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WikiLeaks and the Pentagon Papers

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Uncategorized

Over the past few days, I’ve witnessed some confusion on the possibility of the United States government taking action against WikiLeaks for any potential illegal action they might have committed in their recent divulging of thousands of secret State Department cables. As a result, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a minute and clear up some misconceptions.

Many WikiLeaks supporters are currently up in arms, saying the United States has no grounds to prosecute the organization or its founder, Julian Assange — and they may be right about that. The fact of the matter is, like all criminal cases, it will depend on what the government can prove in a court of law.

The problem with many of the WikiLeaks apologists’ arguments is that they’re often predicated on a deep misunderstanding of a landmark Supreme Court decision — New York Times Co. v. United States, or the “Pentagon Papers” case. According to the arguments I’ve heard, WikiLeakers believe the precedent set by the court’s Pentagon Papers ruling — which held that the government could not legally prevent The New York Times from publishing a news story about leaked top-secret military documents — also prevents the government from pursuing legal action against Assange and/or WikiLeaks in this latest snafu.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable line of argument. However, as with most things, we need to dig deeper to really understand the forces at work here.

Most importantly, we need to understand what the government is considering charging Assange for. (They haven’t actually done anything yet, to the best of my knowledge.) They’re not investigating him for possessing the documents or posting them online or even giving them to media outlets around the world. None of those activities are the focus here. On the contrary, the Justice Department is currently investigating exactly how Assange got those documents and if he or his organization became accomplices to a crime in order to obtain them.

So how do we determine that? What would Assange have to do to be considered an accomplice to a crime in this case? Well, this is where it all starts to get a bit hairy.

Let’s start with what we know. We do know the documents were allegedly obtained by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who used his security clearance to gain access to the classified documents and subsequently downloaded them to a data storage device (I believe it was a blank disc labeled as a Lady Gaga CD, funnily enough) without authorization and eventually disseminated them to the general public through Assange and WikiLeaks. The act of stealing and exposing those files is considered treasonous and illegal under U.S. law, and Manning is now being detained for that alleged crime.

The question the Justice Department is trying to answer in their current investigation is just how involved Assange was in the the young private’s crime — or, essentially, when he knew about the leak and how involved he was in actually stealing the documents. If Manning acted alone in accessing and obtaining those documents and then brought them to Assange after the fact, WikiLeaks is in the clear and the Justice Department doesn’t really have a case.

On the other hand, however, if Assange was involved in the theft from the beginning and coordinated with Manning throughout the commitment of his crime, then everyone’s favorite blonde-Australian-not-named-Nicole-Kidman is in some trouble. If the Justice Department can ultimately prove that Assange was in contact with Manning about leaking those documents prior to the crime being committed and was even tangentially involved in aiding and abetting him throughout that illegal act, then Assange is complicit in Manning’s crime.

That’s really what this all boils down to — what Assange knew and when he knew it. If Bradley Manning randomly decided one day that he was going to steal a bunch of secret State Department cables and then dropped them in Julian Assange’s lap after the fact, WikiLeaks is clean as a whistle. However, if the Justice Department can prove that Manning contacted Assange (or vice versa) prior to stealing the documents and said, “Hey, I can get this information,” and Assange essentially replied, “Great, how can I help?” then they’re both toast.

Which brings us back to the Pentagon Papers. WikiLeaks apologists say Assange should be insulated from any criminal charges because, like the Times during Vietnam, he is a member of the press who is simply publishing information in the public interest and the Supreme Court says there’s nothing illegal about that. And that could perhaps be true (maybe) — if it weren’t totally irrelevant.

First, WikiLeaks is a) not a news organization, and b) it wouldn’t matter even if it were. WikiLeaks is not like the Times or The Washington Post or even The Huffington Post. They are not fulfilling a newsgathering, journalistic role as defined by the court. The press publishes synoptic reports about newsworthy events of the day. WikiLeaks dumps raw info and data onto the Internet and then disseminates it to actual news outlets for the aforementioned synoptic reports. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are very different roles.

WikiLeakers would probably disagree with me on that — and that’s perfectly fine because, for the intents and purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter whether WikiLeaks is a member of the press or a bunch of cyber-hooligans or a loose-knit coalition of unemployed birthday clowns. The distinction is completely irrelevant.

