Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Time Magazine's Person of the Year




Sunday, December 14, 2008

Watching the Detectives/Walking on the Moon

From Elvis Costello's new teevee show.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Finanzeinsturz

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin R.I.P.



Edgy comic George Carlin dies at 71
by Dean Goodman

Comedian George Carlin, a counter-culture hero famed for his routines about drugs, dirty words and the demise of humanity, died of heart failure at a Los Angeles-area hospital on Sunday. He was 71.
Carlin, who had a history of heart and drug-dependency problems, died at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica about 6 p.m. PDT (9 p.m. EDT) after being admitted earlier in the afternoon for chest pains, spokesman Jeff Abraham told Reuters.
Known for his edgy, provocative material developed over 50 years, the bald, bearded Carlin achieved status as an anti-Establishment icon in the 1970s with stand-up bits full of drug references and a routine called "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." A regulatory battle over a radio broadcast of the routine ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the 1978 case, Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation, the top U.S. court ruled that the words cited in Carlin's routine were indecent, and that the government's broadcast regulator could ban them from being aired at times when children might be listening.
The Grammy-winning Carlin remained an active presence on the comedy circuit. Carlin was scheduled to receive the John F. Kennedy Center's prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in November and his publicist said Carlin performed in Las Vegas this month.
His comedic sensibility revolved around a central theme: humanity is a cursed, doomed species.
"I don't have any beliefs or allegiances. I don't believe in this country, I don't believe in religion, or a god, and I don't believe in all these man-made institutional ideas," he told Reuters in a 2001 interview.
Carlin told Playboy in 2005 that he looked forward to an afterlife where he could watch the decline of civilization on a "heavenly CNN."
"The world is a big theater-in-the round as far as I'm concerned, and I'd love to watch it spin itself into oblivion," he said. "Tune in and watch the human adventure."
AWARDS
Carlin wrote three best-selling books, won four Grammy Awards, recorded 22 comedy albums, headlined 14 HBO television specials, and hosted hundreds of variety shows. One was the first episode of "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, when he was high on cocaine.
Drug addiction plagued him for much of his life, beginning with marijuana experimentation as a teen, graduating to cocaine in the 1970s, and then to prescription painkillers and wine. During the cocaine years, Carlin ignored his finances and ended up owing about $3 million in back taxes. In 2004, he entered a Los Angeles rehab clinic for his alcohol and Vicodin abuse.
George Dennis Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, in New York City, where he was raised with an older brother by their single mother. He fondly recalled that the nuns at his school tolerated his early comedic inclinations.
After a brief, troubled stint in the U.S. Air Force, he started honing his comic act, developing such characters as Al Sleet, a "hippie-dippie weatherman."
Carlin told Playboy that his sensibilities developed in the 1950s, "when comedy stopped being safe ... (and) became about saying no to authority." He cited such influences as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Bob Newhart.
He also dabbled in movies and television, recently voicing a hippie Volkswagen bus named Fillmore in the Pixar cartoon "Cars."
Carlin is survived by his second wife Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; and brother Patrick. His first wife, Brenda, died of cancer in 1997. News of his death was first reported by the television show "Entertainment Tonight."
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Patricia Zengerle)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Fair and Balanced Tim Russert Obit


From Harper's:


