Friday, March 31, 2006


We should go to war with Mexico.

No, I'm not kidding. But you'll notice I didn't say we should declare war on Mexico, and that's because I think a declaration would be moot. Consider a few facts.

A recent poll found that 78% of Americans see Mexicans as hard-working. Only 18% thought Mexicans were racist. But when Mexicans were polled, 74% said Americans were lazy, 84% said Americans were dishonest, 83% said Americans were intolerant — and clearly lacking any sense of irony, a whopping 73% further said that Americans were racist.

If you've seen footage of last week's rallies across the country, you know these people aren't interested in becoming Americans. They fly the Mexican flag and brandish signs reading, "This is stolen land," and "If you think I'm illegal, learn the true history because I'm in my homeland." Among Mexicans, 60% believe the American Southwest rightfully belongs to Mexico. Make no mistake: These people are clearly disputing the Treaty of 1848 and the end of the Mexican-American War.

And they are encouraged by Mexican authorities. The Mexican government publishes an illustrated book titled Guía del Migrante Mexicano explaining how to safely cross into the US undetected and how to avoid discovery while in our country. Mexican authorities distribute maps that show where to find water, sanctuary, and medical supplies. The Mexican president has spoken in favor of these "migrants," and he has assigned a police group called Grupo Beta to protect immigrants during border crossings. In the past year, gunfire has erupted several times between these Mexican police and US Border Patrol.

That sounds like an invasion to me. It sounds like a declaration of war. And if you disagree, replace Mexico with North Korea and pose the question again. Their leaders are helping them sneak into our country illegally, and their soldiers are firing on our police. Once here, they fly their nation's flag and claim our land as their own. If these actions were being taken by North Korea, would we hesitate to carpet-bomb Pyongyang?

By any reasonable standard, Mexico has engaged war on the United States. We can argue whether we were justified invading Iraq, but certainly we're justified repelling foreign invaders. The only thing that keeps this issue from exploding is politicians' fear of being labeled racist. Let's remember that the only people talking about race in this discussion are the Mexicans — those same Mexicans who overwhelmingly say that Americans are lazy, dishonest, and intolerant.

No country on the planet has a policy of allowing anyone to enter without documentation. No country provides illegal immigrants with welfare, health care, and privileged access to public education. These are the policies Mexicans expect the US to adopt, policies which are held by absolutely no other country on the planet including — wait for it — Mexico.

The Mexicans call it "Aztlán," the quest to reconquer the American Southwest. That's right: They even have a name for it. It's no secret. They believe our land is theirs, and they are determined to take it by force or through sheer numbers. And this campaign is actively supported by the Mexican government. By any reasonable standard, this is a declaration of war between nations.

We should attack.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Perfect Hamburger

Today brought the season's first grilling weather, so I assembled the Weber "Smokey Joe" ($29) and made my famous burgers for dinner. This is simple food that relies on the fundamental rule of American cooking:
Meat + Fire = Tasty
It's an easy recipe. Allow a half-pound of meat for each burger. Mix it with salt, ground black pepper, freshly chopped onion, and some crushed red pepper. Form the patties about an inch thick, and pat each side with more black pepper and olive oil. Grill them about two inches off the coals, and flip every 60 seconds. That's it.*

What makes the difference are the chopped onion and the red pepper. And be sure to flip them every minute: You won't get that perfect criss-cross pattern, but if you care more about how your food looks than how it tastes then my recipes aren't for you.

* You can't predict cooking time for outdoor grilling. There are too many variables — temperature, humidity, wind, atmospheric pressure. You have to learn to judge from experience.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Critical Thinking

Speaking of restaurant reviews, I think it's worth revisiting this gem from a Nashua newspaper. I've kept it because it's possibly the worst review I've ever read, and the best example of why many are bad.
Michael Timothy's, 212 Main St., Nashua; 595-9334. This is it, the Nashua restaurant where more people have eaten the best meal of their lives than any other. Chef/owners Michael and Sarah Buckley continue to pack them in for some of the finest food and service anywhere in southern New Hampshire. If you can't find a parking space on Main Street, this is the main reason why.
Translation: "Michael Timothy's is good."

