Archives

You are currently viewing archive for March 2011
Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Eugene Agrees With Me

Eugene Robinson seems to be saying exactly what I said yesterday—admittedly better.




Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
All the Faces of Gaddafi

It bothers me how Gaddafi is perceived throughout the developed world—especially in the United States. Once he was a villain. I remember when Reagan bombed him and how it upset me—not so much because I cared about Gaddafi or because I was philosophically against war but because I didn't know where it would lead. It seemed like there was a lot of that during the Reagan-Bush years: running into conflicts without much thought. It seems like we are doing that now. That in itself is troubling, but what bothers me more is why it is so easy for us to do. For a few years, Gaddafi was a "good guy." But the truth was that he never really got off our shit list. I think that if he had behaved and been a "good boy" for longer, he would have become an eternal "good guy." If that transition had taken place, I doubt we would be bombing there now. My concern is that what we think about a country or leader—not what they do—determines what actions we take in these situations. If Gaddafi had a good reputation in the United States, the press coverage of his actions would have been told more from his perspective: the anti-terrorist narrative. And as a result, there wouldn't be anything close to 70% of the country in favor of the no-fly zone.

I really don't know what I think about the bombing of Libya. On the one hand, I think Gaddafi and his regime have been doing terrible things and that they should be stopped. On the other hand, I'm afraid that we may end up doing more harm than good. It reminds me of the invasion of Iraq. There was no doubt that Hussein was a bad guy[1], but it is doubtful that in all of his life he did and would have done nearly as much damage as we did. The case in Libya is at least clearer: Gaddafi was actively doing harm to his people. When Hussein was doing that, we just stood by and watched. But I'm still not sure.

[1] I seem to be unable to use the term "good guy" without scare quotes, but have no similar problem with "bad guy." I think there is a lot in this. For whatever reason, I think "good guy" implies some kind of perfection, like having never done bad, while "bad guy" implies only badness past a certain, unacceptable, level. Another part of this has to do with the fact that I don't think any ruler or ruling authority is ever good. Good people just aren't attracted to power over others. (However, some are better than others.) I'm sure there is much more as well. Regardless, I am not going to change this idiosyncrasy, since I don't see it as inconsistent.


Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
One of many problems with Wikipedia is how it tends to homogenize history and people. Truly despicable people come off as okay because there is one person in the world who thinks he or she wasn't a monster. See, for example, George Heast. Or, more to the point, see Westbrook Pegler. According to Wikipedia today (18 March 2011), Pegler can be described as follows:

Francis James Westbrook Pegler (August 2, 1894 – June 24, 1969) was an American journalist and writer. He was a popular columnist in the 1930s and 1940s famed for his opposition to the New Deal and labor unions. Pegler criticized every president from Herbert Hoover to FDR ("moosejaw") to Harry Truman ("a thin-lipped hater") to John F. Kennedy. He also criticized the Supreme Court, the tax system, and labor unions. In 1962, he lost his contract with King Features Syndicate, owned by Hearst, after he started criticizing Hearst executives. His late writing appeared sporadically in obscure publications, including the John Birch Society's American Opinion.


This is actually pretty forceful for Wikipedia, and if Wikipedia were this good generally, I would not have a problem with it. However, it is a far cry from the following description of Pegler by Max Blumenthal in Republican Gomorrah, where he writes that Westbrook Pegler was:

a prominent mid-century columnist and demagogue who became one of the godfathers of right-wing populism. Pegler identified himself in a column defending a lynching in rural California: "I claim authority to speak for the rabble because I am a member of the rabble in good standing." He was a sworn enemy of FDR's New Deal and the Democratic Party's alliance with labor unions, which he portrayed as an international Communist conspiracy designed to undermine the freedom of average working Americans. Pegler loathed FDR so intensely that when an assassin killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, in an attempt on FDR's life in early 1933, he lamented that the killer "got the wrong man." During the latter phase of his career, Pegler morphed into a fanatical anti-Semite and open fascist, a curious development considering that he had married a Jew. His screeds grew so extreme even the John Birch Society barred him from the pages of its newsletter. "Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter [Robert F. Kennedy's] spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies," Pegler wishfully predicted in 1965. Pegler died a year after RFK's assassination.