In Times v. United States, the Supreme Court did not rule that news organizations could do whatever they wanted. That’s not what the case was about. The court ruled that the government could not prevent the Times from publishing their story on the Pentagon Papers. The Times was provided those documents by a third-party source — they did not do anything illegal or conspire with anyone who did in order to obtain that information. They were presented with the report after the fact by the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, who subsequently faced criminal charges (and was cleared, due to a mistrial) for his actions.

Now, draw a parallel between the Pentagon Papers and Assange’s present predicament, as laid out in the space above. If Assange was, in fact, simply presented with the State Department cables by leaker Bradley Manning — as the Times was with the Pentagon Papers by Ellsberg — then he has done nothing wrong and any criminal charges against him would undoubtedly fail in court.

However, if Assange was complicit in Manning’s crime from the beginning, he is an accomplice to treason and should face appropriate charges. Likewise, if Times correspondent Neil Sheehan had participated in a coordinated effort with Ellsburg to illegally photocopy the classified Pentagon Papers so he could ultimately divulge their information in the pages of his newspaper, he would have faced the exact same charges as Assange — and rightfully so.

There’s no double-standard here. No one is trying to skirt or ignore the Pentagon Papers ruling. It just doesn’t apply. If you commit an act of treason, the Supreme Court’s opinion against prior restraint does not insulate you from prosecution, regardless of whether you’re a prestigious newspaper or an international man of mystery. Neil Sheehan did not commit an act of treason, he just published the information he was given — hence, he did not face charges and Daniel Ellsberg (they guy who allegedly committed an actual crime) did.

The same goes for Julian Assange. We don’t know what he knew or when he knew it quite yet — the Justice Department is still trying to work all that out. But if he really just published information that Bradley Manning handed him after the fact, then he should be free to go on his merry way, leaking everything everywhere to his heart’s content.

But, conversely, if it can be established and proven in a court of law that he knew what Manning was doing and that he encouraged, aided, participated or conspired with him to commit that crime, then it’s time for everyone’s favorite Aussie enigma to face the music, for better or for worse.

Reason #4,672 Why Congress Kinda Sucks

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Politics

Because they don’t have spirited, culturally awesome arguments like this one between British Prime Minister David Cameron and a member of parliament, where they pretty much just throw out old Smiths songs as a way of bickering about Cameron’s proposed budget cuts:

MP Kerry McCarthy: “As someone who claims to be an avid fan of The Smiths, the Prime Minister will no doubt be rather upset this week that both Morrissey and Johnny Marr have banned him from liking them. The Smiths are, of course, the archetypal students’ band. If he wins tomorrow night’s vote [on tuition fees], what songs does he think students will be listening to? ‘Miserable Lie,’ ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ or ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now?’”

Cameron: “I accept that if I turned up I probably wouldn’t get ‘This Charming Man,’ and if I went with the Foreign Secretary [William Hague] it would probably be ‘William It Was Really Nothing.’”

David Cameron and an MP rapping about the Smiths in public? As part of a policy exchange? Sign me up!

Of course, the British parliament has always been noticeably more, um, lively and exciting than their American counterparts. In short, the House of Commons is basically the political equivalent of a rap battle.

We don’t do that in the United States. In fact, we pretty much do the opposite — we let our elected representatives pontificate ad nauseum to a near-empty chamber until they quite literally put people to sleep. But that doesn’t mean there’s not an appetite for this kind of robust debate in American politics.

Indeed, think back to last February, when the country was (briefly) atwitter over President Obama’s decision to take on his opponents head-to-head in a question-and-answer session at the House Republicans’ retreat. It was like the Woodstock of actual, real-life debate in Washington. It was legitimately thrilling to actually see (for once) the best and brightest of both parties really going at it in a more casual, open setting.

However, that unique moment becomes significantly less thrilling when you then realize that the British prime minister does the same thing every single week in Prime Minister’s Questions (or PMQ, as it’s apparently abbreviated), which is where the aforementioned Cameron-McCarthy Smiths exchange took place.