A Fair and Balanced Tim Russert Obit
By
Ken Silverstein
Via the Daytona Beach News-Journal:
My sympathies go to Tim Russert’s family. My father died the same way: massive heart attack in the middle of the day, in the prime of his life (he was 46, Russert was 58). Shock doesn’t begin to describe the effect on those who stay behind. Try anger, try a sense of loss that, contrary to greeting-card drivel, never fades until, I expect, one’s own final collapse. Russert wasn’t family, but it’s fair to say, as the casket-lidded lines at the end of obituaries usually do, that his survivors include the 3 million viewers who tuned in every Sunday to watch “Meet the Press,” and even the procession of politicians who’ve been squirming their way through his show since 1991. Sadly for us, television personalities can seem closer to us than family members. Russert, however, never had that effect on me.
Respect for the man aside, there’s a matter of respecting journalism when assessing Russert’s place in the trade. That respect has been lacking in the almost universally fawning tributes to Russert and the craft he represented. Journalists and politicians from the president on down have formed yet another procession of praise and prostrations worthy of, say, Diana or Elvis. But Tim Russert?…
The truth is that on any night of the week Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” does more in a two-minute segment to show in politicians’ own words how venal, dishonest, contradictory and just plain dense they can be than Russert did in his Sunday services. Russert’s master was always the political structure he grilled, but never fundamentally questioned. You always knew whose side he was on: power, not truth — and, by power, I don’t mean his own, of which he had plenty, but the powerful men and occasional women he invited to his Versailles.
I mourn his death. But I wish I could mourn the death of the journalism he represented. To the detriment of journalism and malinformed citizens, that parody lives on.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Beatlemania!

I still don't understand why girls scream at concerts, but anyway...






Thursday, June 12, 2008

I've Been Googled and I Can't Get Up

From Atlantic Monthly:


"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?”
So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial »
brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson
has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.
But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”
The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”
As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”
The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.
The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.
The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.
About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.
More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”
Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.
The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.
Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”
Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?
Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.
Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s
Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).
The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.
So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”
I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

You Tell 'em, Jello...


I stu-stu-stutter.



From the Boston Phoenix:



As you may have heard,
conservative attack-radio douchebag Michael Savage went postal again the other day, responding to the news of Ted Kennedy's brain tumor by taking to the airwaves with a rant that once again revealed the vicious, inhuman gutlessness of this country's so-called silent majority -- students of the P. Diddy Institute for Higher Etymology would surely recognize this as a prime bit of bitch-assedness. First he played clips of Ted Kennedy singing, interspersed with (Kennedy in-law) Arnold Schwarzenegger's infamous "It's not a tumor" clip. "The poor guy's been suffering for years, you know?," Savage said of TK. "Unfairly he's been accused of alcoholism, but we see now that it was something much more deep-seated."
Then he did something even more unforgivable: he played Dead Kennedys' "California Uber Alles," compounding the sacrilege by actually singing along. (Click here for the full clip,
courtesy of MediaMatters.) A convergence of loony-fringe hatemongering and punk rock shibboleth-busting: is this where it all ends up?
We doubt that anyone would be ignorant enough to think that Savage is anything approximating an actual Jello Biafra fan, nor that anyone would be silly enough to think that Jello Biafra was in any way supportive of Savage. But we wanted to get Jello's thoughts on the matter anyway, so Phoenix Editor Lance Gould raised him on the phone. Here's what Jello had to say:


I haven't read the details yet, but I'm aware of what Michael Savage did. Obviously he took my song way the hell out of context and did it deliberately. But the bigger issue is Savage himself and how the hell he gets away with stuff like saying this, and saying that people with AIDS should be put in concentration camps. And then when people protest at the station, he calls on his own listeners to come down and beat them up.
It scares the shit out of me that the most popular radio talk-show hosts are all foaming-at-the-mouth, ultra-bigoted blabbermongers whom only North Korea or the Nazis could love.
But like it or not, Savage is the third-most popular radio-talk show host in this country behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Nobody from the other side is represented or promoted well enough by the big right-wing-owned radio networks to compete. That's one of the ways they mindfuck the country into being so dumb they vote for people like George Bush, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The real issue here is why aren't the big candidates calling for media reform? Once upon a time there was a law on the books called the Fairness Doctrine, and it said that if somebody like Savage or Limbaugh or that skull woman Ann Coulter said something completely fucked up and dishonest on the air, somebody else was allowed to come on the air and reply to them without being told to shut up every 15 seconds by a power clown like Bill O'Reilly. That law was on the books for 50 years but was allowed to expire in the late '80s when a Democratic-controlled congress failed to override President Reagan's veto of the law.
The damage was further compounded when your friend and mine Bill Clinton rammed through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, further deregulating how many radio stations and media outlets one corporation can own and what they can do with them and they greenlighted their long-held agenda to throw public interest out the window. And the volume and impact of the Rush Limbaughs and Michael Savages multiplied exponentially with nobody on the other side being allowed to reply. In large areas of rural and small town America, this is the only radio anyone is exposed to. That's the problem. We need to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. John Kerry had a golden opportunity to fire back at the Swift Boat liars and use that as a platform to rally the public to demand media reform. But true to form, he was too chickenshit to do it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Kinks -- Low Budget

"Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times."

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Friday, May 09, 2008

Nanotechnology


SEM (scanning electron microscope) image of a dust mite approaching a gear train. The gear train is microscopic in dimension, each gear tooth is smaller than a human red blood cell. The gear train is connected to a microscopic motor and acts much like the transmission in your car, but it is so small that you can not see it without the aid of advanced scientific microscopes. This device is an example of real things being made with nanotechnology.

Image Source: Sandia Labs [H/T: Norm]

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Suicide, eh?


Corrupt Politicians: 2 Hookers: 0


Police: Woman believed to be 'D.C. madam' kills herself
A woman police believe to be convicted Washington escort service operator Deborah Jeane Palfrey committed suicide, officials said Thursday.
Police said the body was found in a shed near Palfrey's mother's home Thursday morning. There was a suicide note, but police did not disclose its contents or how she killed herself.
Police said they were trying to confirm the woman's identity, but did not immediately have additional comment when reached by telephone. Palfrey's attorney, Preston Burton, did not return a telephone call and e-mail message.
The District of Columbia U.S. attorney's office, which spent years investigating and prosecuting Palfrey, was aware of the media reports and was awaiting confirmation from law enforcement, said spokeswoman Channing Phillips.
Police did not immediately have additional comment when reached by telephone. Palfrey's attorney, Preston Burton, did not return a telephone call and e-mail message.
Palfrey was convicted April 15 by a federal jury of running a prostitution service that catered to members of Washington's political elite, including Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican.
She had denied her escort service engaged in prostitution, saying that if any of the women engaged in sex acts for money, they did so without her knowledge.
She was convicted of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes and racketeering. Palfrey faced a maximum of 55 years in prison and was free pending her sentencing July 24.
Prosecutors said Palfrey operated the prostitution service for 13 years.
Her trial concluded without revealing many new details about the service or its clients. Vitter was among possible witnesses, but did not take the stand.
Vitter, a first-term senator who is married and has four children, has acknowledged being involved with Palfrey's escort service and has apologized for what he called a "very serious sin." But he avoided commenting further.
One of the escort service employees was former University of Maryland, Baltimore County, professor Brandy Britton, who was arrested on prostitution charges in 2006. She committed suicide in January before she was scheduled to go to trial. [Emphasis mine]
Last year, Palfrey said she, too, was humiliated by her prostitution charges, but said: "I guess I'm made of something that Brandy Britton wasn't made of."

Monday, April 21, 2008

So Much for the Information Age


Today's college students have tuned out the world, and it's partly our fault
by TED GUP
I teach a seminar called "Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge." I recently asked my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes and had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word "rendition."


Not one hand went up.


This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon.


I was dumbstruck. Finally one hand went up, and the student sheepishly asked if rendition had anything to do with a version of a movie or a play.


I nodded charitably, then attempted to define the word in its more public context. I described specific accounts of U.S. abductions of foreign citizens, of the likely treatment accorded such prisoners when placed in the hands of countries like Syria and Egypt, of the months and years of detention. I spoke of the lack of formal charges, of some prisoners' eventual release and how their subsequent lawsuits against the U.S. government were stymied in the name of national security and secrecy.


