Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Joshua Tree - U2

Now that the music industry requires artists to record singles in order to make money, old bands have followed different business models to adapt to the exigencies of the age.

The Beatles are re-issuing their albums for the nth time with a new remastering but the same new photos.

The Rolling Stones don't care about albums anymore and decided to engage in a permanent tour singing the same songs they sang 40 or 70 years ago.

Pink Floyd, which see their albums as concepts instead of songs, have recently re-issued their albums but with different editions. If you're a hardcore groupie, you're likely to buy the 150 dollars editions; if you're just a fan, you'll buy the 12 dollars album.

Radiohead are using their fans as guinea pigs, offering their albums for free for some of them, making others pay for the rest, or issuing new albums and songs out of the blue.

U2 is adapting to the times and are issuing individual songs. Or more precisely, they are just doing what they would have loved to do since the beginning of their career. The Joshua Tree is the perfect example of an album composed of three commercially successful songs ("Where the Streets Have no Name"; "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and "With or Without You") with a bunch of forgettable songs that sound exactly the same but are there to justify charging buyers 10 dollars, or whatever the amount of albums was at the time.

One of the forgettable songs of The Joshua Tree is dedicated to the people disappeared for political reasons around the World, and the booklet contains the traditional plea to join Amnesty International. I wonder how U2 will remain faithful to their tradition of including songs in their albums in favor of political causes now that... there are no albums. (nevermind: Twitter and Facebook are proving excellent tools to bring real change to the World)

A Tenured Professor - John Kenneth Galbraith

I've been recently struggling to figure out what is the relevance of John Kenneth Galbraith today. Galbraith reached the highest point of his career with The New Industrial State, and afterwards he repeated himself, albeit elegantly and gently.  His economic ideas have become mantras for the American left and he preferred written arguments over econometric analyses, which goes against mainstream academic economics. While Galbraith is a required reading for the economic historian, it is hard to find a place for him in today's economic debate.

A Tenured Professor, a satyric novel written in the mid 80s, is probably Galbraith's only book that offers something refreshing to today's readers. And this is not because Galbraith writes something that you can't find in any of his other books. If you take literature away, A Tenured Professor presents Galbraith's arguments of all life: critiques against multinationals, consumerism, over-specialization in academia, lobbies, the rational expectations theory, the mainstream left, the Republican Party, the SEC, college students, Ivy League universities, and so on. You can find all that in The New Industrial State, written in the late sixties, or even in The Affluent Society, written in 1957. (One can argue how smart is a person who says the same things over and over for more than 30 years, but that's another discussion).

The reason why A Tenured Professor offers something good for today's readers is its sense of humor and its constant and relentless irony. Humor is usually the first weapon used in autocratic regimes, and probably the most effective one in democracy.The target of irony or mockery is damned if he replies and damned if he doesn't.

There is no single page in A Tenured Professor that doesn't a critique to something, but with humor and reducing everything to the absurd. This is probably more effective than Galbraith's usually bilious critiques: it's well known that honey is more effective than vinegar.

Galbraith wrote this book after being accomplishing everything any American economist dreams of: academic and popular success, involvement in high-level policy making, commercial success. Galbraith could afford writing this book only at that point in his life, once he had nothing to lose because he had succeeded at everything. The main character of A Tenured Professor is actually a professor who would like to get involved in politics actively but only does it once he succeeds as an academic and as a businessman. In a way, the book is a satire of Galbraith himself. And mocking oneself is simply a masterpiece in itself.

The book is also a mockery of himself.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The New Industrial State - John Kenneth Galbraith

The New Industrial State set the analytic foundations of the multinational corporation. Though he didn't name it, John Kenneth Galbraith discovered the principal-agent problem. In this book, Galbraith also dismantled the assumption that markets are composed by small price-taker units, but by large corporations who have interests of their own, including setting prices (quite obviously) but also reaching political power.

