Antony and The Johnsons – Antony and The Johnsons

Antony and The Johnsons

Antony and The JohnsonsAntony and The Johnsons Durtro 050 CD (2000)

Fortunately, Antony’s voice was already established on this debut.  Otherwise, Antony and the Johnsons hadn’t quite perfected their craft.  The basic elements are there, but the strengths aren’t accented enough and the weaknesses, oh, a bit too noticeable.  A reviewer in The Wire once called this too theatrical, and that’s probably right.  I Am a Bird Now took what was here and, like a finely tended garden, trimmed it back to what was needed to let Antony’s beautiful voice shine through and grow to its full potential.  As it stands, this one is burdened by the need for strings, brief orchestrated interludes, and other frills that seem to mug to the audience all too often.  Definitely flawed, but those who like what came later might find it possible to look past the faults.  Best track: “Cripple and the Starfish.”

Neil Young – American Stars ‘n Bars

American Stars 'n Bars

Neil YoungAmerican Stars ‘n Bars Reprise MSK 2261 (1977)

After his “Gloom Trilogy” and the slightly overrated Zuma, the somewhat scattershot American Stars ‘n Bars seems like the perfect move for Neil Young.  First of all, he sounds like he’s having fun making music for the first time in years–even if those intervening years produced amazing recordings.  Side one is the real highlight.  Carole Mayedo, Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson make great contributions.  It’s country rock, but with a ragged rock ‘n roll heart that Neil wears so proudly on his sleeve.  “Saddle Up the Palomino” has a little up and down runs played so slowly you can almost picture Young in the studio waving his arms wildly like a conductor, in a vague and comically half-hearted attempt to coax the musicians gathered for a late-night session that hadn’t been sober for hours, if it ever was to begin with. “Hey Babe” is Neil Young the sweetheart, at least, Young the sweetheart singing double entendres in a quaking, nasal falsetto.  This less wholesome attitude comes back with a vengeance on the rockingest track on the first side, “Bite the Bullet.”  Side one goes many places, most of them mapped out on the opener “The Old Country Waltz,” which simultaneously proves Young’s bona fides in the realms of country and rock.  It’s a song with smooth three-part vocal harmonies, a slurred fiddle, pedal steel guitar and room for a rather steady strum of an acoustic guitar and heavy drum beats on a snare.  No concern for precision stands in the way of matters to the heart of the song.

The second side is made up of leftovers from a couple of aborted album projects from the previous three years.  The country leanings of side one are gone, in its place some harrowing, solitary folk (“Will to Love”) and a hazy, laid-back guitar anthem set against sustained, spaced-out keyboard chords (“Like a Hurricane”).  It is somewhat fitting that after the completely wasted sound of side one Young has to mail in last week’s homework for side two–his own kind of Sunday morning coming down.  The thing is, most artists would never make stuff as good as anything on side two, much less have it around to use as filler!  Young makes that sort of complete indifference the noble, slacker heart of the album.

There are definitely different sides to Neil Young, but the side of him that favors a wild ride, replete with a few “fuck off and let me do my thing” laughs, and revels in bawdy inside jokes, was one that made only more tentative appearances in the coming years.  That makes this a little special.  Of course, all that is tempered with a sensitive side that suddenly drops all pretense and demonstrates inquisitiveness and vulnerability. He does all that, and owns the contradictions.  This is Neil Young the perfect anti-hero rock star, one who comes across as simply too well-adjusted, by comparison, to be a “real” rock star.  In other words, one for the rest of us.  Dean Stockwell‘s album cover concept sums this one up.

Neil Young – Comes a Time

Comes a Time

Neil YoungComes a Time Reprise MSK 2266 (1978)

Lyrics have always been Neil Young’s weakness. Here–surprise!–he delivers his best all-around showing since After the Gold Rush (and this would remain his best songwriting across an entire album for at least a decade more).  There are a number of very strong numbers here, like “Goin’ Back,” “Comes a Time,” and “Lotta Love” (backing singer Nicollette Larson would have a big hit with her own solo version of the latter).   Still, the album has a few faults.  Its country-rock style feels a little self-conscious at times, and some of the songs seem to coast by without a lot of ambition.  The bleary weirdness of American Stars ‘n Bars.  This nonetheless remains one of the stronger second-tier Neil Young albums.

