Thursday, September 30, 2010

Behind the Comic Mask

I have spent enough time in New York to have a lot of respect for the 92nd Street Y.  There were times when I would attend several concerts there in the course of a single week, and that would involve taking the train down from where I lived in Stamford, Connecticut.  I knew that the stage of the Y was also a major platform for leading intellects of the world;  and my only reason for not attending those events was that my schedule was already packed to the gills with work and my interest in music.

With this as context I was more than a little curious when Jon Stewart was invited to that venue for an on-stage interview;  and I found it more than a little ironic that my curiosity was satisfied by a report filed by Georg Szalai for The Hollywood Reporter.  However, in light of how open Stewart was in talking about how he sees what he does, I suspect that this paper may have provided the most accurate and dispassionate account of his appearance.  Most important is the punch line that it is all about the satire, which was nicely captured by Szalai in a single sentence:
Asked about the real reasons for Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" and Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" at the end of October, Stewart explained that they are not a reaction to Beck specifically, but just another way to poke fun at the political process and news coverage of it.
Indeed, Stewart was more interested in ridiculing the current state of news coverage by the media than he was in taking on what they cover.  Here is how Szalai addressed this point:
But discussing what he sees as his main job, he said it is holding the media accountable. "I'm less upset about politicians than the media," he said, explaining that the former can be expected to behave a certain way, like a monkey, but the latter should play zookeeper and say "bad monkey."
This throws a new light on my own interest in Stewart's use of that noun "sanity."  First of all, when I cited Reuters for calling the rally "an apparent spoof of the recent Tea Party rally in Washington," I no longer have to accuse their establishment of using "weasel words."  It is clear that there is no need to fudge with "apparent;"  but the target of the spoof is flat-out wrong.  On the other hand my opinion that Stewart's sense of sanity was aimed primarily at our government's lack of productivity was also off the mark.  The question of sanity has more to do with both producers and consumers of news being so deluded that the Comedy Channel is often selected as the most reliable source of news.  This is a world turned on its head where the gag writers are more trusted than the policy makers.  From this point of view, it is worth noting that Stewart emphasized that fact-checking is an important part of his work, not because the Comedy Channel is committed to "journalistic integrity" but because "jokes don't work if they are lies."

Stewart thus shifted his target from Fox to his own establishment.  Doing this was certainly true to the "mission" of the Comedy Channel;  but it was also a bold act of biting the hand that feeds him.  Indeed, reducing the whole process to the question of whether or not a joke works amounts to an act of chutzpah when you are in the business of telling those jokes.  So, while the Stewart/Colbert plans for Washington might not have escalated to Chutzpah of the Week status, the approach Stewart took to disclosing his motive is more worthy.  Using the 92nd Street Y as the platform for the disclosure adds a bit of emphasis to the chutzpah, so it is a pleasure to give him the Chutzpah of the Week award for his efforts!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Productively Counterproductive

Benjamin Netanyahu can say whatever he wants to distance both himself and any "official" Israeli position from Avigdor Lieberman's speech to the United Nations;  but the content of Lieberman's speech is the moral equivalent of toothpaste out of the tube, not to mention the truly Faustian bargain that Netanyahu had to make in order to form a government in the first place.  Were this sort of thing happening in any other country, we would declare the inability of a prime minister to exercise control over any member of his cabinet, particularly a foreign minister, with a broader view of national interest in mind to be evidence of a "failed state."  In this case, however, the country is Israel;  and even the faintest suggestion that such a phrase may be applicable is as off-limits as photographs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on crutches used to be.

The good news is that there is at least one Israeli who knows how to take stock of a situation like this.  His name is Avishai Margalit, he is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and, for the purposes of this argument, he is the author of the book On Compromise And Rotten Compromises.  His Wikipedia entry provides an excellent summarization of the thesis of this book:
The book [14] deals with political compromises: what compromises are morally acceptable and what are to be rejected as unacceptable, or "rotten." The argument of the book assigns great value to the spirit of compromise in politics, while warning against rotten ones. A rotten compromise is taken to be a compromise with a regime that exercises inhuman policies, namely systematic behavior that mixes cruelty with humiliation or and treats humans as inhuman.
If we accept Max Weber's thesis that the study of politics is basically the study of the power to exercise authority, then, from a political point of view, the noun "regime" can be applied to a political institution within a country, as well as to the country itself.  This is an important perspective, since every coalition government is a product of compromise and therefore should be subject to Margalit's criteria for "rottenness."  With these criteria as a guideline, we should consider the BBC account of Lieberman's remarks to the United Nations:
In his speech, the leader of the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hinged not just on practical issues but on "emotional problems", such as the "utter lack of confidence".

"That is why the solution should also be a two-staged one," he said. "We should focus on coming up with a long-term intermediate agreement, something that could take a few decades."

"We need to raise an entire new generation that will have mutual trust and will not be influenced by incitement and extremist messages."
He also said the guiding principle for a final agreement should not be "land for peace, but rather exchange of populated territory".

"We are not talking about population transfer but about defining borders so as best to reflect the demographic reality," he added.

Mr Lieberman said the "other misguided argument is the claim that the Palestinian issue prevents a determined international front against Iran".

"In truth, the connection between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is precisely reversed. Iran can exist without Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, but the terrorist organizations cannot exist without Iran."

"Relying on these proxies Iran can, at any given time, foil any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, or with Lebanon."
What may be most important is that, in the midst of his laundry list of terrorist organizations, Lieberman has scrupulously avoided the use of any language that recognizes any of the people involved.  He thus applies the rhetorical device, which seems to be particularly popular among conservatives representing the vested interests of the powerful, of "objectifying the subject," keeping off the table any recognition that this is a matter of human beings taking motivated actions.  To deny any consideration of motive is, in Margalit's framework, to treat the acting human as inhuman.  To this we may then at least hypothesize factors of cruelty and/or humiliation behind Lieberman's talk of "demographic reality."

In the context of this reading of Lieberman's text, the walkout by Palestinian delegates during his speech is entirely understandable.  However, I would take issue with Permanent Observer Riyad Mansour's effort to be diplomatic about the affair, telling a Reuters representative:
This man is completely detached from political reality.
On the contrary I would suggest that Lieberman understands the political reality all too well.  He knows that he has gotten his position through a truly rotten compromise, he appreciates the power now at his disposal, and he has never been shy about exercising that power from the time of his appointment.  This is nothing more than his recognizing another opportunity to recognize that power.  He is the metaphorical leopard whose spots can never change.

From this point of view, "failed state" rhetoric misses the point.  More important is that the Israeli government has sanctioned the formation of a power structure through a rotten compromise.  How, then, are the other governmental institutions of the world to deal with this structure?  Can they arrive at a consensus, with or without the United Nations as a setting for debate;  or will they just muddle along with the status quo, as they have traditionally been wont to do?  When we consider just how drastic the consequences may be (not to mention those consequences that have already ensued), muddling certainly does not seem like an option for the well-being of the world at large;  but, like it or not, it may be as inevitable as entropy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Nobel Prize for THE WIRE?

Those who share my passion (fanaticism?) for The Wire will probably want to rush to the latest issue (October 14) of The New York Review of Books for its extended article by Lorrie Moore ("In the Life of 'The Wire'") that reviews all five seasons of the HBO television series (and the 23 DVDs of the episodes in those series), as well as Rafael Alvarez' "definitive guide" (according to the back cover), The Wire:  Truth Be Told, and a collection of more scholarly essays, The Wire:  Urban Decay and American Television, edited by Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall.  These days, an American television program that receives international attention "ain't no thing" (to borrow one of my favorite idioms from Wire scripts);  but that attention to The Wire has been a far cry from the popular followings for shows like The Simpsons.  This was a television series whose narrative was not only compelling (one could say that of The Sopranos) but also deeply informative, an example of Aristotelian imitation at its best helping us to understand the social crises of the present day and the path through history that brought us to those crises.  It is diametrically opposed to current conditions in Ukraine, about which I wrote yesterday, where "National Memory" is enforced through processes of institutionalized "judicious erasure."  The narrative of The Wire induces memories too indelible to be tampered with, even by the elaborate machinery of any consciousness industry.

