Gordon Campbell on 2008, and a holiday beyond politics

Over the next fortnight or so, the mainstream media will be providing Year in Review space fillers aplenty, so enough already for the Barack Obama/John Key recaps, and lets all try to forget that Sarah Palin and Owen Glenn ever existed…

Personally, I’d like to thank anyone/everyone who has dropped by this column over the last seven months. I don’t reply in the comments section because I’ve had my say and feel I shouldn’t grab for the microphone again unless that proves absolutely necessary – but in the interests of dialogue and in line with the overall web ethos of the link, that will change next year. The whole experience of doing this column has been a fierce learning curve – there’s nothing quite like having to write a fairly long researched piece every day ( or other day) on topical events to teach you what you do and don’t do well, as a journalist.

So…I figured the best way of saying thanks to everyone was to recommend ten things worth reading and listening to over the next few weeks. I know, for an ostensibly political blog, there are relatively few political items contained in this particular entry – but hey, its holiday time. Enjoy Christmas, and see you again in the New Year, I hope.

1. The Greek riots For starters, these photos of the recent riots in Greece are some of the best photojournalism I’ve ever seen. The entire photo sequence is a startling reminder of the beauty that extreme violence can sometimes summon into being. It is also testament to the fact that a number of Greek people are um, extremely hot.

2. Play President Obama. Ten questions about Iraq that we don’t have to worry about but which Obama does, during his holiday break.

1. The Iraqi Elections set for 2009 – will they be part of the solution or more of the same problems ?

2. What do I do if the Iraqi government tries to use the State of Forces Agreement to prosecute either US troops or private security contractors?

3. Should I kick the Blackwater security firm out of Iraq ? I’d really like to.

4.. That crazy John McCain claimed that even a US President should defer to his commanders on the ground in Iraq. But what do I do if some of my commanders in Baghdad publicly criticize the pace at which I think that withdrawal of US forces should proceed?

5. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki thinks I need him more than he needs me to fill the security and governance void in Iraq. How do I show him otherwise, without capsizing his government ?

6. And how can I make Maliki incorporate the Sunni Awakening Council militias who were on our payroll, into his armed forces ?

7. Damnit, my deputy is still touting his Biden Plan for the “soft partitioning” of Iraq. The Kurds love the idea. How do I get Biden to keep his mouth shut about this ?

8. Six years after the invasion, we’ve created a less secular, Shia dominated government beholden to Iran. Do I start talking to Iran now, or wait until I see if the mullahs get rid of Ahmedinejad ? And do I give the Israelis a greenlight or a red light over taking out the Iranian nuclear installations? ?

9. Pakistan is going broke, and falling apart. The more I chase into Pakistan after the Taliban, the more I de-stabilise the Pakistani government, What should I do?

10. And finally, there’s Afghanistan. We bribed the local tribal chieftains in Iraq to fight al Qaeda. Will that work – or fail – in Afghanistan, with the Pushtuns ?

The best recent prep work for imagining that Barack Obama’s problems are your problems is this US Institute of Peace report called ‘Iraq in the Obama Administration’ Have fun. In three weeks, Obama gets to do this for real.

3. The Gift In 1983, Lewis Hyde wrote a terrific book called The Gift that combined art history and the existing fieldwork on social exchange ( the title of his book comes from Marcel Mauss’ classic 1924 anthropology essay) to explore what it means to be an artist in a modern cash economy. His conclusion : art is a gift, so give it away. Hyde’s book became an inspiration for the open source /Creative Commons movement – and so it was pretty exciting to discover in this well-written profile of Hyde in the New York Times a month ago, that he’s currently working on a book directly about cultural freedom in the digital age. Creative genius and invention have been sparked more often by free and open feedback than by competition, Hyde argues, even within the most capitalist of societies. Quote :

