4th of July Weekend Music Festival*

(*Update 3/12/07:  Some of these videos are no longer available.  The IP police have snatched away all but the last two from YouTube.) 

For your singing and dancing pleasure over the next five days. No lip-syncing — all of this is live!

I’ll be back Wednesday. If you leave a comment while I’m gone, I won’t be able to post it til I get back, but I will post it then. (Unless you’re a spammer!) Have a blast. Be safe.

Neko Case: Hold On, Hold On (from the Tonight Show, 2006)

Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim: Medley (from a 1967 TV special, “A Man and His Music”)

Steely Dan: Reeling in the Years (early 1970s, not 1978 as the screen graphic says)

Little Feat: Fat Man in the Bathtub (1975)

Al Green with an All-Star cast: Let’s Stay Together (From “The Green Room.” Includes Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige, Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, Joss Stone, Darius Rucker and others)

Aretha Franklin: Respect (1967)

The Beach Boys: Wendy (from the Ed Sullivan Show, probably 1964)

The New Pornographers: Use It (from a concert in Vancouver, 2005? — Neko Case is absent.)

Challenging Times, Challenged Tribunes

On the one hand, you’ve got the New York and Los Angeles Times’ publication of information on how the U.S. government seeks to monitor the international flow of money that might fund terrorism through SWIFT, the “financial industry-owned co-operative supplying secure, standardised messaging services and interface software to 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries.” The Bush Administration performs its investigations pursuant to lawful subpoenas, and there was no evidence that, as of yet, this program has abused anyone’s legitimate rights to privacy.

Were it not for the high stakes involved, these stories would have provoked giant yawns. I’m sure the reporters involved would have preferred these stories be accompanied by some ominous-sounding movie music to give them the sense of drama they otherwise lacked. It would have been far more newsworthy — far more scandalous — if these reporters had come across SWIFT and learned that the U.S. had failed to examine its data.

The most disturbing thing about these stories was, to me, the fact that the government pleaded with the newspapers to withhold the story on national security grounds, and the newspapers refused. As NY Times editor Bill Keller explained it:

We weighed most heavily the Administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it. The central argument we heard from officials at senior levels was that international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day. We don’t know what the banking consortium will do, but we found this argument puzzling. First, the bankers provide this information under the authority of a subpoena, which imposes a legal obligation. Second, if, as the Administration says, the program is legal, highly effective, and well protected against invasion of privacy, the bankers should have little trouble defending it. The Bush Administration and America itself may be unpopular in Europe these days, but policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere. And while it is too early to tell, the initial signs are that our article is not generating a banker backlash against the program.


A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported — indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department — that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.

Keller’s defense seems King Canute-like. The government’s concerns aren’t valid because we say so. There’s no banker backlash. The terrorists know you’re watching them. What’s the big deal? It’s all so “puzzling.” The description of the government’s argument as “half-hearted” sounds like the kind of thing a teenager says. “Yeah, Dad, I heard you, but I didn’t think you really meant it.”

Either Bill Keller is out of his depth, or he’s being less than honest. Is he suggesting that if the Administration had been more “full-hearted,” he would have withheld the story? As it happens, Treasury Secretary John Snow violently disagrees with Keller’s characterization, but either way it’s absurd.

If the SWIFT surveillance program were unlawful, abusive of legitimate privacy expectations, or some kind of subterfuge with an illegitimate purpose, an editor would be perfectly within his or her rights to have dismissed the Administration’s concerns and exposed the wrongdoing. But the Times fails to provide such a justification.

As Keller himself says, “A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.” By the logic of that rationale, any classified program the news media comes to find out about should be publicized, on the sole basis that it is secret.

So, the stories were a bad idea, and are being defended disingenously. But on the other hand, the backlash is disingenous, too.

If you have listened to right-wing talk radio or read any of the affiliated blogs, there is a consensus among this crowd that the NY Times, LA Times and anyone else who published this story should be prosecuted for espionage. Or — the more moderate position — that the reporters and editors should be subpoenaed to provide the names of the leakers, and the leakers should be prosecuted. Resolutions are being issued in Congress condemning the release of the information — and then are being condemned by the bloggers as insufficiently tough. Some have called for the Congress and White House to revoke the press credentials for the NY and LA Times.

As The Nation’s Scott Sherman reports, the notion of prosecuting the press originates from an literal reading of a Red-baiting-era amendment to the U.S. Espionage Act by Commentary writer Gabriel Schoenfeld.

In his research into the 1917 Espionage Act and subsequent espionage statutes, Schoenfeld discovered Section 798 of the US Criminal Code, enacted by Congress in 1950, which reads, “Whoever knowingly and willingly communicates, furnishes, transmits or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes…any classified information…concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States…shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.” (His italics.) This, Schoenfeld believed, was the “completely unambiguous” smoking gun he needed against (reporter James) Risen and the Times–both of whom, he felt, had “damaged critical intelligence capabilities” and undermined national security with the NSA story. Schoenfeld knew when he wrote the essay that no journalist had ever been prosecuted under Section 798, but his purpose was to stiffen the spine of the Justice Department. “The laws governing what the Times has done are perfectly clear,” he concluded. “Will they be enforced?”

Schoenfeld said he unearthed and publicized his interpretation of the law in hopes he would “set in motion a ‘chilling effect,’ however slight….” Schoenfeld is a scholar with a think-tank background, who has said he doesn’t anticipate there will be, in fact, any prosecutions. But his legal theory has become a rallying cry for the right-wing; not just the professional tub-thumpers, who recognize the danger of this approach, but to their loyal readers — the people who vote and who fight for our country.

Hugh Hewitt proudly cites an Iraq-based military blogger, Sgt. T.F. Boggs, who wrote Keller saying this:

You have done something great in your own eyes-you think you have hurt the current administration while at the same time encouraging “freedom fighters” resisting the imperialism of the United States. However, I foresee a backlash coming your way. I wish I had a subscription to your paper so I could cancel it as soon as possible. But alas, that would prove a little tough right now since I am in Iraq dealing with terrorists financed by the very men you are helping.

Thank you for continually contributing to the deaths of my fellow soldiers. You guys definitely provide a valuable service with your paper. Why without you how would terrorists stay one step ahead of us?

Talk about waving the bloody shirt! Sgt. Boggs is perfectly entitled to feel this way, but the way Hewitt and others are using his words clearly is designed to stir up hatred of the NY Times, LA Times and the news media in general. Do they realize that when you start a fire like this, how quickly it can get out of control?

John McIntyre of Real Clear Politics, perhaps incautiously, gives away the game and reveals what this furor really means to the right:

Politically, this is a clear winner for Bush and the GOP. The issue plays to Bush’s strengths and continues to paint the picture of the President as a stalwart fighter, protecting America’s safety while the left-wing press does their best to undermine as many successful anti-terror programs as possible.

The Times and the far left are so completely out of touch with where the country is on national security and terrorism issues they probably thought this disclosure would hurt Bush politically. They are clueless.

It serves the interests of the right-wing to keep this pot boiling until November. Democrats who thought they could win back Congress this year by “nationalizing” the election will now face the same strategy aimed at them — Republicans equating a vote for Democrats to a vote for the traitorous, law-breaking media.

All of this damages the country, and the institutions of liberty that distinguish our country from all others. It seems clear to me that the root of the problem is the carelessness and arrogance of the folks at the top of the media pyramid today. A responsibility comes with the job of running the nation’s most powerful journalistic entities to think through the consequences of the actions one takes — not just on one day’s newspaper, but on the fragile web of rights and permissions that keep a free press free.

History shows that it is all too easy to persuade Americans to give up on these rights. Given the open-ended nature of the war on terror, we could lose those rights for a generation or more. Condemn the right-wing for all that they do to push America in the direction of less freedom, but condemn the intellectually shallow media for giving the right-wing all the ammunition it needs.

The Bidens Get A Room

joebiden.jpgWhat is it about Sen. Joe Biden? Why do these things keep coming out of his mouth? From The Hill:

Speaking to a group of 130 twenty- and thirty-something supporters of his leadership PAC last Thursday, Biden indicated that while he thinks he could be an effective chief executive, as far as the job itself goes, he could take it or leave it.

“I’d rather be at home making love to my wife while my children are asleep,” he said.

The image of Joe Biden making love, period, does not warm the imagination. But then add to it the fatuous response of his flack:

Biden’s PAC spokeman, Larry Rosky, said the line illustrates that “this is not an egostistical pursuit for him” and that he is “frankly totally in love with his wife.”

I guess Rosky had to say something, but come on. Most of us would rather be home making love to our wife, or husband, or somebody than doing what we do for a living. That’s why they call it “work.” That’s what we work for.

Only a gargantuan ego like Biden would think a preference for carnal bliss makes him an extra-special swell guy. I guess he wants us to say “Gosh, the sacrifices Joe Biden is making.”

George Washington, crossing the Delaware. Abe Lincoln, splitting rails. Franklin Roosevelt, overcoming polio. And Joe Biden, not having sex with his wife so he can attend a PAC fundraiser.

Solar Power Meets Nanotechnology at Caltech

Cal-Tech and BP Solar will collaborate on a project to deploy nanotechnology to provide cheaper and more efficient solar energy. From a joint press release:

For an initial five-year period, researchers at Caltech and BP will explore a method of growing silicon by creating arrays of nanorods rather than by casting ingots and cutting wafers, which is the current conventional way of producing silicon for solar cells. Nanorods are small cylinders of silicon that can be 100 times smaller than a human hair and would be tightly packed in an array like bristles in a brush.

