Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Parable: Some Words Concerning the Future of Communication

This is the way the future happened. Development of the Internet unfolded as many people saw, with it becoming progressively more integrated with everything and everybody in every way. Access to the Internet through brain-chips implanted in people’s heads really happened and this was good, at least in some ways for me because it made it so much easier for my guide to explain the new way that things were. The brain-chips made a lot of things possible that were never possible before.

I was given free access to the Internet, a six month free trial. Everyone got one free trial but I was the first adult, the first person of my age that anyone could remember who had not yet had his free trial, who had never once been hooked up to the Internet with a brain-chip at all. I was given a six month free trial of everything available and able to sample every nook and cranny of the Internet at will without paying. That was not true about my guide: My guide had to pay.

My guide chose her words judiciously as she explained how things were different from the world I had known. She had to make her word selections carefully for she had to pay for the words she communicated to me. Oh, not all of the words she used, only some, and words were not all the same price. In fact, she liked to search her mind rigorously for the new words available, the recently minted words, for which, if she used them, the word companies would pay her, rather than vice versa. But the new words being introduced were harder for her to remember because they were so new.

You see, some years before, the Supreme Court had ruled that word companies, if they created new words, would be allowed to own their copyrights. That being the case, the word companies created as many new words as they could. At first, to make the words popular, the word companies would pay the public to use their new words. And the words then did become popular. But when they did, the companies would gradually reduce what they would pay until through such reductions the price would eventually cross a line and be reversed. Then the public would be paying to use those same words, now “old words” they had previously been paid to use. Meanwhile, perhaps to appease those most irked, the word companies would have arrived on the scene with new “new words” which the word companies would now pay people to use if people could think if them. (Advertising was often of assistance in this regard.)

Besides the “new words” that the word companies paid people to use and the much greater number of familiar and more comfortable “old words” that people had to pay the word companies to use, there were also the “ancient words,” the words that you and I know and use (potentially also including the ancestral words that preceded them that you and I have already probably mostly forgotten). The “ancient words” could be used without anyone having to pay anyone at all. . . but that was only if anyone could remember them. The nature of the future being what it was (and the way things were often buried on the Internet), nobody could remember those words, at least not very well. . .

. . . BUT, there was also incipient talk about whether the word companies could by “rediscovering” and reintroducing these “ancient words” acquire the rights to them if those ancient words were already deemed sufficiently forgotten by the public. Here was a possible job they discussed for me: It was noted that I did not have a job in this new world and it was thought that because of my unusual association with the past I could, in advertising terms, give these ancient words a sort of retro-cachet.

I spoke to my guide, not worrying about my choice of words. I was curious. It seemed to me that the monopoly of the word companies was rather tyrannical and I asked her whether the people of her culture had not gotten together to discuss bringing about a change. She looked at me with deep open eyes in which I could map no thoughts for the longest moment. . . . “No,” she said, “that hasn’t happened. Among other things I think we would have difficulty finding the words for . . . it.”

"For a `revolt' or `revolution'?" I asked.

“And,” she added, “right now we are only charged for the words we communicate, not those we think. Perhaps it is best not to upset the apple cart.”

* * * *

To Our Readers: If you think you can search through this parable to make a point-by-point analogy that matches up against a specific event, historical, current or pending, I don’t think you will be able. It didn’t have that in mind when I let the fable write itself. On the other hand, I am quite conscious that its themes are resonant of things that have really happened or are now actually happening in the communications industries and which I am busy thinking about by virtue of reading two excellent books that both came out in 2010. I commend them to you and think you find that each informs the other:
The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu: In chronicling episodes going back to the telegraph and forward to the arrival of the Internet the book examines the patterned cycle of information and communication empires with the repetitive advent and frequent ultimate triumph of monopoly industries that seek to control the industry and culture, often aided and abetted by government when it should be doing the opposite.

Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership” by Kenyon College and Harvard University Professor Lewis Hyde. Going back as far as ancient Rome, spending a lot time in merry old England (pre- and post- William the Conqueror) and visiting very importantly with the American Founding Fathers, Hyde’s book examines how rather recent and increasingly aggressive modern notions about intellectual property rights (copyright and patent) are, with the complicity of government, encroaching on the commonwealth of knowledge and intellectual exchange, the “cultural commons” we once assumed belonged freely to everyone.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Will America Shrink FROM Or INTO Crowds Clamoring For Death?

