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Thursday, October 30, 2003

NO, I'M NOT DEAD 

Busy at work, out-of-town wedding last weekend (in Hutchinson, Kansas, home of the incongruous but impressive Cosmosphere Hall of Space Museum), lack of inspiration, general lethargy. These are my excuses.

Call it my fallow period. I am confident that it will end. I am equally confident that it will happen again.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

MARRY, MARRY, QUITE CONTRARY 

Loyal reader Bill has taken issue with my post yesterday concerning David Frum's case against same-sex marriage. We've gone back and forth several times via e-mail, and it occurs to me that if a sporadic blogger like myself is going to write this much about something, I might as well post it. So, herewith a recapitulation of the exchange.

Thrust No. 1: You are advocating the position that there should be no rules at all about entry into marriage.

Parry: No I'm not. I'm simply pointing out that if the goal is to create more stable marriages, then the focus should be on the rules for getting out of marriage (i.e., divorce), not the rules for getting into one. And that goal was the whole focus of Frum's argument. So I think his argument was lousy. Does this mean that I think it's impossible to argue against same-sex marriage? Of course not, and I said that. But a bad argument is a bad argument no matter what cause it's in service of.

Thrust No. 2: Frum was saying that if you "cheapen" the marriage contract, you necessarily cheapen marriage as an institution. There is a difference between marriage as a vocation and marriage as "let's see if this works for us."

Parry: And I'm saying that this makes no sense, if (and this is a big "if," but it's the one that Frum expressly adopted as the premise for his entire argument) the objective is stable marriages and the benefits that accrue to children therefrom. I just don't see how the entry conditions to marriage have anything to do with stable marriages in this sense. If we want to use the legal system to minimize the degree to which marriage becomes a "let's see if this works for us" arrangement, we should focus on the back end, not the front end.

One can still argue that the idea of marriage as an institution would be cheapened in the eyes of many or even most people by allowing same-sex unions, and that we shouldn't allow it for that reason. Fine, go ahead and argue that. I expressed no opinion on that--but neither did Frum.

Thrust No. 3: Our difference is between viewing divorce, whether easy or hard to obtain, as a symptom and viewing it as a cause.

Parry: I think it's both a symptom and a cause. The increase in the divorce rate over the past generation or two is due in part to a shift in attitudes about divorce--the taboo against divorce is (regrettably, I think) much weaker than it used to be, so there is a greater "taste" for it, as an economist would say. This shift reflects a more general shift toward permissiveness in social attitudes about sex and marriage, which is what I take it the reader means when he says that divorce is a symptom. I don't disagree with that.

But I think it's also true that the more difficult it is to get a divorce, the fewer divorces will occur, ceteris paribus. This effect will exist no matter how indulgent or condemnatory social views are about divorce: a society that frowns on divorce but makes them easy to get will have more divorces than a society that frowns on divorce and makes them hard to get, just as a society that's indifferent toward divorce will have more divorces if divorces are easy to get than if they are hard to get. The total number of divorces will undoubtedly be lower in the society that frowns on divorce than in the society that's indifferent, regardless of the cost of divorce, but that doesn't mean that changes in the cost of divorce will have no effect on the divorce rate, just that the cost of divorce is not the sole determinant of the divorce rate.

However, the cost of getting a divorce is the only determinant of the divorce rate that the legal system directly affects. So if we want to use the legal system to make marriages more stable, the most effective way would be to reform the divorce laws to make it harder to get a divorce. Note that this does not foreclose the possibility that the legal rules about marriage and divorce also indirectly affect social attitudes about marriage and divorce, and thus in turn indirectly affect the stability of marriage, though it seems much more plausible to me that the causation is a lot stronger the other way--that social attitudes about marriage and divorce have much more of an effect on what the legal rules are regarding marriage and divorce than the rules have an effect on the social attitudes.

But, regardless of which way this indirect causation runs (if at all), this was not what Frum was arguing. He was making a very specific (and peculiar, to my mind) argument that allowing same-sex marriage will decrease the stability of marriage by leading to a proliferation of marriage-like relationships that will so confuse people that they will no longer be able to tell what kind of relationship is the most stable. I thought this was a bad argument, and I still do. This doesn't mean that I necessarily support same-sex marriage; it just means that Frum's argument did not persuade me to oppose same-sex marriage.