Given his style, which might be too formal for today's audiences, it is tempting to say that you can find his ideas on multinationals tempered down for the 21st century in the work of Naomi Klein. However, there is a significant difference between the two of them. Klein believes that the objective of the heads of multinational companies is to control the world, or something. Galbraith, however, makes the case that they just want to defend their vested interests (obviously in detriment of the common citizen). Evidence has been in the side of Galbraith and the same case has been made recently by conservative-turned-to-liberal-turned-to-independent thinkers like Francis Fukuyama and Fareed Zakaria.

The New Industrial State can be too burdensome at times, and is 500 pages long. If you really have to read it, you can save yourself a lot of time by reading the foreword, or even better, this article by Galbraith's son describing what the book is all about and how it is relevant today (the article was written in 2007).

This is the second book by Galbraith that I review, and I don't want to give the impression that Galbraith's work is useless today. He created the ideological framework of the American left; namely, corporations are bad (and small businesses inherently good), education will solve all of our problems, more money and resources should be devoted to liberal arts and public broadcasting (public goods in general), environment degradation is inherent to big-scale capitalism, and demilitarization should be priority number 1 in the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The fact that the American left has made mantras out of these ideas is not Galbraith's fult, but the left's, which has been unable to advance any significant part of the agenda, at least until Obama passed his health care reform.

Here is a 50 minutes interview with Galbraith done in the 80's.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Story of the Weeping Camel - Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni

This is the best movie I watched in 2011. And the best thing is that it is available for free here. This is a "narrative documentary" filmed in Mongolia about a nomadic family trying to save the life of a bactrian camel after it is rejected by its mother.

It is extremely hard to say who are the main characters in this movie: is it the family, whose millennial way of life is threatened by inventions like TV? Is it the camels? Or is it the Mongolian desert, which is portrayed with all its beauty by the directors, who avoided commonplaces like sunsets, or danws?  Is it slowness, which seems dull at the beginning, but is actually the way in which the directors create the dramatic momentum of the movie? Or is it the violin player, who appears for only five minutes but culminates the entire plot?

If you want to give a shot to any of the recommendations of this blog, watch The Story of the Weeping Camel. The National Geographic sponsored website is here, and the full movie is actually right below:

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Fable of Modern Art - Dore Ashton

"(...) the archetypal modern artist, existing in a constant state of anxiety, plagued by metaphysical doubt"

In A Fable of Modern Art Dore Ashton tries to trace the origins of modern art to Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece (ebook in English here), on his least known books. The book is composed by 5 essays, each of which is dedicated to The Unknown Masterpiece, and its influences on Cézanne, Picasso, Rilke, and Schönberg.

This is not a  book for general audiences, so if you haven't read The Unknown Masterpiece, or if you're not familiar with the four artists mentioned above, reading this book will be very painful, or at least boring. Also, if you don't think that modern art is the ultimate stage of human creation, you will find Ashton's arguments biased and groupie-like. 

Shortly, this is a book for the NY modern art clique, whose members are most likely friends with Ashton, but which is, after all, a very small group. It shouldn't come as a surprise that A Fable of Modern Art is out of print and the University of California Press has no intention to re-issue it in the short or medium term. 

Below is part 1 (and here's part 2 and 3) of Pierrot Lunaire, on which Schönberg "used the human voice as an unearthly counterpart to the clear colors his instruments produced", according to Ashton (in their infinite wisdom, some Youtube users say that it's hard to appreciate this music unless you have a previous knowledge of the theory behind it; so please, go back to school if you're not ready for this).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ummagumma - Pink Floyd

The first albums of Pink Floyd are closer to experimental rock and Jethro Tull than to their most famous works like The Wall or The Dark Side of the Moon.

The band hate their earlier albums, including Ummagumma. The only song of this production that has been recycled recently is "Astronomy Domine," and mostly as a tribute (one more) to Syd Barrett.  Ummagumma, like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is more valuable as a testimony of psychedelia than as a piece of music. There are much better experimental rock bands, including Jethro Tull, King Crimson, or even Sigur Ros, if you push it too hard.