Now contrast that with some alternatives the author might have written.
  • Michael Timothy's is an Italian bistro.
  • Michael Timothy's is a sushi bar.
  • Michael Timothy's is a greasy-spoon diner.
Read the review again. Do you know anything about Michael Timothy's, other than it's popular? Do you know what sort of cuisine they prepare, or whether they serve wine? Do you have a sense of the atmosphere, whether you'll look foolish wearing a suit or whether you'll be turned away for wearing dungarees? Do you know whether they serve lunch, dinner, or both?

I often criticize bad writing, but that's not the problem here. The author seems to know how to put together a sentence, so kudos to Hippo Press for hiring a literate writer. But he fails the test for critical thinking. Every putz who walks out of a restaurant knows whether or not he liked his meal. If you're going to write about it, you need to take the next step: Why did you like your meal? Tell us what you had and why it was good. Tell us about the service. Tell us how much you paid. When I'm finished reading, I should have some idea what I might experience at that restaurant and whether it's for me.

The last sentence (about parking on Main Street) is also key. Having been a writer for more than a couple years, I recognize exactly what I'm looking at when I reach that sentence: He's trying to fill space, and he's trying to sound clever. Neither is a laudable goal. If he'd put some thought into the piece, he wouldn't have needed the first; and no critic should ever, ever, ever aim for the second.

Critics tend to have flunked out of the field they're writing about. I don't point that out to be nasty, but to explain why most criticism fails: They're still trying to entertain. They're accustomed to the spotlight and they don't know how to shift gears. The job of an actor or a musician is to entertain the audience, but the purpose of art criticism is something else entirely; and when you put an entertainer into that chair, they often miss the distinction.

Readers shouldn't finish a critic's column and exclaim, "Wow, I really loved reading that prose." They should say, "That was helpful." Critics should emulate Murrow, not Dickens.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Brokeback Book

In Which I Break the Spine of My Paperback Lesson Book By Throwing It Across the Room.

After you smash your fourth telephone, your spouse is likely to encourage you to conquer the problem and mature into an even-tempered individual. For the interest of kindred destructive souls, let me tell you that the most difficult part lies halfway between those two poles — when you're standing in the middle of a room, absolutely blind with rage, while every time you grab something to smash it into a billion pieces you hear this little voice that says, "You can't break that. It's expensive."

Having said that, I'll continue on to the good news: I'm consistently getting perfect scores on individual logic games, the Satanic little Mensa-problems that had provoked me to consider burning down my house. I need to complete a series of four inside 35 minutes and I'm not close to that yet, but at least I've figured out how to do them.

What drove me nuts wasn't an inability to get the answers right; I couldn't do the problems at all. I had no idea what to do and I froze. I just sat there, staring at the words, with absolutely no clue how to put them together into a sketch that would lead me to the answer. Sudoku doesn't bother me even when I get stuck for an hour because I know what I'm looking for, even if I don't see it. These damned problems, I had no clue how to even begin. I just sat there holding a pencil for no reason at all.

Those days are past. Now I spend an hour slugging through each problem and find success. It ain't glamorous but it feels better, and if I can whittle my time down by 85% then I'll have made useful headway. My next practice test is on Sunday and although I doubt my advances will translate into higher scores this quickly, we'll see.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Keep Your Eyes On Your Own Paper

The Brookings Institution says Vladimir Putin is a plagiarist. Apparently someone finally got ahold of Putin's mysterious dissertation submitted for his claimed "PhD in economics," and it turns out that 16 pages of the paper's key section were lifted from a 1978 publication by University of Pittsburgh professors William R. King and David I. Cleland.