Willie Nelson – Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road

Willie NelsonRoll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road (HaperCollins 2012)

Here’s one of those memoirs that is chock full of random anecdotes, and shout-outs to and from family, friends and musical associates (sometimes all at once), yet is less insightful on average than the better ones (Duke Ellington‘s Music is My Mistress). This features less of a presence from an editor than his recent The Tao of Willie which is usually a bad thing, but also allows in some nuggets that otherwise might have been cut. For instance, it’s nice to know Willie sympathizes with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and, surprisingly, his support stems from his admiration of the late Howard Zinn. Most readers will opt for a more conventional Willie Nelson (auto)biography though.

Johnny Cash – Man in Black

Man in Black

Johnny CashMan in Black (Zondervan 1975)

Written at the peak of his “born again christian” phase, Cash’s first autobiography can be a bit heavy on the proselytizing. Unlike his second autobiography, this one doesn’t bear as much influence of a ghost writer, so it seems. It skips around his life a lot, leaving plenty of gaps. But if you want to find out about personal struggles Cash faced, get a feel for his touring schedule, or identify working projects he was proud of (particularly those with religious content), you’ve found the right book. Most readers will probably prefer his second autobiography from the 1990s though, which thanks to ghostwriter Patrick Carr is a snappier read.

Nobert Häring and Niall Douglas – Economists and the Powerful

Economists and the Powerful

Nobert Häring and Niall DouglasEconomists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards (Anthem Press 2012)

An interesting book on a topic that needs more widespread discussion. Häring and Douglas address the biases and fallacies that are pervasive in mainstream economics (long dubbed “the dismal science”), and gather evidence as to how those have developed and been reinforced because they favor the powerful. It’s a good effort, though a few limitations also deserve discussion due to the criticality of the topic. On the spectrum of political economists, the authors are highly supportive of Irving Fisher, and the post-Keynesian Australian economist Steve Keen who recently revived some of Fisher’s theories, as well as Daron Acemoğlu and a few others. On the whole, they somewhat self-consciously take a “centrist” or “compromise” approach that insists capitalism needs to be reformed in order to save it — a tactic sometimes referred to as “economism”. This leads them to primarily discuss the work of economists who utilize the same methods as the dominant neoclassical schools that favor neoliberal politics but reach conflicting, non-neoliberal conclusions. They devote little space to discussions of wholly different theories that might merit further empirical study. A number of times they stress that they are not advocating for socialism, and that nationalization is not necessary. Curiously, they offer no support whatsoever for those conclusions. One can speculate why they take such an approach. It is clear that the book is a critique of dominant ideologies, and not a critique of marginalized ones. But when they do offer policy proscriptions, their preemptive dismissal of some possibilities raises some doubts about the veracity of the claims. The most glaring aspect of that problem is that throughout the book the term “neoclassical” is used, as are “vested interests” and even “conspicuous consumption”. These are all terms coined by American economist Thorstein Veblen roughly a century ago. Yet Veblen is never mentioned by name, even though he was the first major economist to raise many of the critiques presented here. The first three chapters are the best. The last few come across as a bit less clear in their analyses, draw a few more dubious conclusions, and in general seems to suggest that even heterodox economists are a few steps behind sociologists, philosophers and maybe even some anthropologists on the topics of political processes, labor dynamics, and the like. For instance, at the end of the final chapter, they take an instrumentalist approach and suggest that the United States needs a constitutional reform committee to re-think legal structures that favor the rich and powerful. While they acknowledge that such a process could be captured by those same rich and powerful interests that need to be constrained, the very suggestion of such a constitutional committee is not tied very closely to anything discussed elsewhere in the book, and comes across as somewhat naïve. Sociologists like Frances Fox Piven and G. William Domhoff have explored such topics over entire careers, and neither makes such naïve proposals. Even Machiavelli said that the laws are the means by which the powerful oppress the weak. The preemptive dismissal of any solutions that might sound “revolutionary” remains the major limitation of the book when it tries to make recommendations. It is best when it offers a more readable and less technical explanation of some of the major flaws of mainstream (neoclassical) economics — making this perhaps more accessible to general audiences than books like Steve Keen‘s Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned, which tackle much the same issue. As a final note, another missed opportunity here — well within the confines of the authors’ thesis — involves a discussion of the accuracy of economic predictions and reliance on those predictions in the mainstream press. I recall a study someone did (the specifics and the citation elude me) that claimed the economists cited in the mainstream press were correct some tiny percentage of time (like 3%), and yet those same economists keep being cited for further predictions. Such evidence supports the notion that such economists are tools of the powerful (“useful idiots”), because otherwise economists with such poor track records of predictions (worse than, say, a weatherman’s record on forecasts) would have been discredited long ago.  It also echoes a quote frequently attributed to Donald Berwick (among others): “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Patrick Lencioni – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Patrick LencioniThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Jossey-Bass 2002)

