Thursday, January 31, 2008

For Once I Agree with Bill Clinton

Sorry, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, I find you creepy and moronic and strange.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bono, Fire Your Damn Manager!

It's fun to constantly point out the inconsistencies of U2 lead singer Bono, and some analysts make a career of it. Bono's work with and concern for the poor has been legitimate, but you have to wonder about a guy who actually likes to hang with Paul Wolfowitz.

While we're on the subject of company kept, Bono and The Edge and gang had better take a second look at lifelong manager Paul McGuinness. The blog world is abuzz with McGuinness' Jan. 28 speech in Cannes on the future of the music industry. Actually, his assessment of the failures and foibles of record companies and musicians is spot-on in the first half of the speech. And then he takes on Silicon Valley.

First of all, "hippie values" in the technology industry? Where has McGuinness been in analyzing uber-capitalists? These are the Ayn Rand slaves, dude! But more important, where does he come off dissing Abbie Hoffman? The most important aspect of hippie culture in the 1960s was the nihilist and comedic trend of Yippie culture. If technology supporters behind peer-to-peer music services and MP3 harbor any Steal This Book! trends (which I find laughable), it's probably a good thing. The real danger in the modern world is allowing the transnational capitalists to control the entire game, while sending the big bad Recording Industry Association of America against those poor little file-stealers. Anarchists seeking to limit the power of large corporations are a healthy rage-against-the-machine, blow-against-the-empire trend, like the Barbary Pirates during the expansion of the British empire. If I had to choose between EMI and the Yippies, I'd choose Yippies every time. And if Bono doesn't share that opinion enough to tell his manager to go take a hike, then Bono is indeed the kind of two-faced hypocrite his critics have claimed for years.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Beyond Sex or Race

I'm really trying to minimize comments in this blog on the presidential campaign, from an underlying belief that the United States holds "demonstration elections" in which no candidate is allowed to compete who would really have the power of changing anything. In particular, I don't pay a lot of attention to the Clinton vs. Obama slugfest because I see fundamental weaknesses in both candidates.

Nevertheless, Marcia Pappas of New York National Organization of Women stirred me from my stupor Jan. 29 with her profoundly stupid comments railing against Ted and Caroline Kennedy for backing Obama. Both Hillary and Barack insist they have no interest in playing the sex or race card - they just let others, like Bill Clinton, do it for them. In the case of NOW, Pappas acts as though working for another candidate than Hillary is a fundamental betrayal of women.

I have news for Pappas and NY NOW - Hillary Clinton is a very flawed candidate for reasons that have nothing to do with her sex. Like her husband, Hillary is a triangulator. Rather than reach her positions from a passionate commitment to core values, she tries to decide where a majority is on the basis of polling, and positions herself accordingly. In particular, her key consultant Mark Penn, author of the book Microtrends, epitomizes for me everything that is wrong with American politics. If Clinton wants to be treated seriously, she has to get rid of Penn and the very concept of triangulation, develop a platform based on consistent and passionately-held positions on issues, and operate accordingly. Pappas and NOW need to realize that until Clinton is willing to do that, she will not be treated seriously by many who would love to see a woman president.

Obama is far from an ideal candidate. Caroline Kennedy's comments in The New York Times comparing Obama to her father would be laughable, if I didn't think that JFK himself was so highly overrated. Later this year, we can argue over whether Clinton or Obama shows the most superficiality. But for now, we can insist that endorsement of Obama scarcely constitutes a vote against women.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Dennis Kucinich and the Anti-Democratic Role of Mainstream Media

David Bauder of Associated Press had a nice piece Jan. 27 on Dennis Kucinich's Quixotic efforts to force the mainstream media to include him in debates. Bauder concluded there was danger in court rulings that suggested that private media companies could do whatever the hell they wanted to with political debates, but also an important point Kucinich made showing that the MSM (as Eric Alterman of The Nation magazine calls mainstream media) have no interest whatsoever in promoting democracy.

