Archive for June, 2010

28
Jun
10

Enormous Magician Terrified

Penn Jillette: entertainer, commentator, libertarian. The vocal half of the Penn & Teller magic team might to some exemplify a sharp-witted, laudable North Americanism in the face of nonsense – part Mark Twain, part James Randi.  Despite Jillete’s simplistic libertarian civics, his show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! does its bit to roll back credulous mindlessness of many sorts.

But when Penn’s subject turns to a faith called Islam,  the bravura evaporates.  Mention a mosque and the clever iconoclast vanishes into the sea of  tens of millions of flabby, terrified morons convinced of their impending doom at the hands of jihadists – the tiniest minority among a tiny minority.

From the June 24th Issue of Las Vegas Weekly:

Are there any groups you won’t go after? We haven’t tackled Scientology because Showtime doesn’t want us to. Maybe they have deals with individual Scientologists—I’m not sure. And we haven’t attacked Islam because we have families.

Meaning, you won’t attack Islam because you’re afraid it’ll attack back … Right, and I think the worst thing you can say about a group in a free society is that you’re afraid to talk about it—I can’t think of anything more horrific.

Of course, it might please some Islamic fundamentalists to hear you say that you won’t talk about them because you’re afraid … It might, but you have to say what you believe, even it if pleases somebody you disagree with—that issue comes up all the time in moral discourse.

Moral discourse?

Not to further terrify Mr. Jillette, but it should be pointed out that there are problems in his bringing that up.   Moral discourse as suggested by the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg features the concept of stages of moral development, placing the highest stage as a person’s conforming to a set of morals to avoid self-condemnation.  This is as opposed to lower stages avoiding the condemnation of others, or of institutions, of of sky beings.  The very lowest stage of moral development?  Conforming to avoid punishment.

Which is exactly what Penn’s childish (and very popular) panic indulges in.

In this astoundingly lame justification for avoiding discussing Islam, the big, burly libertarian at once wets his pinstriped trousers while simultaneously validating the current, driving and interchangeable enemy myth of the military-industrial complex.   We are treated to another twist of that meat grinder’s handle, as if it was really needed.  What stance could be more reactionary, or more embracing of pernicious bullshit than to blubber thus over the infinitesimally small threat individuals pose to a superpower?

You know, libertarians just don’t get it. We live in a world where political and economic realities of our own making exist that cannot be expressed adequately (or at all) in terms of the individual.  A system is running.  Our parts to be played within it happily include many of our own choosing, but the lingering, aggregated effects of these choices are mainly external to us as individuals. That means that the libertarian ethos – calibrated as it is to the individual’s freedom –  is spectacularly ill-suited to oppose a system it cannot even see.  Theirs is the philosophy of the spreadsheet cell, in denial of the spreadsheet’s existence.

The horrifying irony is that libertarian blindness has always served as the perfect cover for the corporate enfeebling of the individual. The libertarian credo – personal freedom – is totally at odds with this state of permanent war and war economy.  The evidence is unambiguous: freedom after freedom is lost to this permanent war as the years drag on.  The only way this system can be countered by individuals is by exercising their sole advantage over the inhuman: adherence to moral or ethical principle.  And these should be of the very highest grade, not the lowest.

24
Jun
10

Tim Westergren: Pandora’s Profitable

I’ve written before about how I love the web music service Pandora and its nerdy roots as a musical categorization engine. Underneath Pandora lurks the Music Genome Project, a smartly designed effort to identify properties present in individual recordings regardless of artist, genre, label, era, or any other strictly nonmusical characteristics. These musical properties are used to make automated decisions about your playlist – if you start with a song that uses electric guitars, minor key tonality, chromatic harmonic structure and uptempo pacing, you’re likely to get more of these characteristics in subsequent songs – no matter what artist, era or genre. It makes for great listening and surprising discovery.

I talked to Pandora CEO Tim Westergren in 2007 when I worked for Gearwire.com. Here’s Tim’s Wall Street Journal interview from today. The upshot: Pandora’s now profitable, working out the privacy problems that Facebook’s shifting policies have foisted upon them.

And what the heck, here’s my Pandora profile.  Below, a 2008 clip with Tim, Pandora’s Dancing Monkey (and crew).

17
Jun
10

Investigative Journalism: Banished To Iceland

What is it in the national character of Iceland that has caused that nation’s lawmakers to defiantly put the world’s strongest spine in the laws protecting whistleblowers and investigative journalists? I’m not sure.

It could be that Icelanders are still smarting from losing the international game of hot potato with mortgage backed securities. That loss bankrupted their government in the process and threw into sharp relief the risks of taking institutional bullshit at face value.