Patrick Lencioni is a business consultant guru and he has written a number of books on business management.  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a sort of self-help book, with a separate workbook, DVD and facilitator’s “field guide” available to accompany it for implementation in actual businesses.  It is written in two parts.  The first is the “fable”, an entirely fictional story of a group of executives at a start-up software company that just demoted its previous CEO and appointed a new one.  The second, much shorter part of the book is an explanation of the author’s theory that there are five dysfunctions of a team, as were purportedly illustrated in the preceding fictional story. The second part of the book also provides brief (one paragraph) suggestions for how to redress each dysfunction.

The book is absolute rubbish — let’s make that clear from the outset.  It provides absolutely no justification or empirical evidence for any of the its assertions, and the fictional story is so poorly drawn and unrealistic that it has only a negative value for the entire book.  Even taken together with the available supplemental materials, the package is really meant to accompany a session with a paid consultant (“facilitator”) who, one hopes, will contribute something useful not found in the book or related written materials.

Most [books like this] have one simple, enduring message that echoes through the ages: ‘Pay to see me speak at the Ramada’.”  (online review)

When someone offers advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of structuring a team, it seems immanently reasonable to demand something more than idle conjecture.  Is Mr. Lencioni’s book an attempt to provide an easy-to-grasp narrative illustration of theories that others have empirically tested?  No.  Does it even fit within a particular school of thought on leadership — generally or at least within a business context?  It is hard to say.  There is not so much as a bibliography included.  No attribution is given to anyone as having originated or at least influenced the concepts discussed in the book.  This is problematic, to say the least.

“How does Patrick Lencioni know there are five dysfunctions and not three or seven? Answer – he uses his own experience, and nothing more.

“What research does he cite in support of his thesis that the most important dysfunction is an ‘abs[]ence of trust.’? The answer is none.

“I could continue but sympathetic readers will understand my point. This is yet another anecdotal, pseudo-scientific business book, of questionable accuracy and limited use.”  (bookstore customer review)

No doubt, it would be easier to swallow some of the advice contained in the book as “common sense” or some such thing if the “fable” part of the book had even a whiff of believability.  Sadly, no.

“One of the main characters in the case (Kathryn) would rarely be hired into a mid-size company. There is no chance that her resume would hit the desk of a multinational corporation. Climbing through the ranks with Kathryn’s credentials is fiction. The author tends to suggest that an extremely uncommon event (that is, retaining an executive with Kathryn’s inexperience and lack of academic pedigree) has some relevance into corporate management at the executive level. It does not. Someone of her caliber may come into the company as a Manager, Director or other middle management hire – but not the lead executive. No way!” (bookstore customer review)

So, the new CEO (Kathryn) sets up the premise of the fable in a totally implausible way.  But, setting that aside, what about her interactions with the other executives?

