Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Happy 10th bloggiversary to Althouse

Happy 10th birthday to Althouse, the blog of my mom, Ann Althouse.

She's blogged every day since she started the blog on January 14, 2004. As she's pointed out:

I've written ... on the hardest work days, on the day I wrecked my car, the day I had surgery, the day I drove 1235 miles in one day, and the day I got married.
The blog was originally called Marginalia, before she quickly changed it to her last name. Her first post explained:
I'm writing from Madison, Wisconsin, and Marginalia is a fictionalized name for Madison that I thought up a long time ago when I seriously believed I would write a fictionalized account of my life in Madison, Wisconsin. There is nothing terribly marginal about Madison, really, but I do like writing in the margins of books, something I once caused a librarian to gasp by saying. Writing in a blog is both less and more permanent than writing in the margin of a book.
She's posted an average of about 10 posts a day, with a total of over 36,000. Out of those tens of thousands, my favorite Althouse post might seem very minor. But to me it shows the essence of her blog. Why? Because if you got 100 bloggers to write a post about that Washington Post editorial, no one else would have written it that way. Most would have been forgettable and abstract, where Althouse was memorable and vivid.

She's blogged about drawing in Amsterdam, things she's never done, the difference between same-sex marriage and polygamy, the problem with "larger meaning," how to teach reading (with follow-ups here and here), gender bias, and her parents meeting in a war.

She's also appeared on video, talking about the Obamas (right before she voted in the 2008 primaries), singlehood, and sexuality.

Her explanation of why she started blogging:
I love writing quickly and openly and ... I'd spent too much time reading the newspaper passively and without making myself decide what I really thought about various things. I wanted to force myself to take one more step and say something about the stories of the day. I'm not a partisan or an ideologue, so I didn't know automatically. It was only by making myself write a sentence or 2 that I found out what I really thought.
There's a daunting amount of content, about no one clear theme. But is there any theme? I think there is an unstated theme: saying what isn't said. Let's look at what people are saying. Let's stop and think about what they're notably not saying out loud. And let's take it upon ourselves to say it out loud. That's what I call "saying what isn't said," and that's what has always distinguished the Althouse blog from other blogs that are merely effective at saying the right things to please their audience. It's easy to look at what others are saying, pick the statements that appeal to us, and repeat them. We all do that sometimes. But those who do only that are missing something.

(If you want to support Althouse for free, search for stuff on Amazon by using the box at the top of the blog, to the right. Amazon rewards her for the referrals, at no cost to you.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The jazz guitarist Jim Hall has died at age 83.

The New York Times reports:

Jim Hall, a jazz guitarist who for more than 50 years was admired by critics, aficionados and especially his fellow musicians for his impeccable technique and the warmth and subtlety of his playing, died on Tuesday at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 83.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Jane, said.

The list of important musicians with whom Mr. Hall worked was enough to earn him a place in jazz history. It includes the pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded two acclaimed duet albums, and the singer Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond, the drummer Chico Hamilton and the bassist Ron Carter, his frequent partner in a duo.

But with his distinctive touch, his inviting sound and his finely developed sense of melody, Mr. Hall made it clear early in his career that he was an important musician in his own right.

He was an influential one as well. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield are among the numerous younger guitarists who acknowledge him as an inspiration. Mr. Hall, who never stopped being open to new ideas and new challenges, worked at various times with all three.

In his later years Mr. Hall composed many pieces for large ensembles, drawing on both his jazz roots and his classical training. Works like “Quartet Plus Four” for jazz quartet and string quartet, and “Peace Movement,” a concerto for guitar and orchestra, were performed internationally and widely praised.

If the critics tended to use the same words over and over to describe Mr. Hall’s playing — graceful, understated, fluent — that was as much a tribute to his consistency as to his talent. As Nate Chinen wrote recently in The New York Times, Mr. Hall’s style, “with the austere grace of a Shaker chair,” has sounded “effortlessly modern at almost every juncture” of his long career.
Pat Metheny has said:
Within a day or two of expressing any interest in the two words "jazz guitar," you will come across Jim Hall. He is in many ways the father of modern jazz guitar. To me, he’s the guy who invented a conception that has allowed the guitar to function in a lot of musical situations that just weren’t thought of as a possibility prior to his emergence as a player. He reinvented what the guitar could be as a jazz instrument.