The students were visibly disturbed. They expressed astonishment, then revulsion. They asked how such practices could go on.


I told them to look around the room at one another's faces; they were seated next to the answer. I suggested that they were, in part, the reason that rendition, waterboarding, Guantánamo detention, warrantless searches and intercepts, and a host of other such practices have not been more roundly discredited. I admit it was harsh.


That instance was no aberration. In recent years I have administered a dumbed-down quiz on current events and history early in each semester to get a sense of what my students know and don't know. Initially I worried that its simplicity would insult them, but my fears were unfounded. The results have been, well, horrifying.
Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses — half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975. You get the picture, and it isn't pretty.


As a journalist, professor, and citizen, I find it profoundly discouraging to encounter such ignorance of critical issues. But it would be both unfair and inaccurate to hold those young people accountable for the moral and legal morass we now find ourselves in as a nation. They are earnest, readily educable, and, when informed, impassioned.


I make it clear to my students that it is not only their right but their duty to arrive at their own conclusions. They are free to defend rendition, waterboarding, or any other aspect of America's post-9/11 armamentarium. But I challenge their right to tune out the world, and I question any system or society that can produce such students and call them educated. I am concerned for the nation when a cohort of students so talented and bright is oblivious to all such matters. If they are failing us, it is because we have failed them.


Still, it is hard to reconcile the students' lack of knowledge with the notion that they are a part of the celebrated information age, creatures of the Internet who arguably have at their disposal more information than all the preceding generations combined. Despite their BlackBerrys, cellphones, and Wi-Fi, they are, in their own way, as isolated as the remote tribes of New Guinea. They disprove the notion that technology fosters engagement, that connectivity and community are synonymous. I despair to think that this is the generation brought up under the banner of "No Child Left Behind." What I see is the specter of an entire generation left behind and left out.
It is not easy to explain how we got into this sad state, or to separate symptoms from causes. Newspaper readership is in steep decline. My students simply do not read newspapers, online or otherwise, and many grew up in households that did not subscribe to a paper. Those who tune in to television "news" are subjected to a barrage of opinions from talking heads like CNN's demagogic Lou Dobbs and MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Fox's Bill O'Reilly and his dizzying "No Spin Zone." In today's journalistic world, opinion trumps fact (the former being cheaper to produce), and rank partisanship and virulent culture wars make the middle ground uninhabitable. Small wonder, then, that my students shrink from it.


Then, too, there is the explosion of citizen journalism. An army of average Joes, equipped with cellphones, laptops, and video cameras, has commandeered our news media. The mantra of "We want to hear from you!" is all the rage, from CNN to NPR; but, although invigorating and democratizing, it has failed to supplant the provision of essential facts, generating more heat than light. Many of my students can report on the latest travails of celebrities or the sexual follies of politicos, and can be forgiven for thinking that such matters dominate the news — they do. Even those students whose home pages open onto news sites have tailored them to parochial interests — sports, entertainment, weather — that are a pale substitute for the scope and sweep of a good front page or the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (which many students seem ready to pickle in formaldehyde).


Civics is decidedly out of fashion in the high-school classroom, a quaint throwback superseded by courses in technology. As teachers scramble to "teach to the test," civics is increasingly relegated to after-school clubs and geeky graduation prizes. Somehow my students sailed through high-school courses in government and social studies without acquiring the habit of keeping abreast of national and international events. What little they know of such matters they have absorbed through popular culture — song lyrics, parody, and comedy. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart is as close as many dare get to actual news.


Yes, the post-9/11 world is a scary place, and plenty of diversions can absorb young people's attention and energies, as well as distract them from the anxieties of preparing for a career in an increasingly uncertain economy. But that respite comes at a cost.


As a journalist, I have spent my career promoting transparency and accountability. But my experiences in the classroom humble and chasten me. They remind me that challenges to secrecy and opacity are moot if society does not avail itself of information that is readily accessible. Indeed, our very failure to digest the accessible helps to create an environment in which secrecy can run rampant.