A solar cell made up of an array of nanorods will be able to efficiently absorb light along the length of the rods while also collecting the electricity generated by sunlight more efficiently than a conventional solar cell.

The Caltech solar nanorod program will be directed by Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, and Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science. In addition, eight postdoctoral researchers and graduate students will work on the project.

“Nanotechnology can offer new and unique ways to make solar-cell materials that are cheaper yet could perform nearly as well as conventional materials,” says Lewis, an expert in surface chemistry and photochemistry.

Lewis’s group will investigate uses of nanotechnology to create designer solar-cell materials, from nanorods to nanowires, in order to change the conventional paradigm for solar-cell materials.

“Using nanorods as the active elements opens up very new approaches to design and low-cost fabrication of high-performance solar cells,” adds Atwater, an expert in electronic and optoelectronic materials and devices.

nanorod.jpgI’ve been joking with friends lately that the solutions to global warming are going to come from nanotechnology. But it looks like I might’ve been right!

Just on an intuitive level, look at it this way. All energy systems operate inefficiently to some degree. Some of that inefficiency translates into pollution. Inefficiency also stands in the way of conservation.

Nanotechnology, in particular molecular manufacturing, has the potential to produce products at a minuscule fraction of the energy required to make those products today. (Look at this video for a sense of what the molecular manufacturing gurus think is coming in the next 20 years or so.) Or, assuming we continue to rely on fossil fuels, nanotechnology could be used to filter out greenhouse gases at power plants, trapping them for disposal. It can also be used to greatly reduce the inefficiency of transferring energy from its natural source into its end use — by changing, say, the molecular structure of what we use to transmit energy.

Some potential exists, perhaps, for nanotechnology to be applied directly to reducing the existing, dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Many scientists believe we are already “past the point of no return” to avoid the dramatic effects of global warming — that in fact we are already seeing them.

If so, it won’t be enough to cut future emissions, even at dramatic levels, although it is no less vital that we do so. The logical consequences of such a view is that we need to focus more attention on getting carbon dioxide that is in the air now, stripped out of the air. Nanotechnology would surely play a role in this admittedly outlandish idea, because of the large amounts of energy required. But wouldn’t it be just too elegant if the Caltech/BP research project resulted in an applicable solar solution to the energy needs of an air-stripping project?

I don’t want to sound like P.T. Barnum or Jimmy Swaggert about all this. Nanotechnology sounds many alarm bells, even among its advocates. For all its potential to shift our economy away from its reliance on high-energy manufacturing, this magic genie poses a host of other environmental, economic and global security threats. But it often surprises me how low on the news media’s radar screen the march of nanotechnology appears.

For example, the story at the start of this post about Caltech, a major local university, and BP, the successor-by-acquisition to LA’s own Arco? Big news here, here, here, and here. But in Caltech’s hometown media? This story in the LA Times, buried on the bottom of page 2 of the Business section. Nothing in the Daily News. Nothing in the Pasadena Star News.  Nothing in the San Diego Union Tribune, in the city where the announcement was made.  From what I can tell, both Caltech and BP Solar put out a news release on this yesterday, and paid PR Newswire to distribute it. The editors saw it and said “ehh.”

But there was lots and lots of room for this. Nothing like Hooters, puppies and an outbreak of prudish hypocrisy to distract our media from what we used to call news. Maybe Caltech should talk to Hooters about setting up a foundation for global warming research.

(I’ll run a pilot program right here. I’ll tag this post “Hooters” (along with the more appropriate tags) and see how many extra hits I get.)

‘Greatest Generation’ Backlash

Whatever halo of countercultural glory shined over the late Dr. Timothy Leary dims to near blackness with the publication of the new biography by Robert Greenfield. According to reviews (here , here, and here), the world-famous avatar of expanded consciousness, who plotted with novelist Aldous Huxley on how to bring peace to the world through sharing their LSD stash with Kennedy and Krushchev, is revealed as a cold, selfish, drunken desperado who betrayed or sold out pretty much everyone everyone who helped him, including his own children.

In his review, the New Yorker‘s Louis Menand, a favorite writer of mine, takes an incidental swipe at Leary’s highly praised age group, not all of whom fought in WWII:

Leary belonged to what we reverently refer to as the Greatest Generation, that cohort of Americans who eluded most of the deprivations of the Depression, grew fat in the affluence of the postwar years, and then preached hedonism and truancy to the baby-boom generation, which has taken the blame ever since. Great Ones, we salute you!

This is a new book idea for Tom Brokaw to add to his series: “Nobody’s Perfect: Misfits of the Greatest Generation.”

Menand sees Leary as having achieved his greatest influence through use of marketing messages that were immediately copied by Madison Avenue:

Leary’s immortal message to (his) audience—“Turn on, tune in, and drop out”—was quickly picked up on and widely pastiched. Greenfield cites a commercial for Squirt: “Turn on to flavor, tune in to sparkle, and drop out of the cola rut.” This is not very surprising, for a couple of reasons. One is that in the mid-nineteen-sixties the language of commercial culture was drug vernacular. Almost everything advertised itself as the moral, legal, and sensory equivalent of a drug experience, from pop music to evangelism. (Billy Graham: “Turn on Christ, tune in to the Bible, and drop out of sin.”) All sorts of products claimed to turn you on, get you high, blow your mind. But the other reason Leary’s phrase was adopted as an advertising slogan is that it was designed to be an advertising slogan. The inspiration came from a fellow pop visionary, Marshall McLuhan. In 1966, McLuhan and Leary had lunch at the Plaza Hotel in New York City; there, in Leary’s account, the media-wise McLuhan offered the following counsel:

“The key to your work is advertising. You’re promoting a product. The new and improved accelerated brain. You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest. Associate LSD with all the good things that the brain can produce—beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance. Word of mouth from satisfied consumers will help, but get your rock and roll friends to write jingles about the brain.”

But Leary hardly needed this advice. Long before 1966, he made a point of giving then-legal LSD to intellectuals, writers, professors and other “influentials” who spread the word among kindred spirits, and then to their fans and followers. Musicians in particular proselytized by example, through the acknowledged influence of LSD on their work.

No different from putting a brand-name cigarette in an actor’s fingers, a bottle of beer in front of a ballplayer, or a designer outfit on a red-carpet regular. PR 101.

Reconsider Term Limits–but Get Rid of Gerrymandering*

When I worked in City Hall, my boss, Mayor Tom Bradley got snared into a rather convoluted scandal involving his membership on a bank’s board of directors, and his alleged efforts in 1989 to steer some of the city’s short-term cash deposits to that bank.

I admire Tom Bradley, and took his explanation on face value — that the president of the bank called him and said something like, “The city has all this money to deposit, and it only deposits with traditional banks. Newer banks like mine, that are owned by minorities, aren’t getting any of the action.” To Tom Bradley, discrimination like this was what he was in office to fix, so he referred the matter to the people who made these decisions.

Bradley was wrong not to notice the potential conflict of interest in his request, and was wrong not to realize that a request like this from “Da Mayor” would be interpreted by city staff as either a regal command, or an improper one, or both. He should have couched his request as a “for instance.” Undoubtedly, the president of his bank had a point about the city’s cash deposit policies. But Bradley should’ve realized he wasn’t the guy to address it on behalf of a bank that paid him to be on its board. I’m certain Bradley had no untoward intent, and federal investigators eventually agreed.

All this is prelude to today’s story about a movement among Los Angeles business and civic leaders to stretch term limits for the City Council and, possibly, the mayor and other citywide officials from two terms to three.

Term limits on councilmembers was one of the consequences of Bradley’s banking scandal, which prompted a City Hall ethics reform wave. Back in 1990, City Hall types talked about it all the time. People took principled positions:

  • Term limit opponents saw it as a denial of democratic rights. If you like your councilmember enough to keep them in office for 20 years, you shouldn’t be deprived of the right to re-elect them.
  • Supporters saw it as a way to break up powerful fiefdoms. Once these councilmembers got entrenched in office, it was impossible to defeat them, because they could use their incumbency to extract campaign contributions, and to starve any foes from getting any. Only a total incompetent or a crook could be ousted from office, the theory went. And even then, incumbency gave an incumbent a big advantage.

My position was that the city should try a “pilot program” — so we could get rid of the current crop of incumbents, but not change the democratic system. I was sort of joking, probably because term limits seemed so beside the point.

The problem with the city council, as well as the state legislature, is non-competitive elections. Nobody deserved to win elective office without a serious challenge that would force a discussion of the issues. If they could survive serious challenges for 20 or 30 years, God bless their good fortune and talent.

But throughout California, the system is rigged to give virtually all incumbents, and many of their anointed successors, a free ride. Careerist politicians are still careerist politicians; they just move around more to outrun term-limited unemployment, forming convenient alliances with other politicians to permit job recycling, and promoting friends and former aides to replace them.

How is this possible? The public is not happy with their government, including the City of Los Angeles. Turnout is ridiculously, shamefully low in elections, with even civic-minded folk gradually falling off because the results are usually foregone conclusions for legislative seats.

In my opinion, the rigging begins every ten years when new district lines are drawn. These district lines not only look funny, they are designed to frustrate the democratic process. It’s not just that gerrymandered districts help scoop up like-minded or culturally similar voters, which is what everyone knows about the practice. It’s that they carve communities up that might otherwise organize and fight for power.

When I lived in Park La Brea, you could climb up the roof of one of those towers and look out on four council districts. Obviously, those four members didn’t want everyone in the Miracle Mile/Fairfax area to have enough power to unite behind a local leader. They wanted us to be as confused and disorganized as possible, and make it tough for any newcomer to command enough attention from a geographically contiguous area to mount a challenge to an entrenched incumbent.

