Friday, November 30, 2007

The Limits of Teddy Tolerance

I was trying to avoid comment on the Gillian Gibbons case, since it goes without saying that (a) she was a decent person with an innocent intent, and (b) Sudan is one of the most reprehensible nation-states on the planet, and it's difficult to think of Sudanese leaders ever doing good.

But the Islamic conservatives who protested independently on Nov. 30, demanding Gibbons' execution, raised my ire further. Regardless of her innocence in naming a teddy bear, blasphemy is a basic, integral part of freedom of speech that must be accepted by people that intend to live on this planet in this century. You hear that, religious fundamentalists? I'm all for mutual respect, but the Enlightenment took place 300 years ago, and it is not being revoked by morons referencing their God or Allah or Yahweh. I'm back on my Salman Rushdie high horse of 20 years ago. Death to those who call for fatwas! If you're ready to kill others for their perceived blasphemy, get the hell off my planet.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bob's Not All There

I'm not frantic to see Todd Haynes' mystical/mythical movie on Dylan, with Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, and Heath Ledger portraying Zimmerman at various points in his life, but in the meantime, the wonderful soundtrack to I'm Not There will serve as a placeholder. What irks me is the number of movie reviews that generate the mythical image of Dylan, in which each act is loaded with layers of hidden meaning.

This is why I find David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street book on Dylan's life with Baez, Farina, et. al. to be far more interesting. Hajdu raises the legitimate complaint that Dylan acted like a prick to Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and others, because he had a very calculated sense of what he wanted to do. That calculation, sometimes with a rather superficial intent, has remained in place throughout his career. Right now, Dylan is not touring the state-fair circuit with Willie Nelson in some mystical effort to dissect Americana. He's touring middle America to milk an audience who loves to hear All Along the Watchtower from the dastardly caballero with the pencil-thin moustache. Not that much different from the Eagles doing a sales exclusive at Wal-Mart, really.

Don't get me wrong, I am neither condemning Dylan as a sellout nor dismissing his act as worthless. His calculation is as self-evident as Woody Guthrie's, when Woody chose to do the American hobo trip with a wife who gave up Martha Graham's dance company for folk-dancing. Dylan was brilliant in the political talking-blues period, in the hallucinogenic Blonde on Blonde period, and even tolerable in the Self-Portrait and Christian periods. But many of our cultural icons choose to make calculated shifts in image in a very transparent way. We can point to Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer, and thousands of others (to say nothing of every punk-rocker and every poseur). To be truly mystical in personas, one must dance on the edge of total madness like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. Anything else is just calculated marketing. Critics who put artists on pedestals and treat calculated images as mysticism do no one a favor. We do not need icons to be puffed up to several times larger than life.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Labor and Content-Free Entertainment

There've been plenty of observations of the unusual resurgence of a certain type of labor union activity in 2007: except for the fleeting UAW strikes of GM and Chrysler, most strikes have involved the media and entertainment businesses - the Hollywood writers' strike, the NY stagehands' strike, the CBS News writers' strike. It says a lot about the shift from heavy industry and manufacturing to a culture driven by entertainment.

What hasn't been touched upon outside of Rafiki's (Jared Bradshaw's) speech in Forbidden Broadway (picture above), is the extent to which Broadway audiences consciously choose content-free spectacle as the preferred form of entertainment - the dumber and more childish, the better. How else to explain the rash of musicals being struck, like Tarzan, Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Grinch, Lion King, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, Xanadu, Chorus Line, Mama Mia... What isn't a Disney corporate product (a lower and lower percentage of live theatre these days) is moronic enough to please a five-year-old. The point, according to Rafiki, is not just to substitute special effects and spectacle for content, but to make sure there is as little content as possible in the entertainment to disturb the audience.

This lesson should not be lost on journalists wondering what 21st century infotainment will look like. Rafiki's Rules are twofold: (1) If you have to feed the public any information whatsoever, coat it with enough entertainment to make it fluffy, not stuffy; and (2) remember that content really isn't king -- the public wants as little memorable content as possible, just enough colors and lights and sounds to satisfy the minds of toddlers. Most media consumers of today certainly act as if they were toddlers.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Taking "Me" Out of the Equation

Environmental and journalism gadfly Bill McKibben did a great piece in the Nov./Dec. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, describing how the cult of self is a big barrier to solving problems like global warming. An important read.

Falling Slowly - The Swell Season in Denver

If you know Glen and Marketa from "Once," no explanation is necessary.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


The 16 years' existence of the avant-folk duo Charalambides has witnessed the marriage and divorce of founders Tom and Christina Carter, with the group somehow surviving all the twists and turns. Charalambides itself has gone through a lot of changes, with early-1990s efforts mixing traditional folk tunes of the 19th century with heavy psychedelia, and millenium-era Charalambides moving into an ethereal, improvisational direction. During that time, Charalambides released all kinds of hopelessly obscure vinyl LPs, and CDRs packaged in art objects, such as rattan placemats and rice-paper bound with sealing wax and string.
In Tom and Christina's first visit to Colorado Nov. 12, they were returning in part to traditionalist lyrics and melodic song structures, though where the Carters are concerned, normality is always relative. Christina's voice is as confident and focused as it ever has been, shifting from slow alto to soaring soprano with very little effort. And Tom is putting a little more rock star attitude in his playing today. Their new CD, Likeness, may be the most accessible work the duo has ever done, and most of the performances in Denver were from that release. For part of their tour, T&C were appearing with former Charalambides member Heather Leigh Murray, the curator of Glasgow's Volcanic Tongue, and a vibrant noise-maker in her own right. Heather went back to Glasgow Nov. 9, unfortunately. Heading the tour was Scottish folk traditionalist Alasdair Roberts, who sang beautiful ballads. This only underscores the fact that Charalambides dwell between two worlds, one familiar and enlightening, the other transcendental and occasionally frightening. (A professional videography team was on hand for their show - if videos appear online, I will update this post with a clip.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

But Where is Intruder?