This revelation follows last week's saga at the Washington Post, where Ben Domenech resigned from his new blog after numerous instances of plagiarism surfaced from his past. Now he's being congratulated for his integrity because he resigned and apologized. What's being omitted is that he resigned one step ahead of being fired and that he apologized only after a week spent denying the allegations, claiming any malfeasance must have been done without his knowledge by a nameless and possibly nonexistent editor, and viciously attacking the character and motives of his detractors.

I'm getting tired of reading about plagiarism — in high schools, in universities, in the press. Students are forgiven and asked to resubmit. Professionals might be fired, but they're rehired the next month by the newspaper across town. Mike Barnicle was caught fabricating stories for his column in the Boston Globe, and he was promptly given an identical column by the Herald and a morning radio show by WTKK. It makes me sick.

Plagiarism is different. Plenty of crimes and misjudgments can happen in a flash and aren't necessarily indicative of a person's character. Just because you lost your temper doesn't make you a thug. Just because you got smashed doesn't make you a lush. But you don't plagiarize, you just don't, unless you're a liar and a cheat.

Putin is a spy. That's how he came up, through the rank and file of the KGB. And despite what you may have seen in James Bond films, spies don't rappel down skyscrapers or fire missiles from their cars. They coerce information from people, either by lying and cheating themselves or by inducing other to lie and to cheat. We need spies, and they're absolutely vital to national security — but don't think there's anything remotely honorable about the work, because there isn't. A spy has to be duplicitous — exactly the sort of person who would pass off someone else's work as his own.

Let Putin be the face of plagiarism, because he's a perfect model. It's an act that speaks to the character of its perpetrator. Plagiarists will never be any good; it's utterly beyond me, what would make any company decide to hire a proven plagiarist. It's like the women who date cheating men and firmly believe that this time will be different — this time, the guy will be loyal.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Kaplan and the WSJ

When you enroll in Kaplan's LSAT Classroom program, the company buys you a complimentary 6-month subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I hate stunts like this. If you can afford to buy me gifts, then I paid you too much. Give my money back to me. Don't hand it to another company, give them my address without my permission, and claim you've done me a favor.

I'm posting this for anyone who wants an answer why they're suddenly getting a newspaper. Call 1-800-JOURNAL, give them your 12-digit subscriber number, and cancel. You'll get a refund check from Dow Jones & Company for $26.88. It's your money.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Coming Attractions

Restaurants are our second hobby. We try someplace new every Saturday, and over the last four years we've hit a substantial portion of the spots in Boston and Providence. I've seen a significant number of hits on the one restaurant review I've published, so there's obviously demand for more — and I've got both the experience and the capacity to meet that demand.

It's also a good fit, since my primary purpose here is to woodshed and I'm not exactly expert at writing restaurant reviews. Practice will do some good, and if I can fill an existing need then so much the better.

With CD reviews, I have no problem writing free-form since I've got the expertise for the subject. I'm not a chef, though; and although I'm a great cook, the difference between a cook and a chef is the difference between a guitar teacher and a concertmaster. I know my stuff, but I'm going to be talking about theirs — so I'm going to need some guidelines.

I've decided to steal from the best. Charles F. Sarkis is the chairman and CEO of the Back Bay Restaurant Group, the company that owns Abe & Louie's and Papa Razzi and Coach Grill and a half-dozen other Boston landmarks, and Sarkis says the industry hasn't changed in the 40 years since he opened his first restaurant. He says that diners are always looking for the same three things: quality, value, and hospitality. So with compliments to Mr. Sarkis's expertise, those will be the three categories I'll critique.

I won't score each restaurant (à la Phantom Gourmet), but I probably will use a rating system. All cliché aside, they're useful: It's a clear way to signal your opinion to the reader before he begins your review, and that frees you from having to clumsily make the point in your lead sentence every time. Maybe it's not creative, but there's a lot to be said for utility — and not much to be said for writers who can't achieve the former without abandoning the latter.

