Saturday, October 04, 2003

Power play (a.k.a. "Privatize, privatize, privatize!")

In Colorado, fellow blogger Yahmdallah is pissed off. He should be. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has just approved rate hikes which will effectively double the price of natural gas this winter, with more rate hikes promised soon.

Yahmdallah reads the newspapers, so of course he blames this sorry state of affairs on "deregulation." Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the federal government has deregulated wholesale natural gas, many states still retain control over public utilities.

As is apparently the case in Colorado.

According to the Denver Post: The Colorado Public Utilities Commission voted 3-0 to approve the "gas-cost adjustment" after the company said it was needed to help keep up with the increasing costs of buying natural gas.

Now, if your gas company needs approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to raise its rates, it is a state-regulated monopoly. State-regulated monopolies tend to screw their customers by overcharging them for power.

Here's how:

Rates for public utilities are usually computed as a fraction of the company's total capital. This guarantees the company what the state considers a "reasonable" profit, regardless of how well or how badly it manages its resources. Under such a system, public utilities have an incentive to grow bigger and more inefficient, so they acquire lots of redundant and unnecessary capital. When this happens, the company has the capacity to produce more energy than its consumers can use.

Ordinarily, consumers don't pay for surplus product. If a farmer raises more wheat than he can sell or store, he leaves that extra wheat to rot in the field and plants less next year. He, not you, loses money over his mistake. But if your public utility generates more power than it can sell, it will petition the government for a rate increase based on the redundant capital. This means you pay for the power they sell and, indirectly, for the power they can't sell.

The scam doesn't end there, however, because other places could use that surplus energy -- places like California, perhaps. As long as nobody prevents your company from selling to these places, your state-regulated utility can build a pipeline out to California, where it will sell its surplus at a healthy profit. That doesn't mean your rates are going down. In fact, your rates will go even higher! You see, by building that pipeline, your company has increased its total capital yet again, which means that it can ask the state government for another major rate increase.

Surprise! Your utility company now sells excess product -- at a profit -- to other utility companies across the nation. But thanks to state regulation, it can also charge you more, based on the capital required to produce its energy surplus as well as the capital needed to deliver that surplus to others. The upshot is that state-regulated utilities charge you for the energy you use, charge you again for the energy nobody can use, then charge you twice for the energy other companies use.

Real deregulation makes this situation impossible, because deregulated utility companies have to operate in a free, competitive market. They have to set their rates based on what customers are willing to pay, not on what a three-person Public Utilities Commission is willing to approve. And under deregulation, if a utility company charges too much for power, people can get their energy somewhere else.

Unlike liberty-loving Virginians, who deregulated their energy companies some time ago, oppressed Coloradans still have no say over their energy bill. So it looks like they'll just have to suck it up or move East.

Hint: Virginia doesn't have big skies or wide open spaces, but it gets a lot less snow. (We also have jobs here, if you want one.)

Friday, October 03, 2003

John Adams, Shaker Loops

Over the past thirty years, John Adams has evolved from a promising minimalist to America's best-known living composer of classical music. Last night, the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival performed Shaker Loops, one of Adams's most popular works, in a seldom-heard version for string septet. The result was nothing short of spectacular -- not a term one often applies to chamber music.

This twenty-five-minute long opus consists mainly of repeating sixteenth notes, which makes it exhausting for performers and tough on instruments. It is usually performed with string orchestra, the better to give individual performers an occasional opportunity to rest. But Adams originally wrote Shaker Loops for seven strings, all of whom remain in constant, shimmering motion through the piece. If nothing else, it makes for an astonishing showcase of virtuosity and endurance.

Despite Adams's claim that this piece was inspired by an abandoned Shaker community near his boyhood home, Shaker Loops displays little affinity for the religious sect. The Shakers' sturdy communal virtue, simple hymnody and self-consciously plain aesthetic are not to be found in Adams's compositional complexity or his sparkling musical textures.

Instead, the "Shaker" of Shaker Loops is a slightly misleading pun. The music's rapid oscillation is meant to suggest shaking or trembling, from the nervous vibrations of the beginning to the violent spasms in the third movement. Again, this "shaking" motif isn't representative of Shakers per se. Although they believed in worshipping with the whole body, their movement was actually much closer to dancing. (As the sect grew and developed, the motions were ritualized and choreographed.)