It’s not about the guitar, it’s about music which is the thing you would say about any great musician. Jim transcends the instrument. The notes that he plays, if they were played by any other player on any other instrument, would have the same kind of value and the same kind of impact and effect. And that is, to me, the quality that separates someone who’s an important musician from somebody who’s just a really good player on their instrument. The meaning behind the notes is what speaks to people. It’s not necessarily the sound or the technique of it, it’s more the spirit of it and that’s the thing that Jim is about for me.
That quote is from the liner notes to the album called Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (downloadable on Hall's website). Here's Hall and Metheny playing "All the Things You Are":



Here's Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins playing "The Bridge" (incredibly manic):



Here's an early (1959) clip of Jim Hall, in the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, playing "A Little Melody" (remarkably understated):



Here he is accompanying Ella Fitzgerald on "Summertime" (Hall's guitar playing gets interesting after 1:20):



Jim Hall and Michel Petrucciani play "My Funny Valentine" (Petrucciani was a pianist as great as his stature was small — the result of a congenital condition):



Here's a whole live set by Art Farmer with Jim Hall in the band, from 1964:



But to me, the recording that best sums up Jim Hall's enigmatic expressiveness and daringly original approach to the guitar is "Angel Eyes," from his 1975 album Jim Hall Live (just Jim Hall, Don Thompson on bass, and Terry Clarke on drums).

Here's an hour-long documentary about him from 1999, called "Jim Hall: A Life in Progress":



Guitarists might want to watch this hour-long "master class."

NPR has collected some quotes from other musicians talking about Hall. Sonny Rollins: "He was able to be a dominant player, a very forceful player but he was also sensitive. You know, that was remarkable. So he was ideal as far as I was concerned for the band that we had together."

John Scofield: "It was just [a] very elegant, elegant thing that he did that affected all of, just about all of the guitar players after him I think."

Julian Lage, a young, excellent guitarist who played with Jim Hall in concert earlier this year, said: "For someone who has had such an impact on just the aesthetic of improvised music and guitar, as a total guitar hero, there was such a degree of humility that — it wasn't that he downplayed what he did — he had this sense that it was part of something way bigger."

A guitarist named Victor Magnani has written a whole essay called "Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Jim Hall." Read the whole thing for the many lessons (including "trust," "respect," "take risks," "don't waste words/notes/time," "keep growing," and "keep good company"). Magnani sums up how he's been affected by Hall:
Of all the great jazz artists, no one has had a more profound impact on me than guitarist Jim Hall. As a guitarist myself there are times when I look to his music to teach me purely technical things - how does he play through certain chord changes, how does he voice his chords, how does he produce that miraculous sound of his? But if this were all his art had to offer, it would be fairly shallow. His work speaks as much to the human condition as any artist past or present, and if one looks and listens attentively, there are great rewards to be found there.
Indeed.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Metablog

A reader emailed to ask whether I've stopped updating this blog. I don't plan to keep posting here regularly, though I'll certainly keep this site online for as long as Google (Blogger) will let me. Here are some points I gave in the email:

• Other technologies are making blogs less appealing. My blog has mostly been read by strangers; if I post something on Facebook, the people who see it are my friends. The very fact that my not posting for a little while is so conspicuous as to give rise a whole discussion about it is an example of why sites like Facebook and Twitter are more appealing. Someone who reads those sites is usually reading a feed of everyone they follow, so they notice the content that's there, not what isn't there.

• I feel like there are other things that are more worth my time, like reading, cooking, and making music.

• Politics has become less interesting to me than it used to. I've been feeling more and more that no one in public discourse is actually trying to figure out which policies will have better consequences. They're just trying to create an impression of supporting policies that have good consequences, or an impression of caring about the right people/things (the poor, the middle class, women, blacks, gays, children, the elderly, the disabled, the environment, science, religion) and despising other things (big corporations, big government). I've been influenced by reading people like Thomas Sowell, Tyler Cowen, and Robin Hanson, who reveal how much people select their beliefs to enhance and promote their own self-image, as opposed to reflecting reality or solving problems. Of course, this could be a reason to blog: to call out these tendencies. But it's also exhausting to keep going against the grain of so much of the discourse.