You may be thinking this isn’t really a substantive critique. You’re right — it isn’t. Barack Obama and John Boehner clearly aren’t going to develop a bipartisan plan to magically eliminate the national debt by swapping Run-DMC references on a weekly basis (although I hear Boehner is a huge fan.) But I can’t help but feel that our policy and our politics could only benefit from having more spirited public debates on the issues — particularly debates where policymakers and leaders from both parties (including the president) have to stand up and answer their critics directly in a healthy exchange of ideas and opinions.

I refuse to believe that such a heightened level of debate and transparency could somehow be bad for this country. But then again, I do love myself some political theater and a good Smiths reference — so maybe my motives are selfish in that regard. I guess I just live in the wrong country to be consistently entertained by my public officials’ weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of mopey 1980s British pop music…

More Pay Freeze: Bad Politics, Worse Policy

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Politics

I was a little worried about the post I wrote yesterday on President Obama’s pay freeze. After all, he announced the freeze a few days back — maybe it was all talked out by the time I got around to it? Turns out that wasn’t the case.

I consider The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein to be one of the best bloggers around — the way he takes complicated policy minutiae and consistently distills them into engaging, highly informative masterpieces is truly stunning. And the best thing about Ezra is that, while he is unapologetically liberal, he’s not a hack. He’s genuinely more interested in good policy than political ideology — and while he believes liberal solutions to problems are generally more effective, he’s open-minded and intellectually honest enough to consider ideas from all sides. In other words, he’s pretty much my hero (if you couldn’t already tell.)

So wasn’t I surprised when, at 2:06 p.m. MST today, the great Ezra Klein posted this excellent piece basically articulating the same argument I made yesterday — that the Obama administration is being played like a fiddle by the Republicans because they don’t know how (or just flat-out refuse) to negotiate in a way that’s politically advantageous. Of course, he did the argument far more justice than I did — and wrote it a thousand times better — but it’s still kind of fun to quasi-scoop your idol every once in a blue moon. Either way, Ezra’s post is definitely worth your time and then some.

After reading Ezra’s thoughts and sleeping on mine from yesterday, I remain absolutely convinced that the administration’s unilateral pay freeze is horrible politics — but, even worse than that, it’s also terrible policy.

If, as the White House has stated early and often, your chief economic goal is to get as much capital flowing into the market as possible and to get as many Americans as possible spending money at businesses that will then turn around and create jobs here at home, then this policy is a massive failure.

Federal workers are just like any other American — they work for a living, they collect their paycheck, and then they spend their paycheck consuming goods and services. They are, in a sense, living and breathing little economic stimulants, just like every American worker with some cash in his pocket. The only difference? They just happen to work for the government instead of McDonald’s or FedEx or some other privately owned business.

Does that mean their money isn’t good? Does that mean their consumption won’t put dollars in the coffers of American businesses that can then use the additional revenue to hire new workers? Of course not.

We need these people to have that discretionary income now more than ever. We need them infusing that money into the market via consumption. We need them providing revenue for the private sector that will help create permanent, well paying jobs. To be brief, now is not the time to be skimping on anybody’s Christmas bonus.

I understand the flipside of the argument, too. We’re massively in debt. The federal government is carrying an annual operating deficit of about $1.2 trillion. This is unacceptable, as it presents a huge problem for the long-term financial stability of the country.

Believe me, I get it. I’m as big a deficit hawk as anyone. We need to fix it — but a federal pay freeze isn’t going to do the job. This policy is going to save the government approximately $5 billion over the next few years, which is practically nothing in the face of a projected $1 trillion budget deficit. It’s a miniscule drop in the clichéd figurative bucket.

I would love nothing more than to see both parties get serious about deficit reduction by, you know, doing the stuff that will actually work — reforming Social Security and Medicare, eliminating excess defense spending, restructuring our tax system, etc. Freezing salaries for federal employees isn’t one of those effective options. It just makes life a little harder for a lot of middle-class families and restricts the stimulative flow of capital into the markets — all without seriously tackling our deficit problem. It’s nothing but a symbolic gesture, and a bad one at that.

That’s not something the economy, the administration, or the American people can afford right now.

The Obama Administration's Self-Inflicted Political Straitjacket

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Uncategorized

Yes, I’m alive. Welcome back to the blog. I hope everyone had a nice little break over the Thanksgiving holiday. I know I certainly did.

