Iraq. The economy. Repeat.

As I’ve said before and will say again, yes, but after pointing out a couple of things I will refine what I’ve been going on about a little more clearly.

First, Iraq — if I’ve not mentioned it before, you really should be going to the iCasualties site on a regular basis. From that we can learn:

  • 141 American military deaths this year so far.
  • 2817 Iraqi deaths so far — that have been reported, at least.

Further, going from there to the Reuters summation of reports in Iraq, these are the type of things that can happen on any given Sunday or Monday:

* TIKRIT – Two U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Salahuddin province, the U.S. military said. Two other U.S. soldiers, two Iraqi security volunteers and a civilian translator were wounded.

* BASRA – A local councillor in a town near the southern city of Basra was assassinated in front of his home by unknown gunmen, police said.

* MOSUL – A roadside bomb struck a police car in the northern part of the northern city of Mosul, wounding two policemen, police said.

* BASRA – Iraqi forces arrested a gang responsible for kiddnapping and killing doctors, clerics and women in Basra, said Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf.

* MUSAYYIB – A U.S. drone aircraft crashed near Musayyib, south of Baghdad, and was recovered, the U.S. military said.

* BAGHDAD – Four bodies were found around the capital on Monday. BAGHDAD – U.S. forces killed three militants on Monday morning who had shot a rocket-propelled grenade at their patrol in New Baghdad in the southeast part of the capital, the U.S. military said.

BAGHDAD – A U.S. drone aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at three heavily-armed militants in Sadr City, east Baghdad, on Sunday night, killing all of them, the U.S. military said.

SOUTHERN IRAQ – The Iraqi Defence Ministry said Iraqi forces killed 30 militants in southern Iraq over the past 24 hours.

BAGHDAD – Militants fired a rocket on Sunday that landed in the Kadhimiya area of northern Baghdad, killing one civilian and wounding eight, the U.S. military said. Also in Kadhimiya, an improvised explosive device detonated in front of a U.S. patrol, killing one civilian and wounding three, the U.S. military said.

And so forth. Spelling out the implications hardly seems necessary but let me remind everyone that this is now seen as an ‘improved’ situation. It is, comparatively — and that’s the only level it has improved on. But hundreds of people are still dying in droves. You can’t explain that away with a handwave.

The questions have all been asked before but note how they are no nearer a resolution — how long is this all going to take? How much is it worth? Is it worth it all? What is the purpose of continuing? There are melodramatic and foolish things which could and have been said all around on this issue but a little more hardheadedness at this point would not go amiss. For everything like Petraeus getting nominated to head Central Command, there’s a report on how the patchwork coordination of reconstruction efforts is a bureaucratic disaster. For every bit of waffle that Rice delivers, say, you get stuff like this:

Iraq is resisting U.S. proposals for a pair of new bilateral security agreements, saying it expects Washington to compromise on “sensitive issues,” including the right to imprison Iraqi citizens unilaterally, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday.

Other problematic areas now being negotiated, Zebari said in an interview, are provisions in U.S. drafts to give American contractors immunity from Iraqi law and allow the United States to conduct military operations without Iraqi government coordination. “These are the main ones, but there could be others,” he said, among them “issues of sites, of locations, of access” by U.S. troops.

Even after Blackwater the whole issue of the contractors is still up in the air. Are you surprised? Why, if you are? Why are you surprised about ANY of this?

As for that economy, where to start? (Right now, understandably, people are jawing about gas prices, but I admit that given the growing worldwide food crisis I think there’s a bigger problem to think about — higher gas prices in comparison are the type of problems you want to have, trust me.) Anyway, there’s this piece on Moody’s as credit raters which is instructive, and elsewhere here’s a little something:

Default notices — the first step toward foreclosure — were sent to owners of 110,000 California homes from Jan. 1 to March 31, according to La Jolla- based DataQuick Information Systems. That’s about 1.4% of the homes in the state.

Defaults are up 143% from the same period last year. Homeowners in default can avoid foreclosure by catching up on payments, refinancing or selling. But fewer are doing so.

Just 32% of the properties in default will avoid foreclosure, DataQuick estimates, down from 52% a year ago.

There are other examples.

There is something interesting to note, however, about the tone of the comments in the LA Times blog linking to that story at a lot of places. A couple of examples:

It would be fascinating to learn how many of these foreclosures were to illegal immigrants.

Just another reason why Americans are fleeing Mexifornia.

I’m not surprised. I moved to the mid-west – flyover country to the elitists on the coasts. But we’re not having forclosure problems. Anyway, every time I visit California, I shake my head at the high degree of materialism goin going there. I’m glad I left.

As other comments on the blog indicate, this story was apparently linked by Drudge — and that could explain a lot of things. Yet there’s another slew of comments worth noting, the ones saying things like “Most mortgages are being paid just fine, this is a nonstory!” What’s implied there, simply put, is that there’s a status quo which is — potentially, conditionally — content and not feeling affected by the larger situation — at least, not yet.