It could be that they have taken a recent look at the land of the free and the home of the brave and its President’s disgusting and unprecedented prosecution of whistleblowers – and have decided that’s more than enough negative example from one superpower.

It could also be just that Icelanders are kind of badass.  Given the apocalyptic volcano/geyser/glacier pageantry they call a landscape, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

Iceland has passed a sweeping reform of its media laws that supporters say will make the country an international haven for investigative journalism.
The new package of legislation was passed unanimously at 4am yesterday in one of the final sessions of the Icelandic parliament, the Althingi, before its summer break.
Created with the involvement of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, it increases protection for anonymous sources, creates new protections from so-called “libel tourism” and makes it much harder to censor stories before they are published.
“It will be the strongest law of its kind anywhere,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, MP for The Movement party and member of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which first made the proposals. “We’re taking the best laws from around the world and putting them into one comprehensive package that will deal with the fact that information doesn’t have borders any more.”
Wikileaks has been involved in the drafting of the package of laws alongside Ms Jonsdottir from the beginning of the process more than a year ago. Its founder, Julian Assange, worked from Iceland on the organisation’s release of the incendiary video of an apparently unprovoked American helicopter attack in Iraq that left eighteen people dead, including two journalists.

Iceland has passed a sweeping reform of its media laws that supporters say will make the country an international haven for investigative journalism.
The new package of legislation was passed unanimously at 4am yesterday in one of the final sessions of the Icelandic parliament, the Althingi, before its summer break.
Created with the involvement of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, it increases protection for anonymous sources, creates new protections from so-called “libel tourism” and makes it much harder to censor stories before they are published.
“It will be the strongest law of its kind anywhere,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, MP for The Movement party and member of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which first made the proposals. “We’re taking the best laws from around the world and putting them into one comprehensive package that will deal with the fact that information doesn’t have borders any more.”
Wikileaks has been involved in the drafting of the package of laws alongside Ms Jonsdottir from the beginning of the process more than a year ago. Its founder, Julian Assange, worked from Iceland on the organisation’s release of the incendiary video of an apparently unprovoked American helicopter attack in Iraq that left eighteen people dead, including two journalists.

15
Jun
10

There Really Ought To Be An Idol Building Code

When I first read that Touchdown Jesus had been struck by lightning and had burned to the ground, my thoughts went to the collective psychiatric health of the people of South Bend, Indiana. Surely, the loss of such a cornerstone icon of Notre Dame football would have ruined the month for a few nearby.

Then the calculations began; I need to stay on top of these things as the upcoming Independence Day celebration means this is the time of year I break policy and travel from Chicago to neighboring Indiana to obtain fireworks. The last thing I need on that trip is to show my set of Illinois license plates while traveling among an agitated population of armed, confederate-flag waving boneheads whose only moral restraint went up in the flames with their local idol.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. For this is the midwestern United States, and we wouldn’t dream of putting all our Touchdown Jesii in a single basket, no sir. Today is the day that I learned that “Touchdown Jesus” means different things to different people – that over in Ohio, they had their own six-story tall Touchdown Jesus (a statue, not a mural as in Indiana) just outside Cincinnati for years.

Note the “had” – half-assed idol construction and inclement weather combined last night to restore a measure of natural beauty to the landscape by a cleansing $700,000 fire.

While it is comforting to know that the charitable causes to feed the hungry and clothe the naked in the state of Ohio had no need for the 700 grand that went into the construction of a six-story tall exercise in Touchdown Jesus one-upsmanship, as the hat is passed yet again for its replacement, I urge these and all future idolators to not cheap out.  Make sure to use stone or gold next time.  To do otherwise leaves your idol subject to lighting bolts thrown by God, whose patience for tacky crap is apparently on par with my own.

13
Jun
10

Oh, Wikipedia. You So Crazy.

I met Dave Schulthise, better known as Dave Blood of the Dead Milkmen in 1985 when i was 17. The Milkmen’s first Chicago show happened to also be my first stage appearance, playing bass for The Defoliants. Dave, sadly no longer with us, was a sweet and funny guy who really knew his way around a Music Man bass. This means he would have gotten a kick out of the complete bullshit that lives on his Wikipedia page:

Yeah, no. Abnormally good playing, abnormally great guy, normal tuning.

06
Jun
10

Chalmers Johnson: Speaking Freely About US Foreign Policy

Who better to know the realities behind the country’s permanent war economy than a former spear carrier for the empire?  Chalmers Johnson, author of the Blowback trilogy and professor emeritus at UC San Diego spells out again what nobody lining their pockets in “defense” wants to hear.  A national treasure speaks out on the squandering of the nation’s treasure.