Ummagumma must be listened to as an experiment, a work in transition.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Affluent Society - John Kenneth Galbraith

He will never accept it, but Paul Krugmans ideas are far from being original. He stole his entire arguments on taxation and public services from John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the few American intellectuals in the twentieth century who has had the balls to advocate openly for the establishment of socialism in the United States. In fact, Krugman loathes Galbraith on the basis that he is not academic enough. (which is actually one of Galbraiths virtue: the idea that economics should depend on torturing data, most of which is unreliable anyway, is simply stupid)

Having said that, and precisely because Krugman has adapted Galbraiths arguments to the 21st century, The Affluent Society is valuable only as an economic theory relic. The Affluent Society makes the case for a sales tax as a means to finance more public goods (specifically, education, environment, and infrastructure). Whether Galbraith refers to a sales tax à la USA or a VAT à la Europe is not clear (the difference between the two is not insignificant, as can be seen here).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Queen - Stephen Frears

It is hard to write a negative review about a movie that received more than 25 major awards around the World, appeared in several Top 10 lists the year it was issued, and has a 97% approval rate in Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, I still think that The Queen is not the masterpiece everyone thinks it is. The acting of Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II are remarkable, and Stephen Frears claims in The Making of that he had several sources close to both Blair and the Royal Family standing for the accuracy of the facts he portrays.

I think The Queen would be an excellent movie, worth of its 99.9% of approval rate, had the speech given by Elizabeth not been the focal point of the entire movie. Here is the original speech given by Elizabeth:

It would be excellent to compare the two speeches, but I was not able to find Helen Mirrens personification, so the trailer will have to do the trick.

Somehow, its hard for me to reconcile the iron lady image presented by Mirren with the fluffy lady who originally delivered the speech. I sometimes get the impression that Mirren got her inspiration for Elizabeth from the image presented in the pounds: a petrified character without the possibility to have any feelings whatsoever (to be fair, Mirren kind of cries in two or three moments of the movie).

I'm not saying that Elizabeth II is actually a nice old grandmother who felt any sympathy for Diana. It's no secret that they hated each other and the Queen is probably the iron person presented by Frears in private. I give him and his sources the benefit of the doubt. However,  Mirren was not able to represent the role of a nation's grandmother which Elizabeth was during the speech. She was not able to understand that she was not playing the role of the Queen playing the role of a fluffy venerable old lady.

I can only think of an actor who understood that she was not playing a character, but a character playing another character: Christopher Reeves. His performance as Superman trying to be a Clark Kent who hides Superman is simply superb.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Historia de la guerra del Peloponeso - Tucídides


La Historia de la guerra del Peloponeso fue el primer libro publicado por la Editorial Porrúa que leo en poco más de 10 años. Como muchos lectores hispanohablantes, crecí con la idea de que Porrúa le hace un gran favor a la cultura de Hispanoamérica al poner grandes obras de Literatura e Historia al alcance del gran público a un precio relativamente bajo.

En honor a la verdad, y en perspectiva internacional, Porrúa es una basura. Los que crecimos creyendo que Porrúa le hace un favor a la cultura fuimos influenciados por una tremenda cantidad de prologuistas que así lo afirman en todos y cada uno de los libros publicados por la propia Porrúa, cuasimonopolio privado que recibía (seguramente todavía recibe) una gran cantidad de subsidios para vendernos productos caros y malos. Debería haber un grupo en Facebook que se llamara "yo también odié la lectura por el formato a dos columnas de Porrúa". En el caso de la Historia, la falta de mapas o imágenes con las formaciones de la batallas hace que uno se pierda fácilmente o que se haga imágenes en la cabeza que no corresponden con la realidad. A diferencia de lo que pasa en el mercado de habla hispana, donde las versiones de la Historia son las de Porrúa y las de algunas universidades públicas que, valientes o con presupuesto ocioso financian la traducción de algún académico valiente, en el mercado de habla inglesa hay varias ediciones que compiten entre sí y se venden relativamente bien. A fin de atraer lectores, ahí sí, la Historia se acompaña de mapas, pies de nota explicativos, comentarios de historiadores, etcétera. Destaca, por ejemplo, la versión de Strassler que, puestos a hacer cuentas, sale más barata en pesos mexicanos que la de Porrúa (excluyendo gastos de envío). El equivalente a la edición de Porrúa (texto sin explicaciones, ni introducción, ni nada), puede ser bajado gratis del sitio de Amazon para ser leído en Kindle.