Thus, when Moore cites a remark by journalist Joe Klein (included in the DVD features on the final episode) to the effect that The Wire deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature, we should consider this exclamation as more than sensationalist hyperbole.  There is, of course, the minor nit that the prize has never been awarded to an institution or team, nor has it ever been awarded for a specific achievement.  A Nobel Laureate in Literature is been recognized for the achievement of a significant body of work;  but, in this context, David Simon certainly deserves to be a candidate and even has several published books to his credit that are more worthy of the "literature" label than any book Bertrand Russell had written when he received the prize in 1950.

Indeed, Moore is a bit too casual (if not downright sloppy) in her attempt to account for the path that led to The Wire.  That path began with Simon's work as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun;  and this led to a book that documented how he spent the year 1988 with three homicide squads.  The title of the book was Homicide:  A Year on the Killing Streets;  and it was successful enough (having won the 1992 Edgar Award, named for one of Baltimore's most famous literary residents, for best fact crime) to be picked up by NBC for the television series Homicide:  Life on the Street, which lasted for seven seasons.  Simon understood that the best journalism required a foundation of anthropological analysis;  and, even if he never established credentials as an "academic" anthropologist, he clearly had a firm command on how to bring the necessary techniques to his writing.

In the company of Nobel Laureates, Simon would hardly be the first author of "anthropologically informed" literature.  That distinction would probably go to Rudyard Kipling (1907);  and, if I were to select a "first American author," it would likely be Sinclair Lewis (1930).  However, when I think about Simon other authors come to mind, whose names are not on the Nobel list;  and those names include Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and (from a journalistic point of view) Upton Sinclair.

Simon's next venture into anthropologically informed literature was The Corner:  A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.  This one was coauthored by Ed Burns, a former member of the Baltimore police force.  The title referred to a Baltimore street corner that served primarily as a site for drug deals;  and, true to that title, the book was structured in four chapters, one for each season of the year, beginning with fall.  This led to Simon's first project with HBO, a six-episode miniseries directed by Charles S. Dutton in which each episode developed a portrait of one of the characters from the book.

In this context The Wire amounts to an attempt to synthesize, through narrative, the law-enforcement perspective of Homicide with the street life of The Corner;  but this would be too limited a view of the project itself.  This synthesis could not have succeeded without a richer contextual analysis of Baltimore itself and the progressive deterioration of its established institutions.  The institutions that figure most prominently over the five seasons are those of the world of work itself (primarily the "blue collar" side of that world), municipal politics (with its connections to higher levels), education (again in the context of national policy), and journalism (giving Simon the opportunity to reflect on his own "turf").  The result is (to appropriate anthropological terminology) a "thick description" of a dying city that is not only as penetratingly compelling as Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu but also as effective in "imitating" (remember Aristotle) a world through the elements of syntax, semantics, and rhetoric that define its language.  From this point of view, is there any valid reason why Simon should not be considered as a viable candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Memory Engineering

It is an Orwellian world in which one must go to great, and potentially hazardous lengths, to debate the semantics of a noun like "history;"  but this seems to be the world of Ukraine, at least according to Timothy Snyder's post to NYRBlog on the Web site for The New York Review of Books.  The post was ostensibly about the arrest of Ruslan Zabiliyi, a young historian serving as director of a museum in Lviv (known as Lwów in Polish and Lemberg in German).  The museum was used by the Soviets as a prison during the Second World War and was "reconstituted" as a museum concerned with the occupation of Ukraine by both the Nazis and the Soviets.  When Viktor Yanukovych (Yanukhovych) became President, his Security Service (SB) shut down the museum and had Zabiliyi arrested.  The party that had successfully opposed Yanukovych in previous elections saw Ukraine as a future member of the European Community, while Yanukovych was more interested in better relations with Russia.  Such relations would not be furthered by exhibitions about the atrocities of Stalinism and Ukrainian resistance.  Snyder summarized the reaction of the new administration to the museum as follows:
On September 13 and 14, SB agents searched the offices of the museum’s research staff, confiscating two laptops containing archival documents for a planned exhibition on Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule; authority over the museum has been transferred to the Institute of National Memory, which is now directed by a communist.
It is the very idea of an "Institute of National Memory" that resonates so well with the vision of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.  History has been denied the status of an innocuous academic discipline, whose practitioners can participate in the free exchange and discussion of papers and books.  These documents are so arcane that they conform nicely to Anna Russell's characterization of the work of a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts."  In Ukraine, however, such practitioners are no longer an "effete elite;"  they are a threat to public consciousness in general and the concept of a "national memory" in particular.

I am reminded of what happened when HBO bankrolled Robert Wuhl to take standup comedy into a university classroom.  The result was a pair of lectures delivered to history majors based on the premise that the study of American history is the study of "the stories that made up America... and the stories that America simply made up."  This is not as outrageous as it sounds.  Because there cannot be history without interpretation, history is less a matter of trying to "reproduce" the past (which must always be a futile goal) and more one of "imitating" it.  This is Aristotle's sense of the word "imitation," with the implication the memory may be served by a rendering that is not a clinically perfect reproduction;  and, if there is not a story at our disposal that facilitates our understanding of some episode from our past, then there is nothing wrong with making up a story to serve that purpose.

Wuhl, however, was talking about "National Memory" as a process of fabrication, often involving Pooh-Bah's (as in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado) "corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."  The Institute of National Memory, on the other hand, seems more occupied with maintaining memory through a process of judicious erasure, rather than the addition of such corroborative detail.  In the antinomic world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, not only is slavery freedom but also forgetting is memory.  Philosophically, Orwell wanted to warn us how easily his fictitious world could become our own;  and, when one considers the extent to which our prevailing consciousness industry gains strength through distraction, it is well to remember that such distraction well serves goals of "imposed forgetting."  We do not need to worry about whether we are headed for our own Institute of National Memory, because we have become a culture that no longer needs such institutionalized enforcement!

How CNN's New Boss Neglects the News

This morning's New York Times Web site includes an interview with Ken Jautz filed by the Hollywood Reporter, courtesy of the Reuters wire, and released under the headline "How CNN's New Boss Plans to Revive Ratings."  As I wrote on Friday, Jautz is the new head of the United States division of CNN (now part of CNN Worldwide in the organization chart food chain).  I took some satisfaction in Jautz taking full credit in that interview for the accusation I laid on him this past Friday, that his major achievement at Headline News was "wiping out all trace of the you-give-us-twenty-minutes-we'll-give-you-the-world motto."  At least now I know the motivation behind the massacre, so to speak:
We purposefully made HLN much more pop culture-oriented than CNN and tried to establish its identity as something different.
At the very least we can take this as evidence that Jautz knows more about pop culture than he does about news.  However, this raises the question of whether or not Jautz knows anything about news.  Consider his response to the question about whether he plans to "make things livelier" by adding "opinionated pundits" to his broadcasters:
By the time you get to primetime, in today's media environment, there are so many websites and outlets, people know basic facts. In addition to facts, they want analysis, they want context, they want perspective and they want some opinion. And yes, I think we should provide them with as many points of view as possible, but we should provide them from all different ends of the political spectrum and from newsmakers as well as pundits. As long as we continue to be smart and insightful and informed in our reporting and analysis, that will differentiate us.
We can begin with the problem that the opening premise for this response just "ain't necessarily so" (in the words of the great poet Ira Gershwin).  It would be more accurate to say that "today's media environment" is so riddled with the impact of the consciousness industry that "people" have little idea what they "know," because just about any account of 5W1H (who, what, when, where, why, how) "basic facts" is so wrapped in the rhetoric of strident opinion that it is hard to tell one from the other.  Strident opinion attracts viewers.  More viewers mean more ratings;  and improving ratings is CNN's biggest problem, the very first point Jautz made in his interview.  His assumption that people get their "basic facts" elsewhere is, at best, naive;  and I wish someone would hold his feet to the fire and demand that he warrant his premise!