• There are other topics where I feel like I've mostly said what I want to say. For instance, people pretty much know what music I like. I'm more interested in expanding my music library and listening more to some of the music that's already in my library. Regular readers also know which websites I like, so they're not going to be horribly deprived of my kind of content if I don't blog again; they can go to the sites linked in the sidebar.

If you're still interested in content from me, I recommend following/friending me on Facebook, which is now the main place I post stuff online.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Does democracy work?"

No, or at least not very well, according to Bryan Caplan:

Democracy clearly works if you set the bar low enough. Is democracy better than dictatorship? Of course. Does democracy allow most people in the First World to live long, comfortable lives? Sure. But we now hold most of our social institutions to far higher standards. If 90% of women survived childbirth, we wouldn't say "Medicine works." We'd expect doctors to use everything they know - and constantly strive to learn more. And if mothers were dying because doctors stubbornly clung to superstitious treatments, we judge the doctors very harshly indeed.

So what would we conclude if we held democracy to analogous standards? Do democracies use everything we know? Do they constantly strive to learn more? Do they at least avoid acting on sheer superstition? I say the answer is no across the board. When we actually measure voters' policy-relevant beliefs against reasonable proxies for the Truth, voters do poorly. Democracy's defenders often insist that these errors will harmlessly balance out, but the facts of the matter is that voter errors are usually systematic. Voters err alike....

Couldn't we solve this problem with better education? I'd like to believe that, but the facts once again get in the way. "Educating" people out of their policy beliefs is very hard. Why? In large part, because error is, selfishly speaking, free. If a voter is intellectually lazy, what happens to him? The same thing that happens to people like you who voluntarily attend online debates on "Does Democracy Work!" This contrast is easy to see when you offer to bet someone about his policy views: Even passionate ideologues usually decline to back up their extravagant claims with cold hard cash. As I explain in The Myth of the Rational Voter, we shouldn't think of democracy as a market where people buy the policies they like. We should instead think of democracy as a common well where people throw their intellectual garbage, heedless of the fact that we all drink the water.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tim Russert

Five years ago today, the world was deprived of an important journalistic voice when Tim Russert suddenly died at the age of 58. This is what I wrote at the time about the impact he had on me and many others.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"But don't you think that if a government official claims that something has to do with national security, ...

... rules of privacy and speech don't matter at all?"

So Ben Wikler wryly asks Ben Wizner of the ACLU, which just filed suit against the US government over the Obama administration's surveillance programs. Listen to that interview and more about PRISM here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Paul Krugman on two different kinds of "surveillance states"

"There was a really good article written five years ago by Jack Balkin at the Yale Law School. He said that technology means that we’re going to be living in a surveillance state. That’s just gonna happen. But there are different kinds of surveillance states. You can have a democratic surveillance state which collects as little data as possible and tells you as much as possible about what it’s doing. Or you can have an authoritarian surveillance state which collects as much as possible and tells the public as little as possible. And we are kind of on the authoritarian side."

(Here's the video.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How often do we know who our drone strikes are killing?

NBC News reports (via):

The CIA did not always know who it was targeting and killing in drone strikes in Pakistan over a 14-month period, an NBC News review of classified intelligence reports shows.

About one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011, were classified as "other militants,” the documents detail. The “other militants” label was used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security.

The uncertainty appears to arise from the use of so-called “signature” strikes to eliminate suspected terrorists -- picking targets based in part on their behavior and associates. A former White House official said the U.S. sometimes executes people based on “circumstantial evidence.”

Three former senior Obama administration officials also told NBC News that some White House officials were worried that the CIA had painted too rosy a picture of its success and likely ignored or missed mistakes when tallying death totals.

NBC News has reviewed two sets of classified documents that describe 114 drone strikes over 14 months in Pakistan and Afghanistan, starting in September 2010. The documents list locations, death and injury tolls, alleged terrorist affiliations, and whether the killed and injured were deemed combatants or non-combatants.

Though the Obama administration has previously said it targets al Qaeda leaders and senior Taliban officials plotting attacks against the U.S. and U.S. troops, officials are sometimes unsure of the targets’ affiliations. About half of the targets in the documents are described as al Qaeda. But in 26 of the attacks, accounting for about a quarter of the fatalities, those killed are described only as “other militants.” In four others, the dead are described as “foreign fighters.”

In some cases, U.S. officials also seem unsure how many people died. One entry says that a drone attack killed seven to 10 people, while another says that an attack killed 20 to 22.