“The huge egos of company vice presidents crumble under the matronly 7th grade teacher whose husband is a high school basketball coach. Characters are unrealistic and you can’t help but want their company to fail so they find themselves selling Starbucks lattes for a living.” (bookstore customer review)

While the comment immediately above smacks of misogyny — the corporate world needs more “matronly” attitudes as desperately as anything else — and hints at social ostracism based on background — does the occupation of an employee’s spouse really matter to his or her job competence? — the problem with Lencioni’s narrative is that the almost uniformly hard-nosed attitude of most higher-level executives would never let them “crumble” as they do in this fictional account.  The fact that the characters do crumble is revealing about what this book is really about, and why it is so popular — and it is immensely popular.  Here we start to get to the crux of the problem with this book: its ideology.  One “exposé” of business management gurus had this to say:

“Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.  *** [A]ll economic organizations involve at least some degree of power, and power always pisses people off.”  The Management Myth

So, this looks like a book that is nothing more than a weapon of choice for CEOs or other management trying to reinforce a hierarchy of power within a company.

“This book was completely absurd. It was written to sell and tells CEO’s exactly what they want to hear — that their managers are paranoid children who cannot behave like adults and must be spanked into submission, (though he offers absolutely NO solutions on how to do this).” (bookstore customer review)

Many bookstore customer reviews sharply criticize this book as pushing a “socialist” idea of teams, perhaps also asserting that the supposed benefits of collaboration is empirically false. There is a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013) in which old Soviet film is discussed and compared to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule, which was dismissed by Soviet leadership as a few troublemaking individuals not representative of The People — the mythic force of historical necessity used to give the leadership credibility.  There is an analogy here.  This seems precisely to be what Mr. Lencioni is doing with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  There is this mythical notion of an Effective Team, which is never really delineated — this book focuses only the supposed dysfunctions without really ever setting forth what an effective, non-dysfunctional team would look like or what ends they pursue.  The only thing we are left with at the end of the book is a reassertion of the control of the CEO.  Whether the company actually succeeds once the CEO has control of the team is not really part of the book, which, lest we forget, is justified only by pure fiction.  This is not “socialist” but authoritarian (that documentary illustrates how the same ideologies show up across the political spectrum, used by communists, fascists and capitalists alike).  Really, if this book were “socialist” (it manifestly is NOT), or even if it really took seriously the democratic implications of teamwork, why is it all about executives operating off on their own without input from rank-and-file employees?  This is the major fault of the book.  It stresses teamwork, but only within certain unquestioned boundaries, all the while offering a stern lecture about how everything, boundaries and all, need to be discussed.  This is a profound hypocrisy.

Anyway, the criticism of Lencioni’s advocacy of “teamwork” rests on two key points.  One is that working collectively on a “team” is more effective than working individually or competitively.  This is an empirical point.  Lencioni does not address it.  The other is that there is an agreed upon way to measure success that allows such an assessment of effectiveness.  Stock price?  Err, does anyone really believe the “efficient market hypothesis” that stock price actually tracks the “real” value to a company anymore?  Stock price aside, this latter issue really gets to the crux of the problem with Lencioni’s book.  What it obfuscates is the question of power.  Who gets to decide the metrics that matter to a business?  After all, accountability (“avoidance of accountability” is one of his “dysfunctions”) presupposes a format for measurement.  Lencioni’s theory rests on a curious definition of teamwork.  That is, it is a non-democratic form of teamwork.  The CEO decides the metrics.  Period.  If a CEO has bad ideas, perhaps a “coup” of sorts by other, lower-level executives to mire the leadership in circular infighting has a benefit to the company, by preventing the implementation of idiotic plans from an incompetent CEO that the other executives have no power to remove — making them somewhat like Bartleby, the Scrivener.  Here, Lencioni’s “fable” gives the company’s board, which fired the previous CEO and hired the new one, a complete pass.  Their decision is non-reviewable.  But shouldn’t accountability flow up to them too?  Oh, wait, accountability in this model implicitly flows, like shit, only downhill.