Term limits didn’t fix this problem, and weren’t designed to. Combining gerrymandered districts with term limits guaranteed that local and legislative politics would be as insider-y as possible.

I do agree with this point from today’s story:

“Whether it is the airport or the ports or the Wilshire Corridor, the difficulty of getting things done requires a good deal of time and a sustained commitment to a vision,” said George Kieffer, a partner at the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm and a key player in the Civic Alliance. “That’s more and more difficult to do with people looking at short-term horizons and other offices.”

In City Hall, things move so slowly, you can’t expect to see anything through in just eight years, especially if you spend the first two learning your job, your next two running for re-election, and your last two running for a new office, assuming you stay that long.

The City itself, a shambling, inefficient but vital operation, needs a kind of unconditional tough-love and vigilant attention from its Council and mayor. The current crop of elected officials act more like tourists, marvelling at some things, jumping in fright at others, but never really settling in long enough to understand all its dimensions.

So if someone wants to consider dumping or modifying term limits, I think that’s good. But before committing to that single tactic, I suggest some goals clarification questions to the Civic Alliance (which apparently doesn’t have a website, by the way):

Is the only thing you want longer terms? Don’t you really want better governance? How is better governance achieved? How can we increase voter involvement and turnout? How can we make elections more competitive? How can we ensure our elected officials are more responsive, responsible and vested in the city’s success?

*revised 6/26/06 evening.

Spare a Thought for “Customer Service John”*

By now you probably know all about Vinny at Insignficant Thoughts, the former AOL customer who performed a vital public service by recording an intensely maddening and offensive experience with "John" at AOL Customer Service when he tried to cancel his account.

There's also been some attention to the story of Brenda, who tried to cancel her mother's account after her mother died in a car wreck:

After explaining that my mother was killed in the accident, the rep told me that he was sorry that my mom was unhappy with the service. He then suggested lowering the number of hours per month to reduce the bill. I said "she was killed." The rep then said, "I understand what you are saying, I'm just trying to come up with a solution." He actually got snippy with me. AOL finally told me that my mom would have to call and cancel the service herself (even after I provided the coroner's ID number for the incident, etc.). I told them that if they could reach her that they should let me know how they did it.

This is a story almost every ex-AOL subscriber (and many current subscribers who gave up trying to quit) can relate to. I was a customer beginning in 1995, but once I started using a broadband connection in 2003 or so, I didn't need AOL anymore. Every month, my wife would look at our credit card bill and ask, "Why are we still paying them?" "Okay, okay, I'll cancel it." One day, at least a full year after I had stopped using AOL at any time for any reason, I finally did the deed, and it was every bit as miserable of an experience as you can hear for yourself on the tape.

Back in the 90's, AOL was called "the training wheels of the Internet," and that is true. It must be tough to be in the training wheels business after everyone figures out how to ride without them. Quite apparently, it is the policy of AOL to fight any customers who want to leave, and to not take "cancel" for an answer.

This is a PR nightmare. Vinny at Insignificant Thoughts brought his tape to Consumerist and Digg, where NBC found it. They played it on the Today show and constantly on CNBC. Understandably, "AOL is braced for backlash," according to PR Week. AOL's VP of Corporate Communications Nicholas Graham called Vinny, and also printed out some 300 comments on Vinny's website for senior AOL executives to read. But before any of that, AOL made the classic corporate maneuver:

Customer service John no longer works at AOL, but Graham said the company is continuing to address the lingering questions about customer service.

The firing sends an implied message that "Customer service John" was an anomaly, a renegade, a rogue employee. But the 300+ comments Graham reviewed on "insignificant thoughts" should have told him the opposite was true. "Customer service John" was doing what the firm evidently trains all its customer service employees to do — make it so hard to cancel an AOL account that some fraction of customers will give up trying. According to AOL, the policy works, although, of course, AOL wants us to see it differently:

While Graham said the company had a number of factors on its side, including an internal report that found that one in two people who called in to cancel an account ended up staying with the service (because they only really needed troubleshooting help), a service so large as AOL is bound to have some hiccoughs…

One in two?? Half the people who call to cancel only needed help "troubleshooting?" Does that seem credible to you? Do AOL executives believe the "internal report?" My guess is that many of those who "ended up staying with the service" did so because they buckled under the relentless combination of sales pitches, nosy questions and stalling tactics that AOL puts its customers through.

Listen here for another tape that closely resembles my experience. The customer finally says: "Is this how I'm going to be rewarded for giving you ten years of my money is that you're going to bust my balls now?" My sentiments exactly.

"Customer service John" took a bullet for AOL — a sacrifice I doubt he volunteered for. By making him appear to be unique, AOL's standard operation procedures get a pass. Nowhere in the PR Week article or anywhere else does Graham say "We've got a problem. We agree it's inappropriate to make our customers go through such hoops to cancel. We're changing our practices." If they were, he would have said so.

Clearly, the AOL PR plan is to "brace for backlash" — and continue as before, hoping the bad publicity will just blow over.

I take it as a sign that AOL doesn't plan to be around much longer, and just wants to collect as much customer cash as it can before the big adios. Because a company that was interested in long-term relationships, or that believed some of its ex-customers might return, wouldn't behave this way.

(*Edited 6/24/06 to reflect correction from Vinny.)

Waiting for Eli

The Los Angeles Times is in the metaphysical quandary of covering its own crack-up, as its owners fight about money, and whether they can make more of it by cutting back on the newspaper's budget, or spinning it off.

carrot.jpgIt's got to be tension city on Spring Street, but one Timesman is having fun; Steve Lopez, author of two columns this week in which he tries to get local billionaires to adopt his lil' puppy. In today's story, Lopez tries to win over former mayor and longtime plutocrat philanthropist Richard Riordan by pulling a shift as a waiter at The Original Pantry, which Riordan owns.

Lopez's piece morphs into a contemporary version of "Waiting for Godot" — Waiting for Eli (Broad) — with the ex-mayor gesturing to an empty table he'd reserved for a meeting with his affluent pals.


Give me a carrot. (Vladimir rummages in his pockets, takes out a turnip and gives it to Estragon who takes a bite out of it. Angrily.) It's a turnip!

Oh pardon! I could have sworn it was a carrot. (He rummages again in his pockets, finds nothing but turnips.) All that's turnips. (He rummages.) You must have eaten the last. (He rummages.) Wait, I have it. (He brings out a carrot and gives it to Estragon.) There, dear fellow. #

(Oh, wait, that wasn't in the Lopez piece. I got confused because The Original Pantry puts vegetables on every table. Here's what Riordan said…)

"Come on," Riordan called out over lunch, making a plea to his no-show friends. "The city needs a home-grown owner of the L.A. Times."

Lopez uses a winemaking metaphor to describe the Times' business problems:

The paper, as you may know, is owned by the Tribune Co., whose leaders have given no indication that they will go down as giants in American publishing history. By that I mean that if they owned a wine company with a 20% profit margin and wanted to bump it up to 22%, they would never think of improving the wine. They would instead put less wine in the bottle and slash the promotion budget to save costs.

Then, Lopez makes his pitch:

For two thin quarters, you get more than 900 reporters and editors who take seriously their mission to inform, entertain, and hold people in power accountable, including their own bosses. Who owns the paper matters. It matters almost as much as what the owner values, and the near-sighted hog butchers in Chicago are threatening another round of cuts that could diminish the power and purpose of a great local institution for the sake of kicking the stock up two points.

I'm not arguing in favor of the cuts. But Lopez's value proposition ain't what it used to be.

Yes, for two thin quarters you get all of what he says in one package — one wine bottle.

But included in the price of an online hookup — not a trivial cost, but one that millions now equate to a utility bill — you get all of that expertly assembled content, plus the content of the Times' local competitors, national competitors, foreign competitors, eyewitnesses, opinion mavens, and the unfiltered voices of ordinary people, not all of them trustworthy, but all striving to get readers' attention. And no need to recycle the bottle. The content just flows into your glass, when you want it.

If the Times dies, will all those 900 reporters and editors stop plying their trade? I don't think we need to assume that. They won't all be working for the Times, to be sure. But if they still want to inform, entertain and hold people in power accountable, they'll be able to continue somewhere. Many will continue with whoever takes the Times fully online, filing stories on a schedule and in a form that suits the new medium. Not all the cuts have to be taken from the content. You can save a lot of money if you don't use so much paper, ink and delivery truck fuel.

A business model that sustains the same supply of news content online that is currently available offline remains a work in progress, and a process of trial and error — so much more interesting than the dreary stories of feuding Tribune Company board members.

One factor that writers at the Times might not like is the competition from many online writers willing to work for little or no direct pay. All of that will figure into the evolution of the information products and brands that — inevitably — will replace the Times as we know it today.

Little wonder why the billionaires' table at Riordan's hash house was still empty when the curtain fell. If I were them, I'd wait too.

Nissan: Shift…location

Thanks to the excellent South Bay blog, The Aesthetic, I have been pointed to Curbed LA's photos of the moving vans pulling up to Nissan North America's Torrance headquarters to take their stuff to Tennessee.  Click here to see them. 

In the beautiful South Bay, most of the landmarks are natural features, but the distinctive Nissan headquarters building, with its beveled glass feature, was a gateway of sorts to this part of LA County. When Nissan became a client of the PR agency I worked for in 1995 or so, I'll admit to a little thrill that I actually got to go inside this iconic (to me) structure. 

nissan-building.jpgI assume, but don't know for sure, that the building stays up after its occupants leave.  Several other Japanese automakers companies still maintain big offices in the Torrance/Gardena/Carson area, which might account for the fact that so many Nissan employees declined to move with the company.  

