You could be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of déjà vu these past months at the barrage of dire pronouncements on the urgent threat posed by the terrorist group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes substituting “Levant” for “Syria” for ISIL). Flashback to 2003 and the overwrought nonsense we heard in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

Only then we had an administration that was leading the charge for war and mounting a campaign of misinformation and exaggeration to bamboozle Americans into supporting an invasion; now, ironically, we have a president who has been trying, with limited success, to proceed with caution and calm deliberation in the face of overheated rhetoric and fear mongering not merely from right-wing politicians and pundits, but from the mainstream media; a loud and constant clamoring for a strategy to defeat ISIS not only in Iraq where, arguably, we bear some responsibility given our ties to the country, but also in Syria.

Obama recognizes, as so many of his detractors seem not to, that Syria in particular represents a veritable minefield of challenges in a region where, on balance, we have done more harm than good by our interventions in the last two decades. In fact the very existence of ISIS can be traced to the bloody aftermath of the United States invasion of Iraq.

To intervene in Iraq is one thing, and the Obama administration has made a good start by maneuvering Maliki out of office (using the threat of ISIS and the prospect of US military aid as leverage) and using airpower to assist the Kurds in the north and secure certain strategic objectives such as the Mosul dam.

But airpower alone cannot take back the areas currently occupied by ISIS and it will likely take 1-2 years to build up the confidence and military readiness of the Iraqi army so it won’t crumble like Swiss cheese during any campaign to take back Anbar and the north of Iraq from ISIS.  A prerequisite to ultimate success will also require an alliance with the Sunni tribes whom Maliki succeeded all too well in alienating to the point where, in 2014, they shrugged off any loyalty to the Iraqi state and stood by while ISIS humiliated the latter’s army.

This part of Obama’s strategy (which contrary to the braying of Fox News and the mainstream Sunday talk show hosts and their guests, was always clear) makes perfect sense; his decision to cave to the pressure and intervene in Syria, much less so.

Syria is a chaotic mess but, for once in the Middle East, we had nothing to do with it. There were sound reasons for not getting involved and the success of ISIS in rising from the chaos doesn’t alter that fact.

The truth is that ISIS is not a direct threat to the US in the short to medium term and probably beyond. Unlike al-Qaida (which Obama has eviscerated during his tenure) the focus of ISIS has never been on the US but on creating a Sunni-dominated caliphate in the Middle East. It’s a threat to Middle East stability, no question, but not specifically to us, Senator Lindsey Graham’s dire warnings notwithstanding (that guy really needs to take his anxiety meds).

Obama was castigated for not having a strategy for Syria but that was actually a good thing since the choices are all bad. Bombing ISIS will have limited effect and is just as likely to help Assad as hurt ISIS; finding let alone training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels to be the ground component is tough and there’s no guarantee they’ll fight ISIS rather than Assad; and hands up everyone who wants to see US ground forces in Syria as do Senators McCain and Graham.

Obama’s initial instincts appear to have been to fight ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria. He should have stuck with them.

A guy on the bus the other day was openly criticizing those around him for abandoning the world around them in favor of the pale imitation our handheld devices offer up.

A friendly woman next to him unwisely* offered up a different perspective. “It’s interesting to think about whether this is any different from reading a book or newspaper on your commute. Some might be studying or reading the news. I wonder if we have always tended to isolate ourselves in these situations, and the difference now is that anyone who is unfamiliar with one method or the other makes assumptions about what’s going on on the other side of that barrier.”

Early 20th Century commuters immersed in printed newspapers

All this technology is making us antisocial

For a second I thought she was bravely bridging a gap with this old guy who had an armful of old, used (out of print looking) vinyl records and sheet music he’d obviously just acquired. But no. The old guy flew into a rage about how the internet is a “breeding ground for witches and slutty feminists who have no respect for our Christian culture!” He angrily sputtered on about the muslims, the gays, and abortion culture tearing the fabric of society apart until he disembarked at 15th and Pine.