What’s the larger point to make here? Nothing deep — this is only a refinement of something I’ve long since concluded — but still can be pointed out. It goes something like this:

According to this official US Census notice from 2005, voter turnout in the US presidential election was 64% of the potential electorate, up from 60% four years previously. Turn this around, though — this meant that 36% didn’t vote, and that this 36% in fact consisted of the biggest voting bloc of the presidential election, larger than the numbers for Bush or Kerry. That’s a big chunk of people who shrugged and thought ‘heck with it’ — setting aside questions of good citizenship, the implied meaning of their ‘vote’ is that they felt that it didn’t matter to their lives who was in, whether because they thought things wouldn’t change anyway or that they were just fine as they are or whatever. It is an embrace, however conscious, of a status quo that is believed to be generally inalterable.

The meaning of that requires more time and research than I can put into it, though doubtless it’s been done. As the primaries grind on and looking further ahead into the future becomes less of a projection, I find myself wondering about that 36% and what will change this time around. We hear a lot of talk about energized voters among the Democratic Party supporters and I think this is a true statement, though prone to potential misreading (thus John Cole’s take on Pennsylvania votes last night — when he says “What is shocking is the turnout- 2.5 million Democrats versus 750k Republicans voting statewide. That can not be good for the GOP down-ticket this fall,” he is right but at the same time the Republican race has long since been decided, so I would be cautious out of seeing a specific sign here).

But as long as that chunk of the nonvoting populace — and more specifically its near cousin, the ‘undecided until the election is almost here’ group, which is way larger than political junkies ever realize and which is almost invisible to many of them unless they’re regularly speaking with nonjunkies — is up for play, along with the implicit conservatism of that group (not in a political sense per se, but again, in a sense of ‘things are fine as they are,’ however conveyed), then November ain’t a done deal for the Democratic Party by a long shot. Congress, I’ve no doubt, will stay Democratic and will probably become even more so. But the presidency is still up for grabs.

So to conclude, when I keep mentioning ‘Iraq, economy,’ I am operating with a basic projection of the data to hand, combined with my own thoughts on the American electorate as a whole and how our society has functioned over the years. This projection tells me, right now:

  • If some combination of Iraq and the economy, or even one of them, gets so noticeably bad that the implications are inescapable, the GOP gets the blame because of the current inhabitant of the White House. McCain loses, the Democratic candidate wins.
  • If Iraq and the economy both maintain themselves at the level they are at now — causing discontent and some concern but not otherwise going obviously and immediately to hell in a handbasket, yet — then barring some complete disaster on his part, which I don’t rule out at all, McCain wins. He wins in a close election perhaps, but he wins.

In both cases, it comes down to the non-voting bloc and the undecided bloc — the majority of voters. There are other factors and there will be other things that come up that nobody even knows about yet, and if my projection turns out to be wrong, it’s wrong. I’m obviously talking big here but this is just my own cockeyed view. But it’s the possible pair of futures that makes the most sense to me and which looks beyond the primaries to November, when it all comes together.

It’s all down to the calendar. There’s still over half a year to go. And so, we wait. Political Blogger Alliance


And just remember on this, the day of the Pennsylvania primary

That we’ve got Guam next week and Indiana and North Carolina in two weeks time.

For fun!

(I think I have figured out why I’m under the weather today.) More tomorrow.

“Though I dream in vain, in my heart you will remain…”

Last night I had a chance to watch a movie I kept meaning to get around to at some point, Stardust. Released last year in an orgy of marketing, with all sorts of ‘it’s an adult fairy tale’ gibberish and bad tag lines, I figured it would be something that at the least was fundamentally ill-targeted. So it proved to be, being a pretty big flop in the US, though it made back enough elsewhere in the world to be a modest hit.

It’s based on a book by one of the more ubiquitous characters on the creative front these days, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s reputation has been long cemented for years, as has his omnipresence — I actually first encountered him thanks to the first edition of his loving but clear-headed biography of Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic, and that was back in 1987 or so. Shortly afterward there was a little something called The Sandman which got off the ground, and there’s been plenty of stuff he’s written all over the place since.

I’m an appreciator of Gaiman rather than a hyperfan, but I’m glad he’s around — much like, say, his countryman and fellow ex-pat in America Clive Barker, he has his hobbyhorses and stylistic tics, but aiming for breadth in terms of what to try and do in terms of media — books, illustrated collaborations, films, stage plays in Barker’s case and of course comics in Gaiman’s — has allowed them a variety of means to test things out, often with a lot of open bleedover. (An indirect comparison might be with Judd Apatow, whose films and script collaborations and so forth all seem to inhabit the same cockeyed universe; as with Barker and Gaiman, not everything is golden but there’s a cachet at work nonetheless.)