Actually, on the basis of recent events, I have one possible warrant, which is the Comedy Channel.  This source may make the clearest distinction between fact and opinion:  If people do not laugh, it's a fact;  when Jon Stewart develops an analysis that culminates in a funny joke, that's an opinion!  It's an easy rule to follow;  and it may explain why so many people are willing to trust The Daily Show when it comes to "basic facts."

From this point of view, there is a good chance that the American public knows more about news than Jautz does;  but that just raises the question of whether or not CNN Worldwide cares that he knows so little about news.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Absence of Malice?

Yahoo! News pulled the following story from their Agence France-Press wire last night:
A Paris court has convicted US search engine giant Google and its chief executive Eric Schmidt of defamation over results from its "suggest" function, a French legal affairs website has revealed.

The new function, which suggests options as you type in a word, brought up the words "rapist" and "satanist" when the plaintiff's name was typed into the search engine, reported.

The court ordered Google to make a symbolic payment of one euro in damages and take measures to ensure they could be no repeat of the offence.

The plaintiff in this case had been convicted on appeal to a three-year jail sentence for corruption of a minor, a conviction that was not yet definitive, when he discovered the results on entering his name in a Google search.

The court concluded that the search engine's linking his name to such words was defamatory.

The court ruled that Google had not showed its good faith in the matter and ordered it to pay 5,000 euros (6,700 dollars) towards the plaintiff's costs.

A Google spokesman told AFP by email that they would be appealing the ruling.

The statement said that the Google Suggest function simply reflected the most common terms used in the past with words entered, so it was not Google itself that was making the suggestions.
I was wondering when Google would have its next nasty "bump" (as Ken Auletta has put it) into reality and whether or not that bump would involve yet another confrontation with the concept of evil.  Character defamation may not be one of the seven cardinal sins;  but it probably falls under the "false witness" commandment.  So I would be willing to classify it as evil in my book;  and, if Schmidt does not agree, then it is up to him to provide a damned good reason.

Needless to say, the final sentence in the above account is not such a reason.  Ironically, the reason why it is not a reason goes back to one of the most important points that Auletta has made with his bump metaphor.  Even more ironic is that my summary of his position back in April cuts so close to the current case that it deserves to be repeated:
Whatever the Google "philosophy" (scare quotes intended) may be, the heart of the revenue-bearing business resides in keywords; the result is a technology that essentially reduces the word to a string of characters, thus neatly dispensing with any matters concerned with syntax, semantics, pragmatics, or any other consideration that addresses how a text is actually interpreted. When you strip all trappings of meaning from the word itself, "bumping into" reality is inevitable, just as it is when people speaking different languages are mediated by a poor translator. Many of those "bumps" are humorous; and we can laugh them off simply by acknowledging that "this is the way Google works." Auletta's warning, however, involves the risk that, as Google becomes even more prolific, the more sinister "bumps" will begin to increase and eventually outnumber the humorous ones.
Defamation of character is not a laughing matter;  and, while the fine may have been "symbolic," the court clearly recognized that the plaintiff's suit was not frivolous through their decision to have Google pay the court costs.  Of course in the overall Google budget that fee is virtually as symbolic as the fine;  but that just adds to my deeper case that, as an institution, Google commands a knowledge of the symbolic that is dangerously weak.  One can only wonder how sinister the next "bump" with reality will be.  Perhaps it will emerge from how they choose to respond to the order to take measures against the latest episode repeating, which can range from recognizing a serious problem in semantics and rising to the challenge to blowing off the judge's order as insignificant.  Which path will they choose?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Arnold Schwarzenegger: A Different Approach to Nietzsche?

It would appear that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shares at least some of my interested in reading Friedrich Nietzsche, although there seems to be a clear disagreement over both choice of sources and how they are read.  Consider this report by Marisa Lagos from the Sacramento Bureau of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Children will not have to wear helmets when they hit the ski slopes in California after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a piece of legislation Friday.

The measure by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would have imposed a $25 fine on parents of minors caught skiing or snowboarding without a helmet, though supporters acknowledged the rule would be unlikely to be enforced. The language of the measure mirrors bicycle helmet laws already in place.

Schwarzenegger actually signed that bill, but vetoed a companion bill that would have required ski resorts to develop and publish safety plans and submit reports to state safety officials. The veto of that measure, AB1652 by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, means that Yee's bill will not go into effect.

"Many California ski resorts are located on U.S. Forest Service land, and are already required to compile and file safety and accident reports with USFS as well as maintain some of this information in the resort management office," Schwarzenegger wrote in his veto message. "Ski resorts in California also already mark their ski area boundaries and trails with appropriate information. This bill may place an unnecessary burden on resorts, without assurance of a significant reduction in ski and snowboard-related injuries and fatalities."

Yee's bill, SB880, was opposed by some Republicans who said it amounts to "nanny government" and infringes on parents' rights.

But Yee - a child psychologist - argued that ski resorts are one of the only places of recreation where safety standards are absent, and said that the measure would significantly reduce traumatic brain injuries and deaths.
On the surface it would appear that our Governor cannot tell the difference between compiling and filing safety and accident reports and taking active measures to enforce safety regulations.  However, if he is capitulating to Republican aversion to "nanny government," then, in this case at least, it may reflect a deeper philosophical position, which is where Nietzsche enters the picture.

Where I have been more interested in the implications of Thus Spoke Zarathustra on such matters as political behavior and economic assistance, Schwarzenegger seems more interested in the wisdom of Twilight of the Idols, specifically as it is expressed in Section 8 of the "Maxims and Arrows" section:
Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
In other words the ski slopes are just one of the classrooms of "life's school of war;"  and, having all but decimated the institutionalized classrooms in California's education system, our Governor would have kids seek classrooms in other venues.  Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger seems to have leapt over Nietzsche's preface on the way to this proposition, specifically the sentence:
Nothing succeeds if prankishness [Übermut] has no part in it.
One cannot read anything that follows the preface without accepting this premise (which may be one reason that Dennis Miller liked to draw upon that "school of war" for his monologues);  but, if in this particularly legislative decision the Governor has decided to assume his "Terminator persona," then there is clearly no room for Übermut in his reasoning.  The result is that "life's school of war" may assume a more serious role in State educational policy than either the goals or the needs of our public education system.  As Kurt Vonnegut would have said, "So it goes."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Shared CHUTZPAH over Nuclear Proliferation

Following up on my argument that you can no longer find an adequate American source of hard news, I just found a story on Al Jazeera English, which, while based entirely on wire sources, does not appear to have surfaced anywhere else.  One does not have to read far to discover why the usual mainstream American sources were not interested in distributing the content:
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, has rejected an Arab-proposed resolution calling on Israel to join a global anti-atomic arms treaty.

The general assembly of the 151-member IAEA blocked the resolution at its meeting in Vienna on Friday. Fifty-one member states voted against the resolution while 46 voted in favour and 23 abstained.

Israel had warned the UN nuclear watchdog that an Arab-led push to target the Jewish state in a resolution could deal a "fatal blow" to future co-operation on boosting Middle East security.

"Adopting this resolution will be a fatal blow to any hope for future co-operative efforts towards better regional security in the Middle East," Ehud Azoulay, Israel's IAEA envoy said, shortly before the vote.
Indeed, when you read a bit further, you discover that there is an American dog in this hunt:
The United States had urged Arab states to withdraw the non-binding resolution, saying it could derail broader efforts to ban such arms in the Middle East and also send a negative signal to the relaunched Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
So here we are:  The United States can be as vocal and activist as it chooses when it comes to an Arab-based resolution on nuclear nonproliferation, but it will hold its diplomatic tongue when it comes to Israel building settlements and talking about redefining borders to accommodate those settlements.  This is beyond those "petty thoughts" that Friedrich Nietzsche declared to be worse than "evil deeds."  This is the raw and unadulterated chutzpah of intimidation, which, like many acts of chutzpah succeeds in spite of (or because of?) its very speciousness.  That a questionable position assumed jointly by Israel and the United States would be enough to defeat such a critical vote by such a reputable world body is more than adequate grounds for Israel and United State to share this week's Chutzpah of the Week award.