Friday, October 17, 2003

VOTER? I ONLY MET HER! 

A few weeks ago I nodded approvingly toward Will from Crescat Sententia’s disagreement with Steve from Begging to Differ’s insistence that one is obligated to choose between the Left and the Right. I closed by noting that Will’s reasoning was akin to the reasoning that usually leads me to vote Libertarian. Then I went to bed.

It looks like a lot of other people stayed up late. Will had several follow-up posts (like this one and that one) which linked to a number of other bloggers’ musings on the subject and which also veered like I had into the closely related issue of voting. Then the Elder at FratersLibertas joined the fray, and in doing so he fired a link my way, accused me of being “clever,” demanded that I and other Libertarians “pull [our] heads out,” and called us “the Greens of the right.”

It took me a while to choke back the tears, but what follows is my response. The argument runs from the positive to the normative. That is, I begin with a descriptive analysis of why people vote before concluding with a prescriptive analysis of which candidate deserves your vote–or rather, which candidate deserves my vote. The rest of you are on your own.

This post is insanely long, and considering that there are still nearly thirteen excruciating months to go before the 2004 election, your time surely would be better spent here or here or here, or perhaps here, or even here. But if you’re into this sort of thing, have at it.

Why do people do anything? Because they think it will make them better off. In other words, because the benefits of any action (or nonaction), as perceived and experienced by the actor, outweigh the costs, as similarly perceived and experienced. Or, to put it a third way, because people are rational. Not in the sense of being wise or even of thinking logically, but in the economist's sense of adapting means to ends, of "tend[ing] to find the correct way to achieve their objectives," as David Friedman has said.

Animals are rational in this sense. So too are children, drunkards, and the insane. This is not to deny that people sometimes or even often misperceive facts about the world, nor that they sometimes or even often miscalculate in their attempts to achieve their ends; acquiring and processing information, like everything else, is not costless, and some people face higher costs in this regard than others. It is simply to assert that nobody ever does anything unless they think there's something in it for them.

Why do people vote? Because they are rational. But what’s rational about voting? The most obvious explanation–to influence the outcome of the election by helping the voter's favored candidate win–is after a moment's reflection obviously wrong. Once the size of the electorate begins to exceed a few hundred voters, the chance of one person’s vote affecting the outcome quickly becomes vanishingly small; in a presidential election (which is what this discussion is primarily aimed at), the chance is effectively zero. So if the only reason to vote is to influence the outcome, there are no benefits to voting. And since voting is not costless–the opportunity cost of the time spent voting is one cost; the time and efforts necessary to decide which candidate to vote for are another–there are negative returns to voting and therefore we should expect no one to vote.

But of course people do vote, and in droves (even if the droves are never as large as the hand-wringers among us would like). So there must be other benefits to voting. Many (Will Baude, for example) have suggested that voting is expressive activity–that people vote in order to express their support for a candidate, in much the same way that someone might write a poem in order to express an emotion. (Or for that matter to express support for a candidate, though I’m certain that's a poem I wouldn’t want to read. And I should add that if the sole reason for a poem’s creation is the expression of an emotion, I wouldn’t want to read that either. But I digress.)

There is some truth to this hypothesis, but I have never found it entirely convincing. To the extent that expression entails communication–that is, transmission of a message to an audience, real or idealized–it is difficult to imagine a less expressive activity than voting, which after all is done in secret amid a group of complete strangers who are doing their best to ignore you and which channels any expressive content it may have into the banal if indubitable mathematical proposition that 50,000,001 votes for Candidate Mephistopheles > 50,000,000 votes for Candidate Mephistopheles. And there are plenty of ways other than voting to express support for a candidate that entail equal or lower costs but that would seem to have much greater expressive benefits: putting up a lawn sign, for instance, or affixing a bumper sticker to your car, or wearing a political button, or simply announcing “I support Candidate Mephistopheles” to friends, neighbors, and annoyed passers by.

I think the real key to understanding why people vote is to conceive of it not as expressive activity but as social activity. This is somewhat paradoxical, given the private (dare I say masturbatory?) nature of the act itself, as discussed above. But counter-intuitive truths are always the most interesting ones.

