Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Millard Fillmore

I am now on our 13th President, Millard Fillmore. 

Zachary Taylor's biography nearly did me in.   Since Taylor's personal papers were burned by Union troops during the Civil War, the biographer is forced to focus mostly on military records.  After 100 pages of descriptions of the various forts Taylor commanded, I was climbing the walls.  The payoff was a Presidency that lasted all of 16 months and was pretty much horrible.

Fillmore's biography has been a welcome relief.  For one thing, Fillmore was not a slaveholder.  It's been a long time since the previous one, John Quincy Adams.  (Van Buren owned a couple of slaves early in his life, so he doesn't fully count.)

For another, Fillmore was from New York and it's been an interesting review of political maneuverings in the state, as well as a good history of the rise and fall of the Whig Party.

Fillmore seems to have been unfairly maligned by history.  He was actually quite an impressive man in his early career and seems to have been a reluctant VP candidate with Taylor.  His place in history seems to have been determined mostly by the terrible picture painted of him by Thurlow Weed, the head of the New York State Whig machine.

Next up is Franklin Pierce, number 14, and he represents a milestone in the reading program.  When I finish his bio, I will be 1/3 of the way through the U.S. Presidents.  (42 men have held the office, but Grover Cleveland is counted twice as he had the only non-consecutive terms, hence GWB is the 43rd President.)

Pierce, then Buchanan and, finally, greatness.  After reading about mediocre to awful Presidents for so long, it will be exciting to read about Lincoln.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Burning Question

California is considering a rather hefty tax on porn.

When I heard about this, it reminded me of a question that is always burning in my brain:

Why are we still producing porn? 

Seriously.  Even the most dedicated pervert, with unlimited dollars and time (and other items, presumably) could never exhaust the current supply of hardcore pornography.  Even if you just start from the 1980s, I am certain that there is plenty of material for even the most outlandish kinks.  Okay, maybe there is a limited supply for the dead nun with Jell-O stump-fucker fetish, but most of what is being produced is pretty much plain vanilla porn.

I don't know why, but I am absolutely fascinated by this phenomenon.

Obama's Diplomacy Gets Results!

Unfortunately, the result is mostly derision and a lecture from Fidel Castro.

Welcome to the real world, Barack.

(Note: Jackson thinks the article is suspect.  It is from Granma, which is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.  Granma regularly publishes the speeches and writings of Cuban leaders.  The article is part of a running series called "Reflections" by El Jefe Maximo himself, Fidel Castro.  I assume this meets Jackson's legitimacy test.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Joe Lieberman writes an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal today that reiterates what I have been saying all along.  Obama loves to invoke the names of Truman and Kennedy (and even Reagan) when discussing foreign policy, but what he is proposing as his approach to foreign policy is almost exactly the opposite of the way those Presidents viewed the world.  It makes no sense as an historical allusion.  As I have said numerous times in this space, Kennedy's foreign policy would make the heads of most hardcore Democrats today explode in fury.  In fact, given such disasters as the Bay of Pigs, he would be reviled as worse than George W. Bush.  (If you think the Iraq war has been run badly, go and have a look at the total mess Kennedy created in Cuba.)

I have no brief for Kennedy, who was actually a pretty lousy President, but, seriously, Barack, you're no Jack Kennedy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

God Damn It

I hate it when those Repuglicans use Christianity and its symbols politically to gain advantage with voters.  It's the old style of politics and it must stop.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Question Time

John McCain is proposing that as President he would adopt something similar to the "Question Time" for the Prime Minister used by parliamentary democracies like the UK, Canada and Australia.

While some of the logistics will need to be worked out, I think that this is an excellent idea and I applaud McCain for suggesting it.  If done properly, it could provide a more effective way for the legislature, specifically the minority party, to interact with the Executive Office.  It would also put some pressure on the President to be well-versed enough in the issues to take on adversarial questions.  That would be a pretty big benefit.

He has also pledged to hold weekly press conferences, unlike Bush, who has tended to have them only once a month.

McCain has started to lay out his vision of how he would run the Executive Office and I like what I am hearing.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jazz Odyssey

I've had some time lately to focus on guitar playing.  Normally this would start with a return to the classical material, but I need something new and fresh so I have started to delve into jazz improvisation.

It's a very strange world for me because I have a lot of theory already and a full mastery of the fretboard, but I don't have ready access to the basics of jazz language in the way that I do for, say, rock guitar.  (Obviously there is very little improvising in classical guitar.)  This is partially because, well, I really can't stand the sound of the saxophone.  That's pretty limiting when trying to pick up ideas from the great jazz players.  Also, I tend to love the piano most of all in jazz and it's not easy to get playable ideas from those guys because they have so much to work with that can't be played on the guitar.

At any rate, this will be a long process, but I am already enjoying the challenge.  And the challenge is both getting used to a world I don't know and also digging my way through the horrific pedagogy that comes in some of these jazz texts.  Here's a quote from Jazz Guitar by Larry Coryell:

The first solo phrase (in bars 2-4) draws from F Mixolydian; just after that, the four notes in the extra first half of bar 4, E-G-D-C, come from C Mixolydian.  When I got to bar 9, I played a C# leading tone into a Dorian ascending scale, which is connected to the C Ionian mode or C major scale...I used the half-whole diminished starting from B for bars 17 and 18 to cover the IV7 going into the #IV diminished.

Everybody got that?  This will be on the exam.

The truth is, nothing he says there is that complicated, but it almost certainly is not what he is thinking when he is improvising.  And I had to laugh when he introduced some of his "secret" scales later in the book.  

For example, his "Charged Up C Mixo-Pentatonic b5."  So, what is this deadly weapon?  It's pretty much just the minor pentatonic scale with every note between the flat third and the 5th included.  It's a 9 note scale.  Put another way, it's every note there is is except for 3.  A better way to say it would have been to point out what most jazz players know instinctively - in the minor pentatonic scale, there is a lot of tension and ambiguity between the third and the fifth.  When they play, they play with this a lot.   I guarantee nobody is thinking "Yes! Now for the Charged Up C Mixo-Pentatonic b5 run!"

The way it really works is summed up well in another, much better book I obtained on jazz guitar:

Learning to improvise can be a confusing experience.  You are asked to deal with a large number of seemingly unrelated musical entities, then fashion them into coherent solos.  On top of this, you hear the great players spin long, complex melodic lines that sounds as if they were created from the 17th mode of the cryptophyrgian harmonic major scale.  They aren't.  These lines are actually made up of small, simple, easily identified structures which the players have combined in interesting ways.

Great improvisers are communicating, talking through the music.  And the way we learn to speak a language is to listen, imitate, learn basic phrases that we can combine to express whatever it is we want to talk about.

It's pretty humbling to realize that I can basically only say "Da Da" at the moment.

Friday, May 09, 2008


There's hope for me yet...


In his victory speech in North Carolina, Barack Obama said, "I trust the American people to understand that it is not weakness, but wisdom to talk not just to our friends, but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did, and Kennedy did, and Truman did."

So, he wants to pursue the diplomacy of the Presidents that got us into World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and brought us the blockade of Berlin, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis?

That's a hell of a promise, no?

(BTW, do any Democrats today realize that they are completely out of step with Kennedy's foreign policy views?)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

New Band

My new band will be called James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse.  

Details coming soon.