I wonder if the greater LA area will ever add a major corporate headquarters again.  We've certainly lost quite a few, and our local and state governments seem powerless to stop the flow.   

The L.A. Syndrome Strikes Again

The U.S. Constitution, the governing document of the most powerful country in the history of the world, can be printed readably in a book not much bigger than your fancy new Razor phone. The Los Angeles City Charter can be printed readably in a book you could fit in the trunk of your car as long as you didn't have too much other stuff in there. To figure out who does what is a matter for arcane speculation — and usually requires an expensive lobbyist.

villaraigosa.jpgBut that's the L.A. syndrome. Real accountability is to be avoided. We share power because everyone wants a share of the power. We diffuse power because that creates more fiefdoms, more trolls at the bridge to collect tribute, and more places to point fingers.

I was shocked that Antonio Villaraigosa was willing to take on the teacher's unions and the educational bureaucracy by telling voters during last year's mayoral election he would work to get the massive Los Angeles Unified School District under his control. The idea didn't seem typical of Villaraigosa, because — like most elected Democrats in California — he obeys the unions, and the unions enjoy a big slice of the power to run LAUSD.

Giving the mayor control of the schools sounded like an idea that a poll-taker brought to Villaraigosa as a magic bullet to win his campaign for mayor. But that's why we have elections. It's the one time when those in power have to address what's really on our minds, rather than what benefits them.

After Villaraigosa took office, his first step was in a reverse direction. He seemed to want to lower expectations, and find a way to redefine the status quo as reform. This was what cynics expected. But then the mayor surprised me, and shifted back into forward gear. He seemed genuinely committed to making a major change.

I envisioned a titanic struggle that would consume most of Villaraigosa's first term, because the interests favoring the status quo, or worse, at LAUSD are not trifling. I figured the mayor would have to hold hearings all over the city to document the failure of the current system of education governance. He would probably put a respected education expert on his City Hall staff, create a powerful coalition of stakeholders that would include business leaders, community leaders, civil rights leaders, parents, and use his considerable charisma and PR skills to unite the city behind him for this 15-round fight with the entrenched special interests who control LAUSD.

But no. The mayor wanted something approved this year. A consummate Sacramento player, Villaraigosa looked at the the reform process as just another legislative deal. And so that's what we've got. Not reform. Not accountability. Just more diffusion of power in a hasty compromise that looked good in a windowless conference room in the state capitol building, but will be hellish in practice. The Los Angeles Times' editorial today is eloquent in describing the mess the mayor and his negotiating partners have created:

Under the proposed bill, details of which are not yet public, the school board would be in charge of student achievement — or at least parts of it — while the mayor would control about three dozen poorly performing schools. Both would have a role in hiring the superintendent. Schools would be in charge of their curriculums. Instead of creating a clean line of accountability — the chief advantage of having a mayor run the schools — this deal divides responsibility so confusingly that even the main players would have trouble figuring out who's in charge of what.

The school board would be a "broad policymaking body," the mayor says, "not a management body." Yet decisions about curriculum would be made at the local school level. The superintendent, meanwhile, would be charged with carrying out the policy set by the board — but he or she could be fired by the mayor. The superintendent would have power to sign contracts — except the biggest contract, with the teachers union, which would be negotiated by the board.

Most schools would be under the authority of the elected board, but a few dozen would be essentially run by the mayor. The mayor says that if these schools improve, the Legislature may be more willing to give a future mayor more direct control. Maybe so. But the rest of the plan would so damage the district that this experiment hardly seems worth it.

"Fragmentation is failing our kids," the mayor explained in his State of the City address in April. "Voters need to be able to hire and fire one person accountable to parents, teachers and taxpayers. A leader who is ultimately responsible for systemwide performance." Under this plan, fragmentation is increased, accountability diminished. Who's in charge of the schools? Any answer that requires more than one subject and one verb is no answer at all.

Bob Sipchen and Janine Kahn's LA Times-sponsored education blog, School Me, has an even pithier take on some of the plan's details:

It's good that teachers will gain more control over cirriculum–unless the bad ones protected by union aversion to firing use their freedom to dodge responsibility. And who's going to step in? The board? LA's mayor? Superintendent-in-waiting Jackie Goldberg?

Another thing: The mayor wants responsibility for shaping up three "failing" schools. If that means yanking good teachers from good schools, what will parents whose kids get the lemons say? And to whom do they complain? The mayor of South Gate?

But that's how it goes in L.A. Who's in charge of air pollution? Who's in charge of economic development? Who's in charge of transportation? Who's in charge of airports? Who's in charge of energy? Who's in charge of public safety? Who will respond if Avian Bird Flu becomes a crisis? Answer: Everyone and no one.

Disaster Porn

san_andreas_fault_-_carrizo_plains.jpgEverywhere I go today, even at my own dinner table, I'm hearing about this.

Southern California could be in line for a serious quake along the infamous San Andreas fault, seismologists have found. New measurements suggest that the region close to Los Angeles, the traditional earthquake location in Hollywood disaster movies, could feel the effects of a real-life tremor within the next few years.

The southern part of the San Andreas seems to be building up a considerable amount of strain, the work suggests. And because no significant earthquake has ruptured this portion of the fault for at least the past 250 years, it could be primed to cause a devastating event.

"It could be tomorrow; it could be ten years from now," says Yuri Fialko, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, who led the study. "But it appears unlikely to accumulate another few hundred years of strain."

This is news? Southern Californians don't know this? I've been hearing about the buildup in the southern part of the San Andreas fault all my life. We've known about this fault since 1895.

In the interests of science, of course we need to know with more precision why and how the Pacific and North American plates will next slip, but until they can tell us when, it's not really news.

Look around you. If you're anywhere near LA, you can probably see, through the haze, a mountain. That mountain is not God's Play-Dough. Our landscape was created violently. It will eventually throw us into the sea, or bury us, or lift the ground beneath our feet above our heads. We love it here. And we love hearing about how we're all doomed. I guess that's why a study like this gives our news anchors the vapors. We're turned on by the dangerous types.

“I am such an idiot.”

Is it my imagination, or does Father's Day always happen on the final day of the U.S. Open or some other big golf tournament? Most of my recent Father's Day memories include hanging out in the ancestral kitchen with my Dad and several brothers, eating the remains of whatever pot-luck feast the family created, waiting for a golf match to end so I could escape to the beach.

Golf is a TV sport I enjoy more in theory than in reality. It takes too much time to follow a golf tournament. But part of my Father's Day memory bank includes watching the final hours of the final day, when something wonderful or horrible sometimes happens. Yesterday's match took the cake. My Dad watched the last hole with his face about three inches from the TV. Unlike a basketball tournament, the NBC broadcast rarely cut away for a commercial, so the drama/farce was unrelenting. There was little conversation around the table; just a lot of "wow," and "where did that shot go?"

If you avoided the whole media onslaught, the match can be summed up this way. The tournament was almost over and Phil "Lefty" Mickelson was winning. Then he hit a shot that landed in a trash can.

There's a lot of good writing out there today about Mickelson's train-wreck of a final round, but this piece from ESPN.com's Pat Forde puts it in a context that non-sports fans will also appreciate. A sample:

No other sport leaves its combatants as mentally exposed at moments of peak pressure. We see their strengths and frailties etched upon their faces, carved into their body language, expressed through their swings. There is no running and no hiding.

When a golfer's arms turn to cement and his mind races toward panic, there are no teammates to pass to, no timeouts to call, no refs to blame. The game is the ultimate merciless meritocracy.


Lefty's response to acute pressure seems to be rash boldness. He had sublimated that urge to do something reckless in recent years, with results (three major championships, where forever there had been none) that should have reinforced that newfound prudence. But Sunday at Winged Foot, with less-qualified contenders collapsing all around him, Mickelson couldn't resist joining them by reverting to the old brain-lock days.

phil-mickelson-crouching.jpgHe made a bizarre early decision to gouge a 4-wood out of gnarly rough, a brilliant idea that produced a one-foot flub and an eventual bogey. He got away with serially errant drives on a course that rewards accuracy. But at finishing time, Mickelson couldn't resist the suicidal impulse to fish that driver out of the bag — then he couldn't resist trying to hit a hero shot out of trouble when a simple punch-out to the fairway might have saved the day.

In Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson might have the most involved caddie in golf. But short of placing him in a sleeper hold, no caddie and no swing coach and no fawning gallery could save Phil from himself Sunday.

With the crater from the implosion still steaming, Mickelson owned up to the monumental gag job.

"I am such an idiot," Lefty said.

Camera Obscurer

How much of the motion picture industry's $3 billion piracy problem is due to audience members capturing movies on their digital cameras for subsequent reproduction and distribution? If it's a lot, then this will be good news for the movie studios: Scientists apparently have found a way to neutralize digital still and video cameras in confined spaces.

According to this post on Science Blog:

laser-beam.jpgResearchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have completed a prototype device that can block digital-camera function in a given area. Commercial versions of the technology could be used to stymie unwanted use of video or still cameras.

The prototype device, produced by a team in the Interactive and Intelligent Computing division of the Georgia Tech College of Computing (COC), uses off-the-shelf equipment – camera-mounted sensors, lighting equipment, a projector and a computer — to scan for, find and neutralize digital cameras. The system works by looking for the reflectivity and shape of the image-producing sensors used in digital cameras.

Gregory Abowd, an associate professor leading the project, says the new camera-neutralizing technology shows commercial promise in two principal fields – protecting limited areas against clandestine photography or stopping video copying in larger areas such as theaters.