It was sad because this old guy was dressed in dapper digs from the 40s, on the 10, and looked like a Capitol Hill native. He looked like a fascinating old guy and I would bet he has a trove of stories that would enrich all of us to hear, even if it is tinged with bigotry. I mean, Cap Hill has has a much more varied past than you might know just living here now.

A new report on the Restaurant Opportunities Centers website has identified some disturbing realities. Unfortunately, for women working in the service industry, the report’s findings are long accepted truths. But it may still shine a light on how the sub-minimum wage set by the federal government, which sits at the same $2.13 per hour that was set in 1990, can combine with a working acceptance of sexual harassment on the job to perpetuate a system that encourages workers to engage with customers in ways that undermine the value of all women earning tips and a sub-minimum base wage.

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You can download the PDF from the ROCUnited website, read a summary of its findings here, and tell your personal story about sexual harassment in the workplace with ROC

KEXP completed its fall pledge drive yesterday, and during the week-long drive they counted down the top 437 artists of all time as voted on by listeners. Listeners had until September 19th to cast their votes for their top twelve. I’m not sure why the final list was 437. It could be that’s the total number of different artists that were chosen by listeners, or maybe it was an air-time issue – the number of songs they could get through during the daytime pledge-drive hours. (Anybody at KEXP reading this who knows why the list was 437?)

I listened to the station during my drives to and from work during the week, and I must say the banter from Kevin Cole, Troy Nelson, and Tilly (?) during the afternoon show was pretty entertaining. I especially liked Troy’s “80’s scream”. Just thinking about trying to imitate it makes my throat hurt.

Anyway, here’s the top twelve as voted on by listeners:

1 The Beatles
2 Radiohead
3 Led Zeppelin
4 The Clash
5 Nirvana
6 Pixies
7 David Bowie
8 Bob Dylan
9 The Rolling Stones
10 Neil Young
11 R.E.M.
12 Pink Floyd

I get that a lot of people of all generations like The Beatles, and the band has had a long time to grow a fan base, but I would have flipped The Rolling Stones’ spot for The Beatles’ spot. I listen to the Stones pretty often – mostly the late sixties through mid-seventies era, and those albums still sound pretty fresh to me. As for The Beatles, I listen to them once and a while, but I’ve grown tired of them.

No surprise that Radiohead placed high on the chart, because they used to win the album-of-the-year polls every time they put out a record. Led Zeppelin ahead of The Clash? Come on! Nirvana snuck in as the only American band in the top five.

Here’s my list from a couple weeks ago with corresponding KEXP rankings:

1 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (59 – not bad, but someday the rest of you will come around.)
2 Patti Smith (67 – really? Have you seen her live?)
3 Tom Waits (35 – but he had ten albums on their list of top 903 albums of all time.)
4 Johnny Cash (13 – about where I would expect.)
5 P.J. Harvey (56 – she deserves much better than this.)
6 The Clash (4)
7 Bob Dylan (8)
8 Bruce Springsteen (43 – he’s better than this, but not a surprising ranking for KEXP)
9 The Rolling Stones (9)
10 Nirvana (4)
11 X (85 – really? John Fuckin’ Doe? Listen to their first four albums again.)
12 Bob Marley (32 – perhaps his ranking will rise now that we can buy pot legally in this state.)

But what about Sufjan Stevens? I had a beef with fellow listeners after the Top 903 albums of all time poll. His Come on Feel the Illinois ranked #15 in that one – way ahead of much more worthy albums. For this poll he came in 89th. His star has faded because he hasn’t really done anything since.

Nothing else too surprising about the results. What do you all think?

White Lion english pub

If there was an endangered species act for national icons, the British pub (or public house) might be on it.

According to the British Beer and Pub Association, since 1982 the number of pubs across the United Kingdom has declined from 68,000 to fewer than 50,000 in 2012, and about 25-30 pubs close every week.

What has brought the venerable British pub low?

The reasons are varied and include sky high real estate prices, which make it more profitable to sell a valuable pub property than continue its operation.

The corporate wheeling and dealing of “pubcos” (corporate pub companies) have also contributed hugely to the diminishing number of pubs. First, pubcos have sold many pubs to pay off corporate debt. Second, they impose restrictive agreements on licensees who manage their pubs which narrow both the range of beers the latter can sell and the profits they can enjoy.