Sirva esto para que queden patentes las diferencias entre el concepto de "popular": en el mercado hispanohablante, el término implica productos de mala calidad desconectados de lo que demanda el mercado, y que da igual que se vendan o no, porque igual el gobierno va a pagar por ellos. En el mercado anglosajón, "popular" quiere decir ofrecer productos basados en la necesidad y gustos del mercado a fin de hacer dinero vendiéndole a la base de la pirámide.

Porrúa seguirá vendiéndole productos malos a la gente, aprovechándose que la gente a la que le interesa la cultura no tiene acceso a los productos del mercado angloparlante por razones económicas o políticas (la gente que lee es, por lo general, de izquierdas y viene de medios desfavorecidos o cree que leer y hablar inglés es una concesión al Imperio) , y de que la mayoría de la gente que sí tiene acceso no les interesa leer (la gente que habla inglés lo hace porque fue a escuelas de pago donde aprendieron inglés pero tienen seso hueco y sólo se preocupan por sus yates y sus gramos de cocaína).


Ser considerado el padre de una disciplina es un mérito en sí mismo. serlo de dos es sinónimo de que uno es un ser humano de excepción. Tucídides fue el padre de las Relaciones Internacionales (las mayúsculas denotan que nos referimos a la disciplina y no a la actividad) y comparte el honor de ser el padre de la Historia con Heródoto (desde mi perspectiva, el título debería corresponder exclusivamente a Tucídides, ya que Heródoto ve la Historia como un ejercicio moralizante no científico, pero, dado que fue conocido mucho antes que Tucídides en Occidente, la convención es que Heródoto sea considerado "Padre de la Historia").

La obra de Tucídides es lectura obligada en todo programa de Relaciones Internacionales con visos de seriedad. En particular, el diálogo de los melios dio origen, junto con el Príncipe de Maquiavelo y el Leviatán de Hobbes, a la disciplina de las Relaciones Internacionales. Mucha gente cree que estas tres referencias bibliográficas dieron origen exclusivamente a la escuela Realista, lo cual es un error. El primer libro de RI "puro" es The Twenty Years Crisis, que es un libro Realista, además de que el objetivo de las escuelas no-Realistas es, precisamente, intentar probar que esta escuela de pensamiento, con su nihilismo y su pobreza intelectual, está equivocada.

No puedo recordar un libro de Historia, actual o viejo, en el que el autor no editorialice su relato de los hechos. Esa es quizá la característica más sobresaliente de la obra de Tucídides: con su lenguaje lacónico y su pretensión explícita de solamente relatar los hechos, sin intentar moralizar, deja que el lector se forme su propia opinión de los hechos. No hay que creer, no obstante, que no hay héroes en la Historia de Tucídides. Como buen drama griego, hay dos: el primero es el hombre, específicamente, el estadista que es capaz de anticiparse a los hechos, poner los intereses y la supremacía de su país por encima de todo, y convencer a sus pares de la ruta a seguir. El segundo es una heroína: la fortuna, que puede darle la espalda al mejor de los estadistas y sonreírle al peor de los demagogos. El único juicio de valor explícito que pronuncia Tucídides tiene lugar cuando narra la muerte de Pericles por la peste. A partir de ese momento, todo empieza a oscurecerse para Atenas...