Philip Taubman did an impressive and gargantuan front-page piece (the size rarely seen in print any more) on the troubled National Reconnaissance Office in the Nov. 11 Sunday New York Times. The bulk of the piece was on the multi-billion-dollar optical spy satellite, Future Imagery Architecture, its cancellation, and Boeing's failures. Taubman tangentially mentioned NRO's problems with Misty (a stealth signals-intelligence satellite) and SBIRS (Space-Based Infrared Surveillance) as well. But there was a big gaping hole where Intruder and IOSA (Integrated Overhead SIGINT Architecture) should be. This is all the more unusual since Boeing was the prime contractor on IOSA and Intruder, as well.
NRO's biggest federal partner in space is the National Security Agency, and the two collaborate on satellites that listen in to communications from space, using unfurlable antennas as big as three football fields. Yet it seems that every time the major media talk about spy satellites and NRO's problems, the subject of signals intelligence remains off limits. C'mon, you guys, of course it's sensitive, but IOSA/Intruder was as big a boondoggle as FIA! Is anyone (besides NSA) listening?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Fuck the Chavistas!

I've tried to cut all kinds of slack for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, since he faced a ridiculous coup attempt in April 2002, and his Bolivarian economic alternatives for the southern cone really represent a good challenge to IMF/World Bank "Washington consensus." But I was always nervous about his military roots and demagogic tendencies, and the way he was mobilizing poorer citizens not just toward self-determination, but toward the "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" Stalinist model perfected by Castro and others.
The response by anonymous gunmen Nov. 7 to peaceful university protests says it all. Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, both have found ways to mobilize the poor without turning everything into provocative class warfare. Chavez has pushed the Venezuelan proletariat into thug methodologies. He's the perfect kind of guy for western capitalists to demonize, and given Venezuela's oil wealth, he's likely to be around for a while. But that doesn't mean he's the kind of person that any western progressive should admire. I'm utterly through with Hugo Chavez, and I won't give much credit to friends in the progressive community that still like him.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Facebook, Branding, and Social Identity

Normally, I'd just provide a pointer to a posting I made for my EE Times blog, but I consider this issue important enough and scary enough to replicate the entire post here. Heaven help us:

My cheap little snipe against Mark Zuckerberg in Monday's blog might lead you to think I'm not a Facebook fan. And you'd be right. Facebook needs to adopt Google's version of the Hippocratic Oath, and quickly. The company's efforts to provide real-time tracking of all kinds of member activities a few months ago sounded like a privatized version of National Security Agency monitoring. And now, the new Facebook advertising and branding campaign reaches new lows, not just in turning members into marketeers, but in turning citizens into the branding zombies that social critics from Adbusters magazine to Society of the Spectacle have warned about for years.

According to Techcrunch, the new Facebook Ads campaign has three elements: Social Ads, Beacon, and Insight. The first element is the familiar idea of targeted ads based on demographics collected by Facebook. Hey, this is to be expected, and is the price one pays for subscribing to all these free social-network services. Nothing is free, everything is ad-supported, and the consumer must figure out how much crap to put up with. Similarly, Insight is an effort by Facebook to help ad partners conduct a form of "data mining" - a method of aggregating and using data which got a bad name during the NSA warrantless surveillance hearings, but is something many private companies have been doing for years under one-to-one marketing campaigns.

What really disturbs me here is Beacon, the effort to turn brands into widgets and allow Facebook users to identify brands as "friends." What's disturbing is the number of readers in the Techcrunch story responding to think that this is a good idea. No privacy issues here, mind you, but some pretty ugly philosophical issues about commoditizing friendships. As the excellent Canadian film The Corporation pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court sent corporate apologists on the wrong path late in the 19th century, by identifying a corporation as a legal person. We tend to think of the corporation as an entity deserving its own rights. Now, as social critics have pointed out time and again, objectification of brand awareness and undercover viral marketing have led to an era where kids define themselves by brands of shoes, clothing, soft drink, whatever. If Doritos is my friend, I can serve as a marketing manager whenever I expand my social network - and my friends receive ads as a consequence of expanding my social network. Perhaps this isn't that much of a difference than music bands on MySpace, but we stand on the edge of a dangerous precipice whenever brands become friends. During debates about the war, critics often say that slavish devotion to national policy creates cannon fodder. But slavish devotion to brand awareness and promotion creates a nation of robotic marketeers. Maybe we've raised a generation of brand-promoters that love to get Pepsi logos tattoed on their butts, but count me out of that kind of social network!

You are about to add Doritos as a friend. We will then notify Doritos, who will have to confirm that you are friends.

Also, if you add Doritos as a friend, he will be able to see your profile until he confirms or ignores your request. Edit Privacy

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Sounds of One Shoe Dropping

My company's CEO, Steve Weitzner, got pushed aside today for not being brutal enough. Brian Fuller has the story here. This is the incredibly-shrinking world of journalism in the 21st century, get used to it.