A third problem is that supermarkets can now significantly undercut the price of pub beer.

The good news is that public awareness has been raised by the looming crisis of the disappearing pub and efforts are under way to arrest it. And craft breweries in the UK are booming.

So fear not. Buying good ale in most towns or cities in Britain (and a decent cider too for that matter) remains almost as easy as it is in, well, the thriving Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, home to many craft beer lovers, several fine craft breweries, and, not coincidentally, to some of the contributors to this blog.

I have made fun of Dr. Charles Krauthammer on these pages in the past, but nobody does it like Stephen Colbert. Here’s the segment from last night’s show where Stephen skewers Krauthammer for his interview on the Hugh Hewitt show where he gave his unofficial, “layman’s” diagnosis of President Obama’s mental state: “Obama is clearly a narcissist”.

Enjoy.

Operation Market Garden

On the morning of 17 September 1944 amid the droning sound of hundreds of aircraft, the clear skies over southern Holland were suddenly filled with what resembled a myriad of snowflakes. Operation Market Garden had begun.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British/Canadian 21st Army Group, planned to leap the Lower Rhine River (the Nederrijn in the Netherlands) and outflank the German Siegfried Line on Germany’s borders with France and Belgium for a concentrated thrust into the North German Plain.

The US 82nd and 101st and 1st British Airborne Divisions would provide an airborne carpet along a sixty mile route from Eindhoven via Nijmegen to Arnhem capturing bridges over several major waterways. The paratroopers would then await relief by the ground forces of the British 2nd Army’s XXX Corps led by General Sir Brian Horrocks attacking north along a single road.

The 1st Airborne had the most dangerous assignment since their objective, the road bridge at Arnhem, was the farthest from XXX Corps; however, the two US divisions had the complicated task of both securing a number of vital bridges, and defending the road against German counterattacks from both flanks (which in the event they did, heroically).

The success of the plan was jeopardized by the presence of two battered yet powerful German SS panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem. Ultimately, these units and German proficiency at improvisation would determine the outcome of Market Garden.

The two American airborne divisions achieved most of their initial objectives but the 82nd Airborne, which had secured key bridges over the Maas River and Maas-Waal Canal, and vital high ground needed to block German counterattacks from the Reichswald Forest, lacked the manpower to move immediately on the road and rail bridges over the Waal River at Nijmegen. By the time they did, it was too late – German SS troops had arrived from Arnhem to strongly fortify the approaches to both bridges.

The 1st British Airborne whose drop zones were 6-8km from Arnhem, encountered strong German opposition and only managed to get an understrength battalion, perhaps 700 men, under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost to the north end of the bridge. The rest of the division was unable to break through and soon found itself in a fight for its life against ad hoc German battle groups, as did Frost.

Meanwhile the ground offensive by XXX Corps encountered strong German resistance in its attack from the Meuse-Escaut Canal.

Already behind schedule when they reached Nijmegen, the British joined the 82nd in attacking the road and rail bridges but made little progress. So confident were the Germans that they decided not to demolish the bridges but to defend them for use in future operations.

On the fourth day with time running out for Frost’s gallant band, a battalion of the 82nd launched a daring assault in daylight across the 250-metre wide Waal downriver from Nijmegen in flimsy British canvas and plywood boats. Under intense German fire, about half of the craft managed to reach the north bank. The surviving paratroopers stormed ashore and charged towards the north end of the bridges where they met tanks of the Guards Armoured Division who, along with other American paratroopers, had finally cracked the German defences south of the bridges. German attempts to demolish the latter failed. The Nijmegen bridges were in allied hands.

By then, however, Frost’s band had been overwhelmed. And to the fury of the American paratroopers who had sacrificed so much to capture the Nijmegen bridges, XXX Corps did not attack north for 18 hours while they regrouped. By then the Germans had blocked the way to Arnhem.

The British reached the Nederrijn but could not reinforce the 1st Airborne across the river. Two thousand survivors of the 10,000 who landed were evacuated on the night of 25/26 September. Market Garden had failed.

