"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rambling thoughts on cheating

Read this quotation from The New York Times today from an ethicist discussing the Patriots, "deflate gate," and cheating in sports:

“This kind of gamesmanship goes on all the time,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor at Ithaca College who studies sports ethics. “It’s certainly accepted as part of the culture that you game the system as much as you possibly can, and if you don’t get caught, it ain’t cheating.”
Interesting -- and not just because it is about a sports issue in the news. Think about it: "if you don't get caught, it ain't cheating" could be our cultural mantra.

If you don't get caught, you weren't speeding.

If you don't get caught, those short cuts you took on your taxes are perfectly OK.

If you don't get caught, that she'd you built without your town's approval is perfectly fine.

Perhaps this is not a problem. I'd like to think we'd be bothered by this, but I know we're not -- and I'm just as guilty of these small, seemingly meaningless infractions as anyone.

This raises a question: Does our complicity in these small violations preclude us from being critical of larger violations? Does the extra deduction we might take mean we should accept the larger, far more impactful liberties taken by those with power?

My answer is no, though I think it is difficult to draw a hard line separating what might be acceptable and what should not be. There are obvious no-nos: Chemical companies dumping waste into the environment (essentially cheating by passing the cost of disposal onto the larger society); or an elected official using his power to enrich himself. Cheating on a test or a paper -- by stealing answers, say, or plagiarizing -- is obviously wrong. But there is no prohibition -- almost no prohibition -- against seeking other advantages.

Other issues are not so clear cut. Base runners stealing signs from catchers remains acceptable; using a camera to do so is not. The effect is the same -- stolen signs -- but the means create the greater violation. I understand -- and agree -- that there is a difference, but exactly where the line is drawn is more difficult to explain.

But there is a line and, like the court's response to pornography, we know it when we see it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

They Killed Him

A song in honor of MLK Day.

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The demise of the American newspaper

Today's Home-News Tribune looks more like a newsletter than a newspaper, an emaciated shell of its former self. The same goes for The Star-Ledger, the New York tabloids -- just about every newspaper out there.

As newspaper revenue -- mostly in the form of classified and retail ad revenue, but also subscriptions -- has dried up, newspapers cut costs. Reporting staffs have been gutted, bureaus closed, editors let go. These cuts, rightly, have gotten the lion's share of the public notice. But papers have also taken other measures that have, while reducing costs, made their product less appealing.

The reduction in web size -- the size of the press and paper used -- has made meaningless the term broadsheet. Papers like THNT and others are barely larger than tabloids, lacking in news space and telegraphing to readers that there is just not a whole lot to read any longer.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On his own time: An interview with Willie Nile

Photo by Cristina Arrigoni
Willie Nile has been making music for more than three decades, but not continuously.

His first album – the eponymous Willie Nile – came out in 1980, followed in 1981 by Golden Down. The albums – squarely in the Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty rock camp – were well received, but didn’t sell particularly well, though both broke the Billboard 200, according toAllMusic.com. And the critics loved him – like his friend Bruce Springsteen, he was tagged with the “New Dylan” label.

Photo by Lucas Noonan
Nile then disappeared. There were some legal issues, and Nile – who is playing the Light of Day benefit shows in Asbury Park on Friday and Saturday – says he felt it was time to talk away. His wife was pregnant and it was no longer fun.

“I walked away from the business in ’81,” he told me. “I went to New York because I loved music, but when it became more about business and the business hassles around the music, I walked away. My wife was pregnant, so I went back to Buffalo.”

Nile hails from Buffalo. He spent much of the 1970s in New York City, seeing shows, writing music, and then performing. Getting signed was a big deal, of course. He toured with the Who early in his career. He won praise from the critics. Through it all, he said, he remains “just a poet from Buffalo.”

“It didn’t throw me,” he said. “I’m a poet first. I didn’t get into this to become an ‘American Idol.’ Wrote poetry first. I played guitar. At some point, I put it together.”

Nile attempted a return to music with some live shows in the middle 1980s – he missed playing music -- but didn’t record again until 1991 when he released Places I Have Never Been on Columbia. It was well received critically, but not commercially and Nile once again faded from view.

This time he continued to perform, gaining a following in Europe, and releasing a live record. All of this set the stage for his third act – a 10-year stretch in which he has released six records, two live albums and a DVD, while touring regularly with what he calls a “tight band” that allows him the freedom to do pretty much what he wants.

“These are the best days of my activity in music,” he said.

The consistent activity – especially the performing – has made him a better musician, he said.

“When you’re on stage, you have an instinct for what can work,” he said. “I’m having so much fun with it, with this incredible band. We’re playing a lot, playing so much and we’ve gotten so tight. There are certain things you can only get from playing and that naturally opens the songwriting doors.”

