they'd sung the whole of Exile, I'd have been an even happier camper.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Control (DVD)

I rented the DVD of Control this week. It's the life story of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, as filtered through the medium of his wife's book and the bleak kitchen-sink influenced film making of Anton Corbijn. (You may know him from such films as 'everything Depeche Mode ever did'.)

We all know the end - Ian Curtis hangs himself at 23 - but the director keeps it on track as a document from first to last. I grew up in Yorkshire, leaving in 1976. Curtis and the band grew up around Manchester (Lancashire) at exactly the same time. Perhaps the shock of self-recognition is in the story itself, not in the cinematography or direction. The album covers, fashions, dialect, haircuts, and soundtrack of Bowie, Iggy, Bowie, Lou, Bowie... all were familiar to me from the little diary I kept in those days, one or two secretive lines a day.

Ian Curtis didn't write a line or two a day, but kept notebooks bulging with poetry. I hadn't realized that the man who so personified teenage angst, poetry and depression was not actually a gloomy, clinically-depressed glowerer, but a perfectly regular kid who developed epilepsy in his late teens. Either the disease or the fistsfull of prescription drugs he took for it seem to have clouded his judgment, or at least that's the impression the film gives. His suicide was not the result of some awful T. S. Eliot bout of introspection but rather that he stole his best friend's girl, married her very young, encouraged her to have a baby too soon, and then - bloody rock stars - fell in love with a pretty European girl and couldn't figure out what to do about it. Drinking a bottle of whisky, listening to Iggy's The Idiot and watching a Werner Herzog movie on the TV one night surely didn't help.

The movie does not dwell too much on the Manchester scene, though we see a little of punk and post-punk around. We meet Tony Wilson, of Granada TV and Factory Records, of course. We see Joy Division's robust manager and their heavy, mohican'd roadie. (It seems that one constant in any rock band's success is the early acquisition of the loyalty of a heavy who will be your roadie. There's a philosophy in that somewhere.)

According to the film, at least, success didn't actually bring them any money - they seemed to be on a low weekly wage throughout. The bleak mid-seventies northern row-houses feature heavily, with their gas instant-water-heaters rusting on the wall near square ceramic sinks, the baby imprisoned in a little playpen on the miniature living room floor and the hand-washed arrays of babygros (onesies) dripping near the kitchen ceiling on the creel (a wooden rack for drying clothes, raised and lowered on a rope).

There's a few amusing bits. In particular, where it resembled the less carefree moments of Gregory's Girl (which I highly recommend), some of the tactics the band use to get noticed and some the manager uses to get someone else out in front of a budding riot. The music is awesome - recreated by the actors for the film, it manages to be Joy Division, although I think this will have more effect on people who already know the music, where a couple of riffs will do it. Joy Division's full impact comes over after a good long listen, and the three minutes or so each song gets in the film may be to short to catch a newbie's attention.

There didn't seem to be a take-home message. The person who watched it with me said, "It's an argument for a manager giving the band some of the money earlier. You can't hang yourself in a tumble-dryer."

And that's a fact.

Star Star

Star Magazine, the LA Groupies' organ, , which ran for five issues in the glam-soaked mid-seventies, has a web presence. An article from June 1973 lets the girls put themselves in their best light, which, frankly, is not that flattering.

These excerpts are from the interview with them here:

STAR: Do you ever get into real fights?

QUEENIE: Sure, like once, I wanted Mick Ronson, the guitarist in David Bowie's band. He was going with this ugly girl named Leslie and I can't stand her. So I was dancing and making my little eyes, and wiggling my legs and everything. It just made me so mad that she was with him. Anyway she made faces at me so I went up to her and splashed her gin gimlet right in her face! After that, Mick came over to me and left Leslie sitting by herself with her runny makeup and sopping wet hair.

STAR: How about Marc Bolan?

QUEENIE: Marc Bolan-definitely. The girls just go mad over Marc. I
guess because of the way he looks with his hair and he's skinny, and the way he dresses.

STAR: Really?

SABLE: I just hated Marc Bolan. He just thinks he's so in it because he has T-Rex. He's really a little brat.

QUEENIE: He is not-he's beautiful!

SABLE: He's a brat. He just stands in a corner and talks to all these black people. Anyway, one time I went over and I was going to pour a glass of wine on him. So Mary was supposed to push me to make it all look like an accident. Only it was too
fake, it didn't work on time because she just touched me on my back and the next thing I knew I just flipped my wrist and my drink poured all over him. It looked too fake!

It gives me a sense of where Jimmy Page was coming from when he said the groupie feuds in LA eventually got down to "razor blade sandwiches" (which is a good name for a group). With girls like this waiting for him in LA, I think I see why he allegedly preferred hanging with drag queens at night clubs.

Jimmy and Queenie
(Getty Images)

Well, except for that time. And on many other occasions. In fact it apparently took him a while to start worrying...

Kawaii Octopus

Megaleledone setebos. Many octopuses evolved from a common ancestor that lived off Antarctica more than 30 million years ago, according to a "Census of Marine Life" that is seeking to map the oceans from microbes to whales.


From Marine Census, Reuters.


Sunday, November 09, 2008


US spending on Health Care was over $2 trillion in 2006, and has been rising sharply for many years. According to Kaiser, "recent rapid cost growth, coupled with an overall economic slowdown and rising federal deficit, is placing great strains on the systems we use to finance health care, including private employer-sponsored health insurance coverage and public insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Since the year 2000, employer-sponsored health coverage premiums have increased by 87 percent." (My emphasis.)

There are various plans to reduce this spiralling cost; some are discussed at the website linked above. They include group health plans, government regulation and improvements in efficiency. The latter includes streamlining services and developing 'algorithms" which provide the fastest (most efficient) diagnosis and treatments. None of these plans take into account the major cause of rising health care costs, which is that health care companies are private, and have to make money for their shareholders every quarter, or they will go out of business.