So that's what's coming. I'll aim to publish one a month, maybe more. If you live in New England, keep an eye out. And if not, keep them bookmarked anyway. You never know when you might find yourself in Boston looking for a bite to eat.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Basketball Sucks

Last night, I watched a couple of nobody schmucks beat NBA all-star Xavier McDaniel in a free-throw contest. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Basketball players suck.

If most athletes can agree that the most difficult feat in professional sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat, then surely everybody can agree the easiest is to make a free-throw. If you're not familiar with the rules of the game, a free-throw is simple: Everyone stands around the basket while one player throws the ball into the hoop. There's no defense of any kind — no one blocking him, no one trying to deflect his shot. The other players just stand around and watch, and he gets to score a point. That's why it's called a free-throw.

Watch an NBA game sometime. It's embarrassing. These guys are all 6'7" and they can all slam-dunk, but ask them to stand still and make two shots and they can't do it. It's the primary skill required by the game and none of them have it.

In the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, basketball was about strategy and teamwork. You could outplay another team, catch them off-guard and finesse your way to victory. Today, basketball is a bully's game. It's about who's taller and who can push harder.

It's also an incredible waste of space. They don't need two hoops, because nothing ever happens at center-court. They spent 40 seconds fouling each other within three feet of one basket for an opportunity to slam-dunk the ball, they either make the shot or not, and then the melee zips to the opposite end where they crowd identically around the other basket. It's like the coaches don't even try to design center-court plays anymore.

What's sad is that for kids, basketball is a blast. Football requires a big field, hockey needs ice, and baseball breaks the neighbors' windows. Kids can crowd around a basketball hoop without bothering anyone, and they're not spread across an open field so they can joke and screw around like kids do. You'd think it would have decent claim to being the all-American sport and that its professionals would show the game being played with consummate skill. Instead, the NBA is about the dumbest incarnation of basketball that you could conceive.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What's Left Unsaid

Today marks the three-year anniversary of the current Iraq invasion. We can all agree the current policy has been a disaster. The country is in a de facto state of civil war, and our soldiers are being killed and maimed daily. The Republicans seem unwilling to speak against the president's course; and for his part, President Bush answers anyone who says we should leave Iraq by announcing that he won't let insurgents dictate our timetable.

Fine. We all agree he's wrong, and we all think the troops should come home. But here's a question for you: What if Hillary won't promise to bring them home?

During the 2004 election, Kerry had plenty of chances to make that promise. He refused. He repeatedly dodged the question, explaining instead that we had to make sure Iraq had a stable government. And we know both Kerry and Hillary want to run in 2008; but so far, neither has offered the promise. For that matter, no Democrat has even suggested it. They're more open to discussing impeachment than troop withdrawal.

You'd think a vote for Hillary would be a vote against the Iraq war. She decries our current course and has no shortage of criticism for our president. Yet she stops short of guaranteeing that as president, she would bring our troops home. It's still early, and maybe she's saving that pronouncement for her formal campaign — but if not, you have to wonder why.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Endurance Practice

Kaplan administers free practice tests for the LSAT. Obviously, they want you to buy their prep class; the idea is that you take a free test, they tell you the score, and then they promise to raise that score if you sign up for the class at a discounted rate.

By the end of the class you'll have taken five full-length tests, which is valuable enough. But they also mail you a box of books — literally, a box filled with six fat books totaling nearly 3,000 pages. They promise that if your score doesn't improve, you'll get a full refund; but if you don't complete the homework then you don't qualify for the refund, and I can't imagine anyone doing all this stuff and not improving.

I've taken two tests so far. My first score was 163, and my second dropped to 162. It's a scaled score, so actually I might have gotten more questions correct on the second test; but in any case, I wasn't disappointed. I'm a former archery champion, and I know that consistency is what differentiates skill from a lucky shot. The second score tells me that my first wasn't a fluke. That's good news.