By characterizing voting as social activity what I mean is that the primary reason why people vote is to become or remain a member of a group. There are many groups at work here, and they overlap considerably, but they can be split into two kinds. The first is simply the electorate at large. It is in the public interest that all eligible voters cast their ballots, because the consent of the governed is what legitimates a democratic government. And so it is drummed into us from a very young age that the bedrock duty of every citizen is to become a member of the electorate by voting. A moral or at least a civic imperative to vote--a voting “norm” is apparently what the kids call it these days–arises in order to increase the costs faced by the individual voter of not voting (or, alternatively, to increase the foregone costs and thus the benefits of voting). To say that it “arises” papers over the precise mechanism by which it arises, but I suspect that it is rooted like many other norms in the urges to gossip and to condemn that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain and that seem to be the underpinnings of much social behavior. If we don’t vote, many of our fellows will try to inflict feelings of shame in us by accusing us of being bad citizens; and even if they don’t, most of us have so internalized the voting norm that we will feel at least twinge of guilt all by ourselves.

This takes us only so far, however, because the public interest requires only that citizens vote for Candidate Mephistopheles or Candidate Beelzebub, not that they vote for Candidate Mephistopheles instead of Candidate Beelzebub. Here is where the second kind of group enters the picture. Aggregates of voters, and in particular the aggregates of aggregates known as political parties, can and do influence elections in a way that individuals can’t and don’t. Still, the right to vote rests in individuals, so if a group (or, more precisely, the people who run the group) wants to harness the power of aggregated votes, it must find ways to induce its existing and potential members to vote together as one. And since directly buying or stealing individual votes is usually considered out of bounds, more indirect measures are needed.

Here again norms come to the rescue, though in this context they become group- and candidate-specific. For instance, suppose that the Brotherhood of Thneed Makers has leveraged its longstanding relationship with the Styx Party (the Styx-Journey-Foreigner Party in Minnesota) into a commitment from Styx Party front-runner Candidate Mephistopheles. He promises that if elected he will support tariffs and import controls to protect the vitally important domestic thneed-making industry. (Candidate Mephistopheles has also made a commitment to the Friends of the Lorax to support tough new restrictions on the generation and disposal of Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp, the principal waste products in the thneed-making process. So he’s probably lying to at least one of the groups, but that’s his problem, and in any event the decisionmakers in both groups have taken this into account.) The BTM will now need to make good on its return commitment to get out the vote for Candidate Mephistopheles.

A norm will arise: a “good” BTM member ought to vote for Candidate Mephistopheles. Sure, any individual member can attempt to buck the norm–if he wants to risk getting on the bad side of the shop steward, or hindering his own prospects for rising up through the BTM hierarchy, or arousing the suspicions of his buddies when they’re shooting the shit about politics over a few beers after the shift ends on Friday evening. Some of the rank and file will run these risks, but most won’t, at least insofar as the BTM is a cohesive, well-functioning organization.

If you still have doubts about the importance of group-based voting norms, ask yourself this question: Why do political parties even exist in the first place? They are hardly constitutionally mandated, and one can easily imagine a world in which candidates for public office ran as individuals and created campaign teams from scratch, like entrepreneurial start-ups. But this almost never happens: candidates almost always emerge from or at least seek the imprimatur of a preexisting political party. Political parties arise because the ground-level, grass-roots groups that people belong to and care about can deliver votes, and because conglomerations of such groups can deliver a lot of votes.

So far I’ve focused on formal organizations like political parties and the interest groups that woo and are wooed by them. But informal groups also play a crucial role in voting behavior. These groups reflect the simple truth that most people enjoy “basking in the association of the like-minded,” as Joshua at Foolippic put it (he called this “one of the chief motivators for political activity,” and he’s right). A corollary of the desire to bask is the compulsion to define the rest of the world in binary opposition to those with whom you are basking: they are them and we are us and a combative and unbridgeable “versus” often springs up in the space between.

