Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

The right way to save Detroit is going sound a little leftish

Posted by metaphorical on 16 November 2008

There’s a lot of debate about whether to throw money at the big-three Detroit automakers or just let them go down the drain. I think we can do neither, and still solve two problems at once.

Suppose instead of giving the automakers bailout money or loans, or buying bonds from them, we took on their health benefits obligations. This would dramatically lower their per-car cost of production, going a long way toward making them competitive in U.S. markets and plenty of overseas ones.

As it happens, Obama proposed legislation that would do that back in April 2007.

The Health Care for Hybrids Act would address the unique challenges of the U.S. auto industry and reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil at the same time. This bill would set up a voluntary program in which domestic automakers could choose to receive federal financial assistance to cover 10% of their annual legacy health care costs through 2017. The companies that participate in the program would be required to invest at least 50% of their health care savings into manufacturing fuel efficient cars, such as hybrids and advanced diesel vehicles in the United States, or helping domestic parts suppliers retool their manufacturing plants to produce advanced parts.

To me, that seems like an enormous step in mostly the right direction, though awfully convoluted. If we want to decrease gas consumption and increase fuel efficiency, we already have laws to do that. We already have the CAFE standard, just increase the number. (Step #0: include SUVs.)

As for supporting hybrids, respectfully, I ask, why? I mean, they’re a great set of technologies right now, and maybe the way to go, but why have the government pick the winning technology in advance? This seems like a great area for letting the market decide. The only real example we have of the government picking an alternative energy has been ethanol, a politically-driven disaster of a choice. (And frankly, the U.S. automakers are years behind with their hybrids. We should pray they come up with something better.)

The car companies claim that each and every car “contains $1,500 in health costs that their Japanese competitors don’t face,” according to the libertarians at the Reason Foundation. Another way of looking at it – and the numbers here derive from some at the Labor Research Association, a labor advocacy organization – is that health-care amounts to about 8-9% of the wages+benefits that autoworkers get. So taking on health care would be the same as letting Detroit slash autoworker salaries by that amount, without having to make the slightest dent in autoworker paychecks.

As I say, Obama’s 2007 legislation seems overly complicated. Why don’t we simply put them into the Government Employees Health Association, the same health insurance that millions of federal workers, including Congress itself, has?

It would cost the government something like $6 billion a year, which is in the range of the lump-sum $25-50 billion being contemplated for a bailout (with a smaller up-front cost). Most importantly, it would offer Detroit real relief, helping them compete in the marketplace, while not impeding the forces of market destruction and renewal that ought to be operating here. In other words, if the car companies still fail, so be it. And one thing we won’t have to worry about is a million autoworkers suddenly losing their health benefits.

Finally, it would use the current crisis to jumpstart a process that needs to take place anyway – getting all Americans covered by some form of health care. The problem with Obama’s campaign proposals for health care is the same as the problem with his Health Care for Hybrids Act. Each makes too many concessions to the status quo – they’re not radical enough.

The Health Care for Hybrids Act locks us into hybrid technologies. Similarly, Obama’s health care proposals just lock us further into the absurd system of making employers responsible for health care. Doing so universalizes the very problem that the automakers have – adding the cost of health care to a business’s costs of production, when its foreign competitors don’t have comparable production costs.

Ironically, this problem started in Detroit, so it would be sweet irony to solve it there. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote a couple of years ago in The New Yorker (The Risk Pool), back in 1950, the president of General Motors, Charles E. Wilson,

“was in contract talks with Walter Reuther, the national president of the U.A.W. The two men had already agreed on a cost-of-living allowance. Now Wilson went one step further, and, for the first time, offered every G.M. employee health-care benefits and a pension.

Reuther had his doubts. He lived in a northwest Detroit bungalow, and drove a 1940 Chevrolet. His salary was ten thousand dollars a year. He was the son of a Debsian Socialist, worked for the Socialist Party during his college days, and went to the Soviet Union in the nineteen-thirties to teach peasants how to be auto machinists. His inclination was to fight for changes that benefited every worker, not just those lucky enough to be employed by General Motors. In the nineteen-thirties, unions had launched a number of health-care plans, many of which cut across individual company and industry lines. In the nineteen-forties, they argued for expanding Social Security. In 1945, when President Truman first proposed national health insurance, they cheered. In 1947, when Ford offered its workers a pension, the union voted it down. The labor movement believed that the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible. Walter Reuther, as Nelson Lichtenstein argues in his definitive biography, believed that risk ought to be broadly collectivized. Charlie Wilson, on the other hand, felt … that collectivization was a threat to the free market and to the autonomy of business owners. In his view, companies themselves ought to assume the risks of providing insurance.

Pension systems throughout the U.S. are in bad shape as well. Back in 2006, Gladwell noted

America’s private pension system is now in crisis. Over the past few years, American taxpayers have been put at risk of assuming tens of billions of dollars of pension liabilities from once profitable companies. Hundreds of thousands of retired steelworkers and airline employees have seen health-care benefits that were promised to them by their employers vanish. General Motors, the country’s largest automaker, is between forty and fifty billion dollars behind in the money it needs to fulfill its health-care and pension promises.

If GM’s health and pension obligations were at least mostly funded two years ago, we can only imagine how they’re doing in a stock market that’s lost nearly half its value since then.

This crisis is sometimes portrayed as the result of corporate America’s excessive generosity in making promises to its workers. But when it comes to retirement, health, disability, and unemployment benefits there is nothing exceptional about the United States: it is average among industrialized countries—more generous than Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Italy, just behind Finland and the United Kingdom, and on a par with the Netherlands and Denmark. The difference is that in most countries the government, or large groups of companies, provides pensions and health insurance. The United States, by contrast, has over the past fifty years followed the lead of Charlie Wilson … and made individual companies responsible for the care of their retirees. It is this fact, as much as any other, that explains the current crisis. In 1950, Charlie Wilson was wrong, and Walter Reuther was right.

We could kill another two birds with one stone by fixing and expanding Social Security and folding in all these failing – and soon to be failing – pension plans and 401Ks. But let’s take on only one pair of crises at a time.

Posted in politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Obama vs the Military-Industrial Complex

Posted by metaphorical on 31 October 2008

At a lunchtime discussion of the impending election, I mentioned that while of course I was excited by the prospect of a Democratic administration, and thrilled by the idea of a black president, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the candidate himself. I’ll try to write more about that this weekend.

I’m also concerned by the prospect of the Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress. (Wow, as he dizzily floats through a sea of red herrings, McCain stumbled into a real issue.) What are they going to do about the military budget, for example?

A special report in the new issue of my magazine, “What’s Wrong With Weapons Acquisitions?”, by Bob Charette, couldn’t present the scary question of military procurement more starkly.

The report’s thesis is that while the acquisitions process has been troubled for decades, it is now reaching a crisis point. The amount of money being wasted is staggering: the Pentagon spends $21 million every hour to develop and procure new weapons. The U.S. defense budget for fiscal 2009 is $488 billion, the largest in real terms since World War II and 6% higher than this year’s. And that doesn’t cover combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are presented separately in the federal budge.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of major acquisition programs in the pipeline are either enormously over-budget or well behind schedule — or both. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a global economic meltdown, throwing away many billions of taxpayers’ dollars would be unacceptable, stupid, and now, completely unsustainable.

As the report notes, with a new administration coming to office in January, we may finally have the chance to make much-needed changes. “Reform will have to come,” Charette writes. “Each day that the acquisition process continues to operate ineffectively and inefficiently is another day that the troops are not getting what they need, the country is less secure, and much-needed programs, both civilian and military, don’t get funded.”

Bob Charette spent two years putting this report together. He interviewed dozens of current and former acquisitions experts at the Pentagon as well as defense analysts, historians, and academics. He read scores of books, hundreds of reports, and countless newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. His extensive research and depth of understanding really show in his writing. Bob’s report is comprehensive, compelling, and a good read.

The question is, will the new Obama administration read it? And will they act on it? We’ve seen the Democrats in Congress feast off the fat underbelly of the budgetary hog with the same gusto as the Republicans. They all have military contractors in their districts, other companies whose projects can be funded through the trading of porkbarrel chits, and hungry reelection mouths to feed.