Most of his recent records – particularly Streets of New York (2006), which Dave Thompson of AllMusic.com called “a swaggering braggart of a disc that is to the modern Apple everything that Lou Reed’s New York was 15 years before,” and American Ride (2013), have a big sound reminiscent of the best of the Jersey Shore music scene.

I asked him about this – explaining that I’d assumed early in Nile’s career that he was from the Shore area.

“I’ve played a lot of shows in Jersey and the fans in Jersey been very supportive,” he said. “The Jersey fans love their rock ‘n’ roll and know their music. And because I’ve been involved in Light of Day, even though not from Jersey or the Jersey Shore, I am associated with it.”

His most recent release is quieter – a piano-based record If I Was a River – that he says is something he has been wanting to do for a long time.

“You have to make a change once in a while,” he said. “Now that I am making records more often, more frequently, I can do more of a variety of things for the fun of it. When you put one out every 10 years – well, I just follow my instincts and it felt like the right time.”

Nile said he is excited about the Light of Day shows. The Light of Day Foundation was founded by Bob Benjamin, who had worked in the recording industry, after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease around his 40th birthday. He decided to have a birthday party and asked that, instead of gifts, people make donations to Parkinson’s research. That led to the concert series, which started in 2000 and has featured local and national acts, including Joe Grushecky, Garland Jeffreys, Southside Johnny, LaBamba, Max Weinberg, Jesse Malin, Nicole Atkins, Lucinda Williams, and others. Bruce Springsteen has made numerous appearances at the concerts, usually unbilled, jamming with Nile and the other musicians.

Nile has participated all 14 years, because “one good stone thrown in the pond can cause ripples.” Every year has been special, though he loves it most when everyone is on stage, singing, especially with Springsteen.

One particular moment stands out, however. Springsteen was on stage at the Stone Pony and Michael J. Fox, who  had been diagnosed with Parkinon’s in 1991 but had only recently disclosed his condition to the public, was waiting in the wings. He looked nervous and was having a rough day, but Fox grabbed a guitar and went out and played “Light of Day” with Springsteen. Springsteen wrote the song for the Fox movie of the same name.

“The courage it took for him to get on the stage with his body not 100 percent,” Nile said. “He walked up with a guitar, and he rocked with Bruce. He gave everything he had and I will never forget that as long as I live.”

Moments like that keep him coming back.

“When music can be meaningful and can be a real part of our lives and make us feel better -- we have this thing we share together,” he said. “It is the thing that keeps us alive. It gives us reason to move on. If we can use the music to help our fellow man that is a reason to get up in the morning.”

Willie Nile will play the Stone Pony, 913 Ocean Ave., Asbury Park, on Friday, Jan. 16, as part of the Asbury Angels show. The show begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance through Ticketmaster and $30 at the door. He also will participate in the sold out  Paramount Theater main show on Jan. 17. Light of Day website, lightofday.org; Willie Nile’s website, willienile.com; Stone Pony website, stoneponyonline.com. For more information on the organization email  info@lightofday.org.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo debate distorts meaning of free speech

I want to repeat something I said in a post yesterday, because of the harsh reaction that The New York Times has received in some quarters for its decision not to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons:
I support -- and we all should support -- any publication that chooses to reprint the cartoons as a show of solidarity. I would encourage outlets to do it if doing so is within their editorial mission. However, free expression requires that we acknowledge that the choice must be left up to each outlet -- that free expression includes the right to determine what one expresses, when and how.
Here is what Dean Baquet of the Times told the paper's public editor:
Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.

He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.

“I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice,” he said. “It had to be my decision alone.”
Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.
Did he make the right decision? I think the Times probably should have shown the cartoons as part of its news coverage -- to show what the fuss was about (mostly for its print readers). But we also need to acknowledge that, in the Internet age, that may not be necessary. It is rather easy to find the cartoons on the web and the reader who is interested can just do a search.

The Times' editors have been called "cowards" (by journalist and professor Marc Cooper) and "wimpy" (by cartoonist Ted Rall), with the implication being that the Times -- and other outlets -- were required to cede any editorial discretion to the larger solidarity movement.
I respect both Cooper and Rall immensely, but I think this line of argument is absurd. It also is a fallacy -- an ad hominem attack, or name-calling -- and does nothing to shift the debate or add to it.

Free expression, as I said, cuts in more than one direction. We need to support the publications that publish the cartoons, even encourage others to do so. But we also need to respect the decisions made by those editors who choose not to run the cartoons -- that is, after all, the other side of the free-speech debate, as Glenn Greenwald tweets:

Editors must have the right to publish or not publish what they want or think is important, as free of outside influence as possible -- whether the influence comes from government, big business or the crowd. That is how free speech should work.

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