In a business context, there is always a default to saying that profits matter.  But, of course, Lencioni’s book doesn’t provide data like that as a judge of success — not that any such data in a fictional story would have any persuasive value whatsoever.  And yet, there are other intra-company dynamics at work too.  Why does anyone care about profits?  Why should anyone subordinate their personal interests for the pursuit of profits for someone else?  Lencioni offers a very naïve analysis — really a dismissal — of these things.  Yet sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have documented such fields of struggles (The Social Structures of the Economy) in a way much more compelling than what is offered here.  This also fits squarely within the theory of historian Alfred Chandler, Jr., whose The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business won many awards on its release for its delineation of how business management behaves like a distinct “class” acting in its own interests quite apart from concerns of shareholders or even for long-term profitability of the firm (really an older idea that comes from the likes of Adolph A. Berle if not earlier, and was later backed up by an investigation by Edward S. Herman). What is difficult to swallow is that the sorts of theories like Lencioni’s look like attempts to justify inequality (here, of power) on the basis of meritocracy, something that at least one observer has noted “conveniently places management consultants … at the very pinnacle of the new order.”

Most executives enter business and go into management for social status, either due to the prestige of their position and the power that it offers, or as a byproduct through the salary or wages it provides.  Lencioni’s narrative would have us believe that such an executive would demote himself for the betterment of the team!  Historians and sociologists have developed considerable evidence that suggests this is quite unlikely.

There are some vague hints at useful concepts implied here.  For instance, the idea that people in business try to save face is an interesting concept.  It is not discussed in any detail though.  Other consultants have brought up that point too, though many also flounder when it comes to offering any actionable advice around it.

Lencioni does suggest that a significant problem teams face is that the people involved won’t discuss real issues.  Anyone who has worked in a corporate setting will immediately appreciate this problem.  Lencioni is by no means the only person who has made this point.  But he offers very little in the way of techniques to uncover subtle obfuscation of the “real” issues in business settings, and in some ways perhaps distracts from such insights.  And his suggestions to overcome this fall very flat.  In this book, his suggestions are so limited to be almost non-existent.  More is provided in the DVD and workbook — oh, did you buy those too?

Lencioni’s accompanying workbook includes a bunch of silly exercises that try to build “trust” by encouraging executives/management to reveal personal details of their life to build trust in a work setting.  This approach could easily be empirically tested.  Like everything else in this book, it isn’t.  It is also a dubious proposition just on a theoretical level.  It seems reasonable to think that people may trust each other as friends, on a personal level, and still not trust each other in work-related capacities, or vice-versa.  If this is not a fair belief, it could be empirically disproved, but you would need to look elsewhere than a Lencioni book.

One prescient comment from an online review is that this book tends to be trotted out by corporate “leaders” who themselves are the major problem in an executive “team” using the book to insist that the problem is everyone else:

“The real truth in our case — the poobah who is making us read this book is the dysfunction of our group. This person has a physical ailment that causes emotional instability — but is too high up the ladder for anyone complain about without being fired. Now we have this book to tell us how it’s actually our fault for not being a good enough team.”  (bookstore customer review)

A much better way to look at problems in business settings is simply to ask the question that Roman censor Lucius Cassius used to ask (this analysis was cited approvingly by Cicero), “Cui bono?”  (“to whose benefit?”).  Is management simply reasserting its power over other employees in a company?  Is that the ultimate object of improving “teamwork”?  Are executives simply re-positioning themselves relative to each other, or relative to other firms, in a hierarchy of social status?  Also, as Lencioni does eventually mention, there are tools from psychology that can help mediate purely interpersonal interactions.  Of course, Lencioni only mentions this stuff on psychology in passing, and without any citation to even a single resource.  You would need to look elsewhere on your own for any useful information in that regard.  But, purely within a “leadership team” setting, Lucius Cassius’ question tends to rise above all others.  Most executives are smart and/or educated enough to not be put off by minor frictions between different personality types, though most executives are also so motivated by status that they constantly reinforce — consciously or unconsciously — the reproduction of certain habits of thought and hierarchies of power and prestige.