We’ve already been given a taste of Obama the Realist, whose not-nearly-universal medical care proposal doesn’t redesign the healthcare system but rather shores up a few of its most obvious weaknesses. One is reminded of the Army Corps of Engineers doing touch-up work on the New Orleans levee system in the early 2000s. If Obama can’t really take on Aetna and Cigna, how will he he fare against the combined forces of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, BAE, SAIC, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the entire VFW?

We’ve seen, for better and for worse, presidents pulled across the political divide, their very weaknesses turning into strengths, their strengths needing to be shored up as if they were weaknesses. A Texan integrated the South, red-baiter Nixon went to China, Carter sent out helicopters on fool’s errands in Iran, Clinton yielded to the DMCA. And it was a five-star general who warned us about the military-industrial complex. Can Obama, already afraid to appear weak on defense, be strong on the question of procurement? The need, as Charette eloquently shows, is dire.

Posted in Orwell, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Palin vs McCain vs Reality

Posted by metaphorical on 5 September 2008

Creationism

“Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

“I’m not going to pretend I know how all this came to be.”

Sarah Palin, Alaska Gubinatorial Debate, October 25, 2006

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.

First Republicans’ Presidential Candidates Debate, May 2, 2007

Global Warming

“I will clean up the planet. I will make global warming a priority.”
John McCain, Boston Globe, January 7, 2008

“The same human activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Increased atmospheric carbon has a warming effect on the earth.”

—Republican Platform, August 26, 2008

“A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.”
Sarah Palin, Newsmax, August 29, 2008

ANWR

“There are billions of barrels of oil underneath the ground up there on the North Slope including ANWR. In Alaska alone we can supply seven years of complete crude-oil independence, and eight years’ supply of natural gas for Americans with ANWR (and) other areas of Alaska that we want to allow for development. That’s proof that Alaska can be a significant player in the world market.”

“ANWR would take five years to begin providing crude oil to our pipeline. But you have to consider that if we’d started this five years ago, then we wouldn’t be in this position right now. And who knows where we’re going to be in another five years.”

Sarah Palin, Investor’s Business Daily, Friday, July 11, 2008

I also believe that the ANWR is a pristine place and if they found oil in the Grand Canyon, I don’t think I’d drill in the Grand Canyon.’’

John McCain,June 2008

Additional oil production resulting from the opening of ANWR would be only a small portion of total world oil production, and would likely be offset in part by somewhat lower production outside the United States. The opening of ANWR is projected to have its largest oil price reduction impacts as follows: a reduction in low-sulfur, light crude oil prices of $0.41 per barrel (2006 dollars) in 2026 for the low oil resource case, $0.75 per barrel in 2025 for the mean oil resource case, and $1.44 per barrel in 2027 for the high oil resource case, relative to the reference case.

—Department of Energy report “Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” May 2008

Off-shore Drilling

“[W]ith those resources, which would take years to develop, you would only postpone or temporarily relieve our dependency on fossil fuels.

John McCain, May 2008

“[Offshore oil drilling would] be very helpful in the short term resolving our energy crisis.”

John McCain, June 2008

The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.

—2007 Department of Energy report “Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf.”

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, religion, technology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Modest Proposal: The Netflix Jury

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

I blog at work, and it can be a close call whether to post something here or there. So from time to time, I’ll be providing a note and link to ones that end up there.


I received a questionnaire for jury duty yesterday in the mail. It wasn’t a summons, though surely it will lead to that. I don’t mind. Serving on a jury is one of our few civic duties, a cornerstone of free and fair trials, which itself is a cornerstone of democracy.

The notice says that my name was culled at random from voter registration, driver registration, unemployment, or other social service records. I have no problem with that. But it did make me stop and think. That’s not a bad way to come up with a jury of my peers – I do, after all, vote, drive, and rely on the social safety net from time to time. But to really come up with a jury of my peers, how about getting records from Netflix?

more

Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

“Best Sidekicks Ever”? Sending Wired back to the silver screening room

Posted by metaphorical on 23 February 2008

No, I don’t exactly know why I still subscribe to Wired, except that it’s only $12, which, per-issue, meets my going price for never saying no to something ($1). And there’s always one article that’s worth breaking into the plastic bag it comes in. Wired is no longer a technology publication, if it ever was, it’s a tech-oriented lifestyle magazine. Not surprising, since it’s published by Conde Nast—GQ and Self, for example, are, lifestyle magazines as well, the one fashion-oriented, the other fitness-related.

So it’s useless to ask, why would Wired run an article, “The 9 Best Sidekicks Ever.” This is just the kind of pop-culture pap that it now excels at. The March issue isn’t online yet, so I can’t point to it. I’ll just name them:

Sam from Lord of the Rings
Mr. Spock
Robin
Chewbacca
Dana Scully
Smithers
K.I.T.T.
Willow
Breakey

Some of these are hard to disagree with (Scully, Smithers, Spock); others are bizarre—I thought Michael Knight was the sidekick, for example, and if Willow was Buffy’s sidekick in the first season, she wasn’t one by the last one. And I don’t even know who Beakey is (the picture looks Sesame Street-related).

But, whatever. Rational people can disagree about these things. What I find objectionable is that that none goes back to before 1966 and hardly any are pre-1980. (Admittedly, the Sam and Robin characters predate their televison and film instantiations, but as there are no pure book or comic book entries in the Wired list, I’m supposing that some form of video life is a prerequisite.)

I’ve taken it upon myself, then, to come up with another list—not necessarily the “Best Ever,” just a list of great black-and-white sidekicks that, by being at least as good as Wired’s “best ever,” refute their list.

By the way, even sticking to the modern era, the list is not hard to refute: From TV, its two greatest buddy-roles: Bill Cosby (I’m not even going to mention the character’s name… okay, it turns out to be Alexander Scott) in I, Spy, and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. From film, the two greatest buddies are surely Bob Hope’s sidekick roles to Bing Crosby in the Road movies, and Jerry Lewis to Dean Martin.

And I’ll just mention in passing two other glaring omissions: Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Hobson (John Gielgud) in Arthur. Oh, and let me just put in a good word for Bruno Kirby, an exceptional sidekick to Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (and again in City Slickers) and to Matthew Broderick in the highly underrated The Freshman.

Without further ado, my black-and-white sidekick list.

Muggsy (William Demarest) in The Lady Eve

A movie so terrific, it has two sidekicks – Gerald (Melville Cooper), is Charles Coburn’s, and the dueling between them makes this the best sidekick movie ever.

Eddie (Walter Brennan), in To Have and Have Not

Was you ever stung by a dead bee?

walter-brennan-right-in-to-have-and-have-not.jpgmyrna-loy-in-the-thin-man.jpg

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man

Dick Powell is a bit miscast as Nick, but Myrna Loy will forever be the perfect Nora.

Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton) in Shall We Dance

Horton was the perfect sidekick in dozens of films; this might be his biggest role, so it’s my choice to represent him.

Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) in Singin’ In The Rain

Over in rec.climbing, someone once said, “Mount Meeker would be a really impressive mountain if God had not decided to place it right next to Long’s Peak.” Donald O’Connor might have been Hollywood’s greatest dancer if Fred Astaire had never lived. He was certainly a better dancer than Gene Kelly, and hiding that fact in Singin’ In The Rain makes him the best dance sidekick ever.

Alma (Thelma Ritter), Doris Day’s inebriated sidekick in Pillow Talk

Ritter’s most memorable role might be The Misfits, where she was Marilyn Monroe’s sidekick, but Pillow Talk was probably the most sidekick-y of her 6 Oscar nominations.

Top Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) in Rio Grande and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

John Wayne always brings out the best in supporting actors, and many of them are sidekicks. The Quincannon role is simply the best of the best, the classic one-dimensional heart-of-gold supporting character who will take a bullet for the star, has a not-very-well-hidden unrequited crush for his wife, and loves their children more than life itself. McLaglen, like Brennan, Demerest, and Horton, did it his entire career.

Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | 6 Comments »

Entertainment ecosystems, part 1

Posted by metaphorical on 27 January 2008

I’m not sure video killed the radio star. But we know who’s killing the record store. Actually, I think in many ways the causes of the two deaths are the same, so let’s start with who killed the radio star.

One cause was the deregulation of media in the 1990s, which allowed for station consolidation. Suddenly a single company could own hundreds of stations each, and a few emerged to do so. As a consequence, we saw the emergence of national DJs, national playlists, a disregard for everything except the Top 40, and radio’s contribution to the dissolution of what we might call the ecosystem of music.

I’ll have more to say about entertainment ecosystems in a bit. Let’s turn now to the record store. Dave Larsen, a staff writer at the Dayton Daily News, had a good article this weekend asking the question, “Has digital killed the record store?”, arguing that downloaded music is eclipsing CD sales.

The growing popularity of digital music downloads could send compact discs the way of cassette tapes. Music retail stores might soon follow.

Overall music sales were up 14 percent from 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2007 music sale figures for the U.S.

Downloaded song and album sales hit record levels in 2007, rising 45 percent and 53 percent, respectively. But explosive digital growth wasn’t enough to make up for the loss in physical CD sales, which fell nearly 19 percent.

The steady decline of CD sales in recent years has led to the demise of such retail chains as Tower Records and the Musicland Group, which operated Sam Goody, Media Play and Suncoast Motion Picture Company stores. Locally, independent retailers such as Renaissance Music Media and the original Dingleberry’s have closed.

“Most of the independent and national chains that sold CDs have gone away,” said Hans Buflod, president of the local CD Connection chain. “It’s changed drastically, especially in the last five years.”

Larsen doesn’t really go into it, but it’s the record labels who killed the small stores, by cutting deals with the big box stores, especially Wal-Mart and Best Buy. By 2003, Wal-Mart alone accounted for 20% of all major-label record sales. It did so by selling CDs at a loss for $10, to draw shoppers into the store. By 2004, it decided it didn’t need to lose money anymore, and, as Rolling Stone reported at the time, it demanded price cuts that let them sell CDs for $9.72, without a loss. (Isn’t that a great number, by the way? It doesn’t feel arbitrary or random at all.)

Instead, Larsen notes that the record labels blame illegal downloading, especially filesharing networks. And indeed, though he doesn’t mention it, the battle against college students has gotten particularly hostile in the last month or so, with the students resisting in a number of places, such as Maine, Stanford, and MIT, and even countersuing.

But he also notes the poor evidence for that claim:

However, a 2007 study by Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard University and Koleman Strumpf of the University of Kansas found that file sharing has had a negligible effect on the decline in CD sales. “Moreover, by exposing users to new music, sharing may actually have increased sales,” they wrote.

I wrote about the same thing anecdotally at work back in July 2002 in an article that’s ironically no longer freely available.

But back to Larsen:

Gary Staiger, owner of Omega Music on North Main Street, blames record companies for phasing out the CD single.

“When you put out a crappy album that only has two (good) songs on it and you can go buy the two songs for a buck a piece (online), why would you spend $15.99 on the whole album,” Staiger said. “Consumers have brains.”

Competition from other sectors is a more likely explanation, according to Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf’s statistical analysis of file sharing activity in 2002.

“A shift in entertainment spending toward recorded movies alone can largely explain the reduction in sales,” they wrote. “The sales of DVDs and VHS tapes increased by over $5 billion between 1999 and 2003. This figure more than offsets the $2.6 billion reduction in album sales since 1999.”

The rest of Larsen’s article looks at some small chains and individual stores, and their strategies for surviving.

Chain music stores for the first time dropped below 40 percent market share, falling to 36 percent from 41 percent in 2006.

Independent record stores held steady with 6 percent of the marketplace. Some independent retailers, such as Massachusetts-based Newbury Comics, have opened new stores.

“There will be physical buyers for a long, long time,” [Rob Perkins, CEO of Value Music Concepts] said. “Some people just want to touch it and feel the product and communicate with folks that are addicted to music, just like they are. That’s what these independent stores provide. We have people who spend an hour at a time in our store just looking at the product and speaking about music.”

Larsen quotes Hans Buflod, president of the local CD Connection chain, as saying,

“I think at some point in the future all music and all video and probably all books, as well, will all be available for download directly from the manufacturer.”

And sure enough, even a year ago, Wal-Mart was down to 15.8%, Best Buy’s share at 13.8%, and iTunes was a just under 10%, according to an SFGate.com story.

As it happens, I recently did a radio commentary making the exact same prediction, for DVDs — even high-definition ones. (It can be downloaded here.)

I want to linger over one thing that Perkins said:

We have people who spend an hour at a time in our store just looking at the product and speaking about music.

This is the ecosystem at work. The more people know about music, the more time — and money — they want to spend on it.

And music has never had to fight for mindshare like it does today, what with television, videogames, movies, books, YouTube, message boards, email, and so forth. At the same time, it has fewer tools than ever with which to capture that mindshare, and in particular, for people to discover new music.

Radio used to be in the center of that. Stations would promote, and in many cases sponsor, and sometimes broadcast, live events. DJs — local DJs — would interview touring singers and bands on the air. DJs played a much broader mix of music, not just the top hits as defined by record label promotion.

And music stores used to be in the center of that as well. For true fans, perhaps they still are, but a vastly greater number of music purchasers abandoned them some years ago in favor of lower prices, disregarding the meager selection. Today’s music stores — the big box stores — don’t have knowledgeable salespeople recommending stuff, and they don’t have the stuff that a knowledgeable person would recommend anyway. Walmart.com has 90,000 CDs, but the stores themselves carry only a small fraction of that.

And don’t underestimate Wal-mart’s power. According to a December article at MTV.com, “The Eagles’ Wal-Mart-only LP, Long Road Out of Eden, [debuted] at #1 on the Billboard albums chart with sales of more than 711,000 copies.”

My hunch is that movie soundtracks and now videogame music are incredibly important now because they’re one of the few ways we have of hearing something new without seeking it out. It’s not surprising that ever since at least Buffy, television shows have also been introducing new music.

The music ecosystem is vast and deep, and it includes everything from cover bands to sheet music to marching bands to high school musicals to elevators and bars and banks and your own desk when you’re placed on hold on the phone. But the traditionally biggest sources of new music for most people aren’t delivering it. The ecosystem is out of whack and new predators of people’s time, from videogames to mobile phone calls, are rushing in.

The question the major labels should ask itself is whether music fans have enough ways to find new music even when we include sampling it on file-sharing networks. The last thing the industry needs to do is shut down its last best hope for the ecology of music to find a new balance.

Posted in politics, pop culture, technology, the arts | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Taxes fair and foul

Posted by metaphorical on 31 December 2007

In an interesting article about the so-called “fair tax,” the LA Times mentions in passing a key reason Mike Huckabee has jumped from the pack in the polls. (A recent AP poll put him first, though within the margin of error.)

Anyone who has watched the Republican debates knows that Huckabee is one of several candidates who would close the doors at the IRS. The tax proposal in question is one that would create a national sales tax of 23% and abolish the income tax.

The LAT article describes a group called Fairtax.org.

The group has spent about $2.5 million to mobilize supporters in early caucus and primary states, and plans to spend $1 million more in coming months.

As a nonprofit, it cannot endorse a candidate. But it lets people know where the candidates stand — and that Huckabee is a particularly strong backer of the tax.

According to the article, “The group’s biggest push was in Iowa leading up to the August straw poll.”

Fairtax.org rented 10 buses and paid the $35 individual fee for 400 tickets to the event.

Huckabee placed second, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and garnered the first major coverage he had received in the campaign.

Is it the only reason Huckabee has emerged as a leading candidate? Of course not. But as the Times points out, “For Huckabee, the proposal may prove a politically useful antidote to the intense criticism he has taken from his party’s anti-tax wing for overseeing several tax increases as Arkansas governor.”