Gaiman’s recent efforts in film haven’t been the most all around successful, though — it would be interesting to see if he ever straight up directs one, though. His best that I’ve seen is, I think unsurprisingly, MirrorMask, done in collaboration with his best illustrative partner Dave McKean. Done on the fly to a large extent as a budget shoot with rough edges that were imaginatively worked into the final result, it’s the nth variation on an Alice in Wonderland approach, perhaps, but handled very nicely, with some killer performances to go with it. One hopes they might try for something else in the future but time will tell (for all I know it’s happening right now).

Gaiman’s been edging around Hollywood off and on for a bit, though — a bit like Barker once regularly did and definitely like what his friend Guillermo del Toro has been doing lately — and not always to good effect. The less said about Beowulf the better, but I’m happy to lay that as much at the feet of one of my least favorite directors, Robert Zemeckis, and the fact that the script was a collaboration as I am to say that Gaiman should have done better. Stardust lies between the two poles of those movies — far slicker all around than MirrorMask, for better and for worse, it’s definitely not Beowulf‘s clunky revisioning at work either. But ultimately Gaiman himself didn’t handle the script for Stardust; instead fellow Brit Matthew Vaughn cowrote the adaptation and directed.

This all as background — the movie does a surprisingly deft job at holding up under its superstructure and, in fact, is far lighter and sweeter than I would have initially given it credit for. Not every scene works — I counted about three or so that were ‘ah right, lovey dovey dialogue and all,’ for instance — but my fear was that instead of winsome wit we’d be getting clunky treacle. It steers pretty close to that more often than not; Gaiman’s always been fond of broad humor as much as verbal to start with and a movie adaptation can tend to push that further forward, while similarly the fact that he’s a happy if not hapless romantic means that element can be pushed further forward as well. (Sandman would not have worked as well as it did without the inclusion of those two elements along with everything else, for instance, but this isn’t Sandman.) It definitely knows its self-conscious roots — both Labyrinth and The Princess Bride are clear sources of some of what’s going on, at least in terms of English language films, while other elements nod to eternal touchstones like Cocteau and more recent ones like Miyazaki.

The familiarity of plenty of the story basics, though, is what gives things a chance to get tweaked and twisted a little around the side. If Robert deNiro’s fallen prey to complaints that he’s phoning in about every role these days, his cross-dressing air pirate captain gets the kind of big performance it needs, as well as a pretty outrageous joke towards the end at the expense of Sienna Miller’s character (no bad thing, really). Meanwhile the squabbling between the seven brothers fighting for the throne of the kingdom (well, four initially — the other three being dead but not being quiet about it), the sex change swap and, of course, the wicked witches are among the many totally obvious but still just twitched here and there enough bits that help make it more enjoyable in the end than I would have guessed.

Speaking fairly, there’s plenty which could grate — anyone sick of certain actors and actresses won’t find their opinions changed in the end, while someone like Ricky Gervais, in the admittedly thankless role of ‘Ferdy the Fence,’ one of Gaiman’s most overtly twee names ever, is well on the way to the kind of luvviedom he obviously both hates *and* loves in Extras. And if you’re not fond of the continuing impact of CGI — or not as tolerant of the kind of swooping shots borrowed from The Lord of the Rings by seemingly everyone these days — your patience will swiftly ebb. But I let myself go, I thought it was a treat, Claire Danes did a fun turn as the star itself, and the whole thing looked gorgeous. Far worse ways to spend a Monday night.

So let’s talk the June vote. In California that is.

And tomorrow the charade continues in Pennsylvania and all that, and if you’re obsessively watching that but not paying attention to more local votes and matters, you’re going about this the wrong way. Keep your eyes open to the local stuff which will affect you more immediately.

As was the case with the February vote out here, more was going on than just the primaries, and such will be the case in June, when the presidential primaries used to be held here (and I regard the alternate history where a June California primary turned out to decide things for the Democratic race with both fascination and horror — it would have been an incredibly Machiavellian exercise and I would have gone insane in the middle of it). The fact that the June vote will be the least participated in of the three in this year is both understandable and a bit depressing; the ‘stake everything on one throw’ attitude towards voting I’ve noticed over time is a fundamental misreading of how citizenship works, though it’s an understandable misreading given the functions of mass marketing and reduction to simplicities in this area.

In California it’s a bit different due to the existence of the extraconstitutional mechanism of the proposition, and right now there are two to consider, so here’s a quick overview.

First, it’s important to note that both of the propositions are not merely covering the same area, but interrelated — to the point where the second, if it pulls more votes, will supersede the first. They’re not working in sync, however; instead they’re working against each other, big time, and are each supported by a bunch of groups in open war against the other.