It is time to once again make current events an essential part of the curriculum. Families and schools must instill in students the habit of following what is happening in the world. A global economy will have little use for a country whose people are so self-absorbed that they know nothing of their own nation's present or past, much less the world's. There is a fundamental difference between shouldering the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship — engagement, participation, debate — and merely inhabiting the land.


As a nation, we spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about illegal immigration and painfully little on what it means to be a citizen, beyond the legal status conferred by accident of birth or public processing. We are too busy building a wall around us to notice that we are shutting ourselves in. Intent on exporting democracy — spending blood and billions in pursuit of it abroad — we have shown a decided lack of interest in exercising or promoting democracy at home.


The noted American scholar Robert M. Hutchins said, decades ago: "The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens." He warned that "the death of a democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment." I fear he was right.


I tell the students in my secrecy class that they are required to attend. After all, we count on one another; without student participation, it just doesn't work. The same might be said of democracy. Attendance is mandatory.


Ted Gup is a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University and author of Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life (Doubleday, 2007).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jesse Ventura on Larry King

I didn't vote for him, and he said a lot of stupid things as Governor, but I sure agree with him here.

And here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Axes of Good

H/T: Pharyngula

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bill Laswell, Karsh Kale & others


Throughout three decades, Bill Laswell has been a constant innovator, fusing seemingly disparate genres into a whole new sound. Touching upon everything from worldbeat, funk, rock, hip-hop and jazz, there are no limits to his experimental approach. No matter what the project, one thing remains a constant - Laswell's pretty basslines provide a rhythm to which all sounds connect beautifully. The Grammy winner is one of the most prolific artists in modern music, fronting his own band Material and serving as producer, label owner and performer on other's albums. He has worked with many respected artists, including Herbie Hancock, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson. Among his many talents is his ability to bring together well-matched singers and players to create a distinct style that defies easy classification. His Soundstage episode embodies his unique approach, transcending any genre boundaries and delivering an engaging performance. From the World Beat of Tabla Beat Science, to the jazzy flavors of Pharoah Sanders backed by Material, it's an exciting mix. Other surprises include a rocking Buckethead set that includes a little breakdancing and songs by Praxis. The show culminates with an all-star performance, funked up by Bootsy Collins.







Part 2:





Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Family Values Party Lobbies For and Gets Extended Bar Hours


In its latest display of hypocrisy, the Grand Old Party, longtime defenders of wholesome Christian values, has lobbied for extended bar hours during its five-day visit to St. Paul later this summer. And in its latest display of spinelessness, the Democrat dominated Minnesota Legislature caved in to the demands.


Now, as frequent BDM readers know, I am totally in favor of laxer liquor laws, especially if it means increased revenue from out-of-towners. As DFL Representative and proposal co-sponsor Phyllis Kahn says, "Las Vegas is open all night long and New Orleans is open till dawn. I spend a lot of time in cities like New York and Montreal and they all seem to have later drinking times." But when harmless neighborhood watering holes have such a hard time keeping their liquor licenses, it seems odd to toss out the rules for a five-day political convention. Why not simply follow Kahn's reasoning all the time and let bars and liquor stores stay open as late as they like? What makes this decision even odder is that the political party for whom the rules are being bent is the notorious Family Values Party, home of this guy and this guy and this guy. I'll bet they wouldn't change the liquor laws for the Green Party. [Although rumor has it local & state police are going to lighten up on marijuana enforcement during the GOP convention in order to facilitate a more subdued protest atmosphere. ;-)]

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Cheap Trick Saturday

A Little Compendium of Cheap Trick Stuff



Cheap Trick drummer, Bun E. Carlos and Donnas drummer, Torry Castellano in a Target ad.




Guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson in a Commonwealth Edison commercial.



On the news in hometown, Rockford, Ill.