Furthermore, Huckabee benefits from still being a big unknown. The AP notes that according to its polling, “Fifty percent of all voters and 40 percent of Republicans say they don’t know enough about Huckabee to say if they like him or not.”

To be sure, the Republican race is still wide open. Here are the AP numbers:

Mike Huckabee, 22 percent

Rudy Giuliani, 21 percent

John McCain, 14 percent

Mitt Romney, 13 percent

Fred Thompson, 11 percent

The November numbers were,

Giuliani 27 percent

Thompson 17 percent

McCain 15 percent

Romney 11 percent

Huckabee 9 percent.

A month from now things will look very different. Only 3 or 4 candidates will be viable after New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina. It’ll be interesting to see if Huckabee is one of them. Right now, my money is on him being the Howard Dean of 2008 — a candidate who peaks too early and won’t survive the press attention and financial demands of front-runner status. On the other hand, it’s hard to see who of his opponents will emerge as the Republicans’ Kerry.

Meanwhile, the “fair tax” is a two-edged sword as a campaign issue.

The Times article points out that according to a number of experts, 23% isn’t nearly enough to bring in revenue equivalent to today’s income tax.

William G. Gale, a tax expert at the centrist Brookings Institution think tank, estimates that the levy could run as high as 50% — a tax so steep that it would be an invitation to mass tax evasion.

“It’s a crackpot plan,” said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and former Treasury Department official who is a leading critic of the sales tax. “Anyone who supports it should not be taken seriously.”

To my own thinking, something needs to be done. A flat income tax would be grossly unprogressive — except compared to today’s twisted tax code, which allows the rich to pay very little in the way of taxes.

A single rate of, say, 20%, along with a modest national sales tax of, say, 10%, would be roughly revenue neutral and take from the rich at least what they’re paying now, and perhaps more so. (There would have to be some form of credit for the working poor and lower middle class. Even Huckabee’s proposal has something along those lines.)

With such a scheme, we could largely eliminate the IRS after all, and tax policy would no longer be used as a means to advance certain ideas about how people should best live, such as home ownership, or heterosexual-only marriages.

As misguided and unrealistic as the Fairtax.org/Huckabee proposals are, they tap into something that resonates with the American public. The tax code today is too complex, has too many loopholes, and lets rich people and corporations pay far too little. If something isn’t done about that, crazy ideas will have to be taken more seriously than they deserve.

Posted in politics, technology | 12 Comments »

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing

Posted by metaphorical on 27 December 2007

Apparently, Dreamgirls started a nightmare year for the music industry. MTV has done a good job cataloguing, among other things, how much music distribution changed in 2007.

The industry seems completely off the rails. My own prediction is that the major labels will lose control of distribution entirely within the next two years and shrink to almost nothing. Here are some of the highlights—that is, lowlights—of this train-wreck of a year.

In January,

The “Dreamgirls” soundtrack tops the Billboard albums chart with sales of just over 60,000 copies. It’s the lowest sales total for a #1 album in SoundScan’s 16-year run.

In March

Paul McCartney leaves longtime label EMI to sign with Starbucks’ new record label, Hear Music. His album, Memory Almost Full, is released in June through both traditional retailers and more than 6,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S., and sells more than 160,000 copies in its first week.

In July, Prince released a new album for

for free with the Sunday edition of the British newspaper The Mail. It’s estimated that 2.27 million people receive the album, which helps boost sales of tickets for his 21-night stand at London’s O2 arena.

October saw the well-publicized Radiohead album release.

The bandmembers, who have been free agents since the release of 2003’s Hail to the Thief, decide to release the album by themselves in two formats: download-only, which allows fans to name their price for the album, and as a deluxe “discbox” version (priced at approximately $80).

October also saw Trent Reznor ending a “13-year relationship with Interscope Records” and Madonna finalizing “a massive 10-year deal with Live Nation, believed to be worth $120 million.”

A month later, the Eagles released an album exclusively at Wal-Mart. It debuted

at #1 on the Billboard albums chart with sales of more than 711,000 copies. The total nearly triples that of the country’s #2 album, Britney Spears’ Blackout, and gives the group — which hadn’t released an album of new studio material in 28 years — the second-highest debut of 2007.

Meanwhile,

Reigning “American Idol” champ Jordin Sparks’ self-titled debut lands at #10 on the Billboard chart with sales of 119,000 copies. It’s the lowest first-week sales total for any “Idol” winner — by more than 180,000 copies.

In December, Island Def Jam laid off “nearly 6 percent of its staff” despite the fact that a hip-hop album, Kanye West’s Graduation was the best-selling #1 album of the year and it and 50 Cent’s new album, Curtis, made September the industry’s best, or at least least-worst, month of a disastrous and confusing year.

The smart record labels will become pure producers and marketers in a way that I described a bit earlier this month. As these lowlights show, there’s just no need for the labels to manage the distribution of music anymore; they’re just standing between artists and fans.

Madonna apparently said of her new deal, which ended a 25-year relationship with Warner Music,
“For the first time in my career, the way that my music can reach my fans is unlimited. The possibilities are endless. Who knows how my albums will be distributed in the future?”

Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | 1 Comment »

Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?

Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2007

“If anyone has questions about whether our efforts have been fruitful over the past five years — come on…. While we can’t publicize everything that we’ve done, every event, we can say definitively that our efforts over the last five years have not been for nothing.”

Now there’s a rousing defense for a $27 billion program—”our efforts have not been for nothing.”

Yes, $27 billion. The program in question is airport security, on which we apparently spend an annual $5.6 billion. The quotes come from TSA spokesman Christopher White, and the occasion for them was a study by three researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, described last week in the British Medical Journal.

According to a Reuters article, the researchers

could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks.

They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents.

Coming, as they do, from the Harvard School of Public Health, the researchers have a natural orientation toward data, when it comes to justifying the expenditure of billions of dollars for some putative public good.

The researchers said it would be interesting to apply medical standards to airport security. Screening programs for illnesses like cancer are usually not broadly instituted unless they have been shown to work.

“We’d like airport security screening to be of value. As passengers and members of the public we’d like to know the evidence and the reasoning behind these measures,” Linos said in a telephone interview.

“Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?” they asked.

Of course, we do have some data, in the form of periodic testing done by outside agencies, as reported by the GAO. So far, TSA has done nothing but fail at these tests, usually quite spectacularly. The most recent tests have concerned liquid explosives, the alleged means by which some British transatlantic flights were going to be blown up back in August 2006. Here’s a snippet from a GAO report from last month.

Our investigators succeeded in passing through TSA security screening checkpoints undetected with components for several IEDs and an improvised incendiary device (IID) 4 concealed in their carry-on luggage and on their persons. The components for these devices and the items used to conceal the components were commercially available.

Here’s the part I like:

By using concealment methods for the components, two GAO investigators demonstrated that it is possible to bring the components for several IEDs and one IID through TSA checkpoints and onto airline flights without being challenged by transportation security officers. In most cases, transportation security officers appeared to follow TSA procedures and used technology appropriately

In other words, the problem isn’t (just) incompetent TSA security officials. The problem is incompetent TSA security. We’re spending billions of dollars annually for procedures that simply do not make us more secure. At a minimum, the burden of proof is on TSA to show that they have some efficacy.

It’s one thing for TSA to say that they have to move fast to react to newly proved threats, for example the British liquid explosive plot. It’s another thing for TSA to maintain these nonsensical procedures well over a year later; to spend billions to keep us from carrying a bottle of water or cup of coffee through security with absolutely no justification for the belief that it makes us any safer.

Posted in politics, technology | 4 Comments »

Books not dead yet

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2007

Webster University and Lee University have each “announced the creation of their own university presses,” Inside Higher Ed reported today.

The article calls this “a challenging time for the economics of scholarly publishing” and notes that they “will both publish in cooperation with other entities.”

I can guess what that means. Both the organization I work for and the one I worked for before that—professional societies each—had a Press unit that, during my tenure, developed “cooperation” agreements with large academic publishers. The book operation where I am now, for example, publishes them in cooperation with Wiley Press.