Hard News Loses Again

The latest news from Associated Press about a management shakeup at CNN offers little hope for those of us still trying to recover the service that Headline News used to bring when it was first launched:
Struggling CNN has fired Jon Klein, the head of its U.S. network.

CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton said Friday that Klein is being replaced by Ken Jautz, who currently runs HLN. The former Headline News Network has been a success in recent years with a switch to an opinionated prime-time lineup.
In other words Jautz is being rewarded for what he did to Headline News (which amounts to wiping out all trace of the you-give-us-twenty-minutes-we'll-give-you-the-world motto).  As far as I can tell, these days there are only two sources of "straight" news on a regular basis, neither of which is American.  There is the BBC World Service, which we can only get in occasional doses through the good graces of Public Television;  and, since the BBC is having major budget problems, it is unclear how long that option will remain.  Then there is Al Jazeera English, which continues to work its way up as a BBC competitor;  but, as far as I can tell, no American television delivery company, cable or satellite, is willing to touch that network.  So the only real option is to watch their live feed on computer.  I suppose this means that, in a market-driven culture, information is inevitably displaced by propaganda.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Critical Difference between Atoms and Bits

Ever since the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, I have become more interested in inherent incompatibilities between the world of bits and the world of atoms.  Reading Daniel Terdiman's Geek Gestalt column for CNET News this morning has helped me to flesh out an interesting aspect of those incompatibilities.  This is slightly ironic to the extent that Terdiman's "Geek world," as well as the world of IBM, whose research he was reporting, are so firmly ensconced in the world of bits.  Nevertheless, the world of bits is not going to be properly served by nanotechnology until we have a better idea of what is happening at that nano level;  and that entails a better understanding of what atoms are and how they behave.
Indeed, without going into details that I am not particularly equipped to discuss, I would argue that the "breakthrough" results at IBM's Almaden Research Center support a firm case for the existential argument that "what atoms are" can only be established through our knowledge of how they behave.  It is this perspective that I feel is important when we risk running into any reckless attempts to talk about bits and atoms.  The significance lies in the extent to which, from any abstract point of view, a bit is always static.  This sounds a little like an insight into the obvious.  A bit is recognized by its two-state nature.  All that matters is that it is in one of two opposing states, and anything else is irrelevant to the abstraction and thus to the nature of the bit itself.  Compare this, however, with Terdiman's attempt to summarize the key implication of IBM's research:
According to Sebastian Loth, the post-doctoral researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center here who was the lead writer on the paper, the team's breakthrough is tantamount to advancing the state of imaging of atoms from the status quo being a still camera--where most of the physics was already over by the time any image was captured--to a new era of movie camera-like capabilities where the imagery is captured in near-real time.
This amounts to asserting that any imaging of atoms cannot be state-based;  it can only be process-based.  In my own favorite terminology, the ontology of bits may be developed around the linguistic expressiveness of nouns and noun phrases;  but the ontology of atoms requires the expressiveness of verbs.

On at least one occasion I have heard Nicholas Negroponte was poetic over a future in which the world of atoms will be reduced to the world of bits.  This tended to preface an appeal to the Star Trek fiction of physical meals being synthesized by just the right kind of advanced technology.  The possibility that such fiction may become fact is not necessarily dead in the water, but it means that we shall probably have to stop thinking about things like a glass and the wine it contains as objects.  Rather, they are "side effects" of how their constituent atoms happen to be behaving;  and, unless we can get beyond technology that visualizes atom behavior and move to the domain of technology that induces atom behavior, digital technology is unlikely to provide us with that relaxing glass of wine at the end of a hard day.

"I've Got Zucchini, and I'm not Afraid to Use Them!"

Here is the latest report on the coexistence between man (or, in this case, woman) and nature, courtesy of BBC News (where else?):

A woman from the US state of Montana has fought off a 200lb (91kg) black bear with a courgette from her garden.

The bear attacked one of the woman's dogs on the back porch of her home late on Wednesday evening, Missoula County Sheriff's Lt Rich Maricelli said.

When the woman tried to stop the attack, the bear bit into her leg.

The woman, whom police have not named, grabbed the closest object - a courgette from her garden - and threw it at the bear, causing it to flee.

For those not familiar with the noun, "courgette" is what the British call the zucchino, whose plural is "zucchini." I'm not quite sure why they prefer the French version to the Italian. Those interested in this terminological division can find an explanation on Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the explanatory paragraphs are marked as unsourced material (lacking adequate support through citation):

Zucchini, like all summer squash, has its ancestry in the Americas[citation needed]. However, the varieties of squash typically called "zucchini" were indeed developed in Italy, many generations after their introduction from the "New World".

In all probability, this occurred in the very late 19th century, probably near Milan; early varieties usually included the names of nearby cities in their names. The alternate name courgette is from the French word for the vegetable, with the same spelling, and is commonly used in France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. It is a diminutive of courge, French for squash. "Zucca" is the Italian word for squash and "zucchina" is its diminutive, becoming "zucchine" in the plural. However, "zucchino", the masculine form, becoming "zucchini" in the plural, is just as commonly used and is prevalent in Tuscany.

Whether the bear fled out of fear of further projectile zucchini or because it wanted to chase after food has not yet been established. However, all Italian restaurants in Missoula County should take note and act accordingly.

Myopic Thinking about Development

In the context of my recent citation of Friedrich Nietzsche on the hazardous matters of "great indebtedness," the news from the United Nations (UN) "poverty summit" has been pretty disconcerting. About the only thing I have concluded is that world leaders (or at least those participating in this gathering) either have absolutely no idea what to do with Muhammad Yunus or have decided to dismiss him as some sort of statistical outlier for his rejection of all prevailing market-driven models of "economic development." Furthermore, when I use the collective "world leaders," I fear that I have to include our own President in that group, although I found one sentence in the Al Jazeera report of his speech that made a bit more sense than the rest of the palaver:

Let's move beyond the old, narrow debate over how much money we're spending and let's instead focus on results – whether we're actually making improvements in people's lives.

There is a willing spirit behind this sentence, but I doubt that the flesh is giving it the consideration it deserves. One must begin by recognizing that the concept of "making improvements" is both subjective and social; and the usual trap of economic development is the assumption that the recipient agrees with the donor about what constitutes improvement. Ultimately, improvement is in the hands of those who seek it and in their efforts to achieve it. Yunus' Grameen model seems to be based on the premise that individuals can develop their own plans for bettering themselves, and all that is necessary is getting such a plan implemented.

To repeat from my riff on Nietzsche, there is no logical equivalence between the elimination of poverty and economic development. Indeed, to the contrary, we should think metaphorically of development as a building that needs to be erected on a foundation strong enough to support the resulting structure. That foundation amounts to a viable resource of capital, which is precisely what is lacking in conditions of poverty. The heart of the Grameen model is that small-scale loans provide the "concrete" (to continue the metaphor) with which such a foundation may be laid; to shift metaphors in midstream, those loans serve to prime the pump from which capital will flow.

The fundamental flaw behind the UN summit is that "prospering" countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, can say to impoverished countries, "We're successful! Be like us!" In light of prevailing questions about whether or not such countries are now recovering from the current economic crisis, why should impoverished countries respond to such an injunction by saying anything other than, "Say what?" What individual suffering poverty would take seriously any of the words spilled at this summit in the face of considering the deeds of institutions like the Grameen Bank?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Yahoo! News Isn't!

I have not had much to say about Yahoo! News since last April, when I made good on my promise to remove the Today's Highlights window from my home page. My point at the time was that crowdsourcing has nothing to do with the professional standards of journalism and probably operates at cross purposes to those standards. As a result I now have only two news-related windows on my home page, both of which relate to technology topics.