Con 2,300 años de perspectiva, es evidente que la Guerra del Peloponeso significó la ruina de Grecia. A los líderes griegos les faltó visión para ponerse de acuerdo en invadir a Persia o Egipto y expandir la cultura helénica por el mundo. Ese era su interés y no, como creen los Realistas (y quizá el propio Tucídides), pelear entre sí en rencillas que se revelan totalmente provincianas cuando se ponen las cosas en perspectiva. No fue sino hasta la llegada de Alejandro Magno que la cultura griega comenzó a expandirse por el Mundo, y Alejandro ni siquiera era griego. 

Tucídides no terminó de escribir su obra (se quedó en el año 21 de los 27 que duró el conflicto entre Esparta y Atenas). Un mito romántico sugiere que lo envenenaron y que su hija le entregó el manuscrito a Jenofonte, que narró los seis años que le faltaron a Tucídides, aunque en un estilo totalmente distinto. Obvio, la versión del siglo XXI de este mito es que la hija de Tucídides era amante de Jenofonte.

Es una lástima que Tucídides no haya podido terminar su obra. A la fecha presumida de su muerte, las dos grandes potencias griegas ya no eran Esparta ni Atenas, sino Corinto y Tebas, que siempre fueron dos ciudades menores durante el período de esplendor de Grecia. Cincuenta años después, Filipo II, padre de Alejandro Magno, conquistaría toda Grecia. Si Tucídides hubiera terminado su obra, quizá podríamos ver si se dio cuenta de las implicaciones históricas de los hechos que cuenta. Si su relato es un reflejo de lo que Tucídides pensaba, me parece que no percibió el conflicto como el inicio de la decadencia de Grecia. Aunque, por otro lado, dado que el objetivo de Tucídides es solamente narrar lo que pasó, no podemos saber lo que en realidad pensaba sobre el presente y el futuro.

Escribo esto porque se ha puesto de moda hablar de la caída del "Imperio estadounidense" tras la crisis financiera de 2007-08. No pretendo faltar el respeto a los agoreros y a los editorialistas profesionales, pero es muy raro que la gente se dé cuenta de la caída de una civilización o de un imperio en tiempo real. El único caso que me viene a la mente en el que era evidente que el momento histórico de un país había pasado fue el Reino Unido tras la Segunda Guerra Mundial, pero eso era demasiado obvio. Por otro lado, en Estados Unidos se ha hablado del declive del país prácticamente desde su independencia (la "declinología" es algo tan estadounidense como el pie de manzana o el béisbol) y cada vez que atraviesan un período de crisis han resurgido con más poder en términos absolutos y relativos. Ese delirio constante de decadencia es lo que hace que los estadounidenses sean tan competitivos, aunque no sea algo sano a nivel individual. 

Así que no hay que echar campanas al vuelo ni ponernos a llorar por la caída de los Yankees. Si está pasando en realidad, lo más seguro es que no nos estemos dando cuenta y de que sucesos que ahora parecen menores sean los que, dentro de unos años, se perciban como "fundamentales puntos de quiebre".


Hasta en los programas medianamente serios de Relaciones Internacionales e Historia hay alumnos vagos, muchos de los cuales, quizá, lleguen a este blog buscando una reseña de la Historia para copiarla y presentarla como propia. No la encontraron en este blog, pero a continuación les presento el primero de una serie de podcasts que pueden ahorrarles el tiempo de leer las casi 500 páginas del tabique de Tucídides. No sean malos y denle like; en el mundo hispanohablante necesitamos que gente como el autor de este podcast se motive y ponga a disposición bienes culturales gratis para todos:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

District 9 - Neill Blompkamp

District 9 is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and it was the big thing in the summer of 2009. The critiques about it were overwhelmingly positive, with the exception of those made by Nigerians, who complained that their fellow countrymen were depicted as cannibal gangsters -District 9 was actually forbidden in Nigeria.