Still, the current popularity of Shaker Loops stems from its alleged evocation of traditional, nineteenth-century Americana. It's a cannily commercial move, attaching this somewhat mechanical, futuristic work to a mythic, pre-industrial context. Even though the title doesn't really fit the piece, it has slowly brought Adams the composer to the attention of a fairly large audience.

Having heard this work in septet and string-orchestra versions, I can safely say I prefer the septet, especially when the ensemble is as remarkable as the one I heard last night. In a small group, the tight, pulsating rhythms and subtly shifting harmonies become crisper, sharper, more exciting. Individual performance styles -- common to chamber music but impossible within a larger orchestral context -- lend the work additional drama, making it sound less "minimalist" than one might expect.

With a large string orchestra, Shaker Loops can sound generic -- the sort of thing you'd expect from Steve Reich, or even Philip Glass on a really good day. But in its original chamber version, the piece takes its unique, rightful place in Adams's remarkable oeuvre. It represents a major step away from his early, doctrinaire minimalism, toward a more flexible mode of composition. Shakers or no Shakers, this work now ranks among my favorites.

Kudos to this year's Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival for bringing such difficult and esoteric repertoire to a local audience. The festival is rapidly becoming a major cultural event in Virginia, with performers and programming as skillful and daring as any in America. I'm currently working on a review of this year's festival for the D.C.-area alternative weekly Metro Herald. As you've guessed, gentle reader, it will glow and gush as it should. But for details, you'll just have to read the paper.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Audience and Relevance

At some point, writers have to ask themselves why they write.

It can't be for the money, because, as anyone in the publishing game can tell you, unless you're a celebrity there isn't any. Besides, even if there were, you could still make a living any number of ways. Play the stock market, go into day-trading or postal delivery, even play roulette if you want. But if you value your life or your sanity, for God's sake do not write.

It can't be for self-expression, either, because in America people express themselves all the time. They just open their mouths, blurt out something stupid or profound as the spirit moves, and voila! It's just as natural as dog droppings, and only a tad less messy. Not like writing, which, if you're any good, is a strange, obsessive, time-consuming process, full of goings back and forth, and wanderings up and down. I think Dorothy Parker once said, "I never write five words but I change seven." When I first read that, I thought: Only seven?

The only reason I can think of to write -- which is to say, the only reward which could justify such a massive waste of time and effort -- is that someone else will eventually read what I "writ." Yet even there, I'm in a fix. Just who do I want to read this stuff? Who would be interested? Who cares what I write?

This brings me to the larger focus of this site. As you know, I started My Stupid Dog as a "culture blog." Occasionally I've offered brief essays on politics, too. They were worth my attention, and may even have been worth your indulgence. But I never considered them particularly important, especially when weighed against things like theater or music.

I know this isn't exactly the way most Americans view politics or the arts. Politics, after all, is about the here and now. It's about how we distribute things, what we allow individuals to do, and what we prohibit them from doing to themselves or each other. In contrast, the arts are never about the here and now. As Terry Eagleton has noted, art belongs either to the future or the past; it can never be relevant to the present moment. Then, of course, there's criticism, which belongs to nebulous memory, and thus is even more deucedly irrelevant than the arts themselves. Small wonder that pragmatic Americans would show more interest in politics. But what does that mean for me, an American who, admittedly against the grain, would prefer to do away with it?

This week My Stupid Dog experienced a sudden surge in readership, from a select few to ... well, at least a few more. Most of these new readers came here to view a compilation of quotes from the first several days of Wesley Clark's campaign. On the one hand, the mostly positive reactions confirmed an old suspicion of mine -- that I write best when I write least. On the other, it's a bit disconcerting to find I've reached my largest audience to date writing about politics, which is not at all what I set out to do.

I'd rather find people flocking to my essay about Frank Lloyd Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or reading that long-delayed post on Stephen Foster. But I'm not sure there's an audience for this type of deliberately irrelevant writing. How many readers, given the choice, are willing to eschew the present moment in favor of the receding past? And from my perspective, should I make an effort to write essays that, as far as I know, no one wants to read?

I don't consider these questions rhetorical, and if I had an answer, gentle reader, I wouldn't be asking them here. I've encountered some minor recognition for a topic I didn't intend to take up, and so I've acquired a contemporary relevance I never meant to possess. Like most people in this situation, I wonder if I've lost my way.