Nevertheless, on the occasion when I decide to dig into an item in one of those windows, curiosity always draws me to the Top Stories window at the upper left of ever Yahoo! News page. There, on this particular morning, I happened to see the following hyperlink:

Supreme Court Justice Scalia takes on women's rights

My curiosity was piqued enough that I decided to follow it, which turned out to be an interesting lesson in what Yahoo! (or their crowdsourcing model) thinks news is. The first red flag was the recognition that the content was not particularly timely: It seems to have been based on a talk that Antonin Scalia gave at the end of last week at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law (which happens to be just down the street from where I live). However, it became quickly apparent that this was not, in any sense of the word, reporting; rather it was an opinion piece on Scalia's philosophy of originalism, which he seems to be exercising with increased vigor in the wake of the publication of Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View, by Scalia's ideological opponent, Justice Stephen Breyer.

The byline for this article included the Time logo, followed by this line of text:

By ADAM COHEN – 2 hrs 23 mins ago

Thus, the very first impression of the piece enhanced the deception of timeliness; but at least Cohen was up front enough to give the actual time of Scalia's speech. The more critical revelation did not come until the end of the article:

Cohen, a lawyer, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board. Case Study, his legal column for, appears every Wednesday.

In other words nothing at the "top of the page" gave any indication that this was nothing more than a weekly column, which clearly made it an opinion piece. How, then, did Yahoo! News come to classify it as a "Top Story?" Was the "news" that Cohen had just finished his weekly column? (FLASH! Stop the presses!) Enquiring minds want to know!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Up From Insignificance?

I'm not sure whether I am ready to recant the claim I made earlier this month:

Lady Gaga has never been anything more than an artifact of the whole viral promotion process.

However, even if she is such an artifact, I now feel far more favorably inclined towards her than I do towards Ashley Alexandra Dupré, with whom I compared her in my "Virus and Insignificance" piece. The actions she has taken in the name of gay rights indicate that she values at least one thing as much as selling records; and, for all I know, gay rights is the higher value being served by the artifact she created, recognizing that the artifact will communicate with a more convincing voice than whatever her "real" persona may express.

At the very least she has caught the attention of John Nichols, who maintains a blog, The Beat, on the Web site of The Nation. Nichols' latest post this morning saw fit to document the words from her speech to a rally in Portland, Maine:

Should the military be allowed to treat Constitutional rights like a cafeteria? In the military, is it acceptable to be a cafeteria American? What I mean to say is, should soldiers and the government be able to pick and choose what we are fighting for in the Constitution or who we are fighting for? I wasn't aware of this ambiguity in our Constitution. I thought the Constitution was ultimate. I thought equality was non-negotiable.

The rally concerns the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," an initiative being pursued by Senate Democratic leaders. The problem, of course, is that even the possibility of debate is likely to be blocked by a Republican filibuster; and Arizona Senator John McCain has already promised to lead that filibuster move. This is precisely the sort of pettiness that I discussed yesterday (with a little help from Friedrich Nietzsche) for its capacity to cripple the very functioning of government. Lady Gaga took her fight to Portland because any hope of getting governance back on track will require Republican support. As Nichols observed, Maine has two senators who could make a significant difference:

The two key Republican votes are those of Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderates who know the law has been abused and that it has driven good soldiers out of the military.

The voters of the state of Maine may thus well be in a position to determine whether their elected representatives will choose the productive functioning of legislative debate over petty adherence to partisan ideology (assume, that is, that both of these senators pay more attention to their constituents than to the "enforcers" of Republican Party leadership). If Lady Gaga has motivated those voters to take a stand and let that stand be known to both of their senators, then any cavil I may have about the source of that motivation being a calculated artifact may have less significance than the artifact itself.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Striking a Blow against Pettiness?

It would be a pleasant irony if Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity," scheduled for October 30 in Washington, turned out to be irrelevant, because the country had already awakened to that need to "restore sanity" before the gathering took place. As a matter of fact, it would be a double irony, turning against Reuters for dismissing the event as an "apparent spoof" by affirming the legitimacy of its goal. Then, just because good things come in threes, there would also be the irony that this recognition of the need for sanity should be a product of the weekend recklessness of the latest darling of the Tea Party, Christine O’Donnell. Perhaps the greatest endorsement that sanity can receive is a vivid demonstration of the alternative, and last night's Financial Times report from Washington by Tom Braithwaite provided a vivid analysis of both O'Donnell's recklessness and its consequences.

What adds to the O'Donnell irony is the extent to which she has achieved the very thing that Barack Obama has been trying to do since he took the Oath of Office, establishing an agreement between Democrats and Republicans based on shared centrist perspectives. Thus we had Colin Powell, the closest thing to a paragon of "Executive sanity" during the faith-based madness of the Bush Administration, telling Meet the Press that he would not rule out endorsing Obama for a second term. Then we had Michael Barbaro's report in yesterday's New York Times, which opened with the following paragraphs:

In an election year when anger and mistrust have upended races across the country, toppling moderates and elevating white-hot partisans, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to pull politics back to the middle, injecting himself into marquee contests and helping candidates fend off the Tea Party.

New York’s billionaire mayor, whose flurry of activity is stirring a new round of speculation about his presidential ambitions, is supporting Republicans, Democrats and independents who he says are not bound by rigid ideology and are capable of compromise, qualities he says he fears have become alarmingly rare in American politics.

Ultimately, however, everything comes down to what I have taken to be Stewart's position as a satirist, which is that "anything that disrupts government from doing the people's business should be open to attack." The Tea Party basically held a magnifying glass to tactics that can be traced back to Newt Gingrich, that flourished under Karl Rove, and have been staunchly maintained by Republican ideologues in both Houses of Congress. The common theme of those tactics is one of disruption through the distractions of pettiness. Put another way, if you can get enough people to work up enough sweat about the small stuff, you can get them to forget about the really big stuff and turn that amnesia to your political (and personal) gain.

Curiously, that same section from Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "On the Pitying," which I cited yesterday for taking on the evils of economic aid, also attacks the underlying nature of pettiness:

Worst of all, however, are petty thoughts. Verily, even evil deeds are better than petty thoughts.

An evil deed is like a boil: it itches and irritates and breaks open—it speaks honestly. "Behold, I am disease"—thus speaks the evil deed; that is its honesty.

But a petty thought is like a fungus: it creeps and stoops and does not want to be anywhere—until the whole body is rotten and withered with little fungi.

When it comes to the current crippling stagnation of the workings of our government and the agents responsible for that stagnation, who could ask for a better metaphor than a skin fungus (particularly during football season)?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Tension of Economic Development

Every now and then some analyst is bold enough to consider whether or not the hostilities in the "developing" world may actually be due to the efforts of industrialized nations to provide the "benefits" of "economic development" (all scare quotes intentional). This argument generally leads to an extended critical analysis of the activities of "development" organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which usually culminates in some set of hard existential question concerning the raison d'être of those institutions. One would think that such a perspective is basically a consequence of the massive rethinking of values induced by what appears to be an increasing wave of terrorist attacks in general and 9/11 in particular.
As one who believes that the old books still have much to offer, I was somewhat amused to discover that this particular brand of critical thinking predates all of the current institutions, if not the institutionalization of economic aid itself. I am currently reading Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in Walter Kaufmann's translation for The Portable Nietzsche) and, in a section entitled "On the Pitying," I came across the following sentence:
Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm.
One way to approach the current critical analysis is that all of the well-intentioned minds behind the World Bank and International Monetary Fund could never conceive that any of their actions would turn into Nietzsche's "gnawing worm;" but the hypothesis that every act of terrorism can be attributed to another chomp by that worm seems worthy of consideration.
Consider, by way of an alternative, the Grameen model of banking introduced by Muhammad Yunus. This model is less concerned with turning the entire world into a market-driven culture, which may be the most viable motive behind all loans made to poverty-stricken nations in the interest of their "economic development," and more concerned with the elimination of poverty itself. The small scale of the loans that Grameen offers stands in sharp opposition to the World Bank model, which amounts to imposing "Great indebtedness." A Grameen loan is "a little charity" that is easily forgotten as the recipient gets back on his/her economic feet (if not stands upright for the first time); and there is little sign of "vengeful" feelings among those recipients.
On the other hand such vengeful feelings are no longer confined to the "developing world." What is the Tea Party if not an attempt to institutionalize the expression of such feelings, first in rallies and then at the ballot box? How did such feelings arise? They are the feelings of those victimized by Nietzsche's concept of "Great indebtedness," manifested through the abusive practices of lending institutions, whether for home mortgages or for credit card usage. What, then, is our government to do when those vengeful feelings originate on our own soil, rather than among the disenfranchised around the world that find themselves drawn to loosely-structure organizations, such as al-Qaeda, whose philosophy (if one exists) may well be that the only way to make things better is first to make them unbearably worse? Does our government even recognize that this is a valid question?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Apparent Spoof?