You know who didn’t have a nice little break over the Thanksgiving holiday? The White House.

It’s been a(nother) bad week for Barack Obama and friends, what with WikiLeaks dumping 250,000 top-secret State Department communiqués that reveal nothing particularly earth-shattering, but some damning backroom espionage by America’s top diplomats nonetheless. This, of course, beget a media firestorm questioning whether the leak has left the president “weak” in both the political and foreign policy realms just as his administration prepares to shift an eye toward reelection efforts.

Oh, and the president took a mean elbow the mouth in a friendly post-Thanksgiving basketball game, resulting in 12 stitches and some unflattering pictures of the commander-in-chief holding a wad of toilet paper to his bloody lip as he made his way out of the gym.

In the words of VH1, Barack Obama is having the best week ever!

And do you know what cures a bad week better than anything else? A poorly strategized, one-sided gesture of “bipartisanship” that undermines your economic agenda, that’s what!

Yesterday, in what seems like a desperate attempt to deflect some media attention away from the WikiLeaks scandal, the White House announced a two-year freeze on salaries for all civilian federal employees. You know, those lazy fat-cats that are living large on government benjamins — or, in other words, getting paid $40,000 a year to perform thankless jobs that are nevertheless essential to several important programs that millions of Americans rely upon every day.

That’s right, public servants. Stop sticking your hand out, the gravy train stops here.

Oh, President Obama. Where to begin?

The pay freeze is, first and foremost, a disappointing political move. These kinds of one-sided gestures are exactly what killed the White House (and, by extension, the Democrats) on both the stimulus package and health care reform.

Let’s recap. In early 2009 when the administration was trying to pass a large-scale stimulus package in hopes of boosting the flailing economy, the president made it very clear that he wanted some Republican support for whatever measure ultimately passed through Congress. How did he do that? By putting forth a bill laden with Republican-favored tax cuts that his economic advisers cautioned would be less effective in stimulating economic growth than other methods. In fact, tax cuts comprised approximately one-third of the $789 billion stimulus package.

Now, it’s all well and good to compromise with Republicans. Indeed, it’s preferable to be agreeable and productive, both politically and policy-wise. But you don’t open negotiations by giving them what they want right off the bat. That’s not how it works. Such a strategy — or lack thereof — doesn’t require them to make concessions (i.e. give up some votes) in order to secure a more desirable policy outcome. It doesn’t give them a political stake in the negotiation process.

Imagine a world where the president comes to the Republicans and says, “We want to do this stimulus package. We’d like to put $789 billion into the economy — 45 percent through infrastructure spending, 45 percent through aid to state and local governments, and 10 percent through tax cuts.” What would the congressional Republicans do? They’d throw a fit. “That’s ridiculous, Mr. President,” they’d say. “Our members won’t vote for something with that much spending and that little tax relief.” And they would be right about that.

This is where negotiation begins.

Perhaps after haggling for awhile, the president could secure some modicum of Republican support in exchange for cutting the bill’s spending and increasing its tax relief efforts. Perhaps he could strike a deal where the package would be structured equally across the board — one-third to tax cuts, one-third to infrastructure spending, and one-third to state aid — but do so in such a way that gives the Republicans some kind of role in the process (and, therefore, some responsibility) and picks up a chunk of votes along the way.

Or he could do what he did — just throw them a bone up front and get nothing in return. What incentive do Republicans have to be cooperative if the White House is just going to give them what they want without demanding any kind of concessions? In that scenario, they are free to sit on the backbench and lob political grenades at the administration, vote against the bill, and still get their desired policy outcome — and that’s exactly what they did.

This is an absolutely crazy thing for the administration to do — but they keep doing it. First the stimulus, then health care reform, and now the pay freeze. The White House continues to give Republicans what they want without getting any substantial concessions in return. Even worse, they know what they’re doing. They know these kinds of tactics are a mistake — as the president has lamented in recent weeks — yet they continue to do it.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time, then the White House political team is in dire need of a nice facility with tight white coats and padded walls. I don’t care how badly the press is savaging the administration over the WikiLeaks documents — we’ve been down the road of foolish, one-way “bipartisanship” before, and it doesn’t end pretty for anyone with a ‘D’ next to their name.