Yet officials seem certain that however many people died, and whoever they were, none of them were non-combatants. In fact, of the approximately 600 people listed as killed in the documents, only one is described as a civilian. The individual was identified to NBC News as the wife or girlfriend of an al Qaeda leader.

Micah Zenko, a former State Department policy advisor who is now a drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “incredible” to state that only one non-combatant was killed. “It’s just not believable,” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about how airpower is used and deployed, civilians die, and individuals who are engaged in the operations know this.” ...

Once a target has been killed, according to current and former U.S. officials, the CIA does not take someone out of the combatant category and put them in the non-combatant category unless, after the strike, a preponderance of evidence is produced showing the person killed was a civilian.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What's going on in Turkey?

Listen to my friend Ben Wikler interview an activist/radio host in Turkey, Omer Madra, about the uprising going on there right now. (This is a live radio show, starting at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, which will still be available online after it airs.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Bouncing ball politics"

What's bouncing ball politics? Thomas Sowell explains this brilliant metaphor:

If you are driving along and suddenly see a big red rubber ball come bouncing out into the street, you might want to put your foot on the brake pedal, because a small child may well come running out into the street after it.

We all understand that an inexperienced young child who has his mind fixed on one thing may ignore other things that are too dangerous to be ignored. Unfortunately, too much of what is said and done in politics is based on the same tunnel vision pursuit of some "good thing," in utter disregard of the repercussions.

For years, home ownership was a big "good thing" among both liberal Democrats like Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd, on the one hand, and moderate Republicans like President George W. Bush on the other hand.

Raising the rate of home ownership was the big red bouncing ball that they pursued out into the street, in utter disregard of the dangers.

A political myth has been created that no one warned of those dangers. But among the many who did warn were yours truly in 2005, Fortune and Barron's magazines in 2004 and Britain's The Economist magazine in 2003. Warnings specifically about the dangerous roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were made by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 2005 and by Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow in 2003.

Many, if not most, of the children who go running out into the street in pursuit of their bouncing ball may have been warned against this by their parents. But neither small children nor politicians always heed warnings.

Politicians are of course more articulate than small children, so the pols are able to not only disregard warnings but ridicule them. That was what was done by Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd, among many other politicians who made the pursuit of higher home ownership rates the holy grail.

In pursuit of those higher home ownership rates, especially among low-income people and minorities, the many vast powers of the federal government -- from the Federal Reserve to bank regulatory agencies and even the Department of Justice, which issued threats of anti-discrimination lawsuits -- were used to force banks and other lenders to lower their standards for making mortgage loans.

Lower lending standards of course meant higher risks of default. But these risks -- and the chain reactions throughout the whole financial system -- were like the traffic ignored by a small child dashing out into the street in pursuit of their bouncing ball. The whole economy got hit when the housing boom became a housing bust, and we are still trying to recover, years later.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Did you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?"

After a woman described how she left her now-destroyed house, narrowly escaping the Oklahoma tornado which would have killed her and her infant son if she had followed the family's standard procedure of waiting in the bathroom, Wolf Blitzer asked her whether she thanked God that she and her infant son weren't hurt. (The husband/father was safely out of town at the time.) This led to a mildly amusing moment when she responded that she's an atheist.



Just once I'd like to see a TV host ask someone who survived a natural disaster unscathed: do you blame God for the fact that it killed, maimed, and trapped other people?

(You can watch the full interview here — it's actually a very touching testament to the ingenuity and resilience and goodness of ordinary people.)

Monday, May 20, 2013

The forgotten lesson from the Clinton impeachment and the 1998 midterms

Ramesh Ponnuru explains why the trifecta of ongoing news stories that are widely seen as harmful to President Obama (Benghazi, IRS, and Associated Press) might not help Republicans in the midterm elections:

The biggest danger for Republicans in giving themselves over to scandal mania is one that the conventional retelling of the Clinton impeachment neglects. Republicans didn’t lose seats simply because they overreached on Clinton’s perjury. It is true that his impeachment was unpopular, and public approval of the Republicans sank as they pursued it. Still, only 5 percent of voters in the 1998 election told exit pollsters that the scandal had played a role in their decision, and Republicans got a majority of those voters.

