Saturday, May 26, 2007


It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (That Nothing in Particular Happened)

In just a few days, thanks to the fortieth anniversary of the release of a certain rock album that supposedly defined the "Summer of Love," (and the twentieth anniversary of its Compact Disc release) we'll see a lot of blah, blah, blah in the media about how the Beatles "invented the concept album." First of all, other than the title, opening medley, reprise and cover, what was so "conceptual" about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? What makes Sgt. Pepper any more of a musical "concept" than say, Hendrix' Are You Experienced?, The Doors first album, Love's Da Capo, The Velvet Underground and Nico (sorry, Peter Blake has nothing on Warhol as a cover designer), or Miles Davis' Nefertiti, all released that same year?Now, I'm not a Beatles hater. My favorite album cover of all time is their Revolver album, which is also my favorite Fab Four record. I really tire of music critics, however, that give the Beatles too much credit for inventions which were generally done by artists that preceded them. Maybe I'm amazed at how much pop music writers will fall all over themselves to praise the Beatles while ignoring whole decades of pop music innovation and history, particularly American, from Louis Jordan and Hank Williams, Sr., up to Bo Diddley and the studio technology innovations of Buddy Holly.

In that vein, I present a very disjointed Small Sampling of Concept Albums before the First So-Called Concept Album (feel free to add any I've overlooked in the comment section).

Pet Sounds
Whenever I hear Fox News-types talk about latent anti-Americanism in mainstream media, I always think of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. Never mind that it was a classic, or their greatest album. Never mind that it was a thematic concept album released in 1966, as opposed to the so-called "Summer of Love." Never mind, that it was the main inspiration behind the so-called first "concept album" by Paul McCartney's own admission. American rock music critics are so contemptuous of any domestic brand, Pet Sounds is almost always placed behind Pepper, as we are supposed to worship at the Cult of the Fab Four. And like, we all know groups like the Ramones, the MC5, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges didn't exist until the Brits invented punk rock for us Yanks, right?

Freak Out!
It's hard to find an album in Frank Zappa's oeuvre that isn't a concept album (Joe's Garage, anyone?). One of his earliest was Freak Out!, a sarcastic musical look at America in the mid-60s, touching on riots, the welfare state, and Vietnam. Like the Beach Boys, Zappa released his album the year before Sgt. Pepper.

Peter and the Wolf
Sergei Prokofiev is my second favorite "classical" composer, Igor Stravinsky being tops. Considering that Prokofiev specifically wrote Peter and Wolf to introduce children to the joys and wonders of orchestral music, and wrote it well after the dawn of the modern media age (1936), I think the first phonograph edition of his work released specifically for English-speaking audiences counts as a "concept album." And this version, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, was released thirty years before Sgt. Pepper.

Just about ANY Capitol or early Reprise label album by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra was recording "concept albums" like nobody's business in the 1950s while Lennon and McCartney were still trying to learn to tune their guitars and complete their HSCs. One of the more beloved of Sinatra's lot being In the Wee Small Hours. My personal favorite is Come Fly With Me. Almost a decade before Sgt. Pepper, The Chairman put together one swinging album of tunes that take the listener on a musical travelogue. The final cut, "It's Nice to go Trav'ling," is particularly poignant after one returns from an OIF deployment in one piece ("It's very nice to just wander / The camel route to Iraq / It's oh so nice to just wander / But it's so much nicer / yes it's oh so nice / to wander back"). Just to show that Sinatra had the whole "concept album" thing down before the Beatles, his September of My Years album, a mature and beautiful reflection on growing older, won the 1965 Grammy Album of the Year two years before Sgt. Pepper. I'm still looking for a (cheap) copy of his post-Pepper concept album Watertown.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Musicians of one genre have always admired the works of other artists and composers in different genres. It's amazing how revolutionary Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western M
usic was considered when it was first released five years before Sgt. Pepper, just because an African-American R&B artist actually saw the latent beauty in C&W. Apparently, these pop critics didn't know about Hank Williams, Sr. and Rufus Payne. For anyone that looks past the simple-minded historical stylings and histrionics of pop culture writing and journalism, the connection between country-western and rhythm and blues has been as intertwined as the fates of Huck Finn and Joe, since the late 1800s and into the early 20th Century.