Execs in charge of CNN, broadcast networks, and similar outlets claim they're trying to make a bipartisan debate manageable, and that this requires a shutout of Kucinich and Richardson on the Dem side, and the snubbing of the rogue Ron Paul campaign on the Republican side. But you know and I know what is really going on. If MSM cared about democracy promotion, they wouldn't even limit debates to the two major parties, but include everyone from the Revolutionary Communist Party to the American Nazis. Claims that this would make things uncontrollable ignore the fact that usually five or fewer minor parties ever make the ballot anyway. True democracy entails a cacophony of voices, and it's precisely that wide-open chaos the MSM can't stand.

The problem is worse than simply limiting debate to a few easily-identified faces. Brian Fuller's always-interesting Greeley's Ghost blog put forth the not-so-wacky conspiracy theory that advertising-driven media wants to control the public, not enable democratic practices. No better example can be provided than CNN's despicable behavior in the YouTube debates, when moderators like Wolf Blitzer tossed out serious questions of policy in favor of the silly and superficial. As Alterman stresses in his column again and again, MSM outlets will never operate in ways that enhance democracy. We have to unplug our most popular news sources and gain democracy by forcing it, but in a consumer-driven somnanbulent society of passive observers, how many people will be willing to fight the good fight?

Friday, January 25, 2008

All My Little Words - Magnetic Fields

Sarching for newer MagFields videos, I found this wonderful amateur interpretation of "All My Little Words" from "69 Love Songs."

Tight Feedback Loops

One reason posts have been few and the curmudgeon hasn't been so grumpy of late is that societal pressure points have been getting more and more predictable in recent decades-years-months-
weeks-minutes, and adaptive responses from the body politic happen much faster than they have historically. This may be part of the reason people occupy their time with stupid gossip -- they have an underlying assumption that large systems are increasingly adaptive and self-correcting, so the don't-worry-be-happy ethic applies.

This should not blind us to the fact that there are problems, like hangnails, that fester and refuse to respond to feedback. The selfish behavior of Western governments (and large emerging economies) regarding carbon footprints means that practical responses to global warming are virtually nonexistent. Bashir has appointed the head of the Janjaweed to an official Sudanese post. George Bush is still in office. Cybernetics does not always work.

And yet, it's funny to see how the collective human intelligence, both in its conscious response to events and in its unconscious intuitive reflexes, is much better at anticipating and dealing with problems than even 20 or 30 years ago. The subprime crisis and collapse of the economy, for example, was anticipated for months, and the response of both the Federal Reserve and the Bush-Congress coalition was immediate. Elite groups like Davos, whatever their real faults may be, look for cultural pressure points a decade off and try to develop feedback loops today.

When David Simon asked in the Washington Post the other day why the public does not appear to value news any more, part of the problem may be an assumption that in a perfect-information and perfect-feedback society, problems fix themselves in the same way that messages on the Internet recover from attempts at censorship: you route around the bottleneck. There's a danger here in lulling the public into a false sense of security, and the kind of somnambulence we saw pre-9/11, when the only important thing on anyone's mind was the Chandra Levy murder case. We depend on adaptive behavior at our own peril.

And yet, despite recurring wars and the "clash of civilizations" crap, global society actually is operating much more efficiently on automatic pilot than it has at any time in human history. That might just be a sign of maturity, which old curmudgeons don't get to see too often.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Pious Youth Rebellion

As a Westerner and member of the militant Enlightenment brigade, I have to be careful about assuming that an increase in piousness and asceticism among younger people necessarily constitutes a cultural step backwards. Still, if the shoe (or burqa) fits...

I got to thinking about this in the aftermath of the Greg Mortenson visit, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth of many Western women as to the pitiful treatment of women in devout Islamic nations. The trouble with such a view, as many Turkish secularists have pointed out, is that a significant number of younger women choose to wear the veil, and demand that Islamic law be carried out more vigilantly than it is in many Islamic countries. In other words, there's no better oppression than self-oppression.

This point of view is underscored in the newest Middle East Report special issue on Youth, in particular an article on blogging within the (Egyptian) Muslim Brotherhood. There is one tendency within the Brotherhood comprised of members who are active Internet users, who discuss the meanings of their faith and their interactions with the secular world openly. However, these bloggers say they represent only about 15 percent of the younger Muslim Brotherhood members. The vast majority of MB teens and 20-somethings make such an issue of their devoutness, they see any exposure to television or the Internet as being a contamination from the infidels. They pride themselves on not learning, not reading, and keeping their focus strictly on prayer and the Quran.