Social Security was the top issue for more than twice as many voters, and Republicans lost that issue by 18 percentage points. Even more voters cared about education, which Republicans lost by 34 points. They lost on health care and the economy by similar margins.

For the most part, Republicans didn’t campaign on impeachment in 1998: They didn’t say, “Vote for me and I’ll do my level best to oust Clinton.” Their strategy was more passive. They were counting on the scandal to motivate conservatives to vote while demoralizing liberals. So they didn’t try to devise a popular agenda, or to make their existing positions less unpopular. That’s what cost them -- that, and the mistake of counting on statistics about sixth-year elections, which also bred complacency.

Republicans have similar vulnerabilities on the issues now. They have no real health-care agenda. Voters don’t trust them to look out for middle-class economic interests. Republicans are confused and divided about how to solve the party’s problems. What they can do is unite in opposition to the Obama administration’s scandals and mistakes. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.

Congressional Republicans were right to press for hearings on all of these issues. But investigations of the administration won’t supply them with ideas. They won’t make the public trust Republicans. They won’t save them from themselves.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jacques Barzun on life

This is Charles Barzun (a University of Virginia law professor) writing to his grandfather, Jacques Barzun, who died last year at age 104:

[F]or all the words spent on your achievements, I still felt as though the tributes had missed something. What they failed to capture was the way in which you used the written word not only to define and distill cultures past and present, but also to reach out, to lift up, and—for lack of a better phrase—to establish a human connection. ...

In 1997 I had taken a job in San Francisco at an Internet media company. For a while I performed well enough as director of product development, but then in the winter of 2002 I wrote to you out of a genuine crisis of identity. The crisis had been partly brought on by the events of 9/11 and partly by my own discovery that I could not have cared less about my job. I had started reading philosophy again for the first time in years and wanted to tell you this: "More than anything," I wrote, "I am trying to find that which is true, permanent, and enduring in myself—to find or create (which is it?) my life philosophy of sorts. So much philosophical inquiry has been devoted to deducing or discerning that which is true, timeless, or eternal in the universe. For me, merely finding the eternal for me, in my lifetime, would be sufficient!"

I will never forget your response. You immediately demonstrated that you knew exactly what I meant. Such a "spiritual search," you reassured me, was not at all unusual for someone my age: "It really had been brewing for some time and the event that triggered your new awareness was certainly of a magnitude to justify the ensuing disarray. You may be assured that it is not damaging or permanent, but fruitful of good things." You then continued:

"When you have worked through it, by further reflection and some decision as to the immediate future it will turn into something like a path marked on a map, to be followed for a good while and possibly for the rest of your life. To put it another way, you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession. A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life, and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career."

Even now I find it hard to describe the effect your words had on me. Suffice it to say that my life, or, more accurately, the way I lived it, took on a different cast. I became more conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. ...

Amazingly, you played such an immense role in my life almost entirely through your letters. They were just words, but they were words written with care and attention and with the thought of a particular individual in mind. It occurs to me that for much of your own lifetime, there was nothing unusual about writing letters on a regular basis. Now, of course, that seems like an antiquated craft. No one writes letters anymore, and that includes me, now that you are gone. ... Then again, everything I write that requires some degree of thought and reflection is a letter to you. So in that sense our conversation continues.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"The new global battle over the future of free speech"

I recommend reading this interesting and important article about "the Deciders." That's the author, Jeffrey Rosen's, term for the people in charge of content policy at Google, Twitter, and Facebook, whose "positions give these young people more power over who gets heard around the globe than any politician or bureaucrat—more power, in fact, than any president or judge."

I strongly agree with this part:

"The company that has moved the furthest toward the American free-speech ideal is Twitter, which has explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility. Unlike Google and Facebook, it doesn’t ban hate speech at all; instead, it prohibits only “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Last year, after the French government objected to the hash tag “#unbonjuif”—intended to inspire hateful riffs on the theme “a good Jew ...”—Twitter blocked a handful of the resulting tweets in France, but only because they violated French law. Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hash tag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention.

As corporate rather than government actors, the Deciders aren’t formally bound by the First Amendment. But to protect the best qualities of the Internet, they need to summon the First Amendment principle that the only speech that can be banned is that which threatens to provoke imminent violence, an ideal articulated by Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927. It’s time, in other words, for some American free-speech imperialism if the Web is to remain open and free in twenty-first century."