I find it interesting that the Reuters report filed last night (without explicitly naming a reporter) about the rallies on the National Mall planned for October 30 by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both of the Comedy Channel, respectively, describes the event as "an apparent spoof of the recent Tea Party rally in Washington." As I see it, Reuters decided to resort to these "weasel words" because they could not make up their collective minds whether or not to take this as serious news. Like it or not, such language could have an impact on how many people actually plan to attend the event; and, since I sympathize with Stewart for his seriousness of purpose and with the irony behind Colbert's deflation of that seriousness, I figure that it is worth taking the time to sort out the serious from the frivolous to compensate for Reuters' failure to do so.

First of all I would like to establish my own position by repeating a sentence from one of my posts about the decision of the Dove World Outreach Center to escalate Quran-burning to a ritual of sacrament:

Thus, we may need to take a page from the French court of Louis XVI, where it was widely recognized that, if one cannot achieve shame and disgrace through truth, one would do better to resort to ridicule.

Joseph Welch may have been able to undo Joseph McCarthy on nationally-broadcast television with his impassioned delivery of a sentence whose meaning descended no deeper than its surface:

Have you no sense of decency, sir?

Exposing the full extent to which the Tea Party is undermining just about every principle of governance that our Founding Fathers envisaged, however, is a far more challenging task that requires more weaponry than the rhetorical eloquence of one sensible lawyer.

As I see it, the significance of Stewart's proposal amounts to an attempt to leverage the degree to which the general public prefers The Daily Show to any of the network nightly news broadcasts as a credible source for the news of the day. Yesterday I suggested that this is because The Daily Show has no ideological bias other than a mission to attack extremes on the right and left "with the same dosage level of satire, irony, and other forms of wit." By establishing a broad base for ridicule, The Daily Show has become more committed to providing its viewers with a "fair and balanced" examination of news than the network that adopted that particular quoted conjunction. One might say that The Daily Show establishes credibility because all actions and the agents who enact them are "fair" game for the arsenal of ridicule.

Thus, however wild his performance technique may be, there is nothing wild about Stewart's decision to call his event "The Rally to Restore Sanity." Ultimately, his goal is no different from Welch's. One needed a minimal share of common sense to recognize that McCarthyism was as mentally unstable as it was vicious. Welch called out McCarthy on the vicious element and helped the entire country recover its sanity. Stewart sees the Tea Party through the same glasses that we once viewed McCarthy and has decided to migrate his own bully pulpit from the airwaves to the seat (which will probably become a source for much of the humor at his event) of our Federal Government.

Colbert's approach is different. His is the strategy of the enlarging mirror. In other words his rhetoric depends primarily on hyperbole, with which he gets more laughs than Friedrich Nietzsche and is less convoluted and rambling than Slavoj Žižek. However, those who saw his two shows to welcome home the troops from service in Iraq know that he is as serious about national sanity as Stewart is. (This was particularly evident in whom he chose to interview and how those interviews unfolded.) From this point of view, I find it hard to see just how his planned "March to Keep Fear Alive" will fit into the October 30 events. My guess is that this one is the publicity stunt, providing a foil to draw attention to Stewart's rally and its mission. As we get closer to the end of October, I predict that the plans for the march will run out of steam; and Colbert will become one of the participants in Stewart's rally, reflecting back on his original role on The Daily Show. In other words the two of them will join forces in a common desire to restore sanity, perhaps with enough success to have an impact on Election Day.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"That's the Way it Is"

As Bill Carter reported last night on his Media Decoder blog for The New York Times, Jon Stewart used latest broadcast on The Daily Show to announce that he would be staging a rally of his own in Washington. He has apparently secured the National Mall on October 30; and the name of his event is "The Rally to Restore Sanity." He has every right to this name. After all, he is as aware as anyone of the number of people who now trust The Daily Show for news over any of the more "authorized" network sources. Furthermore, there is a good reason for this apparent disruption of sanity in choosing the Comedy Channel over any of the major networks: Political humor is at its best when it can attack both ideological extremes with the same dosage level of satire, irony, and other forms of wit. Stewart's sanity lies in his commitment to the position that anything that disrupts government from doing the people's business should be open to attack (and, as regular readers probably know by now, in my own book "anything" includes incumbents spending time on the campaign trail that they should be spending at their respective desks). With his usual rhetorical skill, Stewart has also christened (if a Jew can perform a christening) the event a "Million Moderate March." This reminds us of another element for sanity that needs to be restored: There is nothing wrong with having fringe groups. For the most part those groups are entitled to freedom of expression under the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, sanity is jeopardized when too much of the public begins to believe that one of those fringe groups speaks for the majority of the electorate. If people trust the Comedy Channel more than Fox, perhaps it is because Fox is part of that consciousness industry that manipulates the country by endowing the fringe with a stronger voice than the prevailing majority. The moderates belong on center stage because, well, it's in the center. If it takes a rally by a skilled satirist to remind us all where that center is, then more power to the satirist!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Education Reform that Isn't

The Choice is the name of a blog that Jacques Steinberg maintains on the Web site for The New York Times. He has chosen a subtitle that doubles as a mission statement, "Demystifying College Admissions and Aid." This morning's post may amount to an admission that he has his work cut out for him. Apparently both MTV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are getting into the game; and my guess is that their collusion will cook up a whole new brew of mystification, even if that mystification offers itself in the garb of philanthropy. Here is the basic message from Steinberg's opening paragraphs:

As the stern proctor of the hardly hip SAT exam, the College Board would seem an odd recipient of prominent attention on MTV. It is difficult to imagine a scantily clad, lip-synching Katy Perry – to say nothing of Snooki or the Situation – rolling on a beach with a No. 2 pencil and a bubble sheet.

And yet, the music channel and the College Board are scheduled to announce this morning that they are joining together to stage a contest, the “Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge.’’ In it, “current and aspiring college students’’ are being asked to create “an innovative digital tool that helps more low- and middle-income students connect with money for school.’’

The winning individual or team will get $10,000, as well as a $100,000 budget to bring the idea to fruition. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to underwrite the project.

In the interest of my own efforts towards demystification, I have removed the hyperlink that Steinberg attached to the name of this contest between the double quotes. It took me to a page that seemed to consist entirely of MTV promotional material; and, on my first pass, I could find nothing to lead me to details about the competition.

My reaction thus far may best be captured in the immortal words of Butch Cassidy (or, more accurately, Paul Newman):

Who are these guys?

Of course we all know who they are; but, in the movie, Butch's question was more of an existential inquiry into what was driving "these guys" to be so persistent in what they were doing (trying to catch Butch and Sundance). What is driving MTV and the Gates Foundation into partnership, and what are likely to be the consequences?

The latter partner may be easier to address. The Gates Foundation has done a lot of admirable work; but I am afraid that at least Bill, if not his wife, continues to believe that no problem is too hard to be solved by technology innovation. Thus, he has dreamed up an innovation contest that will turn one contestant into a young entrepreneur while presumably benefiting a whole population sector that cannot get a college education without financial aid. Ironically, if the winner is immediately launched on an entrepreneurial path, his/her status as a "current and aspiring" student will probably be jeopardized, since (s)he will have to worry about how to use his $100,000 prize to launch a viable startup, leaving all those intended beneficiaries in a holding pattern while the winning idea runs the usual gauntlet leading to launch.