Quite by accident I happened recently to reread an early story by Flannery O’Connor called “The Barber” that illustrates this nicely. “The Barber” is about a college teacher named Rayber who in the three weeks leading up to the Democratic White Primary gets into several heated discussions with his barber and the denizens of the barber shop about the two leading candidates, Darmon (Rayber’s choice) and Hawkson (the barber shop’s man). The barber kicks off the first discussion by asking Rayber which candidate he supports; when Rayber tells him, the barber asks baldly, “You a nigger-lover?” The discussion continues:
The barber drew a clean path through the lather and then pointed the razor at Rayber. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “there ain’t but two sides now, white and black. Anybody can see that from this campaign. You know what Hawk said? Said a hunnert and fifty years ago, they was runnin’ each other down eatin’ each other–throwin’ jewel rocks at birds–skinnin’ horses with their teeth. A nigger come in a white barber shop in Atlanta and says, ‘Gimme a haircut.’ They throwed him out but it just goes to show you. Why listen, three black hyenas over in Mulford last month shot a white man and took half of what was in his house and you know where they are now? Settin’ in their county jail eatin’ like the President of the United States–they might get dirty in the chain gang; or some damn nigger-lover might come by and be heart-broke to see ‘em pickin’ rock. Why, lemme tell you this–ain’t nothin’ gonna be good again until we get rid of them Mother Hubbards and get us a man can put these niggers in their places. Shuh.”
Rayber is disgusted by the rhetoric of the barber and his henchmen–he fancies himself a “liberal”–but he’s is a little slow on his feet: he can’t “open his head in a second like they did.” So he ends up writing out a speech to defend his position. On the eve of the primary he makes his last trip to the barber shop and delivers the speech. It does not go well, and when it’s over, the barber shop begins to mock him:
For a second–as if they were expecting him to go on–no one said anything.
“How many yawl gonna vote for Boy Blue!” the barber yelled.
Some of the men turned around and snickered. One doubled over.
“Me,” Roy said. “I’m gonna run right down there now so I’ll be first to vote for Boy Blue tomorrow morning.”
Rayber, whose head has been filled with violent thoughts since the story began, now reaches his breaking point. He punches the barber before storming outside, where “the sun was suspending everything in a pool of heat” and “lather began to drip inside his collar and down the barber’s bib, dangling to his knees.”

The barber shop gang is just the sort of informal group I’m talking about. They see the world in black and white terms–literally–and their like-mindedness is what unites them. Hawkson is their totem; a vote for Hawkson is the litmus test for inclusion in their group. Derision of the opposing group–“Boy Blue” Darmon and the “Mother Hubbards” like Rayber who support him–follows almost automatically. And Rayber responds in kind, only more primitively: instead of mocking the barber, he hits him.

I don’t mean to argue that us-vs.-them dichotomies are never valid; for instance, there really is a combative and unbridgeable “versus” between the open societies of the West and the Islamofascists of the Middle East (Lileks touches on this in his expert fisking of Coleen “Fifteen Minutes of Fame Just Isn’t Enough” Rowley’s staggeringly stupid op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Strib). For that matter, there really was a gulf between the segregationists and integrationists of the Deep South that to this day has not been entirely transcended. My point is that the urge to create “us” and “them” groups is a powerful determinant of political activity in general and voting in particular.

Just look at the Elder’s finger-wagging to me and other libertarians: “The right needs to rally together,” he says. Why? Because “[t]he 2004 campaign is already underway” and “[i]t's going to [be] a long, grueling, nasty slugfest.” Bang, zoom, pow! “We're”–got that? We are–“not going to win just by showing up next November. It's time to join the fight, get in the trenches, strap on the gear, put on the foil, whatever analogy works for you go with it.”

Again, my point is not that the Elder is correct or incorrect about “the right” having to rally together. It’s that his appeal is pitched in terms of “the right.” His argument is itself a demonstration of my thesis that voting is fundamentally a social, group-centered activity.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. So what about you? Well, the flip side of my analysis is that if you don’t have strong group ties, then there’s no reason for you to bother voting. And I don’t. I’m introverted, stand-offish, and asocial–an inveterate non-joiner. (INTP, if you haven’t guessed already.)