04
Jun
10

As A New Media Critic, Adam Curtis Makes A Great Documentarian

“First of all, the people who do blogging, for example, are self-selecting. Quite frankly it’s quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies. The internet has removed a lot of constraints on them. You know what they’re like: they’re deeply emotional, they’re bullies, and they often don’t get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information – they do little research of their own.

What then happens is this idea of the ‘hive mind’, instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, leads to a growing simplicity.

The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.” – Adam Curtis

It’s a testament to how much I admire the work of BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis that I do not turn my back on it for his being so shockingly wrong about something so important.

Curtis, a contemporary of the immensely important and beloved band Gang of Four hails from Leeds and was friends with the band in its earliest days.  As such, he had a head start as an ally of RW370 without my even considering his film work.  But it is these that inspire awe.  His documentaries for BBC Century Of The Self and The Trap are among the most important of the last decade. They have a frighteningly keen insight into the little-discussed ways the 20th century’s most revolutionary ideas in psychology, marketing and politics have enabled the dominant political and commerical institutions of our time. Curtis adroitly chronicles distortions imparted by the institutionalizing process upon the culture as well as the original ideas themselves. Century is especially brilliant, illustrating the hidden history of the development and imposition of the templates from which all of today’s political marketing is drawn.

That’s the Curtis I know. Today, I read a new and different Adam Curtis from an interview in 2007, and I’m sorry to say don’t like this one much and hope he’s come around since.  This Adam Curtis is a new media bigot who portrays bloggers as “bullies” and parasites who are”self-selected” and have “a lack of enthusiasm about finding out about the world”.

Some things about Curtis’s extended complaint about the writers who make up the new media landscape are fairly sound: he finds a tendency for bloggers to simplify their subjects to the point of creating journalistically useless content, and he has found that bloggers have undue influence in mainstream news media. Many bloggers, he effectively says, are committed more to heat than light. Fair enough, as such superficial and universal conclusions go.  I have a hard time finding anything in these complaints that doesn’t apply to mainstream media equally.

To characterize influential bloggers as “self-selected” is one of the more embarrassing canards a clueless baby boomer can level at new media. I hope I am not the one to tell him that the internet, distinctly unlike the model of, say, Mr. Curtis’s television network employer, treats the issue of selection as a plain matter of direct democracy, using clicks as votes.

Curtis doesn’t understand that an influential blog is not that way because one person decided it to be so. Nobody who ever read a traffic statistics report for a blog would ever hold that notion for long. A blog’s influence is manifest solely in the consumption of its content – the relevant selection is that done by its audience, not its publisher. Compare this with any TV network’s programming decision process and see which is the more unilateral and arbitrary. Traffic reports aren’t guesses, and linkback traffic – the signal to the blogosphere at large of what the real headcount is at a blog – isn’t falsifiable to any meaningful extent. Curtis is so far off about the fundamental online power relationships, it’s embarrassing.

Nor does it help when he goes on to excoriate the mainstream media for not knowing enough (or anything) about the things they report upon. It’s not that he’s wrong about TV news – mainstream TV has never made much money at reportage and in fact stands to lose its corporate owners far more money than it could ever make if it was to become competent at it. But again Curtis’s warped new media landscape places TV news’s routine derogation of its duty not in the domain of its corporate ownership but inexplicably on “bullies” – bloggers, who “from one [ideological] side act to try to force mainstream media one way, [while] the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.”

This is an unfortunate breakdown in understanding. Were it true that mainstream media takes its cues from its position relative to bloggers instead of its corporate owners, navigating a path between the extremes wouldn’t require much steering – polar extremes by definition have maximum space between them. The problem isn’t in finding a center, the problem is in commercial pressure of reaching for maximum audience.  This is absolutely done by reaching for the extremes of the spectrum. Could it be that Curtis has not listened to enough US right wing talk radio – as utterly mainstream a product as exists – or explored its decades of commercial history to understand that saying insane things that sound plausible to economic victims is not a fringe strategy, but is in fact wildly popular and profitable?

Audience, Mr. Curtis. Ignore it at all of our peril. As you so clearly showed in Century Of The Self, the self-image of people was the first thing sold to them en masse. Why throw away this magnificent truth when the medium is a web browser?

[UPDATE: Happily, since 2007, Adam Curtis has indeed straightened out his new media perspective and has joined the self-selected bullies with a great new online property, to which I gleefully link here and at the sidebar.   Thanks to other Curtis fans for the gentle boot in the arse.]




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1984-89: Defoliants
1991-94: Buzzmuscle
2001-05: San Andreas Fault
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