That said, I'm swamped. I already had enough on my plate and now I've got another shelf of books to process — plus, by the way, a plethora of online workshops and quizzes that accompany the paperwork. But I've found the difference between "busy" and "stressed" is usually a matter of pace, and I know the work will pay off — a better score equals a better school equals a better career equals a better life. This is a high-stakes table, and I came to win.

Besides which, if I'm ever tempted to feel overwhelmed, I remember a word of advice given to me years ago by a mentor: "If you want something done, give it to a man who's busy."

Thursday, March 16, 2006


This week, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak took public his new company, Acquicor Technology, in an IPO that raised $150 million. Obviously, the first question is, "What does this company do?" And that's where it gets interesting, because the answer is, absolutely nothing. According to its SEC filing, Acquicor Technology is a "blank check" company. They have two years to choose a mission, and it can be anything they want.

These investors have bought Wozniak's reputation, nothing more. And if that weren't enough, the same shares which cost $6 apiece to the public were sold to the company's three executives at four-tenths of a cent — in other words, those three men have already profited more than $30 million, based on absolutely nothing.

I spoke last week to a consultant who advises venture capital firms on potential investments. He said that he looks at hundreds of business plans every month, but he said that he mostly looks at the people. His clients aren't investing in an idea, after all; they're investing in a person's ability to make it work. There are a thousand bad ideas that have nonetheless struck gold, and there are even more good plans that have run aground. Conception and execution are worlds apart.

But you need a concept to execute, and using your name as a fundraiser doesn't qualify. Faith is good; blind faith is not. Steve Wozniak just made himself another $10 million by virtue of being Steve Wozniak. How much irony can you stand: Venture capitalists are buying shares in blank check companies.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Blue Whale

Uri Caine gave a lecture at New England Conservatory yesterday. He's best known for his deconstructions of classical music, and he spent most of his time explaining those pieces — or defending them against critics who dismiss them as the facile exercises of a dilettante and as cheap exploitation of dignified art as a gimmick. In fairness to Caine, they're neither. He knows the nature and history of the original music better than most of his critics, and his interpretations come from love and respect.

If you haven't heard his music, an example is his reinterpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The double-disc set includes 72 variations on Bach's aria recorded by instrumentations ranging from solo piano to string quartet to a New Orleans band to a mix by DJ Logic. From one track to the next, Caine takes you all over the map in terms of style with no hint what to expect next. It's a gargantuan project that must have been incredibly difficult to assemble and produce, and any critic who dismisses it as "cheap" only demonstrates his own ignorance.

Having said that, I don't like the music. I certainly respect it; I admire his ambition, and I can appreciate the result — but it's not my cup of tea. There's no question that, having listened to it, you go back to Bach with a changed perspective; and that's a contribution worth discussing. But in my opinion, it has less value as an original statement than as a comment upon Bach.

Yet Caine struck me as ambitious and thoughtful, and here's the thing: I got the impression he was less interested in making music than art — in other words, he seems less concerned with whether his audience enjoys what they're hearing than whether they feel provoked.

I've always said that to be an effective orator, you need to disturb your audience. Not "offend," but disturb: as in, move them. You need to overcome your audience's inertia, to have some effect upon them. Ideally that effect will be positive; but if they hate you, if they absolutely despise everything you say and they throw tomatoes, at least your message will be remembered and that's better than wasting everyone's time.

When I listen to a new piece of music, my first question is whether the artist is doing something different. I've got a shelf of Oscar Peterson records and I love them, but Peterson's most successful music lacks a beauty that can be heard in even the worst recordings by Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill. He's got no ambition. His discography spans half a century, but it's all time and no space. He never moves. He's standing in the same square patch that he occupied in 1950.

I would never recommend Caine's experiments to a typical jazz fan. For all my respect, I admit that I don't like them. I listen because I appreciate the challenge, because they serve as homework for gaining perspective on their roots. But judge for yourself. He's definitely done his homework, and his records demonstrate an incredible degree of knowledge and commitment. If nothing else, I can say this: You won't be wasting your time.