"We're at a point right now where the prototype we have developed could lead to products for markets that have a small, critical area to protect," Abowd said. "Then we're also looking to do additional research that could increase the protected area for one of our more interesting clients, the motion picture industry."

Abowd said the small-area product could prevent espionage photography in government buildings, industrial settings or trade shows. It could also be used in business settings — for instance, to stop amateur photography where shopping-mall-Santa pictures are being taken.


(M)ovie theaters are likely to be a good setting for camera-blocking technology, said Jay Summet, a research assistant who is also working on the prototype. A camera's image sensor — called a CCD — is retroreflective, which means it sends light back directly to its origin rather than scattering it. Retroreflections would probably make it relatively easy to detect and identify video cameras in a darkened theater.

The current prototype uses visible light and two cameras to find CCDs, but a future commercial system might use invisible infrared lasers and photo-detecting transistors to scan for contraband cameras. Once such a system found a suspicious spot, it would feed information on the reflection's properties to a computer for a determination.

"The biggest problem is making sure we don't get false positives from, say, a large shiny earring," said Summet. "We need to make our system work well enough so that it can find a dot, then test to see if it's reflective, then see if it's retroreflective, and then test to see if it's the right shape."

Once a scanning laser and photodetector located a video camera, the system would flash a thin beam of visible white light directly at the CCD. This beam – possibly a laser in a commercial version – would overwhelm the target camera with light, rendering recorded video unusable.

If your local movie theater starts banning patrons with large shiny earrings, that might be a dead giveaway that this technology is in use.

Go For It, Obama

barack-obama.jpgWhy shouldn't the 2008 Democratic Party nominee be Barack Obama (the senator from Illinois whose flirtation with a presidential run is detailed in this Washington Post story)?

The Republicans are tired and unpopular, and yet it appears that the Democratic Party is in no shape to take advantage of the opportunity. They're twisted up by the war, twisted up by the left-wing bloggers, twisted up by the cocooning effect of major media (of which the Obama story I've linked to is a perfect example, ironically.) The state of our two-party system is atrocious. Both parties need some time in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, there will be a Democratic Party nominee in 2008. As the Post story says,

The speculation is as much a commentary on the state of the party as it is on Obama. The Democrats' most prominent likely contenders — such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.) — are figures who have been in the public eye for many years and wear scars from earlier controversies.

No, Obama hasn't been much of a senator in his year-plus in office. He's not in the majority, and he's a rookie, so you can't set your expectations too high. No, Obama hasn't got any distinctive positions on any issues, and is afflicted with the Democratic Party's self-cancelling orthodoxy. But he's dynamic, and very smart; charming and charismatic; young and energetic. And depending on who the Republicans nominate, a candidate who'll run on the Democratic orthodoxy might not seem so bad.

There is no question that Barack Obama is fully qualified to be our president. And, as the Post story details, there is little doubt he could raise the money he would need. He's a star, the first star the party's had since Bill Clinton.

It was said just a few months ago that Hillary Clinton could take the party's left-wing base for granted, and could run as a moderate on national security and social issues, where the left-wing ideology scares away voters. That conventional wisdom is already washed-up. If Hillary runs, she will run as the moderate. Kerry and others will take the left wing vote. Hillary will be treated like Joe Lieberman.

Obama can do what Hillary cannot: Keep the left enthralled, while tacking to the center-right on national security. Obama could be Peter Beinart's dream, a new Truman.

I predict the 2006 election won't go nearly as well for the Democrats as they've been hoping. If I'm right, there will be a lot of gloom and rancor in the run-up to 2008. But Obama entering the race would change everything. Politics might seem fun again for a lot of us. He can put an easy grin on Democratic partisanship. He's not a hater or a divider.

If he runs, we'll find out more about him. Maybe Obama will melt under the kleiglights. But in politics, timing is everything, and I think the timing is exquisite for Barack Obama in 2008. Don't wait, don't let anyone trick you into paying dues you don't need to pay. Go for it, Senator Obama.

Happy Father’s Day Gift to All Dads

Whether you're a father yourself or you're getting in touch with your father today–or, if you're like me, both–I'm sure you are struggling to find the words to express the deep meaning of the relationship being honored. There is so much to be grateful for, on both sides. My son pisses me off on almost a daily basis, but he has also enriched my life more than any other person I can think of. He always surprises me, and fills my heart with joy. My father has been so generous, supportive, kind and loving, especially through my most recent ordeal, and I admire how hard he worked to sustain the magnificent family I'm a part of. At the same time, he drives me crazy.

So you struggle to find the words to say on this day. Sometimes the words don't come because you're trying too hard. So, just to give you a little break, I invite you to view this ridiculous video. If you've already seen it — millions have — then watch it again. It might be good therapy. If you've never seen it, well…click here. (Hint: "Mentos.")

..and Happy Father's Day to all!

Is Copying Writing? Sometimes.

I'm frustrated to read that high school teachers are assigning fewer term papers due to the prevalence of on-line plagiarism. I understand the problem: Kids cut and paste chunks of the Internet into their assignments and claim the work is their own.

It's ethically dubious to be sure. But as long as you don't plagiarize an entire work, doesn't copy/paste assembly at least serve the minimal purpose of showing a student what good writing is?

Read the biographies of our greatest writers. They all started by copying or mimicking the works of their heroes, sometimes word-for-word. They wanted to see what made their sentences sing, what made their thoughts cohere, where the rhythm of their prose came from.

Originality is an overrated attribute in students. It's sentimental, e.g. "out of the mouths of babes." Not every child is born with original thoughts or ways of expressing them. Students gain knowledge by experiencing the original thoughts of others, and will eventually develop the confidence to present their own. Or not. But by copying from well-written sources, at least they'll get a feel for the way good writers organize their thoughts on paper.

What the kids are allegedly doing is relatable to hyperlinking, no? So why not reconfigure the assignment to require hyperlinks? I think a kid would have a harder time plagiarizing Internet copy if you made them link to their research sources. Teachers could set up class blogs, where students would post their work, links and all. If anyone suspected plagiarism, it would be a simple matter to highlight a few lines of text and run them through Google.

I hate to break it to everyone who wants to think we did things the right way in the olden days, but some kids used to copy material straight from the encyclopedia long before the the personal computer arrived. They scribbled the words on 3×5 cards, and then got those same words onto the page via a typewriter (defined in Wikipedia as "a mechanical, electromechanical, or electronic device with a set of 'keys' that, when pressed, cause characters to be printed on a document, usually paper.") It was laborious work, but for some kids, it was necessary.

Schools' primary objective should be: Every student a competent writer. It's my anecdotal impression that teaching good writing is not given a high enough priority in high school.  There are virtually no careers where you can get by without being able to present and organize words to express ideas to others. In the real world, many of those words are "boilerplate," which is a non-judgemental way of saying plagiarized (sometimes self-plagiarized). Your ability to choose the right words to copy, and to put them in the right place, is part of your education as a writer.

Don't misunderstand: To present someone else's words as your own is unethical. I'm disgusted by things like Cheathouse.com, where entire papers are available at a price. But, as the Times article points out, the same Internet that makes it easy to steal someone else's words, makes it easy to detect it when you did (just ask Ben Domenech.)

Here's tonight's interesting factoid:

The school also fights fire with fire, paying more than $2,000 a year to use Barrie's Web-based Turn It In, which checks a student's paper against a database of 17 million essays and papers. (John) Barrie's Oakland-based company, IParadigms, calculates that the odds of stringing the same 16 words together in the same order as somebody else is less than one in a trillion.

Wow. All over the world tonight, people are blogging, each entry unique, like a snowflake.

No More Goose, No More Golden Eggs

Advertising Age's Gavin O'Malley is disturbed that marketing managers are putting money in the pockets of supposedly independent editorial outlets:

Something's rotten with the state of media. Nearly half — 48.9% — of senior marketing executives admit to paying for editorial or broadcast brand placement, according to an industrywide survey just released by PRWeek and PR agency Manning Selvage & Lee.

What's more, the survey of 266 chief marketing officers, marketing VPs and directors found that half of those who haven't paid for placement said they would if the opportunity arose.

"This type of behavior is as harmful to PR professionals as it is to consumers and the media," said Mark Hass, CEO of the Publicis Groupe-owned public-relations agency.

While the publishers mixing editorial and advertising most likely are consumer-product glossies, Mr. Hass said he strongly believes their lax standards harm the image of media in general. "When people see the erosion of concepts like objectivity, they start to lose faith in any organization claiming to be objective."

Interestingly, when PR Week released the survey last month, this particular finding was buried at the end of its story (subscription required). But once they got to it, PR Week raised the same concerns:

But the rise of ad-driven editorial content in both broadcast and print media has led, some say, to a fuzziness of the line separating advertising and editorial. There is a difference between inserting a product into an entertainment property and paying to secure a mention of a product in a more sterile editorial environment – such as a newspaper – says Hass. He notes a survey by sister media firm Starcom MediaVest which found that 65% of consumers thought editorial mentions of a product had been paid for.

News executives might want to keep this consumer perception in mind when contemplating why newspaper circulation is dropping, and why so many ex-readers find the highly subjective blogosphere more reliable. PR and marketing executives might start wondering what kind of strategies they're going be able to sell clients when the "third party credibility" of editorial placements is no longer seen as credible.

It's akin to the issue of broadcasters' use of PR-generated VNRs. Editors have the First Amendment right to publish or broadcast content that someone has paid for. But you can't have it both ways. Either you're independent, or you're not. If you're not, don't pretend you are. Because you'll be found out.