(The material inside the square brackets was in the original.)

Many of the points made by Blumenthal are eventually mentioned in the Wikipedia article, but as is typical, they are without context and tend to gloss-over the horror that was Pegler. For example, it writes, "In 1965, referring to Robert F. Kennedy, Pegler wrote: 'Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.'" That is an entire paragraph; there is no context, no sense of outrage; "Yeah, the guy called for the assassination of Robert Kennedy; so what?" Perhaps many places on the Internet (especially blogs) are over-opinionated, but Wikipedia is generally under-opinionated, as it must necessarily be because it has no authority.


Category: Science
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the most important, eye-opening books I have ever read. In it, he presents a history of communications in the United States and makes clear what Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote, "The medium is the message." Specifically, Postman discusses how reading a newspaper is different than watching the TV—news told with pictures is necessarily more simplistic than news told with words. Thus, if politics (for example) has become simplistic, it is because of the medium in which it is discussed. Amusing Ourselves to Death is an extremely sobering analysis of our culture.

A few days ago, I was browsing the library shelves and came upon a book that tries to do much the same thing, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Unfortunately, Keen is not up to the job. In fact, in the one instance where Keen quotes Postman's book, he does so in a way that indicates he certainly didn't understand it; perhaps he didn't even read it:

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, his 1985 polemic against the trivialization of American life, Neil Postman argues that Las Vegas had become a "metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl." Today, in the Web 2.0 epoch, Postman sounds as dated as Gibbons describing the decline of the Roman Empire. The poster of a slot machine has been digitalized and virtualized and is now ubiquitous and available at all times. Nobody needs to travel to Las Vegas—Las Vegas now comes to us.


Keen uses the quote in his discussion of the evils of Internet gambling—Postman has no interest in such trivial issues. It should come as no surprise this quotation is from the very first page of Amusing Ourselves to Death. This kind of razor-thin depth of thinking is both the supposed topic and the basis of Keen's argument in The Cult of the Amateur. But as different as they are, it is easy to see why these two books should often be compared. On the surface, Postman's book is a polemic against television and Keen's is just the 2007 version: a polemic against Web 2.0. While this is an accurate description of Keen's book it is not at all of Postman's.

Postman does talk a great deal about television, but that is simply because it was the dominant medium for public discussions in 1985. A thoughtful person can read Amusing Ourselves to Death today without missing its intellectual punch. Keen seems to find Postman dated because he doesn't understand Postman's basic thesis: there is a fundamental difference between communication with words versus that with images. Thus, Keen ignorantly thinks that there is a fundamental difference between television and Web 2.0. The truth is that the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 are very similar to the differences between a traditional newspaper and TV news. The move to Web 2.0 was a move in an intellectually more vacuous direction, but that was only because it made the Internet more like television. Keen misses this important change completely, and thus gives us a book indicative of exactly what he decries: the amateur as expert, because Keen is no professional, except in the sense that he was paid for his rantings. But if this definition is acceptable then Keen's main argument vanishes: if making money is all that makes one a professional, then any loon blogger with a big enough audience to make a few pennies per month via Google AdWords is a professional and an expert.

Traditional Media is Not Necessary Better

Keen is at his best when discussing the Internet and its problems—especially its technical problems. It is when he compares traditional media with Web 2.0 that he runs into trouble, because he really only understands the Web. He has an almost religious belief in the beneficial power of editors and other assorted "gatekeepers" (a term he uses repeatedly, as though un-vetted information is something we must be protected against). It isn't that he is wrong about the problems he identifies with Web 2.0 (although he greatly overstates most of his points), it is rather that he doesn't understand that the same problems exist in traditional media.