Now, I have sufficiently internalized the norm of voting that I’d feel like a bad citizen if I didn’t vote at all. But beyond that, I feel no obligation to divert my vote from whichever candidate’s principles and positions are closest to my own. Why should I? My single wee vote won’t make a difference to the outcome, and I owe no fealty to any formal groups. That leaves informal groups like Rayber’s barber shop and the Elder’s “the right.” There’s no one at the barber shop that I care to associate with, and “the right” is too amorphous and ad hoc to have any pull on my affections.

Does that mean I’ll be voting for the Libertarian Party candidate? Maybe, maybe not; I don’t know yet (my flippant “undoubtedly” in another context notwithstanding). I’ve voted Libertarian since 1992 (Bush pere got my vote in 1988, Reagan in 1984), and I’m lukewarm on George W. overall. But I think the war against terrorism is by far the important issue facing this country today, and Libertarians seem to be more concerned with the excesses, real and imagined, of the Patriot Act than with the very real possibility that the next terrorist attack on American soil will kill millions, not thousands. Lileks seems to think this is a virtual certainty, and while I’m not that pessimistic, doomsday scenarios cross my mind a hell of a lot more now than they did during the Cold War, which after all had the icy logic of mutually assured destruction to keep everyone honest. Those days are gone; the challenge now is to find a new way to keep us safe. Bush’s decision to topple Saddam was a bold and risky attempt to do just that. It may turn out to fail, though I sincerely hope it doesn’t. But at least Bush seems to recognize both the gravity and the novelty of our predicament. I don’t get the sense that any other candidate does.

So, if you want me to vote for Bush, there’s your hint. Don’t try to tell me that my vote matters (it doesn’t) or that “the right” has to band together (I’m not interested). Try convincing me on the merits. Who knows? Maybe it’ll work.

MY ADVICE TO "YOUNG PEOPLE": GET HARVEYED 

In Thursday's Wall Street Journal, David Frum takes a whack against same-sex marriage. He whiffs.

Here's his argument. Stable homes make children better off, and marriage increases the likelihood of a stable home. Allowing gays to marry will weaken the institution of marriage, and thus make children worse off, in this roundabout way: since organized religion in the U.S. is too strong to expect that the marital relationship will be successfully redefined to allow in same-sex couples, what is more likely to happen is "the spread of a crazy-quilt of differing systems of 'marriage-lite' across the country"; and, since political and perhaps even constitutional realities would make it difficult to deny these "proliferating domestic partnerships" to heterosexuals, the upshot would be that "the young people of the country would be presented with 50 different buffets, each of them offering two or more varieties of quasi-marital relationships. In such a world, the very concept of marriage would vanish." Why? Because "[i]t would become impossible to tell young people 'Don't have children outside of marriage,' because they would not even know--until it was too late--whether they were 'inside' a marriage or not."

This makes no sense. I agree that stable homes make children better off, if for no other reason than that two-parent families are wealthier than single-parent ones are, almost by definition. But the degree to which marriage increases the likelihood of a stable home depends entirely on the costs associated with ending the marriage: the harder it is to get divorced, the more marriages will stay intact. And these costs are entirely independent of the conditions imposed on entry into marriage. We could let people marry goats if they wanted, with no effect whatsoever on the stability of marriages, as long as we made it difficult enough for people to cast off their goats (or goats to cast off their people, for that matter) once the memories of that magical night behind the barn begin to fade. If we want to make marriages more stable, we should repeal the no-fault divorce laws, enact tougher ones in their stead, and apply them to all marriages--different-sex, same-sex, and human-goat.

Frum's further point that no one will be able to tell what's a marriage and what's not is just dumb. Put aside his uncharacteristic horror at the prospects of a robust federalism--oops, I meant to say "a crazy-quilt of differing systems"--in the realm of marriage laws. Who cares whether we know what counts as "marriage"? It's the functional operation of the relationship that's important, not what we call it. Whichever kind of relationship is the most difficult to get out of is the one we should urge "young people" to get into before they have kids. Call it "Harvey" if you want--what possible difference could it make?

I'm as agnostic on same-sex marriage as I am on most issues. I suppose I lean in favor of it, but I'm perfectly open to a good argument against. This ain't it.