In such a situation, the Press isn’t exactly an imprint of the bigger publisher. My organization does all the up-front work of acquiring and editing manuscripts. Wiley handles production and distribution. The two do their own marketing in, um, cooperation. Each, in other words, does what it’s good at.

With the development of digital technologies, I wonder if music won’t eventually go a similar route. Why aren’t there small imprint labels that develop acts and produce them? Let the big record companies handle manufacturing and distribution. Well, in a sense, we may see a little of that—except that in the iPod/iTunes era, manufacturing and distribution are somewhat trivial. [ADDED: Music distribution was the subject of a forward blog entry, here.]

Well, let’s turn it around then. When will manufacturing and distribution become trivial for books?

As a partial answer to that, I saw my first Sony Digital Reader in the wild yesterday on the subway. The guy next to its owner was quizzing her as if it were an iPhone on June 30th. I heard her to say she’d had it since September and loves it. Maybe when ebooks are are common as iPods, the small universities and and the professional societies won’t need the “cooperation” of “other entities.”

Posted in journalism, pop culture, technology, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Robots and hip-hop artists of the world, unite!

Posted by metaphorical on 12 December 2007

I defy anyone to not read a story that begins,

“A University of Iowa professor dressed as a robot interrupted Bill Clinton at a campaign stop here late Monday, screaming for an apology before security escorted him from the building.”

(Thanks to KTK, in private correspondence, for the link.) Kembrew McLeod, a tenured professor in the U of I’s Communications Dept., wanted Clinton to apologize for a remark he made 15 years ago in the wake of the Rodney King trial. (Yes, that’s 15 years, which is 105 for dogs, and about 750 for current events.) As the Des Moines Register explains it,

Sister Souljah made statements to the Washington Post about the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked when an all-white jury acquitted the white police officers who were captured on tape beating a black man, Rodney King.

Her statement focused on how society largely ignores black-on-black violence. It included the quote: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

That quote has largely been picked up on its own, without the larger context. Clinton, in June of 1992, gave a speech at the Rainbow Coalition, which compared Sister Souljah’s quote to David Duke, a former white supremist.

“If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech,” Bill Clinton said in 1992.

The Register helpfully links to a 45-second YouTube video. If you watch it, you’ll see that McLeod starts walking out almost before campus police ask him to. The “robot” costume, by the way, is pure hoke, and I mean that in a good way. Picture whatever sci-fi movie had the lowest production values you’ve ever seen and now scale it down to 1950s Saturday morning kids television.

This is nonviolent protest at its finest, a subject my friend Angus Johnston discussed a couple of weeks ago in a 40-minute interview on the webvideo show “Shoot The Messenger.” (It can also be found here.)

The show’s host, Lizz Winstead (a co-founder of The Daily Show and an early force in Air America), asked him about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University, the UCLA taser incident, and the history and general decline of protest in America.

I think Angus would greatly approve of McLeod’s protest. The interruption to Clinton’s speech was brief and entertaining. McLeod stood on a chair, shouted his question to Clinton, and threw some business cards containing a URL into the crowd. When asked who he was, he said “It’s all in there,” and threw more cards into the air. And you have to like his explanation for leaving so quickly. “This is Iowa so they were polite and I was polite. When they told me I had to leave, I did.”

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture, technology | Leave a Comment »

And how would the candidates know what to say, anyway?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 November 2007

Here’s an interesting development in the Hollywood writer’s strike: it may affect the next Democratic presidential debate.

New York, NY (AHN) – The ongoing writer’s strike in Hollywood has started to have an effect on the political arena, as the upcoming CBS presidential debate is being threatened as candidates refuse to cross the picket lines should the station writers decide to join the strike.

Although CBS news writers have yet to talk of joining the strike, guild leaders are allowed to call one at any time, should they see it necessary. Candidates have been publicly announcing their respect for the strikers, as many of them have canceled television appearances for the sake of not crossing picket lines.

And not just the debates:

United Press International reported that Sen. John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth have canceled a scheduled appearance on “The View” so as not to cross the picket lines of the Writes Guild of America.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Newspaper and magazine writers had to get their digital due from the Supreme Court (Tasini vs NY Times).

What is it about digital that makes media companies think it’s any different from any other form that a work can take? Does it really matter, when it comes to paying a writer, whether you watch an episode of CSI on your television screen or your iPod?

Here’s the best statement of the writer’s point of view I’ve seen. It’s less than 2 minutes long and managest to say everything that needs to be said.

Studios, just pay the people with the talent. All of them. Just pay them and stop whining.

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture, screenwriting, technology, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

A food conversion George Costanza could endorse

Posted by metaphorical on 18 September 2007

GEORGE: …So, anyway, if you think about it, manure is not really that bad a word. I mean, it’s ‘newer’, which is good, and a ‘ma’ in front of it, which is also good. Ma-newer , right?

MARISA TOMEI: (laughing) You’re so right. I never thought of it like that. Manure. ‘Ma’ and the ‘newer’.

Marisa laughs and George is smiling happily.

MARISA: Did you just make that up?

GEORGE: What, you think I’m doing material here?

MARISA: (laughs) No, no. It’s hard to believe anyone could be so spontaneously funny.

Okay, for the purposes of this post, only the first piece of dialogue was needed, but don’t you just love this whole scene?

University researchers in Idaho may have figured out how to ameliorate one of the worst environmental problems of the meat industries — the vast stores of manure produced by cattle, hogs, and chickens. As the AP reported last week:

University of Idaho and Idaho State University scientists are working on a new maggot-based feed capable of fattening rainbows for the dinner table, while simultaneously helping slash growing mounds of manure and fish entrails.

Idaho is America’s largest commercial producer of trout, with the industry bringing in more than $35 million annually. And with 500,000 cows, it’s surpassed Pennsylvania as the nation’s fourth-biggest dairy state.

That got Sophie St. Hilaire, an aquatic species veterinarian, thinking: Why couldn’t dairies use a slurry of cow dung and trout intestines to grow maggots rich in fatty acids that make fish so good for humans?

“Animal waste management engineer Ron Sheffield, of the University of Idaho, gathers manure in buckets, then seeds it with fly eggs imported from a commercial insect grower.” Later, fish guts are added. The maggots are captured, washed, ground up and frozen, and then shipped to a rainbow trout run at a Snake river test station. “The fish seem to have developed a taste for them,” the AP article says.

“It makes sense to me that the black soldier flies are closer to their natural food than corn and soybean meal,” said Sheffield, an avid angler.

Meanwhile, the environmental benefits are potentially huge.

Black soldier flies, already used in Asia to eat restaurant waste, can reduce manure by 50 percent, turning it quickly to insect biomass. In fact, they’re being studied in southern states including North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, whose big poultry and hog industries hope to harness the flies’ voracious appetite for manure.

They’re also a tropical species that can’t survive Idaho’s harsh winters, St. Hilaire said, making it unlikely adult flies that might escape could establish themselves and become pests. And though adult flies resemble wasps, they don’t bite.

The article cites some hurdles along the way toward commercialization of the idea.

Dairy farms would have to erect sizable facilities to raise the maggots. A distribution system must be developed. And after harvest, the maggots must be stored for long periods, then mixed seamlessly with other fish food ingredients in existing feed mills.

Still, that’s no different from the various other convoluted tendrils of the cattle culture’s manufacturing and distribution chains. Which, in turn, are not that different from those in many other industries, such as the manufacturing of concrete, which depends on an ash produced in coal-based electricity power plants.

This isn’t going to solve the animal cruelty issues, nor the health consequences of overconsumption of meat and dairy. And hard-core animal-rights people are going to have separate problems with anything that promotes the raising and harvesting of fish. But it does seem like a worthwhile measure to pursue, while waiting for the world to wake up to the other disastrous problems of exploiting animals for food.

Posted in animal-rights, technology | 4 Comments »

11:59

Posted by metaphorical on 17 August 2007

“Not only is it the 11th hour, but it’s 11:59″
— the documentary The 11th Hour

The movie The 11th Hour is opening this weekend. Although I had a couple of negative things to say about it in a review I wrote at my magazine, overall, I can only recommend in the strongest terms that you go see it.