Monday, March 13, 2006

30 Seconds Flat

One of Robert DeNiro's best lines was written by director Michael Mann.
"You want to be making moves on the street? Have no attachments. Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner."
Kerrie and I were discussing finances one day when she explained the sunk cost principle. She said people will often ride crashing stocks all the way to the bottom on the logic that since they've already lost half their investment, they might as well see it through. These folks originally bought stock to make a profit, after all, and they can't profit if they sell for a loss; so rather than cut their loss and take what's left elsewhere, they'll cross their fingers and just keep watching the price tumble.

It reminded me of "loss aversion" — which is another financial principle, but it's also a lesson taught to every covert agent in CIA. "No asset is more valuable than your cover. You can always walk away." An agent who has spent months courting an asset becomes fixated on getting results, and although he may suspect his cover is being compromised he'll be tempted to push a little farther to get that payoff.

The Bush administration has made any number of blunders in the past nine months, the most embarrassing of which were the Harriet Miers nomination and the Dubai ports deal. Any objective observer knew five minutes into each that the effort would fail, and yet the White House clung to both as they sank like stones. And now, with approval ratings that make Jimmy Carter look like a war hero, the president has just been called out on the floor of the Senate by a Wisconsin Democrat jockeying for position in 2008.

It's ironic, because the Republicans' best hope of defeating Hillary might have been the president's brother Jeb. He might not be anyone's ideal candidate; but neither was our president and in the end, money took the prize. If the current administration hadn't tried to squeeze every last nickel from their eight years, they might have kept shearing this sheep until 2016. But they blew their cover.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

That Hobgoblin, Consistency

Tonight was HBO's season premiere of The Sopranos, and I'm compelled to remark that if creator David Chase was hoping to leave his viewers in suspense by ending the first episode with the main character bleeding on the kitchen floor from a gunshot wound, he oughtn't have spent the last three months promoting the upcoming season with clips showing that character in various arguments and conversations that were obviously filmed for that upcoming season.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Directory Assistance

If I can keep my LSAT score above water, the only remaining hurdle to law school admission will be my letters of recommendation. I'm sure I'll have no trouble getting them, but I hate asking favors. The term "social anxiety" is grossly overused, but if there's anything that makes me feel unfomfortable it's feeling beholden to someone else.

After careful consideration — and being lectured by two people wiser than myself — I've decided that's a childish hang-up that I need to outgrow. I've turned to Chandler to set me sober.
"Randy and I and another fellow were in a jam once. It made sort of a bond between us."

"Then why didn't you ask him for help when you needed it?"

"Because he couldn't refuse."

"But you'll take favors from a stranger."

"The stranger can keep going and pretend not to hear."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Time Ticking Away

The first time I heard Branford Marsalis was on The Dark Keys. I picked it up expecting to hear a bebop jam and instead I got hit with thick, heavy music. To my credit, I knew it was over my head; but I couldn't handle it, and I didn't like it. I vowed to come back to it after a couple years; but in the meantime, I stuck the CD on a shelf.

Nowadays that experience is rare. There's plenty of music that's beyond my capacity to perform, but there's not much that's over my head. I've written more than 250 reviews and it's incredibly rare that I feel compelled to sit and actually transcribe the tunes in order to articulate my opinion, but that's exactly what I'm going through with the new album by Andrew Hill.

I'm not confused as to whether it's good. I knew that from my first listen. But there's plenty of good music by giants and legends that doesn't make me feel like an amateur. This does. It's a challenge, and I love that.

Andrew Hill famously said that he had been inspired a comment made to him offstage by Charlie Parker, that bebop was about rhythm. The chords, the melody, every cadence was about conveying rhythm; and if you listen to Bird's music with that in mind, it's easy to believe he said it. So you bring that knowledge to Andrew Hill's music, and you can hear those same roots.