Live on Japanese TV.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thank You Mask Man

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ten Days That Changed Capitalism





Officials Improvised To Rescue Markets; Will It Be Enough?

March 27, 2008; Page A1
David Wessel
The past 10 days will be remembered as the time the U.S. government discarded a half-century of rules to save American financial capitalism from collapse.
On the Richter scale of government activism, the government's recent actions don't (yet) register at FDR levels. They are shrouded in technicalities and buried in a pile of new acronyms.
But something big just happened. It happened without an explicit vote by Congress. And, though the Treasury hasn't cut any checks for housing or Wall Street rescues, billions of dollars of taxpayer money were put at risk. A Republican administration, not eager to be viewed as the second coming of the Hoover administration, showed it no longer believes the market can sort out the mess.


"The Government of Last Resort is working with the Lender of Last Resort to shore up the housing and credit markets to avoid Great Depression II," economist Ed Yardeni wrote to clients.


First, over St. Patrick's Day weekend, the Fed (aka the Lender of Last Resort) and the Treasury forced the sale of Bear Stearns, the fifth-largest U.S. investment bank, to J.P. Morgan Chase at a price so low that a shareholder rebellion prompted J.P. Morgan to raise the price. To induce J.P. Morgan to do the deal, the Fed agreed to take losses or gains, if any, on up to $29 billion of securities in Bear Stearns's portfolio. The outcome will influence the sum the Fed turns over to the Treasury, so this is taxpayer money; that's why the Fed sought Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's OK.
Then the Fed lent directly to Wall Street securities firms for the first time. Until now, the Fed has lent directly only to Main Street banks, those that take deposits from ordinary folks. That's because banks were viewed as playing a unique economic role and, supposedly, were more closely regulated than other types of lenders. In the first three days of this new era, securities firms borrowed an average of $31.3 billion a day from the Fed. That's not small change, and it's why Mr. Paulson, after the fact, is endorsing changes to give the Fed more access to these firms' books.
Increased Leverage
In the days that followed, the Republican Treasury secretary leaned on two shareholder-owned, though government-chartered, companies -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- to raise capital that their boards didn't want to raise. In exchange, their government regulator allowed them to increase their leverage so they can buy about $200 billion more in mortgage-backed securities.
So Fannie and Freddie will get bigger, a welcome development when mortgage markets are in trouble. Already, they have regained lost market share. They accounted for 76% of new mortgages in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 46% in the second quarter, Mr. Paulson said Wednesday. But everyone knows that if Fannie or Freddie stumble, taxpayers will get stuck with the tab.
And then, the federal regulator of the low-profile Federal Home Loan Banks, which are even less well capitalized than Fannie and Freddie, said they could buy twice as many Fannie and Freddie-blessed mortgage-backed securities as previously permitted -- more than $100 billion worth.
Was this necessary? It's messy, uncomfortable and undoubtedly flawed in many details. Like firefighters rushing to a five-alarm fire, policy makers are making mistakes that will be apparent only in retrospect.
Too Great to IgnoreBut, regardless of how we got here, the clear and present danger that the virus in the housing, mortgage and credit markets is infecting the overall economy is too great to ignore. The Great Depression was worsened because the initial government reaction was wrong-headed. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spent an academic career learning how to avoid repeating those mistakes.
Is it working? It is helping. One key measure is the gap between interest rates on mortgages and safe Treasury securities. A wide gap means high mortgage rates, which hurt an already sickly housing market. A lot of recent activity, including Wednesday's previously planned auction in which the Fed is trading Treasurys for mortgage-backed securities, is aimed at increasing demand for those securities to drive down mortgage rates.
The gap remains enormous by historical standards, but has narrowed. On March 6, according to FTN Financial, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages were trading at 2.92 percentage points above the relevant Treasury rates; Wednesday the gap was down to 2.22. Normal is about 1.5 percentage points. Money markets are still under stress, as banks and others hoard cash and super-safe short-term Treasurys.
Is it enough? Probably not. Although it's hard to know, the downward tug on the overall economy from falling house prices persists. The next step, if one proves necessary, is almost sure to require the explicit use of taxpayer money.
Cushion the Blow
The case for doing more is twofold. One is to cushion the blow to families and communities, even if some are culpable. The other is to disrupt a dangerous downward spiral in which falling prices of houses and mortgage-backed securities lead lenders to pull back, hurting the economy and dragging asset prices down further, and so on.
In ordinary times, a capitalist economy lets prices -- such as those of homes, mortgage-backed securities and stocks -- fall to the point where the big-bucks crowd rushes in, hoping to make a killing. But if the big money remains on the sidelines, unpersuaded that a bottom is near, the wait for bargain hunters to take the plunge could be very long and very painful.So the next step, no matter how it is dressed up, is likely to involve the government's moving in ways that put a floor under prices, hoping that will limit the downside risks enough so more Americans are willing to buy homes and deeper-pocketed investors are willing, in effect, to lend them the money to do so.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter








Friday, March 21, 2008

Secret Theocratic Organization Infiltrates the Government


From Alternet:



Meet 'The Family'
by Anthony Lappé, Guerrilla News Network

Posted on June 13, 2003

Printed on March 21, 2008

http://www.alternet.org/story/16167/
It sounded like a reality show on the PAX network: Six conservative politicians living in a DC townhouse owned by a fundamentalist Christian organization. What happens when you stop being polite and start finding Jesus?
In April, the AP broke the story that six U.S. congressmen were paying the bargain rate of $600 a month each to live together in a swanky DC townhouse owned by a secretive fundamentalist Christian group known as the Fellowship or the Foundation. Many, understandably, were curious. Who is this organization, and what is its agenda?
The group, the AP reported, is best known for holding the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the White House, which offers scores of national and international heavy hitters the opportunity to praise God in close proximity to the President. In the article, the congressmen boarding at the house denied owing any allegiance to the group, and several professed ignorance of even the most basic facts about the organization. Little else was reported about the group's history, motives or backers.
There is a reason for that. The Fellowship is one of the most secretive, and most powerful, religious organizations in the country. Its connections reach to the highest levels of the U.S. government and include ties to the CIA and numerous current and past dictators around the world.
Last month, Harper's magazine published
a rather extraordinary article by Jeffrey Sharlet, editor of the irreverent web site killingthebuddha.com and co-author of the upcoming Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (Free Press). The piece chronicled Sharlet's three-week semi-undercover stay at Ivanwald, the Fellowship's mansion:
Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, Virginia, is known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the organization that sponsors it, a group of believers who refer to themselves as "the Family." The Family is, in its own words, an "invisible" association, though its membership has always consisted mostly of public men. Senators Don Nickles (R., Okla.), Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), Pete Domenici (R., N.Mex.), John Ensign (R., Nev.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.), Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), and Conrad Burns (R., Mont.) are referred to as "members," as are Representatives Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Joseph Pitts (R., Pa.), Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.), and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.).
Regular prayer groups have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family maintains a closely guarded database of its associates, but it issues no cards and collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities. The organization has operated under many guises, some active, some defunct: National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, the National Leadership Council, Fellowship House, the Fellowship Foundation, the National Fellowship Council, the International Foundation. These groups are intended to draw attention away from the Family, and to prevent it from becoming, in the words of one of the Family's leaders, "a target for misunderstanding."
The Family's only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February in Washington, D.C. Each year 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations, pay $425 each to attend. Steadfastly ecumenical, too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can "meet Jesus man to man."
If this all sounds like something out of a conspiracy theorist's wet dream (or paranoid nightmare), you're right. Sharlet's account of his three weeks of "man to man" interaction can only be described as disturbing and downright bizarre. In fact, it was so creepy many accused him of making the whole thing up.
So what did Sharlet find?
GNN: You went undercover into this house. Who were you posing as and what were you trying to find?