The 82nd and 101st suffered 3,500 casualties but had performed brilliantly, solidifying their reputations as two of the finest divisions fielded by any army in World War II. That Market Garden achieved 90% of its objectives, as Montgomery later put it, was due in no small measure to their efforts. Unfortunately, the other 10% was the difference between success and failure.

For the cinematic version of this story, watch Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, starring Anthony Hopkins as Lieutenant Colonel Frost, Edward Fox as Lieutenant General Horrocks, plus Sean Connery as Major General Urquhart.

During lunch today I went to Easy Street Records in West Seattle and bought the new tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 album, Born in the USA, titled Dead Man’s Town (more about this in a future post). When I got back to my computer I went to Pitchfork to look for a review of the album. They didn’t have one up yet, so I clicked on their review for U2’s new free album, Songs of Innocence and read this:

Time was, the recipe for a superstar artist to create a Big Event Album was well known—a few teaser ads in the music mags, a lead single for radio, some late-night talk show appearances, then sit back and watch the fans line up at the record store on release day. But now that basically every entity in that sentence has been culturally marginalized, and the propeller churn of social media refuses to tolerate slow-burn marketing, the best—and, perhaps, only—way to get everyone talking about your record at once is to release it with no warning. U2 being U2, they’ve taken that strategy one step over the line into indisputably queasy territory, aligning with their old friends Apple to insert their new album, Songs of Innocence, into all of our libraries without consent. By updating the old Columbia House Record Club scam to the digital age, U2 and their Cupertino buddies have created a new avenue of opt-out cultural transmission, removing even the miniscule effort it takes to go to a website and click “Download.”

Huh?

I immediately picked up my iPhone and opened iTunes to see if the new U2 album was there. It was.

Apple and U2 pushed the album to my iTunes and didn’t even bother to ask if I wanted it? They can do that? Well of course they can, but they actually thought about it and decided it was a good thing to push albums on to everyone’s devices with no opt out?

I hardly ever listen to music on my phone because I haven’t heard an MP3 file yet that was worthy of listening. The sound quality is terrible, and I can only stand listening to them in a pinch like when I’m on an airplane, on a bus, or stuck in a snowstorm somewhere without access to quality music. (Read all about it in this Guardian article if you are interested). But I digress…

The point is I don’t put very much music on my iPhone. I think I might have around 30 albums on it, but they are 30 very carefully chosen albums that I know I would enjoy listening to at any time anywhere. My 30 desert-island discs. But now there’s an album on my phone that I’ve never even listened to. I’ve only heard part of one song on a TV ad for the new album. I might not ever listen to it on my phone because MP3. Why would I? The Pitchfork review wasn’t very good – they gave it a numerical rating of 4.2 out of 10.

I think U2 and Apple have crossed a line with their brash decision to force an album onto users of Apple devices without notice and without an option to decline. Most people aren’t going to like this move no matter how much they might like their Apple products or U2.

KEXP is gearing up for it’s fall pledge drive, and this time it’s asking listeners to vote on their top twelve artists of all time. They will be counting down through the list of top artists during their pledge drive that begins September 26th.

These listener polls never turn out the way I would like them to, and sometimes they are so far off the mark I wonder if all the other listeners are even listening to the same radio station.

That said, here is my list of top twelve for you all to review and critique at your leisure.

The top six that should be on everyone’s list:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Patti Smith

Tom Waits

Johnny Cash

P.J. Harvey

The Clash

The next tier of six

Bob Dylan

Bruce Springsteen

The Rolling Stones

Nirvana

X

Bob Marley

That makes twelve, but if I could vote for more, I’d choose:

Neil Young

Prince

Jimi Hendrix

Mark Lanegan

Public Enemy

Hank Williams, Sr.

Elvis Costello

Sonic Youth

That’s twenty. I could go on, but I won’t.

So keep these artists in mind (especially the top 6, because they belong at the top) when you go to KEXP to cast your votes.

You have until 6:00 p.m. this Friday, so don’t delay. Vote now!
Check back when the pledge drive ends on October 3rd to see who the listeners picked.