Playwright Jean Giraudoux was the first (of many) to say "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." But that applied to an era when phony sincerity was difficult to uncover. Maybe history will show that paid-for editorial content was the rule, not the exception in decades past. The future will be different. In our time, transparency isn't just a lifestyle choice. It's a law of nature.

Mush From the Wimps*

"Mush from the Wimp" refers to a famous journalistic gaffe — a headline placed atop a Boston Globe editorial about President Jimmy Carter's 1980 economic plan, which was supposed to be replaced with "All Must Share the Burden."

What made this episode funny and memorable was that the editorial was supposed to be an endorsement of Carter's plan. The accidental headline gave up the game. The Globe's editorial board didn't think the Carter plan was any good, but they felt compelled to instruct their poor readers to support it.

The public intuitively recognizes there is a gap today between what supporters of a politician or political party really think and the elaborate bows of fealty to political correctness that they make in public. In my opinion, it's the key reason why both Republican and Democratic approval ratings are so low right now. People don't sense that the parties and their standard-bearers are committed to the things they claim to stand for.

In this morning's New York Times, columnist David Brooks gives a clue as to why this gap has grown so large. (You'll have to either buy the paper, pay the Times for its TimesSelect service, or trust me, because I can't link to it.) Brooks suggests that if the legacy parties didn't exist, our politics would be divided between a party of "populist nationalism," (PN) and a party of "progressive globalism" (PG)

Per Brooks, the PNs stand for: America and Americans first; conservative social values; generous social welfare; universal health care; and closed borders. They are against the war in Iraq, for the wall to keep illegal aliens out, against outsourcing, and against gay marriage.

The PGs stand for: Free markets and free trade; liberal social values; an aggressive but multilateral interventionist policy in foreign affairs; reform of entitlements. They are for the war in Iraq, against continued oil dependence, for strong international institutions, against restrictive immigration policies, and for a woman's right to choose.

The PNs are suspicious of all elites: Government, corporate and cultural. The PGs are suspicious of populists who think they can create an America that is militarily, economically and culturally a fortress.

Brooks' realignment isn't so neat and tidy in the real world, but it has a ring of truth. If nothing else, it explains why all our politicians, from George W. Bush, to Hillary Clinton, to John Kerry, to John McCain, all sound like mushy wimps nowadays, as they try to straddle both the PG and PN camps.

I saw Al Gore on Larry King the other night. He was there to discuss his global warming documentary, but then Larry reminded him of the famous debate on his program, in which Gore defended NAFTA against Ross Perot — and did it so effectively that Perot was discredited and NAFTA was passed.

This trip down memory lane made Gore palpably nervous. Free trade, a PG issue, is highly controversial among Democrats now. Gore might want Democratic votes again someday, and the pro-free-trade contingent is a distinct minority. (Global warming is also a PG issue, but that's partly because no one's seen a price tag yet.)

But this kind of thing happens all the time. A couple of weeks ago, the Bush Administration was supposedly pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a classic PN issue–and an issue PGs tend to dismiss. The vote was timed to coincide with several primary elections, including California's. Everyone knew it was going to lose. Bush spoke up for it on his Saturday radio speech, which no one listens to.

And, according to Newsweek, Bush wasn't entirely sincere:

Though Bush himself has publicly embraced the amendment, he never seemed to care enough to press the matter. One of his old friends told NEWSWEEK that same-sex marriage barely registers on the president's moral radar. "I think it was purely political. I don't think he gives a s–t about it. He never talks about this stuff," said the friend, who requested anonymity to discuss his private conversations with Bush.


Whatever Bush's motivation, his actions aren't likely to quiet his critics. (Southern Baptist leader Richard) Land says he's happy Bush is speaking out, but he'd like to see signs of real commitment to the issue. "We know what a full-court press looks like when we see one," Land says.

Bush needed anti-gay marriage voters to get elected in 2000 and 2004, and he'll need them again to maintain Republican congressional majorities in 2006. But, for Bush, the significance of a GOP majority is to maintain support for the war in Iraq.  This unpopular war draws most of its remaining support from PG's, who are acutely sensitive to the global consequences of failure in Iraq, not PN's, who believe secure borders are the key to winning the war on terror, not  planting democracy in faraway countries. It's an arbitrary–and perhaps temporary–thing that the pro-war and anti-gay-marriage constituencies are in the same political party.

Bush is a little more open about his PG position on illegal immigration. The press has identified a split in Bush's party between the globalists and the nationalists on that issue. The Democrats, however, are also split on illegal immigration. Democratic PGs recoil at the idea of a wall between America and Mexico, and the cultural intolerance that such a wall implies. But many key Democratic voters are PNs, especially labor union members and African Americans, who tend to be less tolerant of this flood of workers willing to work for low wages.

On the war, on immigration, on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, both parties oversee constituencies that are divided on the hottest issues. As the parties zig and zag to please these different interest groups, more and more Americans are just letting go of politics altogether, and pressing for their goals in places where they don't hear mush: Churches, union halls, the streets, talk radio–and the Internet.

Joe Trippi and others have pointed out that, because of the Internet, the barriers to creating new political organizations to replace the existing parties are falling. Trippi sees the evolution of a "unity" party that transcends partisanship. But that idea–a third party "above politics"–might even be too traditional (see Perot, and in 1980, John Anderson). The coming realignment might happen more quickly and dramatically than anyone predicts, and it might divide us even more.

*Revised, 6/15/06, 3:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m.

This Property is Condemned

Jeff Jarvis today tells the story of Mattel shutting down its online American Girl club, and the grief this corporate decision has caused:

Companies don’t realize that starting a community is a commitment. You can’t get people to move in and hand over their time and attention and then just one day decide to close.

Mattel is shutting down its American Girl Club and our daughter is rightfully upset. She joined the community and made friends there and now Mattel is pulling up and leaving town. Because of the anonymity features of the community, this means that thousands of friendships are suddenly cut off; they communicate only through the club.

It's an interesting comment on our times. Marriages and contracts are made to be broken, but one dare not scuttle an online community.

A Jarvis commenter throws his support behind Mattel:

Perhaps third grade is a good time for a girl to start learning that there are friends, and there is business. Mattel is a business, and makes business decisions. It’s not nice, but it is reality. Networks of friends… will someone find the business model to make that good business? Mattel pulled the plug. It’s not a bad idea to know what the motivations are for our associations…networts, and friendships. It’s a lesson worth learning or beginning to learn anyway in third grade.


When PR people tell their clients they "need to understand how to communicate and connect in a new environment in which you have little or no control," it's not just an airy concept. Once you've ceded control to your consumers, you can't just decide one day to — poof – take it back, without suffering damage to your reputation.

Plastic Fantastic Newspapers

newsboy.jpgHere it is, your newspaper of the future. It's a hybrid, halfway between an iPod mp3 music player and a laptop, and its developers promise you'll be able to fold it and put it in your pocket.

From a Reuters story on Publish:

(As) early as this year, the future may finally arrive. Some of the world's top newspaper publishers are planning to introduce a form of electronic newspaper that will allow users to download entire editions from the Web on to reflective digital screens said to be easier on the eyes than light-emitting laptop or cellphone displays.

Flexible versions of these readers may be available as early as 2007.

The handheld readers couldn't come a moment too soon for the newspaper industry, which has struggled to maintain its readership and advertising from online rivals.

Publishers Hearst Corp. in the U.S., Pearson Plc.'s Les Echos in Paris and Belgian financial paper De Tijd are planning a large-scale trials of the readers this year.


Sony and iRex's new devices employ screen technology by E Ink, which originated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Investors include Hearst, Philips, McClatchy Co., Motorola Inc. and Intel Corp.

The company produces energy-efficient ink sheets that contain tiny capsules showing either black or white depending on the electric current running through it.

Some of the latest devices apply E Ink's sheets to glass transistor boards, or back planes, which are rigid. But by 2007, companies such as U.K.-based Plastic Logic Ltd will manufacture screens on flexible plastic sheets, analysts say.

Separately, Xerox Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are developing methods to produce flexible back planes cheaply. Xerox, in particular, has created a working prototype of system that lets manufacturers create flexible transistor boards much like one would print a regular paper document.

Production costs are expected to be low enough soon for publishers to consider giving away such devices for free with an annual subscription. Data on subscribers could also help publishers better tailor ads.

This new newspaper fills a niche I'm not sure exists. It seems like many news consumers have already decided they are willing to give up the portability of the print edition in exchange for all the advantages of online news surfing. Will the new devices let you aggregate your own content choices from multiple sources, or would you be stuck with one publication?

I understand the need to get subscribers to commit to a full year's subscription. The devices are $300 each. But that seems like a barrier.

Frankly, I like the way things are now. The newspaper used to slow me down in the morning. It would come to my house, and I'd race through it over coffee before getting ready for work. Now, by the time the paper arrives at my door, I've already read much of it online the previous night, and I know I can catch up with the rest of it whenever I want, on my laptop or a desktop. I only continue letting the LA Times pile up in a corner of my apartment because my wife likes to save the Food and Home sections.

The new device sounds cool, technologically. Maybe if I took a train to work…

But what do I know? When the iPod mp3 player first came on the scene, I didn't see the point. You can only listen to one song at a time, so I wondered why was it so critical to be able to carry 1,500, or 3,000 or 10,000 songs with you? Well, when I walked our dog this morning, I listened to a random mix that bounced from Stan Getz to Bruce Springsteen to Cat Power to Sammy Davis, Jr. to the Decembrists. I might love this new thing, too.

They Call it Issue Advertising. We Call it Boob Bait.