He quotes a stark statistic: our trust in "ourselves and our peers" (not, as he unquestioningly assumes, necessarily a bad thing), went up from 22% in 2003 to 68% in 2006. This statistic sounds impressive, but it has two big problems. First, it is unclear exactly what it means, and the reference that he provides ("Edelman PR Press Release, January 23, 2006") is basically useless. Second, such changes in what people say they think are not reliable and don't really mean much. For example, in polls of CEOs of major corporations taken six months apart during the Reagan Administration, participants were asked what the most important issue facing their companies were. In the first poll, less than 10% mentioned drug use by their employees. In the second poll, just six months later, but after an intense government-pushed anti-drug propaganda campaign, over 60% mentioned drug use by their employees. So this jump in the number of people who trust themselves and their peers is probably a similar case. And in both cases, it was the traditional media who delivered the message: in the first case from the government and in the second, Silicon Valley "thinkers."

Keen's biggest error is his trust in traditional media and the idea that experts are somehow steeled against common human frailties. Look at the lead-up to the Iraq War: pretty much all mainstream media covered it as government propagandists, and those few outlets that were skeptical of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (for example), soon fell in line when they saw that everyone else was in lockstep. (See, for example, Media Coverage of WMD Issue Gets Failing Grade: UM Study.) "Professional" no more means good than "amateur," bad.

Later, Keen argues against the Google algorithm that equates truth with popularity. There is nothing wrong with this—anyone who has ever searched for information about gun control legislation will see the problem. However, he uses the Iraq War as an example of something that was popular but wrong. The problem is that the Iraq War was not popular—at least, not until after six months of traditional media-led government propaganda.

Without a hint of irony, he attacks Web 2.0 because Fox News picked up and pushed a discredited story by the online magazine Insight. But the problem here is not with Insight; they made a mistake that all traditional media outlets make from time to time: they used an unreliable anonymous source (just like Judith Miller and the New York Times). The problem is with Fox News, which does the same thing with misinformation from any source when it fits in with its political agenda. Yet Fox News is a traditional media source with editors and other assorted gatekeepers. To add irony to irony, Keen and his editors missed this obvious mistake of logic. Any media outlet or media form can be criticized, but unless its performance is compared to other sources, the criticism is meaningless. In the end, all we are left with is the criticism that Web 2.0 content is imperfect and that some sites are more trustworthy than others—exactly what can be said about traditional media.

He states:

Before the Web 2.0, our collective intellectual history has been one driven by the careful aggregation of truth—through professionally edited books and reference materials, newspapers, and radio and television. But as all information becomes digitalized and democratized, and is made universally and permanently available, the media of record becomes an Internet on which misinformation never goes away. As a result, our bank of collected information becomes infected by mistakes and fraud. Blogs are connected through a single link, or series of links, to countless other blogs, and MySpace pages are connected to countless other My Space [sic.] pages, which link to countless YouTube videos, Wikipedia entries, and Web sites with various origins and purposes. It's impossible to stop the spread of misinformation, let alone identify its source. Future readers often inherit and repeat this misinformation, compounding the problem, creating a collective memory that is deeply flawed.


The fact that exactly the same thing goes on with traditional media seems to elude Keen. In fact, he uses a myth created by the mainstream media (that he constantly praises for being edited for truth by gatekeepers) in introducing the book itself. He writes, "It's the work of an apostate, an insider now on the outside who has poured out his cup of Kool-Aid and resigned his membership in the cult." Here, he is making reference to the mass suicide of Peoples Temple cult members. Although it is true that many members of the cult voluntarily drank their cyanide-spiked drinks (it was actually Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid), those who did not wish to kill themselves—and there were many—were not allowed to simply pour out their cups. So misinformation is created by traditional media and people like Keen keep the spread of it going—even when they too are helped by editors and gatekeepers.