The United States of America, Volume One
Frankly, comedian and television/radio innovator Stan Freberg was a non-classical or jazz musician that had a great ear for acoustics and modern recording long before George Martin mixed up "A Day in the Life." Take a listen, for example, to Freberg's parody of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat" while wearing a good pair of headphones. The talents of Freberg and his partn
er-in-comedy-crime Daws Butler (the voice of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound) came to a stereophonic head with the release of the comedy concept album Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years, six years before Sgt. Pepper. ("Ugh, what's that?" "French Horns!").

Coltane Plays the Blues
Finally, like Sinatra, jazz artists churned out "concept albums" long before the Beatles learned to plod out chords on a Mellotron. One my favorite thematic albums being Coltrane Plays the Blues, cited mainly because the last cut, "Mr. Knight," was the first jazz bass line I learned to play. The album was released five years before Sgt. Pepper. However, you could substitute any number of Miles Davis albums in place of this one. Or, Eric Dolphy. Or, Dave Brubeck. Or, Charles Mingus. Or ...

Side Note:
Unlike RT regular, Bill Barker, I tuned out most of what Richardson said on Meet the Press this morning. However, I did notice a passing resemblance between the governor and another famous politico ...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


It's a Gas Gas Gas!


AIP brought up the question of how much of our current gas prices go to taxes, versus oil company profits.

A simple answer can be found in a typical oil company financial statement. For the sake of discussion, I will use Exxon Mobil.

According to
Exxon's last SEC quarterly filing from March 2007, Exxon paid over $23.6 billion in taxes, whereas their after-tax net income was $9.2 billion (although that figure includes over $3 billion in non-oil related income).

Of course, government taxation doesn't end with the oil company. Since most gas stations are franchised or independently owned, they pay taxes too. According to the
Department of Energy's website, 14% of April's retail gas prices were for severence taxes, import tariffs excise taxes, and royalties paid to the government. Since I am using the March data for Exxon, I will also use the March figure from the DOE, which was 15.5%.

Here is where it becomes tricky to determine an actual figure for the cost of government taxation, because the DOE figures do not include income tax cost. For the sake of argument, I will drop the consideration of income taxes paid by gas retailers, since most of their income is derived from other operations. Even the
DOE figures for March 2007 put the distribution and marketing costs (where the gas retailer's profits would be, as well as their related income tax cost) at 8.5%. (Ironically, since 2000, it seems the distribution and marketing costs seem to go up when the retail price of gas drops. Although the statistical correlation is not precise.)

Based on the
DOE definitions, the income tax passed through to the consumer by the refiners would seem to be included in the "refining costs and profits" category, which is defined as "the difference between the monthly average of the spot price of gasoline...(used as a proxy for the value of gasoline or diesel fuel as it exits the refinery) and the average price of crude oil purchased by refiners (the crude oil component)." The cost for this during March was 23.6%.

If we assume Exxon is the typical oil refiner (admittedly a huge assumption), and apply Exxon's income tax costs as a percentage onto the DOE figures from March, then 25%* of the DOE's "refining costs and profits" was paid to income taxes.

25% of the 23.6% of the retail price of gas means an additional 6% of the retail price went to the government, on top of the other 15.5% that went to taxes. This makes 21.5% of the retail price of gasoline going to the government. Considering this is a potentially conservative estimate because it gives no consideration is given to gas retailers' income taxes, plus I overestimated Exxon's passed along costs (thereby minimizing the income tax impact on the pass along costs), this is a pretty hefty amount. Of the average retail price in March of $2.563/gallon, 55.1 cents went to the government.

How much did Exxon walk away with? 35% of the DOE's "refining costs and profits", which is 8.2% of the retail price of gas. Of the average retail price in March of $2.563/gallon, 21 cents went to oil company profits.

As I have said before, there are a lot of assumptions built into these numbers, and feel free to point out flaws in my math. But the truth is that government costs more than oil companies, even if my figures are off.

On a related note, one thing I noticed in the
DOE figures is that crude oil as a percentage of the retail cost of gas has gone up in the past seven years, from 41.4% in April 2000, to 50.3% in April 2007. While it has fluctuated over this period, from a low of 35% in May 2001 to a high of 60.1% in January 2006, the overall trend has been towards the price of crude oil driving the retail price of gasoline. Supply and demand anyone?