He's also playing sleight of hand with time itself. The album is titled Time Lines, and I assume that's a play on words because if there's a tagline for this music, it's "Music Without Barlines." I spent an eternity at Berklee learning mixed meters and polyrhythms and I'm telling you, there are no barlines in Hill's music.

I had a composition teacher who insisted that we write only in bars of one and two because he said every meter could be broken down into units of either "strong" or "strong, weak." Of course, he would test us by throwing out obscenely intricate meters to work with — but he was right. Ultimately, what you're hearing in a given moment is simple: It's either a downbeat or it's not.

The problem with trying to analyze Hill's music is that you can plot where his phrases fall, but that doesn't necessarily indicate anything about how the music is written. You could be hearing bars of 3 followed by a bar of 2, or you could be hearing one bar of 11. I'm sure there are barlines on the page, but there are absolutely none on the record; and that's partly a tribute to the musicians, but it's largely due to how he weaves rhythm into every component of each tune. I've been told that Oriental rugs are judged on the number of knots per square inch of fabric, where a greater number indicates a finer, better weave; and on that scale, Hill's music would rate among the finest rugs of the world.

Every good CD will yield new discoveries on repeated listening, but that's not the same as saying that you can't grasp it on the first listen. This album absolutely requires a second pass; if you've only heard it once, you haven't heard it. This disc has compelled me to keep listening. It hasn't left my player since I opened it, and I've got a folder full of notes and transcriptions to show for it. Don't consider this a review, because I'm not done; but definitely, consider this a recommendation. It's fantastic.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Advancing Guitarist

I came into jazz backward. I was a Maria Schneider fan long before I heard Bob Brookmeyer's writing — and then it was like, "So that's where she comes from!" I have the same reaction listening to Mick Goodrick. No matter how many times I listen to his solo on "Coral," I can't help but hear Pat Metheny's roots.

Jazz has its share of celebrity performers, but it also has legendary teachers who have been sought out by the most accomplished musicians. It's been said that you can trace 80% of the most successful NFL players to a handful of college coaches — and in jazz, the same is true of Madame Chaloff, Charlie Banacos, and Mick Goodrick.

Unlike the others, Goodrick does perform. On occasion, he even records, albeit not often. His only known disc as a leader was for ECM in 1978. In truth, he actually records every few years, sometimes as a sideman and sometimes on co-led dates, but always for peanut-sized independent labels with zero distribution. He recorded a couple of sessions with an Italian label during the '90s; the discs were hard to find in the United States then, and the company has since gone out of business. You can't find the CDs anywhere today, even used.

And that's a testament to his music, because the people who own copies want to keep them. This is the guy who taught Pat Metheny and John Scofield, so you know there's going to be something heavy in his playing. It's amazing to me that he isn't recorded more often — and when he is, that labels fail to capitalize on his cred with guitar enthusiasts. It's a solid market that's successfully milked by lesser players with pocket change. You'd think a professional label that's signed a marquee name would exhibit more savvy.

Kenny Werner famously told a story about how Madame Chaloff spent months training him to play a single note. Ran Blake reportedly spends entire semesters drilling piano students on simple triads. My favorite story about Goodrick came from a woman at the bar during a set at Scullers; she said that when she studied with him during the '70s, he took her into the forest and taught her to chop down a tree. He said sometimes the best way to learn to play guitar is to do something else.

Theory and technique are important, but they're timber. They can help you cross a lake, but there's a difference between a raft and a ship. You need the other thing, and a great teacher can lead you to it in ways you'd never discover on your own. It's incredibly rare to find those teachers, and it's almost impossible to find ones who are active as both teachers and practitioners. Mick Goodrick is out there. Listen.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dear AOL

For the past month, I've been reading about AOL's proposed email tax and the resultant outrage; and this week, a slew of companies including the AFL-CIO, United Farm Workers, and Oxfam America formed a coalition called DearAOL to protest the proposed tax. Frankly, I'm getting sick of hearing about this nonsense, so let's straighten a couple things out.