Profits and Porn

In the end, Keen's primary concerns are corporate profits and online pornography. Let's talk about all that lost revenue first, because he does. His concern for profits is stated as a concern for artists' profits, but as one who just started his own publishing company, I can see for the first time that the greatest threat to my profits were always from publishers. Unless you are an A-list author (musician, artist, whatever), all you will get are the crumbs that fall off the corporate table. In general, a book writer gets 10% of the publisher's profits of the sale of a book—50% or less—a lot less. Yes, the publisher takes a financial risk in publishing a book, but it is minor. And all they do is publish the book. There is next to no marketing or even editing. If a author wishes to get his book publicized, he had better make his own plan and contact media outlets to do interviews. Even the simple act of setting up a book tour is asking too much of most publishing companies. The corporate side of publishing takes minimal financial risk and receives almost all of the money in return. So when people like Keen talk about protecting "artists' profits" they mean "companies' profits."[1]

He brings up the same, tired arguments we have heard so many times before about online piracy. I should be clear, I believe that artists should get paid for their work and I am very much against piracy, even when artists get a tiny fraction of the cost of a work. Just the same, copyright is a complex issue that shouldn't be dealt with in a simpleminded manner. On the one hand, Keen assumes that every pirated copy of a work is lost revenue. This is clearly not the case: not every person who steals a song would have bought it if he had had to; it is a song, not a loaf of bread. On the other hand, Keen assumes that piracy has no up-side whatsoever. Again, this is clearly not the case: pirated works do have an advertising effect. One person may buy a song after hearing a pirated copy.

There is no doubt that piracy does cut down on the revenue that would normally come from a work of art. But this is an issue that can and should be dealt with separately from any discussion of Web 2.0. In particular, there is nothing in Web 2.0 that facilitates piracy over Web 1.0 or FTP or even Kermit. There is more than a bit of bait and switch here. Keen claims that there is something special about Web 2.0 that is killing our culture, but the first of his two major issues is not specific to it at all.

The second issue—pornography—has been enhanced by Web 2.0, but much of it was still available in the early days of the Internet and long before that, offline. There was even pornography available under the highly respectable Rec.Arts list of newsgroups: Rec.Arts.Erotica, which distributed reader contributed (yes, "amateur") erotic stories. Pornographic images could similarly be downloaded via newsgroups and FTP. Porn websites were going strong in 1995—just two years after the creation of the World Wide Web.[2] What's more, at that time, it was almost impossible to not see porn because so many porn sites lied about what they were and search engines were very trusting.

As with "artists' profits," Keen claims to be concerned with something other than what he is really concerned with—in this case, children being exposed to porn. But this is always the way, right? People in America will never own up to flat-out censorship; they just want to protect the children, and if that requires denying adults the right to see what they want, so be it; we have to do it: for the children.

It is true that improvements in technology have made porn distribution far easier. However, unless you are looking for it, you aren't going to find it. The last time an unwanted pornographic web page displayed on my computer was back in 2002—pre-Web 2.0. Regardless, I don't see how easy access to porn on the Internet is "killing our culture." People will get their porn in whatever form necessary. You used to have to mail-order Super-8 porn movies and now you can have them stream directly to your television. Big deal.

The Big Lie

Keen's book is not about what it claims to be, and the small part of the book that is, is not serious. Neil Postman was interested in a substantial topic. The subtitle of Amusing Ourselves to Death was "Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," and that is exactly what the book is about. Andrew Keen's book is not about "the cult of the amateur"—at least not for very long. A better title for the book would have been its subtitle, "How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture." Keen's critique starts as a discussion of the problems of amateurs on the Internet (which is a problem—just not a big one), but quickly devolves into a culture war rant. The title and dust-jacket information certainly gave me the idea that this was going to be at least an interesting and provocative read. And I suppose that was the point. Had I been told that this was another conservative plea to protect corporations from thieves and children from pictures of naked people, I wouldn't have read it. Few people would.




[1] Also note how publishers are paying authors lower royalties on electronic publications—exactly the opposite of what one would expect if publishers were actually adding value to the "product."