Time’s Up?

A new documentary considers humanity’s dubious future

The movie starts where An Inconvenient Truth leaves off, that is, by assuming the truth of global warming and human responsibility for at least a large share of it. After reviewing the 200-year-old Industrial Revolution’s buildup of greenhouse gases, the movie moves on to other assaults on the environment: the destruction of rain forests and resulting deserts and drought; water pollution and overfishing of the oceans; corporate free riding on the externalities of pollutions of all kinds; and the consumer culture by which we vote with our pocketbooks to continue to trash the world instead of restoring it. These are long-established concerns but packaged in vivid new ways. “Logging in Canada,” the film offers by way of example, “puts as much carbon into the atmosphere as all of the cars in California every year.”  more

MoveOn is promoting the film, and a trailer (which is also also below) and more information can be found at the movie’s website. (Unfortunately, the movie site doesn’t have a theatre locator, instead you have to sign up for SMS and e-mail updates. Instead, just use a regular locator, such as Moviefone’s, here.)

Posted in Orwell, politics, technology | Leave a Comment »

Shake, rattle, Osama?

Posted by metaphorical on 18 July 2007

The fire in Manhattan today (CNN.com story here) was a little disconcerting to those of still in the office, a mere seven blocks away.

Though it turned out to be a steam explosion leading to a transformer fire (with at least three people injuredUpdate: One death), our thoughts immediately turned to past disasters, especially given the obvious proximity to Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building, two obvious potential targets.

A little after 6:00pm EDT, I heard a rumbling, which I took to be thunder, since it had rained in the morning, heavily enough for several trains between Queens and Manhattan to be out of service from flooding. The rumbling continued, though, and eventually I looked out my window to see smoke billowing from what looked to be Grand Central. A minute later, the sounds of firetrucks and then police cars could be heard, and they I can still hear them every few minutes as I write this, about 8:00pm.

The view from my office was excellent:

transformer_fire.jpg

and that from my editor’s office even better. Our photo editor took a shot from there and sent it to CNN before heading home to Brooklyn, as best she can. By 7:20 or so, it was up on cnn.com as the third of three pictures of the event.

transformer-cnn.jpg

Commuting is going to be quite a nightmare tonight and, surely, tomorrow. My own train lines uptown have been re-routed, so I’ll end up on a bus, in a taxi, or just walking (60 blocks). It’s the people in Queens who have the big problems though. The 7 train runs through Grand Central and has been re-routed as well, so Queens people have very few options, given the flooding problems of the day. My mother drives in most days and at 6:10 was stuck in terrible traffic near the 59th Street Bridge. I’m sure the local news will have shots tonight of people walking across the bridge.

It looked bad for a while, but it turned out to be just another day in the Big Apple.

Posted in journalism, language, technology | 4 Comments »

China vs the good life

Posted by metaphorical on 14 July 2007

mega011.jpg

In an e-mail note, longtime reader and commenter ClaireDePlume takes me to task for my high tolerance for China’s leaders and their economic and political policies. (See for example my travel memo here, but more formally, in a recent article about China and sustainability here, and one two years that explicitly discusses Chinese censorship here.)

Ms DePlume has graciously permitted me to turn our private exchange into fodder for this blog. She gets the first and last words.


Claire:

As we discussed, here is the clip (YouTube, here) of auto workers actually inside a press. China vies for global economic status at a great cost—”modern”manufacturing in a country with a highly expendable workforce and inadequate labour laws. Meanwhile, Western capitalists salivate dollar bills as they court their newest potential money mate.

I did a brief search for statistics and fatalities but information is not as quick to find as hoped. China controls it’s stats and appears not to share this data, at least not in the obvious places. Most of their data is provided to lure business, not shock Western labour lobbyists & human rights groups.


Thank you for the link. I’m of two minds on China, though one of them is not a very popular view.

The Chinese economy started in 1980 from almost zero. That year, the first Special Economic Zone, the fishing village of Shenzhen had a population in the hundreds. Less than 30 years later, it is one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world. The second economic zone, Pudong, now has a skyline more beautiful than New York’s, a huge and spectacular airport, and the world’s only functioning Maglev train. Pudong’s success is one of the things making Shanghai twice the size of New York, soon to be the largest seaport in the world, and the world’s largest shipbuilder as well. Shanghai gets much of its power from the Three Gorges Dam, one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the past 100 years. Yet, as successful as they are, these projects are one side of a coin that has economic and cultural disaster depicted on the other. The cultural genocide of Tibet of course is disaster #1. Three Gorges displaced several million peasants into almost completely dysfunctional new and artificial cities. The Forbidden City and the Great Wall are cheap theme parks now. The list goes on.

The conditions of the factory workers are horrific, both for working and for living. And yet they come from the countryside, many probably expecting a better life, many surely knowing, from friends and relatives, exactly what to expect. And they keep coming.

They keep coming despite the fact that the first thing the post-Mao governments did in the 1980s was stabilize the rural economy, the agrarian sector, so that no one would starve. These people do not have to leave the farms in the west for the cities in the east. They choose to come, looking for a better life. The conditions they live and work under are the same – the very same – as those my grandmother and grandfather, who chose, separately, to come to the U.S. 100 years ago. And today they still come. The faces are different – they are browner, and yellower, and the jobs are different – perhaps a meatpacking plant in Iowa, instead of a sewing shop in New York City or an auto assembly line in Flint, but still they come.

We in the U.S. so easily condemn the Turks for the Armenian genocide, when in the early 20th century the blood had barely stopped flowing from our own Native American genocide. So too, our immigrants chose to sacrifice themselves for a generation to make a better life for their children and their grandchildren, and yet we so quickly condemn the Chinese for making the same choice. (And the blood had just started flowing on the killing fields of Europe. We are so quick to allow 30 or 30,000 to die in battle for nothing, but not 30 to build an economy. But that is too callous a calculation for even me.)

We are like the California immigrants who move to Seattle and then five years later complain about all the Californians still coming. “I’ve got mine, now close the door.” We built an economic engine that can now comfortably keep us in food and iPods even in second gear, and we want to close the door and say, “From now on, everyone has to get here without 14-hour days and sleeping 14 to an apartment.” Even though that’s what it took for us to get here.

Leave the comparisons between the Somme and the sweatshops to others more cynical than us. But can we ask ourselves whether we could have the North American economy we do without allowing 43,000 to die annually on highways? We want the economy we have, which would be impossible without the mobility we have. And so we each enter a lottery with our bodies as the stakes every time we open the car door, and every year, 43,000 people lose that lottery. (We could, for example, close the highways from midnight to 6:00am and save half those lives.) The Chinese workers in their car plants know that their fingers and arms and entire bodies are the stakes in their lottery.

Would we prefer not to have these games of chance? That every factory be safe? That our roads be safer? Of course. Will be accept that cars be more expensive, that the meat from the meatpacking plant cost more, that we must drive slower and less often? Apparently not.

I hate what the Chinese are doing. And I hate our hypocrisy in condemning it. And so I say let us clean up our own house. And let us let them come to the city, to the factory, to a modern economy. If they themselves find it to be a better life, let them come into it.


Claire:

I’ve read your letter about China 3 times—trying to wrap my mind around this situation without taking a personal stance. I appreciate the background—it helps me to see more clearly (I hope). and Yes, I’ve thought much on your observations in order to understand – understand why people play the life lottery with odds most often stacked in favour of the house, not the players.

China has been cocooned from the west and capitalism for ages, but the visual age of communication is dawning there too, and their politics can no longer “protect” them, and maybe there is no wish to protect any longer. The apple has been bitten once again.

No doubt, when others “see” what they perceive as life in a capitalistic society, they see only the best. They do not know of the soul sucking and life robbing price people pay for this, now or in the past. Nor do they care. They do not see the earth littered with the bones of others; they see only fertile soil for growing all of their dreams. Whether these dreams are visions of their own creation or ones of desire planted from other pollinating sources is immaterial. All they know is that they want a better life, and they are oblivious to the cost. Like all brave new wanderers in a new land, they are cavalier when they must answer the question, “at what cost?”.

