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The harp is perhaps the most stately of all acoustic instruments and those who play it generally play to type. The cover of Catriona McKay’s latest effort suggests that she never got the memo about being dignified. She’s posed as a naked shellfish sporting a strategically placed strip of yellow gauze, a wry smile, and a harp springing from her head. She definitely spent time in her brain contemplating how to free her instrument from the parlor. It helps that she has a new harp with unorthodox tunings explored on the opening three tracks. “Starfish” opens with a West Africa-meets-Scotland riff before lapsing into a light jazz arrangement in which McKay cascades across the strings to themes laid down by a full band. At times it’s as if she’s crossed the harp with a kora. “Forest Baby” is a gorgeous melody, but one whose outward calm is immersed in contemplative tension framed by bass and soulful fiddle. “Greenman” is a minimalist experiment that Philip Glass might have written for harp. There are plenty of tunes to hearten those who prefer a more sedate approach—beauties such as “Swan LK243” and “Sand Dollar” stand out—but overall McKay challenges us to toss our preconceptions and hear the harp in a new way.

Watch McKay go from pretty to funky in a set with fiddler Chris Stout.


Signs of the Times--June 17

For all you Baby Boomers out there--maybe we need to turn back the clock and take a few liver pills to alleviate our aches and pains! This sign is from Brattleboro, Vermont.


AS IRAN SIMMERS: Is Dick Cheney Right for a Change?

Did George Kennan (left) formulate the best plan to deal with Iran's despots?
There are a million reasons to dismiss Dick Cheney’s advice when it comes to foreign policy. Other than Henry Kissinger and Dr. Strangelove I can’t think of two scarier policy planners than Cheney. (I always thought he wanted Saddam Hussein eliminated so he could be top despot.) As much as it pains me to say it, though, Cheney is right to charge that President Obama’s willingness to open talks with Iran is naïve.

Iran’s weekend “election” made the Bush installation of 2000 look honest by comparison. If you believe that incumbent President Ahmadinejad (Ahm-friggin’-mad) got nearly 70% of the vote in a nation in which the median age is 26.4, the literacy rate is 80%, and 67% of the population lives in urban areas you know nothing about politics, human nature, or common sense. Nobody, anywhere gets 70% in a truly democratic election. Iranian dissidents have called the elections a “coup d’état” and they are correct. Any way the Obama administration tries to parse (Parsi?) it, opening talks with Ahmadinejad legitimizes a farce.

In the realm of realpolitiks, of course, the U.S. routinely parlays with unspeakably awful people. (Don’t be fooled, Ahmadinejad is a truly reprehensible and dangerous individual. The sole reason Obama wishes to hold discussions with him is in the vain hope that Iran will withhold aid to Shiite terrorists in Iraq. If Cheney and the mad bombers of Team Bush had left Saddam in power, he’d have taken care of that.) A wiser course would be to let Ahmadinejad rant in isolation. Foreign policy wonks love to make analogies, so let’s make one: Eastern Europe. The United States, Western Europe, and Israel should do everything in their power to isolate Iran and then ignore it, like they did in the waning days of the Cold War. If they resist the temptation either to legitimate Ahmadinejad’s coup or to be seen as outside contaminants of Iran’s political evolution, Ahmadinejad and the fanatical ayatollahs that control Iran will fall just as surely as the communist apparatchiks of Eastern Europe fossilized themselves into extinction.

Islamic rule is not popular among Iran’s business class, urban dwellers, or pop culture-weaned youth. Nearly one quarter of Iran’s population is under the age of 14 and the vast bulk of the populace wasn’t even an itch under their mothers’ hejabs when Iran’s Islamic revolution took place in 1979. Those numbers alone dictate that the revolution will yield to youthful evolution, if the West leaves well enough alone. And if Iran’s Muslim neighbors embark on economic development schemes that leave Iran mired in the past, the ayatollahs will become religious apparatchiks without a base.

At some point in the near future Turkey will become the European Union’s first Muslim-majority member. A westernized, modernized, rationalized, and secularized Turkey on Iran’s doorstep will be an irresistible model for stifled Iranian young people. If Kazakhstan follows Turkey’s lead— and with its large underdeveloped oil reserves there are millions of Euros-worth of reasons for Kazaks to look to the West—the pressure on Iran will be even greater.