[2] The original World Wide Web was just two programs: httpd and mosaic. The first—httpd, or http daemon—was the web server that listened (and still does) to port 80 on the network for HTTP commands. These commands would be things like, "Send me the web page /index.html." The second—mosaic—was a web browser—not actually the very first web browser, but pretty close. It would receive data sent from httpd and display it properly. It would do other things too. For example, if it received that /index.html file and the file included an image tag, mosaic would then request that file from the server and display it in the page. And so on. The amazing thing is just how simple the World Wide Web is and how much has been done with it.


Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Homophobic Hypocrisy

From Max Blumenthal's wonderful Republican Gomorrah:

In 1996, Henry Adams, Lester Wright, and Bethany Lohr, psychiatrists and researchers at the University of Georgia, investigated the link between homophobia and repressed homosexuality, surveying over fifty self-declared heterosexual males on their opinions of gays. The subjects were then separated into two groups: homophobic and nonhomophobic. Both groups were shown gay male pornography and were monitored for signs of sexual arousal. (The results appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.) The study revealed that by an overwhelming margin, the subjects who registered the largest increase in penis circumference—those most aroused by gay pornography—also held the most homophobic opinions. The remarkable findings of this experiment suggest a clue to why the modern radical right, the most homophobic political movement in American history, has become a sanctuary for repressed gay men.



Crow T. RobotAs a follow-up to Illiterate Filmmakers: Last Man Standing Edition, I can't help but comment on a TV show I just watched. The first episode of the fifth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured the 1983 American film Warrior of the Lost World, which seems to have been produced in Italy. Regular readers will know what a big MST3K fan I am (so big that I refer to it as “MST3K”), and how much I identify with Crow T. Robot—to the point of having my very own statue of him on my desk, which you can see in the picture on the left. Probably because most of the people who worked on this film were Italian and thus knew English only as a second language, the film had a bit of a problem with English spelling and grammar. This was most noticeable because of the many on-screen words from the computer on the main character's (“The Rider”) motorcycle: Einstein. It not only spoke, it displayed the text of anything that it said. Three different riffs had to do with Einstein's inability to spell the word “perimeter” which it spelled “parimenter.”

MST3K: PARIMETER


When it was first displayed, Tom Servo remarked simply, “Oh, they misspelled “perimeter!” Crow showed greater disgust the second time Einstein made the mistake. “You still have 'perimeter' misspelled!” he barked. The third time the mistake was made, he could only shake his head in despair.

This was not the only grammar problem in the movie. On a single, casual viewing, I noticed another. In the credits, Einstein was not played by “itself” but rather “its' self.”

MST3K: ITS' SELF


At least the Italians have an excuse. Just the same, when “VECTOR II PARIMETER” was on the screen, it was all alone; it is kind of important and shows a great deal of sloppiness—not that much else in the film didn't.


Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Inside Job

I just saw Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's documentary about the 2008 financial melt-down. It is good—very good. However, it isn't until I got to the deleted scenes with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that I found the reason this crisis ended in a paralysis of the financial industry: lack of trust. Not only did one bank not know what other banks' balance sheets looked like, but each bank individually didn't know what its own balance sheet looked like. That is what made this crisis so much worse than other crises like the dot-com and savings & loan disasters. The film is well worth watching—especially if you haven't spent the last two years reading Paul Krugman.