When I sent this clip to you, I was the 5 or 6th recipient in an e-mail chain. Most of the comments to introduce this clip were glib and mocking and derisive—made by the more worldly apes of the west more seasoned and knowing than the naive players new to the game of working off one’s ass. Then there was some discussion in the office by those I work with, equally callous and condescending. Those brief, careless words coloured my opinion of the role we play as “older students of capitalism.”

While we are no more able to change the world than we are able to circumnavigate the universe or explain the meaning of life, it doesn’t give us permission to turn our backs on exploitations such as this. If Columbus had been operating under the watchful eye of his own society, would he have plundered the New World so easily and freely? If the British had managed only a tacit peace with other nations to master the Americas, would they have exploited the settlers and the Native peoples as they did?

To know oneself, is to know your own behaviour when you think no one is looking… and as we are evolving more and more into a visual society more than an auditory one, then when we “see” the apple being bitten into, perhaps it’s time to raise a red flag – one high enough, and bold enough it cannot be ignored?


Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, technology, travel | 2 Comments »

Switched

Posted by metaphorical on 10 July 2007

My graduation in May was attended by my mother, my wife, and my stepdaughter. Last night, I switched the third and last of them: my mother.

Remember Apple’s “Switched” ad campaign?

It was only 5 years ago, but I barely remember it myself. Occasionally, it included the famous (Yo Yo Ma) and the semi-famous (the surfer Kelly Slater). More common, though were the ads with unknown people, including one that the commercials themselves made famous, at least for 15 minutes. The campaign even inspired some great parodies, such as the Switch Gates.

Anyway, none of these ads had the slightest impact on my mom, or Rachel, or Juliane. They blithely continued their PC ways, even if they thought the ads themselves were cute.

In early 2003, Rachel decided to get herself a new laptop, and did finally consider a Mac. But it seemed pretty unlikely, and I spec’d out the Sony Viao that I was sure she’d end up with. As it happens, I was going on a climbing vacation and invited her to use my Mac for the week. By the second day she was hooked and couldn’t wait for me to get home and help her buy one.

By late 2006, Rachel had just gotten her second Mac when we got a call from Juliane, who was at college, happily using her (of course) Sony Viao laptop. Until she tripped over the power cord and sent it flying across the room. (Has the Will It Blend guy ever done a Viao? If so, his Viao would look a lot worse than Juliane’s. Hers was pretty disfunctional though.) Since the Viao was going to be out for repair, Rachel drove down to Princeton and lent her the first laptop, an iBook. To make a story short, the Viao never went for repair, Juliane’s dad generously bought her a new computer, and she chose a 17-inch MacBook Pro.

I myself was a reluctant Switcher, back in 1999. I was really entrenched, having written my first Autoexec.bat file in 1982. That’s 17 years of DOS and Windows power-use. In 1999, at a new position at work, I was given a G4 PowerBook. I managed to break the little latch on the first day. It took me a week to grudgingly like OS 9, and at least another week to finally love it.

My mother, though, seemed an even less likely candidate for Switchdom. It’s not that she’s resistant to change, or to technology. Back in the late 1980s, she dove into pre-Windows DOS with style. She was working part-time, and when she needed to create and use a database and I set her up with Paradox, and she ended up learning it better than I ever did. She moved through WordPerfect to Word, DOS to Windows. She uses cellphones, DVRs, and anything else the world, me, or her grandsons throw at her. (Digglahhh is the one who made her get a DVR.)

Still, that was a history of 20 years of familiarity, if not exactly comfort, with Microsoft. So when she decided to give herself a new computer and her old one to Digglahhh’s brother, she could have gotten a nice ThinkPad or another Dell. I’m still not sure what the turning point was toward the Mac, but it might have been viruses and worms. She’s just beside herself that it just isn’t much of a problem at all for a Mac. (Yes, I know, someday it will be precisely because so many 71 year old grandmothers are switching.)

She got last year’s black 2.0 GHz MacBook at a close-out sale price, adding a second gig of RAM. We went back to her apartment to get her set up – online with her router, Office installed, a .mac account, and so on. I just called her to see if she loves it yet. “I haven’t had much time with it today,” she said. “But I’m liking a lot already.”

She has a couple of learning curves. I had suggested she try getting used to the trackpad and only get a mouse if she can’t. But she, a southpaw, isn’t very dextrous with her right hand. And she’ll probably cling to AOL for a while. There’s also the whole similar-menus-across-the-top, the Finder, and getting used to the idea that just clicking something that should do something will, 9 times out of 10, actually do it. All the things all of us who were switched have had to get used to, much to our delight.

Posted in pop culture, technology | 1 Comment »

Wirelessless

Posted by metaphorical on 5 July 2007

I’ve been on a little hiatus, a 5-day weekend spent mostly rock climbing in the Adirondacks. Before heading out though, I picked up the greatest artifact in human history since the lightbulb, and finally, today, blogged at work about taking the iPhone to that land of trout streams, mountains, meadows, and minimal cellular coverage.

One of our interns and I spent Friday afternoon waiting together on line at the Times Square AT&T store, customers #13 and #14. His terrific blog entry, describing his day, is here. If you don’t read my entry, at least read his.

Posted in pop culture, technology, travel | 3 Comments »

Whose space?

Posted by digglahhh on 30 June 2007

So, as the family sociologist, Meta asked me to write about America’s class divisions as signaled by the choices teenagers are making between Myspace and Facebook. The issue comes up because of an article by sociologist Danah Boyd that is circulating the net. The crux of the Boyd’s argument is that teens of higher socio-economic class and other “good” teens are more likely to use Facebook, and those of lower socio-economic class are more likely to use Myspace.

Here’s a more detailed description of Boyd’s “good” teens:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

Boyd acknowledges that “good” and “bad” are loaded terms here, but she persists in using them. Here are the “bad” teens:

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

One of the arguments put forth in the essay, and particularly the comments section on the accompanying blog entry, notes the differences between making “friends” and “contacts.” Facebook, particularly because of its genesis in the collegiate world (originally in Harvard), is more suited to “networking” and cultivating relationships that can be professionally advantageous. Myspace relationships are less substantive. I fail to see a major distinction on a behavioral level. I don’t differentiate talking to a classmate because her dad works at Smith Barney from talking to a classmate because her breasts are three-quarters exposed. They are both inherently selfish actions.

The distinctions make for some glaring contradictions. For example, “jocks” are included in the hegemonic group, and associated with higher socio-economic status and social mobility, the group that is considered mostly white. Does that imply that there are no “jocks” in poorer schools, or that the moneyed class disproportionately produces our best athletes? Surely schoolyard culture has its jock heroes. Boyd might want to tune into some professional sports that are popular in America, or introduce herself to Pacman Jones or Tank Johnson. She might also want to educate herself about the dark underside of recruiting and academic eligibility slight-of-hand often used to siphon top high school athletes into collegiate athletic programs.

I’m not going to get wrapped up in the Facebook versus Myspace socio-economic question. If the usage differs along socio-economic lines, it is merely another manifestation of a phenomenon we’ve seen with cellular phone providers, e-mail servers, etc. Why the known fact that “taste” is inherently dialectical would not apply to technological applications is beyond me.

What I want to take issue with is the way social and economic class is discussed in this article, and the value judgments that accompany the discussion. This essay is full of broad generalizations, arbitrary characterization, and contradiction; these characteristics belie the ethnographic methodology the author professes. Ethnography’s greatest strength is dealing with nuance, getting beyond stereotype. Early in the essay, we read:

In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around “class” is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like “working class” and “middle class” and “upper class” get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income

All her anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels?… Whoa! I have friends who work in low-level service jobs and read Engels, and they disagree with one another about politics and culture as well as the really important matters (for example, whether the spitting incident on the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld [“The Boyfriend”] centering around a key Hernandez error, on June 14, 1987, that “opened the door to a five run Philly ninth” compromised quality of the episode, because the actual box score from that date contradicts all those circumstances). If this is the level of stereotypical depiction she’s going to use to describe her friends, how imprecise and sloppy can we expect it to get when she begins discussing people she doesn’t know personally?