*The actual numbers used to determine the 25% were:
Exxon's total income taxes - $6.784 billion
divided by the sum of the below plus the figure above to get the percentage of the income tax passed along
Exxon's production and manufacturing expenses - $7.283 billion
Exxon's selling, general and administrative expenses - $3.392 billion (this may include expenses not related to oil refining, however the bulk of it would apply)
Exxon's total net income (including non-oil related income) - $9.280 billion

UPDATED: I stand corrected.

I was listening to the radio yesterday, and a representative of an oil refiners trade organization (I forgot his name, sorry) pointed out that up to 15% of our refined oil is IMPORTED. That little factoid is not presented in the DOE or Exxon figures, but is quite important to consider.

Another thing he pointed out is that it takes up to 20 years to build and run a new refinery before an oil company can see a profit from it. If you were an oil company in the current energy environment, how comfortable would you feel doing that?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Open Thread

Peruse the headlines at left and grab something that tickles your fancy!

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Monday, May 21, 2007


Drive-Bias Shooting

The Washington Post today has a story about Republicans play ing catch-up in the online political world.

Given sites like Real Clear Politics, Red State and Town Hall, I'm not so sure gap is as wide on the activist side as it may be on the party-structure side. However, there is one quote in here that just drives me up the frickin' wall:

And Republicans are hardly conceding the fight in the 2008 campaign.
TechRepublican, the group blog started two weeks ago by All, who worked as communications director for Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), there is QubeTV, founded in March as an alternative to what one of its founders, Charlie Gerow, a former Reagan campaign aide, calls "the liberal bias" of YouTube.
Grrr..."the liberal bias" of YouTube? Oh, give me a break, please! Stop the whining, for the love of God!

The charge of "liberal bias" in the mainstream media had a resonance at one time, because people like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, (and their print counterparts), etc. made statements that conservatives could credibly argue were, indeed, liberal. Even if there was no intent to push an explicit liberal agenda, many stories were broadcast (and written) based on a liberal premise of public policy. For example, the story might ask why more funds weren't being made available for child-care: The premise is liberal because a fair question could be asked why government should be paying for child-care in the first place. That's just one example of possible "liberal bias" in a mainstream media story.

That occurred at a time when the anchors, producers, editors, writers, etc. all came from a similar background, went to the same parties, same schools, etc. The mainstream media was run by group think -- and some places like The New York Times, CBS News, etc. are still run that way.

But there is so much more media out there right now. Media is a much more democratic (small-"d") entity. That includes talk radio. That certainly includes blogs. And it certainly includes YouTube. But how can YouTube be liberally "biased"? It's open to everyone -- unlike the Old Media entities. Anyone can post anything (within standards of decency, of course) they want, from any point of view.

Or no point of view, as the case may be.

But now, Charlie Gerow (who I've met a few times -- perfectly nice guy) feels the need to create a "conservative" YouTube, thus encouraging conservative video creators to abandon YouTube -- and making a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Create a YouTube competitor if you want, but drop the "bias" BS, please!

(The same argument, by the way, holds for charges of bias at Wikipedia, though that is a little more dicey, given how entries can be more easily sabotaged by people with political agendas and other axes to grind.)

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The Times, They Are A Changing...

...they're just not telling anybody.

Sam Tanenhaus' NYT "Week In Review" essay tries to make a tenuous allegorical link between Jerry Falwell's death and Paul Wolfowitz's resignation from the World Bank on the potential falling decline
of the American conservative movement.

It is something of a stretch. However, what immediately undermined the premise for me as I read it in the Sunday paper (dead-tree version) was this sentence:

And after failing to impeach Mr. Clinton, House Republicans, far from retreating into caution or self-doubt, kept up the pressure and turned the 2000 election into a referendum on Mr. Clinton’s character.
Here's a shot of the piece:

The sentence called the piece into question because of its historical inaccuracy: House Rpeublicans impeached Clinton; the Senate, of course, failed to convict him.

Well, lo and behold, this is what we find, when we go to the story on The Times' website:

And after failing to win a conviction of Mr. Clinton following his impeachment, Republicans, far from retreating into caution or self-doubt, kept up the pressure and turned the 2000 election into a referendum on Mr. Clinton’s character.
Emphasis added.

There is no editorial note anywhere on the page to take note of the change. So, what, The New York Times didn't think anyone would notice?


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