The braying of the crowds is frightful, the reflexive clamoring for death . . . .
. . . First it was the crowd at the September 7th Reagan Library Republican candidate debate cheering Texas Governor Rick Perry’s record of executing “234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times” even though, as National Notice pointed out* Perry went out of his way to execute Todd Willingham, an innocent man for the sake of earning such cheers**.

. . . Then it was the boisterous crowd at the September 12th Tea Party debate calling for the hypothetical death of a 30-year-old working man in a coma and needing six months of intensive care, on the principle that the man had not purchased adequate healthcare in advance of falling into this condition. Paul Krugman points out that had the crowd given it a little thought it was, by the same principle, condemning to die children, the poor and the chronically ill, noting that: “very few of those who die from lack of medical care look like Mr. Blitzer’s hypothetical [hypothetical?- not really] individual . . . . most uninsured Americans either have low incomes and cannot afford insurance, or are rejected by insurers because they have chronic conditions” and that George W. Bush, to the accompaniment of similar right-wing cheering, blocked more extensive health coverage for children so that “one in six children in Texas lacks health insurance, the second-highest rate in the nation.”

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (at 9:11 and 11:49) made humor out of the fact that the Tea Party that had started out as the party “fearing” death panels had become the death panel. That observation also transfers exceedingly well to the Republican plan to replace programs like Medicaid and Medicare with fixed payments to individuals that could then be readily whittled down to inadequacy by inflation or other forms of cutbacks, leaving those program recipients essentially at the mercy of the private insurance companies’ death panels.
(* The central theme of the September 3, 2011 National Notice post, how startling it was to see Rick Perry belittling the reality of global-warming/weather-weirding even as his state is being reduced to cinders by temperatures and drought of unprecedented severity and duration seemed so self-evident that I didn’t know why others were not busy writing about it. Since then, Tom Friedman’s September 13, 2011 column, Is It Weird Enough Yet?, picked up on the same point but doesn’t get into the extra weirdness of Texas oil companies trading their U.S. oil fields to an undependable Russia.)

(** As of September 15, the Todd Willingham miscarriage of justice is being elevated by e-mails designed to spotlight it as a campaign issue with a petition asking that the press ask Perry about it.)

It might be hoped that the crowds cheering for death are not reflective of the American public at large. Indeed they are not really. The crowd at the Reagan Library debate (like the backdrop of the questionably accurate Reagan Library itself) was cherry-picked by Republican party leaders to be what they wanted the responding public to be, while the crowd for the Tea Party debate was similarly hand-picked by the powerful higher-ups steering that movement.

Still, the cheering for death, reminiscent of the thumbs down audiences of the Roman Coliseum, seems to evince a discouraging pettiness of spirit that is hard to explain except for the fact that these hand-picked audience members feel very small themselves and that the only way that they can feel bigger these days is by calling for unfortunate others to be further cut down in size.* There is in such Coliseum audience conduct an implicit faith (or a desperately clung-to hope) that they themselves will never be the ones in the arena awaiting the crowd’s thumbs -up or -down verdict.

(* They say that every era gets horror films reflective of the particular anxieties of the times. A report on the Toronto film festival mentions an upcoming “gorefest `The Incident,' about workers locked in an asylum for the criminally insane, many with impressive knife skills”: The film may be onto something important.)

In another report on this survival-of-the-fittest culture-of-death, the Times today editorialized about a new Florida state law passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature that will now prevent Florida localities from retaining or enforcing their local gun control laws so that, per one town council member: “We’re not allowed to have bows and arrows or slingshots in a park, but we can have a gun.” (See: Pandering to the Gun Lobby, September 15, 2011.)