Sorry, I have to insist this simply is evolutionarily backward. We have Christians who are members of voluntary chastity groups, who say that they dislike reading anything other than Scripture, and yes, they're backward too, but it's hard to find something as willfully ignorant as the Salafi/Wahhabist youth movement. The fact that this super-piety trend is particularly visible among younger people should frighten us. But it should also spur us into becoming militant supporters of the Enlightenment faith. To refuse to learn and grow and read and expand your mind is to deny your humanity. This applies to all faiths in all cultures.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Three Cups of Tea, the Art of Compromise, and the Limits of the Big Tent

Greg Mortenson, director of the Central Asia Institute and author of the phenomenal best-seller Three Cups of Tea, has been appearing at schools and colleges around Colorado Springs to promote the NGO, and encourage the building of public schools for both sexes in tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a special emphasis on educating women in small Islamic communities in the tribal areas. Since these are the areas where Taliban-affiliated militants promote madrassas, it's no surprise Mortenson's schools have been attacked, and no surprise that various U.S. agencies would like to "help" Mortenson. He insists he hasn't taken a dime from DoD or State Department, and I believe him. I like his insistence that he must function above politics, and it was good to hear that he forced his publishers to change the subtitle of his book from "Fighting Terrorism" to "Promoting Peace."

Many readers say that Three Cups of Tea has become popular precisely because he tries to avoid taking sides. And Mortenson himself tries to find ways to work with mullahs in the Pakistan earthquake zones, even though this would make U.S. officials look askance at his efforts. But let's deal with a couple realities: The U.S. Army War College has ordered 5000 copies of his book for counterinsurgency purposes. And his visit to Colorado Springs was co-sponsored by the Center for Homeland Security at UCCS, an organization run by a guy with a long intelligence history, Steve Recca. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to establish dialog with the intelligence community, and CHS/UCCS can probably point to a lot of good things it has done. Mortenson is trying to play an honest game with his efforts, but you simply cannot be above politics in Taliban-controlled areas. As the old New Left saying goes, "Not to decide is to decide."

Co-sponsor for this tour was the Colorado Springs independent newsweekly, Colorado Springs Independent. The Indy has shown itself to be much braver and more useful than Denver's Westword, which is one of several weeklies run by Michael Lacey of Phoenix, weeklies that try to avoid mention of true political topics. For a long time now, the Indy has proven itself worthy of respect, at least more so than its neighbor to the north.

But I wonder if Indy publisher John Weiss is too anxious to play the "Big Tent" theory. Since Colorado Springs has such a large military and intelligence contingent, it's important to find ways to have dialog. But Weiss has been working with the Fort Carson Sustainability effort in a venue that tries to ignore the reality that an active Army post cannot be "green" by its very nature. The Indy has sponsored town meetings on the Fort Carson expansion which admittedly asks questions no one else will ask, but still is reticent to take the questioning of Fort Carson too far. And the newspaper did not want to delve too deeply into the question of CHS sponsorship of Mortenson, and whether the work of CAI could be misused by the U.S. military. I wish Mortenson well, I wish Weiss and theIndy well, I suppose I even wish CHS and Recca well. I just wish that people could use a little more honesty in discussing when the goals of aid to Islamic women and the goals of the military and counterinsurgency experts can lead to some questionable results.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

When Does the RIAA Madness End? When CDs Are Finally Dead?

Just when you think the Recording Industry Association of America couldn't get any loonier, along comes the Washington Post to tell us about an Arizona lawsuit in which RIAA argues that you cannot legally purchase a CD, convert the files into MP3 or FLAC, and store those files on your computer. Excuse me? That is the default way of listening to music these days, unless the purchaser buys files from iTunes and stores them directly, bypassing CDs altogether. The case against Jeffrey Howell of Scottsdale, Ariz. seems to suggest that RIAA wants this to happen.

They'll probably get their death wish soon enough. Variety magazine online reported that holiday sales of CDs were down a whopping 21 percent from a year ago, indicating the death of a format. And with lawsuits like the RIAA/Howell one, that death will be hastened exponentially.