Right now, AOL has a spam filter. If your mother sends you an email, you'll get it. If the Democratic National Committee sends an email to you and 3,000 other recipients, it'll be blocked. That's the way it's supposed to work. It's not perfect, but it's as good as anything currently available — which is to say, it doesn't really work, it still allows spam and occasionally, you'll have to fish through your junk mail folder to find a legitimate email that AOL dumped.

The purpose of this filter, obviously, is to block spam. AOL is proposing that companies pay $0.0025 per message, in return for which their emails will automatically bypass the spam filter and will be delivered directly to your inbox. Companies are furious because, in the words of DearAOL, this action will "disrupt the communications of millions who cannot afford to pay [AOL's] fees — including the non-profits, civic organizations, charities, small businesses, and community mailing lists."

Read this next sentence slowly, because it's important: This is not a tax.

Every definition of tax includes the word "compulsory." This is not a tax. Every man, woman, and nonprofit on the planet may continue to send email to AOL users, free. Maybe it will be delivered. Maybe it will be filtered. The existing filter is poor and flawed, so there's no way to tell; and in any case, the recipient will probably see it when he's forced to sift through his spam folder next week for a missing email from his grandmother. Life will go on, unaffected.

The only people this will screw are AOL subscribers. AOL is not saying to companies, "Pay us, or we won't deliver your email." They are saying, "If you slip us a bribe, we'll give you preferential treatment and totally ignore our promise to block spam from subscribers."

That is not a tax. Companies are calling it a tax because they want you to get mad. They want public opinion to rise against AOL so that AOL will agree to deliver their spam, free. Those companies don't want to pay. They're cheap. And they don't give a damn about your rights or privacy — obviously, because they're in the business of sending the very spam that you don't want to receive. If they cared about you, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Spam wouldn't exist.

AOL's proposal has been compared to postage stamps. That's a stupid analogy. The equivalent to postage stamps would be if the US Postal Service promised Wal-Mart that, if Wal-Mart paid them $2.5 million per year, mailmen would deliver their stupid coupons to every household, whether you wanted to receive them or not. Nope, AOL isn't trying to screw the companies. They're trying to screw you.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

(Without) Qualification

I know it's politically incorrect. I realize saying this will brand me a closed-minded bigot in some circles. I'm sure I'll get hate mail, but I'm going to say it anyway. I know everyone's thinking it.

Lily McBeth looks ridiculous.

Last year, McBeth, now 71, had a sex change to become a woman. "She" is a retired sales executive who was married for 33 years and had three children. For five years, McBeth taught elementary school as a man, and now she wants to return to the classroom as a woman. On Monday, a New Jersey school board voted to allow her to work as a substitute teacher.

Monday's meeting was demanded by parents who objected to McBeth's request. One parent sponsored a newspaper ad urging parents to attend the meeting. Supporters of McBeth also showed up, including three fellow transsexuals and a mother of three students who said she had transsexual relatives.

McBeth's supporters argued that elementary school students are too young to understand what they called "gender reassignment." I think they're grossly underestimating the intelligence of 12-year-olds, but even if that were true: Kids are hypercritical of their teachers. Maybe a classroom of second-graders won't grasp the term "transgender," but I promise you: They can spot weird.

McBeth told the press, "A good teacher is a good teacher." I'm always amused by transsexuals who spend thousands of dollars to undergo surgery and then act as if the result is completely irrelevant. If your appearance doesn't matter, there are less painful ways to express yourself. Buy a new shirt. Get a haircut.

Maybe McBeth was a good teacher. But I'd submit that teaching elementary school is largely about respect; and as a substitute teacher, your job is less about helping children to understand lessons than it is about getting them to sit quietly and behave while their real teacher recovers from the flu. In that regard, McBeth just went from being a grandfather in a field dominated by women to being someone with a deep voice and masculine appearance who's wearing a dress.