Bear with me. I should have something better for you tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Say what?!

More culture posts are coming soon, I promise. But first, dueling Sullivans ...

Andrew Sullivan links to this story in today's Sacramento Bee about a rash of anti-Semitic vandalism in Beverly Hills. But Sullivan isn't satisfied; he writes, "The AP makes sure it doesn't actually accuse anyone of, er, you know, anti-Semitism or anything .... Where does the AP think it's publishing? In France?"

Alan Sullivan (no relation) goes one step further, all but accusing the Beverly Hills P.D. of Jew-baiting. Ye gods!

Yet for my part, I find no fault with either the AP reporter or the Beverly Hills police. I know this places me in the unusual position of defending reporters and policemen. But bear with me, gentle reader. I have reasons.

The AP story mentions that the graffiti included both anti-Semitic and anti-Bush slogans. It also mentions that the vandalism occurred on Rosh Hashanah, a nuance which would ordinarily have been lost on non-Jewish readers. Short of a direct statement from the Beverly Hills Human Rights Commission, I don't see how a piece of traditional journalism could make the anti-Semitic and Far Left connections more blatant.

The AP has paraphrased police lieutenant Mitch McCann to say that "the vandalism lacked any specific patterns." Alan Sullivan wonders if anti-Semitism doesn't constitute a specific pattern -- and the answer is that, in the context of professional law enforcement, it doesn't. The police don't know who committed these crimes, or why some buildings (mostly homes and businesses) were targeted while others (synagogues, mosques, churches) were not. Anti-Semitism may be a pattern, but it's not specific enough to help with these vital questions.

If the vandalized buildings were mostly synagogues, the police would have an obvious starting point for their investigation. But right now, these crimes look pretty random.

Here's hoping the hateful culprits are soon found.

Monday, September 29, 2003

While you're here ...

Usually, blog writing is ephemeral stuff. But if you've just found out about My Stupid Dog, you might want to check out a few of these old posts.

True then and true now: Here's an essay on how American journalists tend to view Iraq, and why I suspect very few here understand what's happening there.

Man with a past: I'm not especially proud of my activist past, but that doesn't mean I won't write about it.

Postmodernism and politics: Postmodernism can have a nasty impact on political thought. I've written indirectly on this topic here, here, and here.

Theater and politics: Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Paul Green's The Lost Colony mix art and politics in interesting (and very different) ways.

The big blackout: The massive power outage last month in the Northeast turned out to be not as bad as we thought.

Hurricane Isabel: Who's to blame for the massive destruction on North Carolina's Outer Banks? In early August I fingered an unlikely culprit.

Have fun, gentle reader.

So that's why I haven't been getting any e-mail!

I just realized that my e-mail address appears nowhere on this blog. I had it in the "Description" line, right where everyone could see, but for some reason it vanished. I'm working on a solution so that you, gentle reader, can talk to (or yell at) me. In the meantime, click here if you want to drop me a line.

Update: After some fiddling and fussing, I've stumbled on a provisional solution to the e-mail problem. It's cumbersome and inconvenient, I know. But then again, so is Windows.

Whoopee, I'm 32!

"So what are you going to do on your birthday?" Rick asks me.

"Well, right now I'm drinking."

Yes, yours truly just turned 32. In another few decades, I can stop being unemployed and retire.

Andrew Sullivan, my favorite political blogger, has mentioned My Stupid Dog on his website. Keep scrolling; I'm near the bottom of today's entries, but by golly I'm there. Can you think of a nicer birthday present, gentle reader? I can, too. But I can't think of a nicer present that doesn't cost anything. At last I'm part of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy!

My all-time worst birthday -- and trust me, I've had some real bummers -- occurred a few years back. I spent the morning grading, the afternoon teaching, the evening watching John Wayne's The Shootist (not the sort of flick you want to see on your birthday) and crying my eyes red, then all night registering voters at the local Gay bar. That's when I realized I wasn't going to be an activist much longer.

By the way, in case you're wondering what I'm really planning today, it's laundry in the morning, housecleaning in the afternoon, maybe dinner at the Golden Corral Buffet. If the clothes dryers don't burn up my socks again, I think I'll be pretty happy.

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