If you live in Washington D.C., you might want to check in on the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They've been saying some strange things lately. Maybe someone up there took the wrong medication.

The CEI has started a new issue advertising campaign to counter former Vice President Gore's global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." I'm not opposed to the energy industry or the business community having its say on global warming. The scientific consensus that the earth is getting warmer doesn't answer all, or even most, of the policy questions this "inconvenient truth" poses. We need a robust, informed conversation about it.

cei-logo.jpgBased on the CEI's ad campaign, however, I have to assume industry fears this conversation and wants only to derail it.

"Carbon Dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life," has to be the most embarassing tagline I've seen since the "Join the Coffee Achievers" campaign celebrating caffeine overdose.

The two ads carrying the CEI slogan, which you can see here, attempt to bolster their challenge to the science of global warming by saying, essentially, that carbon dioxide should not be considered a pollutant, since we breathe it.

Out. We breathe it out. For us and our fellow animals, carbon dioxide is a waste product. Using the CEI's logic, we're wasting an awful lot of money on sewer systems, since the stuff that runs through those things is also, uh, natural. Plants use carbon dioxide. Plants use poop, too. But that doesn't mean we should all go s***ting in the forest like we used to.

Anyway, the theory of global warming doesn't equate carbon dioxide with smog. It's all about how earth's climate — which geological history shows to be inherently unstable already — is being transformed by the heat-trapping effect of excessive carbon dioxide.

Who are these ads for? Until now, I always thought of CEI as a conservative, free-market think tank, a respectable vehicle for scholars of that persuasion. No more. These disgraceful ads are "boob bait for the bubbas" of the right.

Scoble Ankles

Robert Scoble's decision to leave Microsoft for a podcasting start-up generates a lot of comment today in the blogosphere. Scoble, an intelligent guy and a fine writer who conveys a winning personality in his blog Scobleizer, was characterized as the guy who "put a human face" on Microsoft. His departure from Microsoft was amicable, but from the media reaction, one would think this is a grievous loss for the software behemoth. From FT.com:

The internet was buzzing on Monday as bloggers digested news that Robert Scoble, the technical evangelist” whose Scobleizer weblog made him one of the foremost ambassadors for the world’s biggest software group, is to leave the company to join a Silicon Valley start-up.

The move, reported at the weekend, raises fresh questions about the importance of high-profile bloggers to companies that encourage employees to talk about work in their online journals.


The move illustrates the challenge facing companies as they try to get to grips with a world in which the reputation of individual bloggers can come to be closely associated with – or have a big impact on – the reputation of a company’s own brand.

This is pretty silly. Scoble was an alternative source of information about Microsoft, and it spoke well of the company that it didn't fire him for filing posts that had a candid tone to them. But he was not Microsoft's "human" face. That honor still belongs to founder Bill Gates, one of the most recognized humans on the planet, and Steve Ballmer, the current CEO whose utterings are carefully parsed in the business and technology press.

RobertScoble.jpgRobert Scoble's left pinky was warmer, fuzzier and more "human" than Gates and Ballmer combined, but that doesn't change their relative impact on Microsoft. If Scoble's job was to take the focus off these two gentlemen, he failed. But I don't think that was the idea.

I think Scoble was driven to blog because he genuinely loved Microsoft and the people who worked there, and had a knack for articulating his passion about his company–and about his life. When I think about Scobleizer, I think about his incredibly honest posts about his mother, who died recently, and how the experience affected his view of his family and his life. I enjoyed his dispatches from the tech-conference circuit. They were human and humorous.

Frankly, I tended to discount whatever Scoble said about Microsoft, for two reasons. He was a marketing guy. You can't sell a product you don't believe in, and part of the psychology of salespersons is the ability to auto-generate the kind of belief needed to sell. Secondly, I'm not obsessed with Microsoft. I know Vista's coming, for example. But I won't be the first to try it. I realize I live in Microsoft's world, but I don't think about it much.

I want to see more businesses–big, small, and not-for-profit–hosting blogs. But over-reliance on one individual — and a lower-level employee at that — doesn't make much sense as a strategy.

To me, one point of a company blog is to dramatize the firm's expertise; to take its potential customers on an intellectual journey that parallels the company's growth, evolution, and new offerings. Another point is to demonstrate the commitment to transparent decision-making that companies' stakeholders increasingly demand — as Elizabeth Albrycht discussed in this required-reading post, and this follow-up. (I wrote about her ideas here.)

Scoble did some of the first, although it was mostly his intellectual journey. He wasn't in a position to do the second, because he wasn't a decision-maker.

The kind of blog I would envision as helpful to a company would be highly customized. There is no off-the-shelf strategy, and never will be, for this kind of communication. It must be flexible — a place where conversation about a new product could comfortably share space with responses to a crisis, or outlines of a decision-making process underway in real time.

I would look at a company blog as a cyberspace auditorium — a place targeted readers will want to go to hear from, and interact with, interesting people with relevant information to offer, whether they were executives, academics, customers or employees. Sometimes it might be an arena, where adversaries debate. The blog would become an essential experience for anyone who envisioned themselves as a potential customer, or who had any significant relationship with the company in question.

Above all, a company blog has to give its audience a reason to come back frequently — a hook. Robert Scoble's hook was: "How honest is he really going to be?" After awhile, the hook became Scoble himself — a guy we liked and rooted for. But as he said himself many times, he was just one person at Microsoft. For businesses, non-profits, public-sector agencies and others, the trick will be to create your own blog format, one that allows us to read and hear the many voices that make up your universe — and help us figure out how you fit into our lives.

Ball of Fire*

A big meteorite hit Norway last week — with a force equivalent to the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. From Aftenposten:

A-Meteoritt_6sek_j_410790h.jpgAt around 2:05 a.m. on Wednesday, residents of the northern part of Troms and the western areas of Finnmark could clearly see a ball of fire taking several seconds to travel across the sky.

A few minutes later an impact could be heard and geophysics and seismology research foundation NORSAR registered a powerful sound and seismic disturbances at 02:13.25 a.m. at their station in Karasjok.

Farmer Peter Bruvold was out on his farm in Lyngseidet with a camera because his mare Virika was about to foal for the first time.

"I saw a brilliant flash of light in the sky, and this became a light with a tail of smoke," Bruvold told Aftenposten.no. He photographed the object and then continued to tend to his animals when he heard an enormous crash.

"I heard the bang seven minutes later. It sounded like when you set off a solid charge of dynamite a kilometer (0.62 miles) away," Bruvold said.

Very little news about this, even on the long-tailed Internet. Sure, Troms is a remote area, north of the Arctic Circle. But: It's one planet. While a meteorite landing two-thirds of a mile from a farmer in the frozen north might seem like a faraway event, something like this could happen, and a global catastrophe would be the result.

If an asteroid crashes into the Earth, it is likely to splash down somewhere in the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet's surface. Huge tsunami waves, spreading out from the impact site like the ripples from a rock tossed into a pond, would inundate heavily populated coastal areas. A computer simulation of an asteroid impact tsunami developed by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows waves as high as 400 feet sweeping onto the Atlantic Coast of the United States.

The researchers based their simulation on a real asteroid known to be on course for a close encounter with Earth eight centuries from now. Steven Ward, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCSC, and Erik Asphaug, an associate professor of Earth sciences, report their findings in the June issue of the Geophysical Journal International.

March 16, 2880, is the day the asteroid known as 1950 DA, a huge rock two-thirds of a mile in diameter, is due to swing so close to Earth it could slam into the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 miles per hour. The probability of a direct hit is pretty small, but over the long timescales of Earth's history, asteroids this size and larger have periodically hammered the planet, sometimes with calamitous effects. The so-called K/T impact, for example, ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"From a geologic perspective, events like this have happened many times in the past. Asteroids the size of 1950 DA have probably struck the Earth about 600 times since the age of the dinosaurs," Ward said.

Here's a link to the simulation. Have a nice day!

*UPDATE 6-12-06: The "Hiroshima" comparison was made by an astronomer at the University of Oslo, Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard. However, another Norwegian scientist disputes him:

Truls Lynne Hansen of the Northern Lights Observatory (Nordlysobservatoriet) in Tromsø disputes Røed Ødegaard's description, calling it an exaggeration.

"Our atmosphere is peppered with small stones from outer space all the time," Hansen told newspaper Aftenposten. "Most burn up and disappear, but some land here."

He thinks that what hit northern Norway last week was a stone weighing around 12 kilos (about 26 pounds). "Out in space it generated enormous speed, but after entering our atmosphere its tempo eased," Hansen said. "This kind of meteorite isn't radioactive and it's not glowing when it hits the ground."


In the same article, Aftenposten runs a somewhat inscrutable photo of the supposed impact site:Norway meteorite impact site.jpg

Surf’s Up

gravitational waves.jpg

If you ponder the mysteries of the universe, check out morning’s LA Times story about LIGO – the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Caltech operates in Hanford, Washington and an identical twin managed by MIT in Livingston, Louisiana — which scientists hope will allow them to demonstrate the truth of Einstein’s theory that “large bodies moving through space would give off waves of gravity, traveling at light speed, that would shrink and expand space-time itself.”

After Einstein, our conception of the universe changed. It is not empty space, it is a fabric. Space, and everything occupied by space, can be bent and stretched by waves of gravity, which Times’ author John Johnson Jr. likens to the ripples from a spoon stirring milk, or the indentation a bowling ball would make on a trampoline.

Today, such waves exist only in theory, the product of cosmic events like supernovas or pairs of neutron stars whipping through each others’ orbit and then smashing into each other.