When does the madness stop?

Wait, Americans Don't Hate the Government?

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Uncategorized

If you’ve been paying attention to American politics over the past two years, you’ve no doubt had the opportunity to watch the phenomenal rise of the Tea Party movement. Fashioned as a people-powered, grassroots movement (but not one without its fair share of financial backing from a handful of political elites), we’ve been told repeatedly that Tea Party activists represent how average Americans are feeling right now — and these average Americans are (allegedly) pissed.

Well, if we are to believe the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll (and we have no credible reason not to pay it at least some deference), then the Tea Party might not be so average after all.

According to the poll released yesterday, just three in 10 Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. To be sure, that is a substantial number that politicians ignore at their own political peril. This isn’t just a couple of dude’s in someone’s basement — but it’s also hardly a majority. Actually, it’s not even close. If the Tea Party claims to represent mainstream American thought during these difficult times, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that number to be hovering (at the very least) somewhere around 50 percent, if not much higher?

Of course, I guess there’s the potential that some average Americans are mistakenly disassociating the Tea Party from their anti-government message. Perhaps these folks don’t like some of the more vitriolic elements of the movement that have reared their ugly heads, but are still generally supportive of the Tea Party’s mission — a near-libertarian lack of government involvement in just about everything but national defense.

Indeed, perhaps this phenomenon is similar to what some Democrats (including myself) have argued about “Obamacare”: the new law may not be overwhelmingly popular as a whole, but people love the specific things it accomplishes. (To name a few: eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions, allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, closing the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole,” etc.) Maybe the same logic could be applied to the Tea Party’s anti-government crusade?

Unfortunately, that argument isn’t borne out by the numbers, either.

While a huge percentage of Tea Party supporters (86 percent) want less government “intrusion” on people and businesses, only 35 percent of other voters agree. That seems strange, considering how often Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al. have told me how much Americans hate the federal government “meddling” in things. Furthermore, while 84 percent of Tea Party sympathizers disapprove of the way President Obama is handling his job (a surprisingly lower number than I would have anticipated), only 35 percent of others surveyed concur. Again, this also seems strange since average Americans quite clearly hate Barack Obama and everything he does — or so the cable news networks tell me.

So maybe the Tea Party isn’t quite so mainstream after all?

Now, to be fair, this survey is no reason for liberals to be dancing in the streets. This is, after all, only one poll and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. And what’s more, even if the AP-GfK poll were a completely accurate representation of the electorate, Democrats still got their butts handed to them a few weeks back. Why? Because way more Tea Party people showed up at the polls — in fact, exit polls show more than four in 10 midterm voters supported the movement. Clearly, there’s a lesson here: it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of Americans (allegedly) don’t support the Tea Party agenda. If you don’t get them excited to vote, you get slaughtered.

And what of the Tea Party? If this poll were a completely accurate representation of the electorate (which, again, it’s probably not, but it surely still paints a somewhat cogent picture), are they really just a very conservative group of enthusiastic activists positioned far to the right of the views and appetites of mainstream Americans? Maybe. Only time will tell the long-term political resonance of the movement with the ordinary voter.

But one thing is for certain: for better or worse, the Tea Party will have a huge effect on the Republican Party — certainly in the upcoming congressional session and probably throughout the 2012 election cycle. Indeed, with 60 percent of Republicans identifying themselves as supporters, these anti-government activists are well positioned to play the kingmaker as the party prepares to pick its presidential nominee — a dynamic that bodes well for movement favorites like Sarah Palin and not-so-well for establishment types like Mitt Romney.

But do you know who the true winner is if the Tea Party remains the stubbornly dominant political force in the Republican Party heading into 2012? Who stands to benefit most from a deeply divisive, Palin-like candidate?

Barack Obama. Ironic?

Sal Paradise Was Right — But He Doesn't Have To Be

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Uncategorized

“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”  — Craig Finn, The Hold Steady

This blog is about important things — or at least I hope it will be.

I am one of those deluded souls who still think politics and public policy matter. I’m not naive. I understand that Washington is broken. I understand that our political conversation has been bankrupted by extremism on the left and right, powered largely by hyper-partisan blowhards on agenda-driven cable “news” networks. I realize why people have so much reason to despair — things are bad, and there’s not always much reason to believe they’ll get better any time soon.