One of the reasons behind the success of District 9 is that, it is a movie with a story, where special effects are just an ingredient of a plot instead of its central object. Think about Independence Day, which is the quintessential special effects movie, with a very basic story: aliens come to destroy the Earth and we must stop them. In Independence Day, the story basically serves the purposes of the special effects designer: the images of the White House exploding in the middle of an alien attack comes back to memory more easily than any part of the plot. If nothing else, the value of District 9 is that it tears down the idea that science fiction is inherently connected with special effects. They're not, but most people think they are because that's the way Hollywood has taught us to think about movies. An action movie with not-over-the-roof special effects can be successful if the story is good enough.

The comparison with Independence Day is interesting from an ideological perspective too. Filmed in the middle of the 1990s, a period of American hubris, the message is pretty straightforward: aliens are entities who come to destroy our World and we must be afraid of them. In fact, we will destroy them on our own because we are the only power on Earth. By the way, by "we" I mean "Americans." On the other hand, District 9, filmed after the dreams of a South African Rainbow Nation were shattered by reality, shows that aliens can be used as cheap labor and exploited, even in poor countries. Multinational corporations and mercenaries ("private security contractors") are used to deal with them. Aliens may not necessarily be evil, but since they are not human, they don't deserve equal treatment or entitlement to any rights whatsoever. It is interesting how the historical context and the country of origin determine how an encounter between aliens and humans will go over. I wonder how a Russian or a Syrian alien movie would look like.

Some people have tried to see a metaphor of South Africa's migration policies in this movie, but since the writer and the director have denied any political message in it, I won't talk about it.

Another reason for the exit of District 9 is having a good producer: Peter Jackson, who also produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The website of District 9 is here, and is actually really fun.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pop - U2

Most people think that U2s Pop is a complete failure. With hindsight, and even if the members of the band dislike it, Pop can be seen as a sign of the transformation of music as a result of technological advancement.

Pop is mostly a collection of singles without an identity or underlying theme. Six out of its twelve tracks were released as singles, and at one point the band considered issuing two more singles. This is a premonition of the MP3-ization of music, which pushes bands to think in terms of singles instead of albums.  The Pop Mart Tour,  was also the first time that U2 visited countries which were not visited regularly by mainstream bands such as Mexico. With the growth of piracy and music downloads, places like Latin America or second tier cities in Europe have become recurrent stations in most bands tours, which have to make up for the foregone revenue.

Pop was also a premonition of what rock would become in the 21st century, for better and for worse. The excessive use of samples, the distortion of instruments, and overproduction of songs have become a common feature of  music nowadays. Some people have perfected the Pop model of producing music, like Moby, but most have failed miserably -at least in the eyes of people who think of rock in terms of two guitars, one bass, drums, a singer, and occasionally keyboards.

And this is probably the reason why Pop was and is still considered a failure: people were too used to think of U2 as a classical rebel rock and roll music, and suddenly the band starts experimenting with techno, samplers and pop music. Contrary to what Radiohead do in every album, which is reinventing a different genre every time, U2 did not betray their fans early enough: they soon became identified with "Sunday Bloody Sunday" kind of songs.

One could also argue from an ideological failure that an album asking fans to become members of Amnesty International and Greenpeace in the booklet should not contain songs praising  champagne-bathed pop (Discothèque), idle capitalism (The Playboy Mansion), or that monument to Latin American crony capitalism called Miami.  Usually bands who are in the left side of the political spectrum don't like plastic pop, so it was logical that Pop would alienate most fans. U2 later argued that the entire concept behind the album and Pop Mart Tour was to satirize plastic culture and all that, so the songs should be listened to as an irony. They probably didn't make that up after realizing that Pop was a commercial failure, but nobody in the World got the message except hardcore groupies.

Pop will be vindicated sooner rather than later, if nothing else because it is a prediction of what music has become since the late 1990s. And then Bono will make a lot of money and resell the entire irony and critique to capitalism thing. He has been selling anti-capitalism for at least 20 years, ironically.