I’m not doing justice to ( Kotamraju’s) arguments but it makes sense. My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland just because the share the same income bracket. Their lives are quite different. Unfortunately, with this framing, there aren’t really good labels to demarcate the class divisions that do exist. For this reason, I will attempt to delineate what we see on social network sites in stereotypical, descriptive terms meant to evoke an image.

Oh, okay, that was intentionally stereotypical and shallow. But, your friends may want to read Engels again. If your friends are making the same money as the “Oakland janitor,” but are somehow living in materially better conditions, either somebody needs to call H.U.D. or they are being supported by their boomer mommies and daddies, and that’s the reason they aren’t the same class as the “Oakland janitor.”

By the way, the Engels argument is dropped for the rest of the piece, which talks about those of lower socio-economic class without delving into why they may have lower income levels. Are their parents Engels-reading baristas, or are they Oakland janitors? This is especially curious since some of the sub-categories of the predominantly Myspace-teens are “art-fags,” “punks,” “queer-kids” and others whose identities are related to a rejection of dominant value structures more than a failure to live up to them.

Boyd breaks down the teenagers she studies into two groups, “hegemonic” teens and “subaltern” teens. Later she speaks about them in the terms of “good” and “bad” The first set of terms are weighted with academic baggage, and are bad choices, which she acknowledges. The other set is terribly oversimplified, almost guaranteeing more false dichotomies to come – and they do. At one point, Boyd remarks that she’s seen more “half-naked, drink-carrying high school students on Facebook than on Myspace.” This is relayed as an oddity, yet it actually proves her point. Boyd associates Facebook with college, and college-bound high-schoolers. Well, documenting oneself half-naked and drink-carrying IS A COLLEGE THING. Or maybe I missed the release of “Girls Gone Wild, Compton.”

By setting up these vague, and mutually-exclusive categories, and attaching value-judgment-laden language we are thrown into familiarly choppy waters of false dichotomies, identity binaries and absolutes. Later, as she talks about the teens codifying her categorical distinctions, she writes:

Subaltern teens who go to more mixed-class schools see Facebook as “what the good kids do” or “what the preps do.” They have various labels for these hegemonic teens but they know the division, even if they don’t have words for it.

The shoddy distinctions and less than impressive ethnography makes the reader question whether Boyd is capable of, or accurate when, discerning the implicit distinctions she alludes to the teens making. What words do they have? Perhaps if we hear them, we can get a better understanding of how they codify their categorical distinctions.

Oversimplifications abound. There are numerous references to the “average Latino user,” as if second-generation New York Puerto Ricans, the grandchildren of Castro refugees in Miami, and first-generation Mexicans in Albequerque share a culture. There is no deeper exploration of the “Latino user” community, nor does she even glance at MiGente, which many Latinos use instead of, or in addition to, MySpace.

When discussing the flamboyant aesthetics of Myspace, she refers to it as a “bling” style, stating that the aesthetic is rooted in hip-hop culture where such “brash visual displays are accepted and valued.” There is no distinction made between commercial hip-hop culture, which does promote such imagery, and non-commercial hip-hop, which does not. There’s no attempt to understand the context of contemporary hip-hop culture.

These are, precisely, the more nuanced distinctions that an ethnographic epistemology is designed to understand, and for which we forewent a more superficial but comprehensive statistical approach.

Tangentially, if hip-hop is the most dominant global music and culture of the youth, is it really even correct to classify it (especially, the commercial version) as “subaltern” as opposed to hegemonic? After all, many prominent hip-hop figures are “hegemonics” who market themselves as “subalterns.”

The essay concludes with a discussion of Boyd’s concerns for the future of the youth, both the “hegemonic” and “subaltern” teens. The discussion is barely relevant and frames the issues in a fashion that reeks of disconnected liberalism.

The false dichotomies and absolutism doom the piece from the start, as it focuses on separating two groups, using two social network services that are more similar than different, but focusing on the differences.

Certainly, there are differences between social and economic class, but they overlap more than they diverge, especially in an increasingly consumer-driven culture. Many of these categories of students were based on appearance. If that’s the case, then access to cultural groups can be purchased with a credit card.

Styles, even in their pure forms, overlap. What does it mean to be identified as any one of these groups? Real identities are complex; many of those on opposite sides of the social and economic class gaps have both envy and disdain for their counterparts. Street thugs don’t know whether they want to rob their idols or work for them. These dynamics are evidence of the complexities, and multi-tiered constructions of class identity.

Facebook and Myspace are, essentially, consumer choices. If there is a difference in the using body, the prospective users are given the opportunity to choose who they want to identify themselves with. Similarly, they are given the opportunity of what groups to identify with when they buy a pair of sneakers, or choose which movie to see. Those choices are not necessarily inclined to match a person’s more objective class status, professional tract, or moral foundation. There is a potential chicken-and-egg issue at play here too. Do people of a certain status make a consumer decision as a result of that status, or is their projected class identity a product of the consumer decisions they make?

Consumer driven culture teaches us to judge the book, or at least value it, by its cover. At the same time, it increases the chances those judgments will be wrong. Boyd’s essay, nomenclature and problematic attachment of values emphasize these dangers.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, technology | 3 Comments »

Raising girls

Posted by metaphorical on 20 June 2007

IOUtattoo

Somehow, this Father’s Day was all about tattoos.

First there was an article in Sunday’s NY Times about untattooing. (“Erasing Tattoos, Out of Regret or for a New Canvas.”) Actually, first came the envelope that Juliane handed me on Friday night. But I didn’t know that.

Then came an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Roy Peter Clark, “Raising girls: Unpredictable paths certain.” Roy is usually a good writer with something thoughtful to say. In fact, he’s a good enough writer that he teaches writing and his ““Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” has at least 25 or 30 really good tips.

This piece, though, not so much.

When I first dreamed of a daughter — back in 1972 — the dream did not include that tattoo on her ankle, or the one on her shoulder, or the two new ones on her wrist.

In my day, tattoos were for drunken sailors or escaped convicts, not for blond theater majors with eyes that look yellow when she wears green.

In your day, Roy, computers were the size of a warehouse, calculated nothing but accounting and nuclear missle trajectories, and were programmed in specially air-conditioned rooms by men wearing white lab coats. Oh, and burlesque houses were still around, so theatre itself as well as tattoos have become much more civilized and respectable. In other words, get over it, Roy.

My own Father’s Day was a lot more harmonious. As I say, it started on Friday night, when she came up from college to see her mother perform in a choir concert. At intermission, Juliane said, “Happy Father’s Day,” kissed me, gave me the small white letter-sized envelope, and told me not to open it. I thought she meant don’t open it until Sunday. I was away all day Saturday anyway and almost forgot about it until she called Sunday. “Did you open the envelope?” I told her no. “Asshole. Open it.” That’s my kid.

Inside were about 20 jigsaw pieces, mostly white, with bits of green on them. When I put it together, I saw that the green hand-painted lettering said

IOU 1 of tattoo
Happy Father’s Day

A little bit of backstory is needed here. Juliane and I have matching tattoos of the Greek letter pi that we got about a year ago. They were her idea and her first tattoo.

Ankle Pi

A few months later she added to it a peace symbol and a fraction-sign (/slash mark), the idea being “Peace of Pi.”

I liked the idea but somehow the fraction sign didn’t seem quite right. It took me a little while to figure out what it should be. Letting the Omega stand for the peace symbol, my addendum to the pi would make it look like this:

Ω(π)

Just as in calculus, where you read f(x) as “f of x,” this would be read, “Peace of Pi.” When, a few months ago, I told Juliane of this variation of her idea, she said it was perfect. (I think she wished she’d thought of it herself. Still, there won’t be any tattoo erasure remorse.)

The jigsaw puzzle message, though, means she wants to take me for my tattoo addendum and pay for it herself. That’s my kid. Eat your heart out, Roy.

Posted in language, pop culture, technology, the arts | 12 Comments »

 
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