Both address the question of of ’eminent domain,’ which in the lens of American politics is a passionate one. The Kelo v. New London case decided by the Supreme Court is what has made it a hot-button issue in recent years. (If the legalese is a bit much there, there are about eight million responses on the Web to it — though it can be simply summed up as “OMG ARGH!,” essentially, and not without reason.) Back in 2006 Proposition 90 was first proposed as a way to address it, but it went down to defeat, so try try again.

But what do we have so far? Well…:

  • Proposition 98 — “Eminent Domain. Limits on Government Authority.” — Okay, talk about bait and switch. Seemingly this is all just about eminent domain straight up. Not so fast, though — as the link shows there, the other big thing in this version of the proposition is the abolition of rent control. Now, I rent myself, though not in a rent-controlled situation, and it’s plenty clear to me what the abolition of such a control would mean in terms of affordable housing for many, many California residents. Combined with calling into question ‘inclusionary housing,’ not to mention plenty of other rather suspicious provisions, this all adds up into something that is using a theoretical no-brainer to mask a bunch of other stuff going on. My current vote: an emphatic NO.
  • Proposition 99 — “Eminent Domain. Limits on Government.” — This counterproposal parallels 98, but is specifically written to avoid the rent control question, and as mentioned will supersede 98 if both pass. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fact that both renters groups and environmental groups are pulling for this one, combined with the ability to supersede 98, is enough to make me consider this a YES vote, though I’ll want to study it in a little more detail just to be sure. My mind’s pretty well made up here, though.

A basic enough summary via the SF Chronicle from March puts all this into some further context, though as with anything of this nature it’s a simplification. Still, there’s not much more to add here beyond that, and I’m sure the attack ads are flying already and will get worse. Come the day I’ll be at the voting booth, though, and if you’re a California resident you should be too — and I haven’t even mentioned statewide offices and county votes and all that yet. But it’s all part of the process, and you should all be involved. Political Blogger Alliance

A white bean, rice and greens soup

Turned out really nice — took the recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, about which I’ve spoken enough times that I don’t need to repeat myself. I hope. Seriously, just buy it! And remember — once you try a recipe from it, next time vary it somehow, surprise yourself. That’s the goal.

A quick plug for Popular

I’ve linked to and talked about Freaky Trigger more than a few times — Tom Ewing’s spark of inspiration to go the fanzine route but to make it native to the Web a decade back remains one of the best general English-language cultural discussion sites out there. Its UK focus may limit the appeal to general readers but in terms of a collection of intelligent, passionate writers (and often commenters) it is top of the line.

It started due to Tom’s interest in music thanks to the now-retired New York London Paris Munich blog — well worth a scrounge in the archives — but the current main feature on music on FT, aside from Tom and company’s continuing work flying the poptimist flag, is a project he’s been literally working on for years and which still has a long way to go: Popular, which he describes as:

The UK’s 1000+ Number One Hits since 1952, reviewed, in order, irregularly, for as long as I can bear to keep doing it. A history of pop in the shape of a chart.

You can subscribe to the feed here if you’re up for following the whole FT site feed, and I do recommend it very much — this is the kind of project that was made for the Web and which could easily have constituted a book on its own (and may yet, for all we know).

This post is prompted by a recent entry which in ways can give a newcomer a perfect handle on the whole thing. Given the UK focus there are plenty of songs which are utterly unfamiliar to even a dedicated music freak, but others are just part of the pop consciousness well beyond music. And “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen is just such a song.

Being able to look at an older, perhaps overly familiar piece of art in general with fresh eyes and providing a different perspective is something which not many writers have. Tom’s one of the lucky ones, and his take on said masterpiece of grandiosity is one of the best. To quote the opening:

There is a pub in North London called The Swimmer At The Grafton Arms. It prides itself on well-kept beer and a well-kept jukebox, the latter with an deeply tasteful selection of fine rock and soul music. I haven’t visited for a couple of years, but it used to have, on this jukebox, a Queen Greatest Hits CD. And next to Track One on this CD, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, was the handwritten instruction: “DO NOT PLAY. NOT FUNNY.”

For me, that kind of sums up “Bohemian Rhapsody”’s very weird place in rock music. It is known by millions, loved by millions, but somehow still not quite….respectable.

Partially due to the song’s fame, the comments exchange has been one of the most detailed already in the history of Popular and it’ll doubtless grow. Larger point — if you like what you see, keep track of it, at least dip in from time to time. As what constitutes the ‘charts’ continues to fragment and make less and less immediate sense as such, Tom’s sociomusical history provides a far richer focus to the endless lists.

Moronicism at work

From the sublimely sad (my previous post) to the ridiculously stupid:

Thanks to J.D. for the tip elsewhere — this is just a case where all you have to do is read, and read the comments, and laugh cruelly at the people behind the original post.

Favorite line in the original post:

“Naturally, I was prejudiced against them.”

No doubt. No doubt at all.