Friday, October 10, 2003

SHE COMES IN COLORS EVERYWHERE 

I was looking through some Crayola crayons this evening (this sort of thing happens a lot when you have two small children) when I came across one called Raw Sienna. Now Burnt Sienna I remember, but Raw Sienna? Sounds like a porno flick. Intrigued, I searched for Deep-Throat Blue and Behind-the-Door Green. No luck. Only a matter of time, I'm guessing.

UPDATE: According to the Crayola web site, Burnt Sienna was born sometime between 1949 and 1957, with baby sister Raw Sienna arriving in 1958. I'm getting old, but not that old: all of my crayon-intensive years were well after 1958, not before. So chalk (?) this one up to faulty recollection.

Also, the web site confirms that there is no Deep-Throat Blue or Behind-the-Door Green. Yet. However, Hot Magenta and (I shit you not) Beaver are available. So now you know what to use when you write your condolence cards to Mary Carey.

Flesh would have been another good porno-crayon, but, in an early instance of political correctness, it was renamed Peach way back in 1962, "partially as a result of the U. S. Civil Rights Movement," we are told. Partially? Four years earlier, Prussian Blue became Midnight Blue "in response to teachers' requests." Teachers named Gertrude and Bertha, no doubt. And, in a positively niggardly development just four years ago, Indian Red was rechristened Chestnut "in response to educators who felt some children wrongly perceived the crayon color was intended to represent the skin color of Native Americans. The name originated from a reddish-brown pigment found near India commonly used in fine artist oil paint." One would have thought this a fine candidate for (excuse me while I hold my nose) a "teachable moment." But that would require that our "educators" do some educating, and that of course would take too much time away from more vital duties like making complaints to crayon manufacturers.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

THE GOLDEN AGE OF FOOT-BALL 

This being the eve of the battle between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Michigan Wolverines for college football's storied Little Brown Jug (storied around these parts at any rate, and this despite the fact that the LBJ has spent about three quarters of its long life in Ann Arbor), today's Star Tribune dusted off longtime sportswriter Dick Gordon for some reminiscences about the teams' very first meeting, way back in the last aught-three (I refuse to provide a link because the Strib's baroque registration system really pisses me off):
Touchdowns were worth five points in those days, so even after the Gophers' Egil Boeckman scored late in the game, Michigan still led 6-5. The rules at the time dictated the ball be put in play from the spot of the touchdown, with a member of the team that scored punting the ball to a teammate. If the ball was caught by a teammate, the ensuing free kick (extra point) was from that spot. If the ball was dropped, the play was dead and no extra point was attempted.
I got a little hung-up on the name "Egil" and found it difficult to maintain my concentration thereafter, but it appears that early college football was a bizarre amalgam of kickball and wedding-bouquet tossing. Better than a bizarre amalgam of kickball and garter removal, but still.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

WHEN YOU HAVEN'T POSTED FOR A WHILE, PLAGIARIZE. TWICE. 

Apropos of my recent (measured) praise of Led Zeppelin, loyal reader John passes along this gem from Joe Queenan's review of Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored by former Zep tour manager Richard Cole (the review ran originally in the Wall Street Journal in 1992):
[W]e get detailed accounts of lead guitarist Jimmy Page's obsession with witchcraft and whips, and of the band's supposed pact with Satan, in which the lads sold their souls to the Prince of Evil in exchange for commercial success. The band got nine mega-platinum albums, tens of millions of dollars and the teen girls; the Prince of Evil got the souls of an alky fetishist, a junkie leather freak, a singer with too much hair and a so-so keyboardist with a wife and kids. Once again, Satan got the short end of the stick.

But it was a band that was long on influence, and most of it was negative. Virtually everything that is maddening about contemporary rock music comes directly from Led Zeppelin: bad album covers, pretentious lyrics, pointless guitar virtuosity, leaden-footed drumming, skinny singers with too much blond hair, pop Satanism, the complete absence of a sense of humor.
The "definitive sum up of the band," says John, and I agree. Mostly. Like I said in my original post, there was actually some blues underneath the blooze, and it came out more as time went on. And, as for being long on negative influence, you could make the same case for the Summer of Love version of the Beatles. They were just talented enough to pull off something as pompous as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but when you take into account the scores of lesser bands that took big awkward whiffs at that knuckleball, it sure seems like a net loss. (Revolver was better anyway.)