Without debating the value of having a gun in areas of Montana where a cougar might stalk you, whether one could be safer in communities where citizen-vigilantes can out-draw their local version of a massacre-intending, arsenal-equipped Columbine student, the merits of shooting a coyote on your morning jog, or how fast on the draw the average senior citizen from St. Petersburg is, the vision of everyone carrying a gun to the public park sounds like a Streets-of-Laredo version of life where it's up to everyone to be quick on the draw and trigger irrespective of whose “done wrong.”

I was once pretty OK with a BB gun when I was a kid but I really don’t know where I’d come out in a world where winding up as the one alive means always being quicker on the draw. Did I already suggest the bravado of death-wishing audiences who are sure that they are never going to be down on their own luck (awaiting in the arena the audience’s thumbs down), may have something to do with these poor souls not feeling very big to begin with? Sure I did. . . .

. . . And here’s a probable irony: Maybe there is a reason all of us may be feeling rather small right now and it has to do with why so much of the Tea Party anger is misplaced. Maybe what’s happened is that all of us have already been out-drawn by the ubiquitous big corporations and monopolies that are leaving little space in the world for the rest of us. Is the government really to blame for that? Maybe it is when it fails to intervene and cut these monopolies down to size or when the government actively aids and abets the establishment and/or perpetuation of such monopolies. But is big government really where the anger should it be directed or should it be directed at the corporate power players themselves, those influencing the government in these respects? And aren’t those powerful insiders the very same ones who, behind the scenes, were hand-picking those frightful, vengeance-hungry audience members? No wonder those guys in the audience might feel uncomfortably small.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Global Warming and Those Texas-based Oil Companies

As news stories about the big stories affecting our nation persist in arriving in depressing little dribs and drabs I find that an exercise that cheers me up is to put some of those dribs together with some of those drabs.

In that vein, let’s have a go with some recent headlines:

Rick Perry "Doesn't Believe" in Global Warming

Governor Rick Perry of Texas, leading in the polls, in the race for the Republican nomination for president, says he doesn’t believe in global warming: Rick Perry: Global Warming Based On Scientists Manipulating Data. He says it's: “a scientific theory that has not been proven, and from my perspective is more and more being put into question.”
(For some interesting takes on that see:

PolitiFact.com: Rick Perry says more and more scientists are questioning global warming

Paul Krugman’s Republicans Against Science, August 28, 2011.)
While Texas Fries. . .

Then we have these stories the first of which preceded Perry’s remarks by days and the second of which is little more than a week afterward: As Texas Dries Out, Life Falters and Fades, by Richard Parker, August 13, 2011.

The drought that grips Texas is a natural disaster in slow motion. . . .

* * * *

Folks around here say this is unlike any drought Texas has ever seen. [The worst since Texas began keeping rainfall records in 1895.] In a way that’s right; it’s the worst single drought year on record. But, as scientists now tell us, historically droughts here can last decades. Worse, when the rain does fall, it evaporates faster and faster as the American Southwest become drier, threatening to turn Texas into desert. As bad as this year’s drought is, the long view tells us that things could get much worse.
Perry did organize state prayer for rain in April. Our friends living in Texas, resigned to the fact that Perry stepped up to the state’s governorship from the position of Lieutenant Governor with the departure in 2000 of George W. Bush, refer to Perry as “Governor Good Hair,” an allusion to how this career politician (since 1984) likes to look good and is always perfectly coiffed. They don’t like his superficiality.

. . . . And Burns

Notwithstanding, Perry’s praying, there’s been more in the news about the Texas climate: Throughout the summer firefighters in Texas have been dealing with fires that just won’t quit: Texas Wildfire's New Path Helping Firefighters In Possum Kingdom Lake Area. Texas is on track to have its third yearlong wildfire season; the three yearlong wildfire seasons are the only ones on record and have all occurred since the 2005-2006 season (although there aren’t records available for the droughts of 1918 and the 1950s.)

Quotes from that story:
Firefighters haven't had much of a break this summer, even after various crews battled what turned out to be seven of the 10 largest wildfires in state history this spring.

Usually the wildfire season wanes in the spring because of rain, greener vegetation and higher humidity, weather experts said. But the state's normally wettest months – April through June – were anything but this year because of the lingering La Nina weather condition that causes below-normal rainfall.