What, then, is the role of MTV? My guess is that the partnership was Bill's idea. Following a wisdom-of-crowds logic, he wanted to attract as many competitors as possible. What better way to get the attention of a large pool of "current and aspiring college students" than through MTV? Furthermore, if my efforts in link navigation are indicative, MTV has an opportunity to bring more eyeballs to their Web site and probably their broadcast content. In other words I would guess that it was no accident that I had so much trouble following up on the hyperlink that Steinberg provided. (It may even have begun as a more direct link before the marketing suits realized that it had earning potential.)

I do not doubt that the cost factor for a decent education is as serious as that for decent health care. I appreciate any serious effort to reform the process. However, this particular approach is about education in only the most superficial sense of the concept. It is a road paved with good intentions that leads in the same direction as other such roads.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Reality Check in the Face of CHUTZPAH

I doubt that yesterday's Chutzpah of the Week award had anything to do with the recent turn of events over the question of who will pay for the damages brought on by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) gas-line explosion in San Bruno. More likely it was just a matter of my voice being one among many, but I was still glad to be singing in this particular choir. Here are the lead paragraphs from this morning's story filed by Bob Egelko, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Tuesday that it would not take advantage of a utility-backed proposal that would saddle customers with uninsured costs from catastrophic fires to bill the public for last week's deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

However, PG&E did not rule out the possibility that its 6 million customers could be stuck with some of the bill. The utility said it will abide by the state's current system, under which regulators decide whether customers or utility shareholders must pay for fire damage that the company's insurance doesn't cover.

Note the phrasing in that first sentence. Yesterday's account at least implied that the proposal had been initiated by PG&E, but this was not the case. As Egelko observed in today's piece, the proposal had much earlier origins:

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. sponsored the current proposal in response to Southern California wildfires in 2007 that caused more than $1 billion in damage.

Furthermore, it turns out that PG&E has a "Division of Ratepayer Advocates," which has now issued a statement on behalf of Main Street:

A lawyer with the PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which represents consumer interests before the commission, said the division still opposes the utility proposal on wildfire costs.

"We don't think it is fair to ratepayers to be insurers of last resort," the attorney, Jack Stoddard, said after the hearing. Utility shareholders, he said, "have to have skin in the game," potentially exposing them to liability if the company neglects public safety.

This could, of course, be window dressing; and, when it comes to chutzpah, deeds definitely count for more than words. So I am not inclined to rescind yesterday's award. It would do better to display it prominently in the PG&E Board Room as decision-making continues over just what this utility company will be doing about the damage it has done and its potential for causing further damage.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Catastrophe CHUTZPAH

Because I encountered news of the firestorm that ensued in San Bruno as a result of the explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) gas line on the BBC, I figure that this deserves to be treated as far more than a local story. For that reason, while it is early in the week, I have decided that it is now time to present a Chutzpah of the Week award to PG&E. The reason can be found in a story filed today by Bob Egelko, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is his lead summary:

State regulators will take their first look today at a proposal backed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that would require customers to pay all costs of catastrophic fires, such as last week's gas-line explosion in San Bruno, that exceed a utility's insurance coverage.

It's not clear whether the plan, if approved by the state Public Utilities Commission, would trigger a PG&E rate increase to help pay the utility's cost from Thursday's disaster. In a filing Monday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the utility said it has $992 million in fire insurance and a $10 million deductible, and "believes that most of the costs related to the San Bruno event will be covered."

Even if the company has enough insurance, however, the proposal would make rate hikes more likely if PG&E caused fires in the near future.

The best response to this so far is a comment from a reader with the handle solomon_grundy:

So PG&E and shareholders receive the profit from cutting corners on infrastructure, and its customers assume the liability. Sweet!

Once again it all comes down to the battle between Main Street and Wall Street, except that anyone who has seen the footage on television knows that, in this case, there is now a honking big crater where Main Street used to be; and yet, crater or not crater, Main Street (or what is left of it), may have to foot part of the bill for PG&E expenses in repairing all that damage. Isn't capitalism wonderful? Think of the Chutzpah of the Week award as a preemptive salvo at the Public Utilities Commission as they decide on how to respond to the PG&E proposal!


I do not know if I would credit the Ship of Fools Web site as the most informative for atheists and skeptics, but it is definitely making a play for being the most entertaining. Consider this contribution made to the discussion over religious ritual at the height of World Cup fever:

Isn't it time you considered taking a vuvuzela to church, to continually praise the Lord during the sermon?

However, in the context of the extent to which consumerism has become the real religion of so much of the world population, nothing can beat their Gadgets for God section. As might be imagined, this site is filled with all sorts of goodies to be purchased in conjunction with the Papal visit to the United Kingdom. Featured is a "handy checklist of 12 must-have Benedictine gadgets," from which I cannot resist naming a few favorites.

Much as I would like to begin with the plastic (and therefore environmentally hostile) Holy Water Bottle, my real favorite is the four-pack of Benny Beer, which really cannot be purchased without also acquiring a Popener:

Those are tough acts to follow, although my own top three would probably also include the Benedictaphone (for conveniently recording all Papal utterances):

Given all the more serious embarrassments currently confronting the Catholic Church, one can believe that they need all the distractions they can get!

Monday, September 13, 2010

When Conservatives Made Sense

Having written yesterday about my rules of thumb for deciding what I read from the screen and what I read as marks on paper, I though I would reflect on a reading experience from the latter category that I just completed. This was Alan Wolfe's online review of the new edition of Robert Nisbet's The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, which was published on the Web site for The New Republic. I am not shy in confessing that I am very selective in reading anything that The New Republic publishes, but I was drawn to both Nisbet's title and my respect for Wolfe as a writer. After all it was only last July that I was writing about the extent to which the sense of community identity had come under siege in the wake of the rising obsession with "social networks;" so this seemed to be a good time to bone up on some of the more traditional thoughts about community that the world the Internet has made was willing to consign to the dustbin of history.

I quickly discovered that there was more in this particular dustbin than the book itself. There was also an academic practice that would probably be dismissed as unforgiveable heresy today. Having acknowledged that The Quest for Community was "one of the major works of American conservatism" in the Fifties, Wolfe reflected on the quotation with which he began his review:

The uneasiness, the malaise of our time, is due to this root fact: in our politics and economy, in family life and religion—in practically every sphere of our existence—the certainties of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have disintegrated or been destroyed and, at the same time, no new sanctions or justifications for the new routines we live, and must live, have taken hold.

Wolfe observed that these were not Nisbet's words but a citation from the writings of C. Wright Mills, who was as much a representative of left-wing thinking in the United States as Nisbet represented the right. Here is how Wolfe described this particular meeting of minds:

As hard as it might be to imagine in our wildly polarizing times, thinkers from both the right and the left once found themselves intellectually linked. What joined them together was something called the theory of mass society. Flabbergasted by the seeming success of totalitarianism, and worried that its effects lingered on in the form of overweening state power, corporatist private institutions, and popular susceptibility to advertising and image-manipulation, writers such as Nisbet and Mills were among the many, including Hannah Arendt, Edward Shils, Joseph Schumpeter, Dwight Macdonald, and Richard Hofstadter, who put mass irrationality ahead of class interest in their understanding of their society, and turned to European thinkers such as José Ortega y Gasset and Emil Lederer for such an analysis.

That is quite a laundry list of social theorists, and it is more than a little disconcerting to realize that their very conception of mass irrationality has become rather feeble in the context of the world the Internet has made.

This brings us to what I felt was the key paragraph in Wolfe's account of Nisbet's thinking:

Nisbet can be understood as a conservative communitarian. Although he was more concerned with oppressive state power than he was with corporate dominance of society, he recognized that bigness in any form was alien to his vision of a good society. “Not all the asserted advantages of mass production and corporate bigness,” he wrote, “will save capitalism if its purposes become impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human lives.” One can only imagine Nisbet’s reaction to corporations that treat human communities as ruthlessly as the natural environment. I cannot see this man as an apologist for BP or as a fan of globalization.