A sagacious policy would be to act as if Iran is irrelevant, a medieval throwback. The U.S. should ratchet closed-door diplomatic pressure on its allies to increase Iran’s isolation, and that includes China, which needs to be told privately that it can increase market shares in the U.S. or underwrite Iran’s oil industry, but it can’t do both. The key, however, is to avoid provocation toward Iran. Don’t react to Ahmadinejad’s threats, avoid comment on Iranian internal matters, and, above all, stop the flow of outside capital to Tehran. (The latter has the advantage of making it hard for Iran to sustain its bloated military budget.) Remove the West as a viable Satan substitute and let Iran choke on its own backwardness and poverty. As we saw in Eastern Europe, once the West stopped rattling its sabers restive peoples began pointing theirs at their own leaders. Back in 1946 George Kennan counseled patience, not aggression or legitimization, in dealing with the Soviet Union. That advice was good enough to bring down the Soviet Union and it’s plenty good enough to topple a madman like Ahmadinejad.


Adam Smith, the deadest man on the planet?

Among the many things that amuses me about health care reform debates is the insistence among alarmists that all government programs are inherently bad because they destroy the very competition necessary to contain costs. You have thought Adam Smith was directing the American economy to listen to the privatizing privateers predict the coming of socialism and soaring price doom and gloom. (Note to the privateers: Smith has been dead for 309 years and no economist seriously believes in 100% regulation-free markets any more.)

After I picked myself off the floor from my laughing fit I got in my car to run a few errands, one of which included filling the tank in preparation for driving to Newark airport on June 17, when Phoenix and I jet off to Scotland for a few weeks. As I made my way down King Street I had a capitalist’s dream of gasoline options: Mobil, Hess, Pride, Cumberland Farms, Sunoco…. But what happened to the free market? Everyone of them was priced at $2.49 per gallon of regular. Must be some mistake I thought. Since I was headed toward Amherst anyway I took a drive out Route 9, where I encountered numerous other choices, each at $2.49 except for one holdout who has asking four cents more. Amherst? $2.49 a gallon.

I’m not moaning about the price per se; in Scotland I'll pay more than triple this (though filling fuel-efficient tanks), but all of this makes me think that Adam Smith is among the deadest dead men on the planet. How can every station be charging exactly the same and why on earth is the price of oil going up in the first place when demand is down? Isn’t supply and demand supposed to be the “hidden hand” that dictates price? And shouldn’t gas stations be competing to drive down prices instead of up? Sure is a good thing the government doesn’t regulate prices, huh?

Luckily for me I have a Stop n’ Shop card that entitles me to knock five cents off every gallon I buy. That drove down the price to—you guessed it—$2.49 a gallon.



Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2009

I’m giving nothing away when I say that the latest film by enigmatic director Jim Jarmusch contrasts the quiet (almost wordless) inner control of a criminal-for-hire, Lone Man, (Isaach De Bankolé) with the turmoil of his marks. The latter exude outward confidence and invulnerability, but their ability to influence events is minimal and their hubris is that they refuse to acknowledge their limits. As in all Jarmusch films, most of the “action” takes place in the psyche not in the physical realm. We witness numerous scenes of Lone Man practicing Tai-chi and the film moves at roughly the same pace. As is also Jarmusch’s trademark, weird things occur and are unexplained. Paz de la Huerta shows up on numerous occasions, completely naked, but we never know exactly who she is, why she’s trying to seduce Lone Man, or why he rebuffs her. Nor do we know with certainty why Lone Man insists on ordering two espressos in separate cups, why Youki Kudoh delivers an impromptu speech on molecules in the midst of an information exchange, or why Tilda Swinton is the most conspicuously dressed “secret” contact in the history of double-dealing. Other than de la Huerta, nearly everyone Lone Man encounters (among them: Kudoh, Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray) flits across the screen in brief and cryptic cameo roles and we learn next to nothing about their roles or motives.

This film has not resonated well with critics or audience and is definitely not everyone’s cup of espresso, but it has rich awards if you view it as literally an art film instead of a conventional movie. In fact, it’s been many a year in which I’ve reveled in the sheer beauty of a film as I did this one. There are numerous shots of Lone Man entering the Reina Sofia art museum in Madrid and the canvasses that he views setup subsequent internal struggles and external occurrences. In a way Jarmusch is punning off the old cartoon of a man watching TV of a man watching TV of a man watching TV. In several stunning point-of-view shots we’re not sure if we are seeing a painting, an open window, or a dream. The cinematography is stunning throughout—De Bankolé’s black skin against the red walls of a chic elevator, his silhouette against a frame wrapped in white linen, rays of sunlight bathing half of his face and shadow the other half, dappled light on a geometric staircase …. And suffice it to say that Tilda Swinton’s entrance is one of the most flamboyant in recent screen history. Everything that we see is a key to Lone Man’s soul and to considering the existential tensions between mind and matter, meaning and illusion, desire and mortality, and control and chaos. Make no mistake; you’ll leave this film either despising it or thinking it a masterpiece. I’m in the second camp and applaud Jarmusch’s courage in presenting such stark contrasts-—both philosophically and visually.—LV