For Hyde, redressing the balance between private (corporate, individual) and common (public) interests depends not just on effective policy but also on recovering the idea of the cultural commons as a deeply American concept. To that end, he excavates a history of the American imagination in which the emphasis is not on the lone genius (Thoreau scribbling hermetically in the Massachusetts woods) but on the anonymous pamphleteer, the inventor eager to share his discoveries. In an essay that offers a preview of his book (posted, fittingly, on his Web site), Hyde posits that the history of the commons and of the creative self are, in fact, twin histories. “The citizen called into being by a republic of freehold farms,” he writes, “is close cousin to the writer who built himself that cabin at Walden Pond. But along with such mainstream icons goes a shadow tradition, the one that made Jefferson skeptical of patents, the one that made even Thoreau argue late in life that every ‘town should have … a primitive forest …, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever,’ the one that led the framers of the Constitution to balance ‘exclusive right’ with ‘limited times.’ It is a tradition worth recovering.”

You bet.

4. The Global Meltdown. New Zealand may have elected politicians whose economic theories – like the worldview of the corporate elites they serve – are (a) 25 years out of date and (b) were responsible for the current financial crisis. Expecting John Key and Rodney Hide to come up with solutions is a fox meets henhouse situation, but luckily, Bill English – who has more in common with Michael Cullen than he does with Roger Douglas – just might be able to save us from the Friedmanites.
Over the summer, we should all be consulting another economist who might help, even though he’s dead : John Maynard Keynes. Here’s a brief outline by Greg Mankiw of Keynes’ current relevance. And here’s a much longer explanation by Paul Krugman about how the current mess came about:

6 Communist Christmas Top marks to the folks at
rathergood.com for putting the Red Star up on their Christmas tree, in this catchy seasonal singalong:

“Goodwill to all men and lets celebrate / by purging the enemies of the state ! “ And you know who you are.

7. The Death of DFW. Among the most surprising, least welcome news of 2008 was the suicide on September 12 of David Foster Wallace, who was not only the best novelist of his generation ( Infinite Jest) but one of its most self aware protagonists. The short examples of his writing that I’ve recommended here include his terrific piece about animal ethics, called Consider the Lobster, and also his NYT piece about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Since the heyday of Norman Mailer, a lot of novelists have tried to go slumming and write sports journalism – and the results are often floridly embarrassing. Wallace, as anyone who read Infinite Jest will know, used to be a collegiate tennis contemporary of Tracy Austin, and he starts off his Federer /Nadal piece for the NYT with the usual art-guy overkill:

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you — he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations.

But then – characteristically of Wallace’s journalism at least – the fine writing becomes secondary to his self-obliterating eye for detail, which approaches a state of enchantment. What he’s being obsessive about here is the velocity of top tennis in real life, as opposed to the speed-altering perspective of tennis when viewed on a 2-D television screen:

By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.

The upshot is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.

Successfully returning a hard-served tennis ball requires what’s sometimes called “the kinesthetic sense,” meaning the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks. English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on. For promising junior players, refining the kinesthetic sense is the main goal of the extreme daily practice regimens we often hear about. The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by “feel” what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often looks tedious or even cruel to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player — tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness,

The time and discipline required for serious kinesthetic training are one reason why top pros are usually people who’ve devoted most of their waking lives to tennis, starting (at the very latest) in their early teens. It was, for example, at age 13 that Roger Federer finally gave up soccer, and a recognizable childhood, and entered Switzerland’s national tennis training center in Ecublens. At 16, he dropped out of classroom studies and started serious international competition.

The rest of the story is here and Infinite Jest is the kind of doorstop novel that summers are made for.

8. Comics, and other stuff You could spend an entire summer trawling through the back pages of cultural flotsam on the terrific Lady, That’s My Skull website. For example, this trove of film noir images – ‘A Red-Headed Woman is an Armful of Trouble’ – from a 1946 crime mag is pretty typical of the treasures contained therein.

You may already know about this one, but I also recommend the now- classic stick figure webcomic strip XKCD, written by former NASA employee, Randall Munroe. This episode from a few weeks ago is a good place to start:

Oh, and arguably the best music writer around over the past couple of years has been Carl Wilson of the Toronto Globe and Mail. His excellent website, Zoilus is here.