I get all that, but I guess I just disagree. Call me crazy, but I believe that ultimately, even in our darkest hour, cooler heads can and will prevail. We have the ability to come together and solve hard problems — that’s what America has always been about. And sure, the problems we face today are certainly some of the toughest we’ve seen, but they’re also no more difficult than facing down a genocidal maniac hellbent on conquering the world.

We’ve seen worse. We’ve overcome worse.

Maybe the difference this time is that the problems come from within. This time we’ve got to vanquish our own demons and overcome ourselves. Again, this isn’t the first time this has happened — the civil rights movement comes readily to mind — but that doesn’t mean it’s not discouraging.

Over the next few years, we’ll have to grapple with a rash of difficult policy decisions that will define the future of our nation, and a toxic political climate to boot. To be certain, there will be plenty who will spend that time screaming rather than providing productive ideas. I refuse to be one of them.

And I guess, at it’s core, that’s what this blog is about — adding another sane, reasonable voice to the conversation, regardless of partisanship or ideology.

I am, admittedly, to the slight left of center on the political spectrum. I believe in capitalism, but I also believe that markets can be flawed. I believe there is a proper place for government in contemporary American society, but I also believe that role should be performed in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible.

But, most of all, I believe in America — who we are and who we can be. Sure, we may have our moments. We may yell at each other a lot. We may pay the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world entirely too handsomely for their unique brand of poison. But at the end of the day, regardless of all the hoopla that so often permeates our political climate, I believe the moderate majority of Americans (and, by extension, our elected representatives) will rise above the distractions and make the tough decisions necessary to move this country forward.

I have to believe that — because our history of doing so is far too long to be ignored and the alternative is far too grim.

Indeed, there are times when I think that Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise was right. Here in America, we do share some sad times — and this may well be one of them. But it hasn’t always been and it won’t always be that way. Together, we will figure it out. Things will get better, and this will continue to be the greatest and more prosperous country in the world.

That process starts with more than 300 million voices — including your voice and my voice. It starts with our decision to be reasonable and productive, to generate real ideas and share them in a respectful manner that can produce compromise and progress. It’s my prayer that this little blog can play some infinitesimally small part in that. I hope it can serve as a catalyst for stimulating thought and discussion amongst those who read it — and that you keep coming back for more.

After all, Sal Paradise may be right — but he doesn’t have to be.

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Podcast: The Bachelorette, Eclipse, Isaac Russell and More

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Film, Music, TV

It’s with great pleasure that Rhombus introduces its third podcast — the Rhombus Roundtable. Featuring a variety of opinions on politics, pop culture, and everything in between, the Roundtable will serve as a regular series of discussions on the world’s latest happenings — all with that distinctive Rhombus slant.

This week, the magazine’s editor Steve Pierce and resident armchair economist Daniel Anderson contemplate the reigning hot topics of the day — including the most recent (and totally unexpected!) Bachelorette trainwreck, Eclipse‘s total dominance at the box office, local favorite Isaac Russell’s new major-label EP, and the greatest (and worst) American presidents. Enjoy!

LeBron Heat

SPORTS: Podcast: LeBron to the Heat, World Cup Finals

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Sports

The PB&J Report crew reunite at long last via the palatial Rhombus Mobile Studio to discuss the biggest sports stories of the day, including LeBron James’ exodus to the Miami Heat, Sunday’s  World Cup final, Ubaldo Jimenez’s 15th win (for some reason), and more. Enjoy!

You can stream the podcast by simply clicking on the link below, or you can download it to your computer by right-clicking the link and selecting “Save Link As” from the menu.

Listen to: Rhombus Podcast 018 — The PB&J Report (2010.07.10)

Bday

Celebrating Our Birthday (With a Little Isaac Russell)

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Local, Music

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking: “Rhombus has been pretty sketchy lately, what with all the disappearing for long periods of time with little to no explanation. What kind of publication does that?” And to that I would answer: ours, apparently.

Sure, it’s been a little rough lately; As a not-for-profit, volunteer-operated organization, Rhombus often takes a back seat to other things when life gets busy. Is it desirable? No. Is it reality? Unfortunately, yes. But regardless of how busy life gets or how intermittent the posting schedule sometimes becomes, we’ll continue to do our best to fulfill our original mission of bringing you intelligent and interesting writing on the topics you actually care about — now and in the months and years to come.