Seriously, if your boss is making you read this, it’s already too late.(online review)

Indeed.  If you work at a company where the management believes this book to be useful, you should start looking for other employment immediately.  Sadly, though, it might be hard to find anything outside this paradigm.



Redacted (2007)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Brian De Palma

Main Cast: Rob Devaney, Daniel Stewart Sherman,
Patrick Carroll, Izzy Diaz

Although director Brian De Palma won accolades in early European film festivals, Redacted was a commercial failure in the United States.  It opened in barely more than a dozen theaters and hardly anyone saw it.  That might be explained — in the post-Jaws manner of direct marketing — that the film wasn’t advertised enough.  Regardless, it remains a difficult film to watch, but is still among the more significant made thus far about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The film does not devote itself to the reasons for the invasion and occupation, or the political motives for doing so.  Rather, it takes aim at the withholding of the “facts” about what actually was happening during the occupation.  As the film’s title implies, this is partly about the U.S. government covering-up and concealing what was happening, but perhaps more so the role of the media in enabling a deception on the American people who ostensibly enable the war and occupation.  The story is fictional, but was based on real events involving the rape and murder of an Iraqi civilian by U.S. troops.

What has attracted the most attention is the technique of interspersing different perspectives.  The film is presented as if assembled from a video diary by the soldiers themselves, footage from French and Arabic television crews, security cameras, as well as Internet videos.  The notion of presenting multiple perspectives goes back to films like Rashomon (1950), though the extensive use of first-person video recalls the zombie movie Diary of the Dead (2007), which was released a mere week later.  Like that zombie movie, the acting in Redacted has some weak spots, exacerbated by poor casting.

The central plot of the film involves a couple of clearly mentally disturbed soldiers who decide to rape a local girl who passes through their military checkpoint daily.  Although they inform other soldiers in their unit, those others do little or nothing to stop them.  In this way, De Palma frames the plot around something close to Hannah Arendt‘s famous notion about the “banality of evil”, developed when she wrote about the Nazi concentration camp administrator Adolph Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil).  In a historical sense, the rape incident in Redacted resembles the My Lai Massacre from the Vietnam War, a story broken after the fact by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.  Following the rape, one of the soldiers, who was making the video diary throughout the movie, is kidnapped by insurgents and beheaded on camera, as revenge for the rape and murder (though it is unclear if these insurgents knew that the kidnapped soldier was directly involved).  The highest ranking soldier of the unit reports the incident, at which point his account is suppressed and distorted — this is where the “redaction” by the government occurs.

The film’s harshest judgment seems reserved for the solider making the video diary, who goes along with the others who commit the rape and murders (the girl’s family is also killed) to document the event like a journalist.  Journalists often espouse an “ethics” of non-involvement, in which they act as passive observers and do not act affirmatively to assist their subjects.  De Palma is puts that position up for debate.  The other perspective is that maybe journalists act as collaborators and enablers.  This other point of view has long been espoused outside of mainstream journalism.  Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is perhaps the most well-known formulation..

De Palma’s film was a failure, in the sense that it did not raise awareness of the issues it presents.  And yet, history has absolutely vindicated the film’s perspective.  The Wikileaks organization released a trove of documents about the Iraq war and occupation that contradicted official claims and denials, most famously the “Collateral Murder” video, with an extensive campaign against the leaker Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and the operator of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.  As this review is being written, hired mercenaries who worked in Iraq were just convicted for the Nissour Square Massacre.  Another recent story showed that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were found in Iraq, but they were old ones leftover from the war with Iran in the 1980s, and had been made with U.S. assistance.  With this information in hand, De Palma’s film looks like a chillingly accurate portrayal of what can be expected to happen in a military occupation, and how those at the bottom deal with those realities.  This film deserves much credit for extending its moral concern not just to U.S. soldiers but also to the locals subject to the U.S. military’s use of force.