The conditions have become so severe that "normal rain events will have little positive impact on the drought and consequently the fire danger," Texas Forest Service specialist Tom Spencer said.
As background, before the drought and still continuing, Texas has been steadily depleting the vast Ogallala Aquifer in the northwest Panhandle and High Plains which, in “civilized” human time frame terms is not a replenishing rechargeable resource.

Perry Finds Science of Fire a Trial

Perry’s got a propensity to prefer ignorance of science (rather than have a bad hair day) in order to demagogically look good to his base constituency. For another “trial by fire” example of such blind shortcut expedience consider the Todd Willingham case, where Perry chose to ignore science and send an innocent man to execution* when, with politically macho swagger reminiscent of Bush, he politically commandeered control over the commission that was otherwise set to tell him that, paying attention to science fact, an accidental fire wasn’t actually arson. Is that what a truly good or intellectually honest man would have done? See Frontline’s: “Death By Fire.”

(* Footnote added September 14, 2011: When, at the Reagan Library Republican Candidates Debate held September 7, 2011- four days after this post- the moderator, NBC's Brian Williams, addressing Perry said: “Your state has executed 234 death row inmates more than any other governor in modern times” the audience applauded, presumably also applauding the execution of Todd Willingham despite his innocence. Perry was then asked whether he “struggled with the struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent.” Perry said he didn’t. Asked about the audience’s spontaneously applauding all his executions, Perry endorsed it without reservation. See: Reagan Debate Audience Applauds Texas' Rate Of Executions, Real Clear Politics Video, September 8, 2011.)

Speaking Up For the Oil Companies and Domestic Insecurity (Swapping Texas Assets)

So according to Perry there is no weirding of the world’s weather? Given that he's from Texas can we excuse Perry for being a mouthpiece for the oil companies’ official version on non-reality. Another, line we are asked to swallow from the Texas-based oil industry is that we as a nation have to do all sorts of extra drilling in this country to achieve "energy independence." If you believe that line then here is a headline to bring you up short: Exxon Reaches Arctic Oil Deal With Russians, by Andrew E. Kramer, August 30, 2011. The gist of the story is that Exxon, which is based is Texas, in order to get drilling rights in the Arctic Ocean from Russia is going to swap assets it owns “elsewhere in the world, including some that Exxon owns in the deepwater zones of the Gulf of Mexico and on land in Texas.”

It's Russian to Judgment

Nowhere in the story’s text do we see mention of (let alone have explained) how this swap of domestic assets to a former sworn enemy would be consistent with the idea of domestic energy independence and security. That Russia was so recently an enemy country is one thing, but doing business with the Russians now is still no reliable play-by-the-rules/play-the-law picnic. Days after announcement of the Exxon deal, the Russians raided the offices of BP, the company that lost out to Exxon in connection with a related lawsuit. That’s been interpreted as meaning simply that the company has fallen out of favor with a Kremlin that decided to do business with someone else. Nope, doing business with the Russians isn’t a peachy-keen proposition at all: The last two decades, companies doing business in Russia maintained “safehouses” standing by (just like the FBI or CIA) for their executives should problems crop up.

Doing business with the Russians is not about good policy or good ethics; it’s about the money. So what the oil companies say is not really about good policy or good ethics; it’s also all about the money. And when we find Rick Perry saying what the oil companies are saying . . . . It’s not about good policy or good ethics- It’s about the corporate money in politics.

PS: The following stories became available not long after this National Notice post first went up.

'Mother Nature Has The Upper Hand' In Wildfire Fight, by John Burnett, September 5, 2011

NPR’s “All Things Considered Summary” (emphasis supplied):
Ferocious wildfires shipped by the winds of tropical storm Lee are surrounding Austin and other parts of dust-dry Texas. The worst fire is in Bastrop County, just southeast of Austin, where the blaze has been burning out of control for more than a day. The scale of the blaze prompted Gov. Rick Perry to cancel his appearance at a GOP event.*
(* Perry who was scheduled to speak in at a Republican Presidential candidate summit in Columbia, South Carolina, cancelled appearing at this event with rivals Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain plus other events later events later this week.)