Running an online publication in the era of the 24-hour news cycle is not easy. Consistently feeding the beast is a foreboding and persistent challenge. And we’re certainly not perfect at it, but we’ll continue to try and hopefully you will stick with us through the rough patches. After all, the fact that Rhombus still exists and some people actually still care now, a year after our initial launch, is quite a miracle in and of itself.

Truthfully, it’s a miracle that would have never happened without people faithfully reading the articles, sharing them online with their friends, talking them up at shows and gatherings, and always coming back for more. In essence, the message is this: We don’t survive without you — and, as is evidenced by this post, we’re still surviving.  So thank you. Thanks for sticking around. Thanks for a great first year — one we hope to improve upon moving forward.

Now, as a wonderful birthday present to us (and even an early/late one to you), enjoy a new video I discovered on the Web today from Rhombus favorite Isaac Russell and have now embedded below. In our vaunted opinion, there’s no better celebration music than the sweet, sweet tunes of Sir Isaac of Russell. Happy birthday to us!

mudbison 2

MUSIC: Review: Mudbison, "A"

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

For fans and devotees of the local music scene, the debut album of indie-eclectic band and Provo mainstays Mudbison has been a long time coming — and, thankfully, it’s finally here with staggering results.

Largely the brainchild of frontman and producer Spencer Russell, A is one of the most inspired and unique discs to drop from a Utah band in quite some time. While the Utah Valley scene has produced some great artists in recent years who’ve found widespread success, it seems fairly safe to say that we always know what they’re going to give us. Joshua James creates brilliantly soulful folk music that transports you to a different time. Neon Trees make you want to dance your face off while singing along at the top of your lungs to their synth-driven dance-rock jams. We love these excellent homegrown artists for what they do — but they are known entities. They just are who they are.

Mudbison is a whole different breed. When the band officially formed in early 2009, their early tunes were generally acoustic guitar-driven folk ditties penned by Russell and then sparsely augmented with keys, bass and drums. More than a year later, the sounds of A could not be more different. Now gleaming with a studio-quality sheen proffered by Russell’s burgeoning production genius, each song brings its own unique flavor while still fitting into a larger, cohesive, and distinctly “Mudbison” feel.

Some tracks, including the simple acoustic opener “The Mailman Song” and the tender piano ballad “Wait for Me,” wouldn’t have felt out of place in the band’s early catalog, while pulsing synths and sampled beats provide a glimpse into a completely different creative vision on album standouts like “Color T.V.” and “Mama Nix.” Similarly, old Russell standbys like “Little Indian” and the ever-popular “Suburbia” get electronica-tinged upgrades that retain the soul of the original recordings while taking the songs to new, more expansive heights. Indeed, to listen to A‘s “Suburbia” (included below) in comparison to the original version off Russell’s self-released 2009 solo disc is to glimpse the possibilities of a band truly reinventing themselves and their sound, while pushing the sonic limits of their creativity.

That’s not to say A is all fun and games. The somber yet expansive “Joy!” shows Russell confronting the untimely passing of his mother through song more directly and powerfully than ever before. By layering his delicate piano melody and guitar picking with profoundly affecting backing harmonies provided by Caitlin Duncan and field recordings of his mother discussing her difficult struggle with cancer, Russell simultaneously creates one of the most devastating and most uplifting pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I challenge any individual with a heart to closely listen to “Joy!” alone in a room and try not to cry your eyes out. (I’m almost certain it can’t be done.)

But, in short, that’s what A and, by extension, the new Mudbison is — a brilliant amalgamation of musical styles and thematic tones that create an even greater whole. Russell and Duncan’s voices blend together effortlessly in any scenario, whether it be an up-tempo dance number or a sparse acoustic ballad, giving the album a shape-shifting versatility that’s sure to please listeners of all kinds. If you like music and have yet to hop on the Mudbison train, now is as good a time as any to walk — no, run — toward the light and receive your tuneful reward.

Listen to: Mudbison, “Suburbia”

Hear more Mudbison and learn about the band at their MySpace page here.