Wilson’s essay from late last year on the class bias of indie music is still well worth reading, and has been widely anthologized.

Finally, while dozens of useful MP3 sites now exist to showcase new music, Matthew Perpetua’s trailblazing Fluxblog site still offers a solid range of music and commentary.

9. Dear Science In a year when TV on the Radio released a major contender for album of the year with Dear Science,
most of the mainstream science coverage was devoted to the malfunctioning Hadron Collider in Switzerland – which never did get around proving whether it could create a black hole capable of swallowing the earth. Maybe next year.

For my money the visual image of an exoplanet was the big science deal of 2008. For years, astronomers have used Doppler-like shifts in the refracted light to mathematically infer the existence of planets beyond our solar system, but in November, we got an actual visual image of an exoplanet. Wow. The image of the monster planet adjacent to Beta Pictoris is here, and the press release backgrounder is here.

10. Good music, best music. For that its worth, myown picks for album of the year came down to a virtual tie between Girl Talk’s likeable dance epic Feed The Animals, and The Chemistry of Common Life by the Canadian hardcore band, Fucked Up. .

Girl Talk’s rampant use of samples – 300 or more on this album – made GT maestro Gregg Gillis into a cultural cause celebre as well. According to Gillis, he is protected by fair use provisions in copyright law, but Mike Barthel’s short essay here says it isn’t, and the august New York Times reached much the same conclusion here.

So far, Gillis hasn’t been taken to court, for any final verdict and spo for now at least, the music endures. You can check out GT’s ‘Like This’ track, anchored by its Soul II Soul ‘Back To Life’ sample here.

On another tack entirely, the Fucked Up album is a genuine genre-busting oddity – the music is loud and shouty enough to qualify hardcore, yet melodic enough ( its on Matador Records after all) to be indie as well. This is the kind of crossover that Mastodon almost managed with their Blood Mountain CD a couple of years ago. My favourite Fucked Up is still this older item called ‘Dance of Death.’ Although the video looks like it cost about $7.98 to make, it manages to be both hilarious and hypnotic.

A few more videos worth checking out while YouTube can still afford to show them ? Well, the Welsh band Los Campesinos! issued two terrific albums this year, and check out this vibrantly animated showcase for the ‘You! Me! Dancing ! track from their Hold On Now, Youngster album.

Chances are, you may not have seen much early Indonesian rock’n’roll. In which case, you might have missed this great clip from 1960 of the mighty Tielman Brothers doing ‘Rollin’ Rock’ on German TV.

There was also a distant time when the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion had some resonance. This great clip is from way back then in the 1990s and features some serious Theremin abuse, before culminating with JS attacking and destroying ( gasp) the group’s own logo.

Like everyone let loose on Youtube, I could go on and on. Shaun Boothe’s terrific tribute to Mohammed Ali is merely one of his set of video biographies. Yet the audacity of trying to pack Ali’s entire life, most powerful images and cultural meaning into less than five minutes is worthy of the man himself. Check it out here.

Finally though, I’d point to a fine old piece of Youtube magic – namely, the “Ha” video by Juvenile, shot in the Magnolia Projects in New Orleans back in 1998. I’ve sat through entire film festival movies that had less to offer. In less than four minutes, this video contains beautiful static images, a fractured narrative, some fine chase sequences and an unsettling conclusion – and if you keep your eyes peeled at 3 minutes 32 seconds you will spot an impossibly young Li’l Wayne in a red shirt, peering into the camera. Ten years later, Li’l Wayne’s scattergun Tha Carter III album and related Tha Leak EP, provided another of this year’s a musical high points. But here’s Juvenile though, back in the day.

11. Games. If holiday aren’t directly about children, they’re at least about feeling like a child. So I recommend the Original site, here.

For the past eight years, Ferry Halim has been making hand/eye co-ordination Flash games that are funny, and often quite beautiful. Try any of the 60 games now on Orisinal site and you – and your nine to 19 year old, will be hooked. Have a good Christmas, and happy New Year.