Indeed, one cannot imagine a better example of that alienating "bigness" than Tom Friedman's vision of globalization, which has enabled that "corporate dominance of society" on a scale far broader than Nisbet could have ever dreamed. How has that dominance (which I have preferred to call "the war against the poor") been achieved; and why do I associate it with the world the Internet has made? The reason is that focus on technology begets a focus on the objective world to the exclusion of the influences of the subjective and social worlds. Back in 2007 I summarized that focus as follows:

It is the ultimate objectification of the subject, which is to say, the reduction of anyone not in that ruling class to slavery (or, if you prefer Hayek's terminology, serfdom).

In Wolfe's language a world without subjects is a world without "the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human lives," which takes us back to those two major social risks that Jürgen Habermas identified in the writings of Max Weber: the risks of loss of meaning and loss of freedom. Unfortunately, things do not look any better today than they did when Habermas wrote about Weber in his Theory of Communicative Action. Indeed, if all those thinkers from the Fifties could not dig us out of the dark pit of mass irrationality, is there any reason to believe that current thinkers can do a better job?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Books and Reading

I enjoyed Lisa Jardine's latest Point of View column, even if the way it was introduced on the BBC News Web site made me a bit skeptical:

Books are a pleasure on so many different levels, but is how we consume them changing, asks Lisa Jardine in her A Point of View column.

It was that verb "consume" that set me to worrying. Was this going to be yet another market-oriented piece that reduced books to consumable products in the same category as laundry detergent?

Fortunately, there was no mention of detergent; but there was a fair amount of attention given to Oprah Winfrey and her Book Club. Furthermore, that attention was, for the most part, concentrated on the way a popular television program got its viewers interested in reading, beginning with one novel and gradually branching out into a project that may have fallen short of Mortimer Adler's Great Books of the Western World ambitions but was far from trivial. Jardine emphasized the substance of the matter with the example of one broadcast consisting of an "extended seminar" with Toni Morrison and members of the television audience (chosen by ballot) when the Book Club selection was Paradise.

This success of the Book Club led to an unexpected consequence that made it clear that a book was definitely something other than laundry detergent. Here is how Jardine described that consequence:

In the course of Oprah's animated dialogue on - and off - screen with her audience, as she promoted the reading of serious and challenging books by those who were not accustomed to reading for pleasure at all, she discovered that they not only wanted to own the books they read, they wanted to keep them, and sometimes to pass them to others as treasured gifts.

And if books were to take pride of place in their living room, they really wanted them to be properly bound, in good-looking hard covers.

One of the early titles she recommended, from the back list of a well-known author, was only available in paperback. Oprah expressed the view strongly on her show that the work ought to be made available in an inexpensive hardback, since that was what her audience wanted - a book to keep.

The publisher responded with an entire new hardback printing, at an affordable, heavily subsidised cover price (by then it was clear that here was a guaranteed sale of millions of copies).

This led to another unanticipated personal consequence for Jardine herself, regarding her relationship to electronic book technology:

At the beginning of this year I expressed the view here that I would always consider an electronic book a poor substitute for the real thing. Handling a book, enjoying the design, the binding and the illustrations, perhaps annotating its pages with my own responses to what I am reading, are, for me, and always will be, I said, a crucial part of the enjoyment of a good book.

Well, as so often in my life, I have had to reconsider. For everyday purposes I now find my electronic reader allows me to pursue a book I am enjoying wherever I go. I have to confess that I am reading Tony Blair's autobiography, purchased from my favourite online bookseller, on my iPad. Having spent much of the past week in airports and on planes, there is little doubt in my mind that this is far and away the most convenient way to read.

And even now that I am settled back at home after my wanderings, I won't, I am afraid, be purchasing a conventional copy, even though I know that in addition to there being no glossy cover, my copy is missing the accompanying, never seen before, Blair family photographs (as I noted when I looked over the shoulder of my neighbour, reading more conventionally, on a plane from Berlin to Rome).

I won't even be tempted by a special copy, in a red cloth slip cover, with handsome gold lettering, signed by the author.

Unfortunately, this is where her column ends; but my own feeling is that, where matters of books and reading are concerned, the discussion is only beginning.

Specifically, the conversational style of her column allows Jardine to migrate freely between matters of books and practices of reading, both of which involve some form of "consumption." What is lost, however, is that "consumption through reading" should not be confused with matters of consumption concerned with the book-as-product (either physical or digital). Yet it is precisely that confusion that tends to cloud most discussions concerned with the recent spate of technologies for reading digital texts.

What is missing from those discussions is the recognition that reading is an activity and, more specifically, that the activity is based on a motivated commitment to engage with a text. The nature of that engagement is highly text-dependent; and, unless we recognize that different texts require different types of engagement (without even worrying about whether or not those types can be rank-ordered by complexity), we shall fall into the trap of assuming that an electronic book must be a one-size-fits-all "technology solution." I suppose we have Jacques Derrida to thank for his insights into this engagement-based point of view. However, those of us who have read (or tried to read) his texts on this matter have discovered that he deliberately poses his own (often intimidating) challenges of engagement to readers wishing to learn what he has to say about engagement! (This is the school of thought that you have to experience the subject matter in order to understand it.) Rather than diving into the deep end of Derrida, however, let me offer a few examples of my own decisions concerning what I read digitally or physically.

First of all, I read Jardine's column "on the screen." It was part of my "morning news ritual," when I review the RSS feeds that Google Reader has harvested for me. It made for good digital reading because it was short. However, because it made a variety of points, I found that my own reading involved a fair amount of scrolling through the text itself, as I went about building my own "mental model" of what she had to say. Thus, by "short" I do not mean "read quickly;" I mean that it was on a scale that made that kind of scrolling feasible.

This is a major point that has been overlooked by just about every "electronic book" I have encountered. Very little of my reading is a matter of starting on the first page and chugging my way through until the pages have been exhausted. I am always bouncing around the text I am reading. I suspect that Jardine approaches much of her reading the same way, in which case she dropped a subtle review of Blair's book on us. Whenever I read a biography, I often find myself looking back in the text to see if some event in childhood or youth had an impact on another event at a more advanced age. I wonder whether or not Jardine decided that it was not worth taking the time to look for such connections while reading Blair's memoirs!

This raises another point, which is about why we read in the first place. I suspect that many of those who read in airports and on planes do so as an antidote for idleness. However, one does not have to commit to full-out Derrida-style engagement to keep idleness at bay. Thus, I suspect that the print version of the magazine in which Jardine's columns appear (not to mention Blair's memoir) is probably far more suited to holding off idleness on a long flight than any text by Derrida could be (although I cannot avoid confessing that I made quite a lot of progress in Speech and Phenomena on one such flight)!

So, having provided a case of a text that I did read from a screen, let me now offer an example of one I printed to have available for "physical" reading. I feel this is a useful example because I encountered it through that same morning routine of reviewing RSS feeds. The piece is an extended article from the latest issue of The New York Review of Books by Nicholas Lemann examining the recent HBO television series Treme. That adjective "extended" was intended as contrast with the adjective "short" applied to Jardine's piece. Lemann is very much in Jardine's league when it comes to thoughtful writing; but he was taking on several hours of television dealing with many different dimensions of post-Katrina New Orleans. This required far more than an exposition on Jardine's column-length scale. Most likely I shall not get through it in one sitting. More important, however, is that, again, I expect that my reading will be non-linear, refreshing my memory of earlier parts of the text as Lemann develops his argument. The Web site for this piece spreads it across three Web pages, which makes seeking out what you have already read even more difficult. There is also a single-page version; but that imposes its own problems of getting lost while scrolling.

I am willing to grant that this whole issue of engagement may have been "beyond the scope" of Jardine's column. However, I think it is important to recognize that engagement is not some arcane abstraction suitable only for those still interested in reading Derrida. Every member of Oprah's Book Club is as committed to engaging with text as I am when I read Derrida, Lemann, or Jardine. I would even venture to guess that not every Club member engages with a given text in the same way, which is why discussions about what one has read can be so fruitful. Thus, it is not the book that is threatened by electronic technology but the richness of the reading experience. Both Jardine and Book Club members appreciate that richness; but when will it be honored by those reading devices that have become the latest fad as "objects for consumption?"