A lot of proper writing is not a matter of hard rules[1]—it is just a matter of clarity and beauty. One of the best examples of this is parallel structure. As Janis Bell states in Clean Well-Lighted Sentences, "When you write items in a series, you need to make sure they match each other in terms of form." She gives the following examples of following the rule of parallel structure and of breaking it:

I like bananas because they are delicious, nutritious, and conducive to sleep. [Good]

I like bananas because they are delicious, nutritious, and they help me fall asleep. [Bad]


And it doesn't matter what form the writing takes place in, either. Again, Janis Bell: "It also doesn't matter whether the items are marching across the page or down the page." Nor does it matter if it is page after page, slide after slide, or frame after fame! However, it is in this form that I most often find this error and I believe it is one of the stronger forces driving me crazy. What I am referring to here are the opening credits of films. Let us take, as a purely random example, Walter Hill's remake of YoJimbo, Last Man Standing. Here are the technical credits (after the cast):


  • Casting by Mary Gail Artz [and] Barbara Cohen

  • Costume Designer Dan Moore

  • Music by Ry Cooder

  • Edited by Freeman Davies

  • Production Designer Gary Wissner

  • Director of Photography Lloyd Ahern, A.S.C.

  • Co-Producer Ralph Singleton

  • Executive Producers Sara Risher and Michael de Luca

  • Produced by Walter Hill and Arthur Sarkissian

  • Based on the story by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa

  • Screenplay by Walter Hill

  • Directed by Walter Hill



I'm sure you see the obvious problems: "Costume Designer" vs. "Music By" and so on. This would be like listing the cast like this:


  • Starring Bruce Willis

  • Acted by Christopher Walken

  • Actress Alexandra Powers

  • Co-Starring David Patrick Kelly



But it's worse than even that. It is "based upon a story by" rather than just having "story by" (which would be correct). The worst thing, though, is found in the final two entries. First we have a noun by Walter Hill and then a verb. It is bad enough that they couldn't just combine these entries, "Written and Directed by Walter Hill." But "screenplay" and "directed" don't match. It should be something like "Screenwritten by" or "Direction by." With so much care taken with the titles, you would think they could at least get the grammar right.




[1] Of course, despite all my ranting and raving, I am a grammar liberal. What matters is communicating. However, communicating well is what is best and when discussing things that matter, throwing a sentence together that says more or less what you mean is not acceptable. What's more, highly visible people should go out of their ways to speak and write well for the same reason that professional football players should not beat up their wives.


03 Mar 2011: Politics: 2 March 2011

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
All Charlie, All The Time!

It seems as time goes on, Lawrence O'Donnell is becoming more sympathetic to poor ol' Charlie Sheen. But in his fourth segment in three days, O'Donnell has upped his coverage of Sheen to 33 minutes and 19 seconds. Libya is still at one 3 minutes 20 second segment.



01 Mar 2011: Politics: 1 March 2011

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Charlie Sheen Speaks Truth

Charlie Sheen is most likely an asshole and certainly has a lot of problems. You would certainly get that impression from this clip from The Last Word:



But one thing Sheen is right on about is Alcoholics Anonymous and its many 12-Step off-shoots. He calls it as it is: bullshit. As he states in the interview: he's been in AA for over twenty years and that did not keep him clean and sober. Of course it didn't. It is true that AA addicts will just claim that he wasn't "working the steps" right or enough or whatever. But they are just apologizing for a program that doesn't work. Sheen's statement that AA is 5% effective is almost certainly wrong. In general, people who really want to get off drugs do so in about a third of the cases—whether they use a 12-step program or not. What's more, the few studies of 12-step programs that AA has allowed have shown that while they do not make it any more likely that an addict will stay clean and sober, they make relapses far more common and far longer. So say what you will about Charlie Sheen, he's right about AA: it's bullshit.

And More Charlie

In general, I like Lawrence O'Donnell, but check out tonight's clip:



It is very clear that O'Donnell has some real issues with drug use. He really wants to focus on Sheen's problems—which are evident—but he seems completely unaware that he is showing that he has bought all the government-fed mostly-false anti-drug propaganda. And if this weren't bad enough, he dedicates three long segments (11:43, 10:54, and 4:41—a total of 27 minutes and 18 seconds) to Sheen over two days when he devotes only a single short segment (3:20) to the tragedy in Libya! The reason, I'm afraid, is simple: O'Donnell, like most Americans, thinks that drug use and abuse is worse than murder.