According to theory, if our planet came close to the source of a gravitational wave, Earth would stretch to twice its normal size, then shrink in half before returning to its original shape — a scenario worthy of a Road Runner cartoon. Have no fear, however. The waves that could reach Earth are very weak, too weak to be measured — until last November when LIGO “reached a level of sensitivity at which (Caltech physicist Kip S. Thorne) and other experts believe they might detect waves.”

Here’s how Johnson describes what’s involved for LIGO to measure gravitational waves:

Down a twisting side road, LIGO appears out of the Russian cheatgrass and mustard plants, a bulky apparition with two tubes extending at right angles into the desert.

LIGO sites.jpgThe 2.4-mile-long tentacles are the heart of LIGO. They are at right angles so that incoming gravity waves will shrink one arm while lengthening the other. An identical facility sits in a forest in southern Louisiana, so that the readings made at one observatory can be cross-checked almost 2,000 miles away.


Inside the arms is a laser interferometer, which works by splitting a laser beam and sending one of the two resulting beams down each arm. The beams then bounce around 100 times on a set of mirrors before being sent back to a photodetector.

The two beams should recombine at exactly the same time since they travel an identical distance.

But if a gravity wave passes by, the beams will be thrown off as the arms are alternately stretched and squeezed.

Detecting such a minute signal has required extraordinary steps.
Because the site had to be as flat as possible, satellites were used to survey the land, which was eventually graded to within three-eighths of an inch over five miles.

To get around the problem of air molecules shaking the mirrors, workers sucked the air out of the tubes down to a billionth of an atmosphere. But that still wasn’t good enough to make sure the speed of light would be constant throughout the tubes. So the team had to get the tubes down to a trillionth of an atmosphere.

The surface of the four 10-inch mirrors in the arms is so smooth it doesn’t vary by more than 30-billionths of an inch. Thirty control systems keep the lasers and mirrors in alignment. The vibration isolation system is so sophisticated, the only thing approaching it is the mechanics used by semiconductor chip makers to etch circuits on the chips.

Read the whole thing.

iDon’t Get It, part deux

From Boing-Boing, more news of iPod rebellion:

Tomorrow, activists in seven cities across the US will picket Apple Stores, handing out information about the dangers of the DRM (Digital Rights Management) hidden in Apple's iTunes. iTunes DRM may seem pretty innocuous at first, but every time you invest in an iTunes Store song, you make it more expensive to switch to an Apple competitor's product at any time in the future. You didn't have to abandon your CDs to switch to MP3s (in fact, the more CDs you owned, the better your MP3 experience was, since you could rip those CDs to seed your MP3 collection), but if you want to go from Apple's iTunes to a competing device, ever, you have to be prepared to abandon your whole investment.


My wife has an iPod.  I don't.  If I buy a song on Rhapsody for my mp3 player, I can convert it to a iPod friendly format so she can put it on her iPod.  BUT: If she buys a song on Apple's iMusic, she can't convert it to another format so I can put it on my device.

I've already written about the advantages of being a non-iPod mp3 owner: That I can stream on my computer, or download onto my device, music from subscription services like Rhapsody, so long as I pay my monthly fee.  iMusic does not allow this. You can listen to a 30-second clip, that's it. Anything more you have to pay for. And, as this protest shows, you're paying for less than what you think. 

It's an interesting premise for a consumer-based protest activity.  Basically, the marching cry is:  "You're not all that!"  In fact, the Free Software Foundation calls its anti-iPod group "Defective By Design." But given Apple's arrogant, anti-consumer attitude about their highly profitable product, they deserve the fuss. 

Here's the protest sked.  I don't think my wife, who still likes her iPod, will be joining, and of course I don't need to.  But you might want to gather at 10 a.m. local time tomorrow, June 10th at:

Apple Store – 1 Stockton St., San Francisco, CA 94108

Apple Store – 679 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

Apple Store – 4702 NE University Village Pl, Seattle, WA 98105

Apple Store – 100 Cambridge Side Place, Cambridge, MA 02141

Apple Store – 767 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10153

Apple Store – 160 Walt Whitman Rd. Huntington Station, NY 11746h

Apple Store – 6121 West Park Blvd. Plano, TX 75093

Click on a Virus

My wife went on WebMD yesterday, looking for information about a condition a relative might have. She went through the usual drill — typing the name of the condition into WebMD's "Search" field, and then reviewing the results to see where to click next.

WebMD links to outside sources of information as well as information they create, and they rank search results by some percentage/relevance algorythm. My wife picked one of the top two or three results. She got sent, instead, into one of those porn sites that opens two new windows every time you try to close one, each one more repulsive than the one before. She finally stopped the madness, but then a cartoon bubble popped up from the toolbar saying the computer had been infected with a virus.

I got on the computer this morning to see what was up. According to McAfee, a "medium-level worm" type of virus had infected our computer. McAfee could identify it, but could neither remove nor quarantine it.

After searching around, I found a scanner for this specific type of virus, and apparently that did the trick, although, as I write, McAfee is scanning my computer again, and has found some other area of infection that we didn't have before. So I'm not quite done yet.

Apart from having anti-virus software, to keep your computer free of viruses, the best practices are generally said to be — don't open attachments to e-mail from sources you don't know; don't open executable files. Right? My wife did neither of these things. She just clicked on an innocuous link. A link tagged with the name of a medical condition.

It could happen to her, it could happen to you. I don't know what advice to give you. Don't click in unfamiliar territory? But that's the whole point of the Internet. Distressing.

Dangerous Music*

beatles-half-faces.jpgThis summer marks the 40th anniversary of what is probably the most dangerous LP recorded during the classic rock era, the Beatles’ Revolver. With the whole world watching, the most popular group of musicians in history documented their complete rejection of everything conventional, in favor of drugs, exotic religious beliefs, chance-based musical and literary effects, and a kind of sleepy dissipation.

I’m no Jerry Falwell; I’m a huge fan of this wondrous album. But if you consider what came after, you have to credit Revolver with being the most influential cultural document of the 1960s. I can’t think of a book, a movie or any other pop music that so completely changed how millions of people in America and Europe looked at their world.

Revolver popularized what had previously been the underground philosophy and lifestyle of Beat Generation writers and existentialist philosophers — that the world was absurd, that consciousness was to be doubted, and that only sensual pleasure could be trusted. The anti-heroic sensibility. The rejected one who rejects all.

What could be more “Beat” than “I’m Only Sleeping?”

Everybody seems to think I’m lazy
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Till they find there’s no need

Please, don’t spoil my day, I’m miles away
And after all I’m only sleeping

Keeping an eye on the world going by my window
Taking my time

Lying there and staring at the ceiling
Waiting for a sleepy feeling…

The June 2006 issue of Mojo, a British pop music magazine, is dedicated to the Beatles and Revolver. The stories aren’t online, so you’ll have to search for it on dead tree — Borders usually carries it.  Geoff Emerick, who engineered the album, has recently published his autobiography, which contains descriptions of the innovative recording techniques that gave Revolver its psychedelic sheen.

According to Mojo, in 1966, while the group wrote and recorded Revolver, John, George and Ringo used LSD constantly. Paul eventually caught up, but at this particular point, he was still back on marijuana–and trying to learn what he could from members of London’s avant-garde art scene, who introduced him to “free jazz” musicians like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, atonal electronic music composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and the Beat author William Burroughs, who pioneered the “cut-up” technique, in which snips of text would be thrown to the floor then picked up and reassembled randomly.

These influences are present in the music on Revolver, but not on every cut. The tunes on songs like “For No One” “Got to Get You Into My Life” or “Taxman” are classic pop. But the album is imbued with the spirit of refusal and deconstruction. Why should words make sense? Why should music be planned? Why should I get out of bed?

revolver.jpgTeenage fans bought this album and played “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its overlapping tape loops and Buddhist-inspired lyrics; or “Eleanor Rigby” with its dry-eyed despair at the meaninglessness of ordinary life and thought…what? “Okay, that was fun. Now onto law school?” Certainly some did, but others apparently thought the ideas embodied in this music made more sense than what they were hearing from parents, teachers and political leaders.

The revolutionary movements of the 1960s were about letting go of the world, and the rules by which we live in the world. That’s the kind of revolution the Beatles sang about–and how incredibly influential they were!

Movies like “The Big Chill” or “Running on Empty,” try to tell you that the drama of the 1960s featured young idealists who wanted to create a new world based on social justice, but fell short because they grew up, went “straight,” and abandoned their ideals.

Listen again to Revolver, and you hear something entirely different and contrary to that myth. The revolutions of the 1960s were not so much about politics as they were about states of mind — the elevation of subjective truth above traditional wisdom. And, looking at the world around us, I’d have to say that revolution was a success — and it continues.

You’ve heard the quote, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts?” There’s a reason Gen. Barry McCaffery felt compelled to say that. For many in our society, subjective truth is now the higher truth. When did that idea begin to reach popular culture? I would argue Revolver was a major source.

The Los Angeles connection: One of the key Revolver songs, “She Said She Said,” was inspired, said John Lennon, by a comment made to him at a party in LA:

“That was written after an acid trip in L.A. during a break in the Beatles tour where we were having fun with the Byrds and lots of girls. Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming up to me and sitting next to me and whispering, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’ He was describing an acid trip he’d been on. We didn’t want to hear about that. We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing, and the whole thing was beautiful and Sixties, and this guy– who I really didn’t know– he hadn’t made ‘Easy Rider‘ or anything… kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him because he was so boring! And I used it for the song, but I changed it to ‘she’ instead of ‘he.’ It was scary… I don’t want to know what it’s like to be dead!”

*Edited and slightly expanded, 6/9/06