I work in healthcare, for a private company. Before I go any further, let me say I always do what my company tells me to do, unless it's against the law, which it hasn't been so far. Mostly this doesn't bother my conscience at all. What's good for my company is good for me, since they pay me.

We had a trainining session on the protection of intellectual property. "Intellectual property" means "something the company knows that is worth money as long as no one else knows it". Examples are the formula for Coca-Cola and the ingredients of Big Mac Special Sauce. One major leakage of intellectual property is through vendors. Someone who sells us something may ask, "How exactly do you use our product? If you tell us how you use it, we can tailor it so it's better for you."

Stop, said the trainer. If they know how we use their product, the vendor could easily disclose this information to our rivals, either by accident or for money. This type of discussion should only take place under a non-disclosure agreement, an NDA. This is a standard practice in all industries, and frankly, isn't new to me or to anyone else. Okay, done, training session over.

But there was something in the way it was said. "If you tell the vendor the steps you took to optimize their product for use, you're disclosing information that cost the company money and time to produce. If a rival gains that knowledge without having to spend the time and cash, then we are reducing costs to our rivals."

Saying the magic words "reducing cost" tripped a switch in my mind. I did not hear that passage as an employee of a publicly traded company. I heard it as a patient, and as a patient that has had to spend a lot of money paying for the extremely high cost of healthcare in the USA. It came out quite flatly to me: "It is in our interest to increase the cost of healthcare."

Our company prides itself on patient care, and I'm sure if I mentioned this perception to management they'd say that the message was that rivals would be discouraged, only we would offer that particular service, no costs would increase and everybody would be happy.

Yeah, sure. But looking at it another way, under current laws regarding intellectual property, and under current standard practices regarding intellectual property, it is in a company's best interest to keep even the most minor, low-grade discoveries quiet in the hopes of increasing the costs to everyone else.

Healthcare really is too important to be left to private companies.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Sorry, couldn't help myself. This meant absolutely Sweet Gollywaddles All to me when it came out in 1973 (though I bought the album for other reasons). Seems more apropos today.

I think Vince Furnier is actually Republican. Sorry Vince. Hahahahaha!

PS. Boycott lettuce.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


I've mused before on the spectacle of intelligent people trying to prevent other people - some intelligent, some not - from swearing in public.

If you accept it's necessary - and you're the unlucky slob who has to enforce the rule - you have to go to extraordinary lengths to do so. When I last mentioned it, it was in the context of a filter to stop the public writing offensive tags on a library cataloguing program. The wider argument was about what is offensive, which turned out to be a surprising variety of things. In fact, it would be easier to give a list of non-offensive words that could be used to catalogue books than to try to keep up with some people's ability to find offence.

Comments like this were bandied about:

If there are issues with the word testicle, then perhaps scrotum and ball-sack might be considered? My son, who is 'In the Army Now', would definitely use those instead of testicle(s) although he probably wouldn't spell them correctly.

And then we got into whether "leet" (1337) variations of the same might profitably be banned. And whether, say, a book about testicular cancer could be tagged with the word "testicle", on the grounds that some, e.g. sufferers from testicular cancer, might find it useful in a way that trumped someone else's right to be offended.

And there was much more to it. (Original post on Making Light is here.)

Today, the Supreme Court has been faced with a similar task, to decide whether "fleeting expletives"[1] in broadcasts should be punished by the current penalty (hanging, drawing and quartering) or whether broadcasters should simply be forced to crawl on their hands and knees all across America and apologize to every child they harmed.

The Supremes took a completely different tack. Expletives, fleeting or lingering, apparently fall foul of a law prohibiting material that "depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs". And that's it!

The New York Times reports:

“Why do you think the F-word has shocking value or emphasis or force?” Chief Justice Roberts asked Carter G. Phillips, a lawyer for Fox Television Stations, which had broadcast some of the offending language.

The chief justice answered his own question: “Because it is associated with sexual or excretory activity. That’s what gives it its force.”

Justice Antonin Scalia added that this was the reason people “don’t use ‘gollywaddles’ instead of the F-word.”

There's quite a lot more at the link - the discussion of a possible "but it was funny!" defense, and the offhand declaration that "dung" seems to be acceptable but "shit" isn't. Not that they said "shit". The solicitor general said, "We think that the S-word is patently offensive".

I'm still not sure how to reliably differentiate between a person who describes excretory activity because they have a mandate to educate, and someone who says, "Shit! Tee hee! I made a funny!" but I guess they know, because one is an expletive and one isn't.

I suppose I'll know it when I see it.

[1] "Fleeting Expletives" would be a good name for a band!


Hey, I voted! I'm proud of myself.

On November 16th, 2007 I became an American citizen. Today, November 4th, 2008, I voted in a presidential election.

It's a shame that the intervening 11 1/2 months has kind of supplied the proof that America really was sucking the entire planet down a black hole (before 2008 people suspected it but couldn't really prove it). It was embarrassing. Hopefully, if we skirt the black hole for another few months, things will change around significantly.

Here's to tomorrow.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Going for a song

The Devil is selling Robert Johnson's soul on eBay. Apparently he (the Prince of Darkness) is having a tough time making ends meet and is cashing out. Since souls are intangible, all you'll actually be able to wave around is the certificate of authenticity.

Satan doesn't seem to have much of a seller history, so buyer beware if you're going to pick this one up. Me, I'll wait for him to sell off Jimmy Page's, though I hope it'll be a good long time before that one goes on the market.

LINK. Currently waiting for a bid of $17.50, the auction ends on November 5th.


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