Also, Led Zeppelin wasn't completely lacking in humor. I only recently discovered that the title of the song "D'yer Mak'er" from Houses of the Holy is not some sort of runic riddle like I and everyone else I knew back then always assumed but instead a slangy contraction of that universal post-date question: "Did you make her?"

Adolescent male sexuality dressed up in bogus mysticism--now that's Led Zeppelin!

Friday, October 03, 2003

MAYBE HE SHOULD START BLOGGING--HE'D BE PERFECT 

I generally like Fox TV baseball analyst Tim McCarver; he's knowledgeable and he's pretty low key. But sometimes he gets a little too convinced of his own genius.

Like during Thursday night's Twins-Yankees tilt. It's the bottom of the fifth inning, and the Twins' Brad Radke is pitching to the Yanks' Jason Giambi with two on, two out, and a 1-2 count. The camera zooms in on the signs that catcher A.J. Pierzynski is flashing to Radke, and McCarver, who by this point in the game has already gone on a bit too much about how easy A.J.'s signs are to crack, confidently announces, "Looks like a change-up, down and away."

The pitch? A high fastball.

If you don't know much about baseball (not that I do, but never mind that), here's an analogy: a change-up down and away and a high fastball are about as much alike as Michael Moore and Roger Moore are. They are both named Moore and . . . well, they are both named Moore. That's it.

Fortunately for McCarver, Giambi swung through the pitch for strike three, ending the inning and sending the viewers into an amnesia-inducing commercial break.

On the bright side, we didn't hear anything more from McCarver about A.J.'s signs.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

CAN'T [GASP] BREATHE . . . MUST LOWER [WHEEZE] BROW 

Matt Welch takes a trip down memory lane with Led Zeppelin, spurred by a Pieter K post concerning "the subtle studio genius of Jimmy Page." Welch asks, "Were you, like me, a Zep fanatic for most of your childhood, and then kind of stopped listening to them out of a mixture of mild embarrassment and sort of moving on with your life . . . ?"

Yep.

Several weeks back I too had a Led Zep nostalgia experience. I was making an earnest but futile attempt to cull through all the crap we had moved out of the house and into the garage when we redid our basement last year, and I came across a TDK SA-90 cassette I had made at least 20 years ago of someone or other's LP copy of Physical Graffiti. Since the garage garbage also included one of those rudimentary AM/FM/tape deck thingies, I popped in the cassette and pressed Play.

Culling ceased; rocking commenced.

Like almost every double album ever made, Physical Graffiti is too long by half, but its good songs outnumber its bad ones. One I had almost completely forgotten is "In My Time Of Dying." Based mainly on Blind Willie Johnson's "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed," it features some fantastic slide guitar work by Jimmy Page, the mammoth yet nimble percussion which John Bonham could pull off so uniquely when he was at his best (imagine Andre the Giant tapdancing), and Robert Plant vocals that approach but never quite reach the asymptote of hysteria (probably just a miscalculation on his part). Though it clocks in at well over ten minutes, it changes direction interestingly a couple of times and as a result never seems overdone. Well, OK, maybe a little; this is Led Zeppelin, after all. Still, it was well worth hearing after all these years.

If cock-rocking bombast and elfin-hippie twaddle were Zep's Scylla and Charybdis, some of their surest sailing was on their later blues covers. Almost all of their earlier ones were elephantine disasters, and they'd better hope they don't end up on the same side of the afterlife as Sonny Boy Williamson or they'll get one serious ass-whuppin' for what they did to "Bring it On Home" on Led Zeppelin II, but with their fourth album's take on Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" (aptly described by Billy Altman in The Rolling Stone Record Guide as "the first Zep blues rework that didn't sound like a bizarre parody"), they found their groove. "In My Time of Dying" kept it going, as did "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (another Blind Willie Johnson tune) from Presence.

You'll never mistake their versions of these songs for the originals, but if you could what would be the point? Like the Rolling Stones before them and PJ Harvey and the Black Keys after them, they found a distinctive way to translate the blues, and in the end that's a lot more authentic than studied attempts at note-perfect reproduction are.

"Stairway to Heaven" still sucks, though.