SHARLET: Actually, I was posing as myself. I write about religion. A friend said go check it out, it's an interesting place. I went not knowing the politics. Within a few days I began to see things were not at all what I expected. This was connected to a pretty vast political network. Still it was quite a pleasant place to live. These people had a different approach than I did, but I was interested in learning. As time went on I started hearing more and more disturbing talk.
That's when I started keeping my ears open. I didn't go in undercover, but I suppose I left undercover. But I told them who I was, I never told a lie.
GNN: Some people have called your story a hoax.
SHARLET: I've got lots of letters from people saying this has got to be a hoax, or please tell me it's a hoax or curiously from people who know a little too much to be saying the things they were saying.
GNN: What are some this group's core ideas and what level of secrecy is involved here?
SHARLET: The goal is an "invisible" world organization led by Christ -- that's what they aspire to. They are very explicit about this if you look in their documents, and I spent a lot of time researching in their archives. Their goal is a worldwide invisible organization. That's their word, and that's important because it sounds so crazy.
What they mean when they say "a world organization led by Christ" is that literally you just sit there and let Christ tell you what to do. More often than not that leads them to a sort of paternalistic benign fascism. There are a lot of places that they've done good things, and that's important to acknowledge. But that also means they might be involved with General Suharto in Indonesia and if that means that God leads him to kill half a million of his own citizens then, well, it would prideful to question God leading them.
GNN: Who are these guys, and how many are there?
SHARLET: The only estimate was made by Charles Colson, Nixon's chief dirty tricks guy who went on to become the head of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Right before he went to prison the founder [of the Fellowship] Doug Coe turned him on to Christ. Colson said there are about 20,000 people involved in the U.S. But you aren't really supposed to talk about it.
I always say to interviewers, "This is not a conspiracy." There's no secret badge or anything. It's much looser. This is how the vast right-wing conspiracy works, by being associates, friends.
GNN: But they speak of themselves as operating in terrorist-like cells.
SHARLET: Yes, they do. Inside your cell, you might know six or eight guys.
Let me give you a real quick history. In 1935, Abraham Vereide starts it. By the 1940s he has about a third of Congress attending a weekly prayer meeting. In the mid-50s, he gets Eisenhower's support.
[According to a 2002 Los Angeles Times article, during the 1950's Vereide played a major role in the U.S. government's anti-communist activities: "Pentagon officials secretly met at the group's Washington Fellowship House in 1955 to plan a worldwide anti-communism propaganda campaign endorsed by the CIA, documents from the Fellowship archives and the Eisenhower Presidential Library show. Then known as International Christian Leadership, the group financed a film called 'Militant Liberty' that was used by the Pentagon abroad." Showing Faith in Discretion, Lisa Getter, The Los Angeles Times, Sep 27, 2002]
It's sort of stabilized now. By the mid-60's, they sort of realized they didn't want too many people. Too many people dilute the organization.
One scene I saw was Congressman Todd Tiahrt, Republican from Kansas, who seemed as if he was interviewing to be in the organization. He was very nervous. The leader of the organization was asking him questions, sort of leaning back and testing him. I think he wanted into this network, and he would fumble a little by talking about abortion. They don't really care about abortion. They are against it but they aren't really concerned about it.
GNN: What are their core issues then?
SHARLET: The core issue is capitalism and power. The core issue they would say, is love. There are a lot of different things love means. They will always work with both sides of the issue. I saw some correspondence with Chinese officials before Deng Xiao Ping was in power. They had some very clandestine associations with senior Chinese officials, and were told Deng was a guy they could do business with. So that was fine with them.
GNN: When you say 'do business,' was it all about actual business deals?
SHARLET: I wouldn't say it was all about business deals. But if you happened to be praying with someone and you were done praying and said, "Hey, I have some F-16s to sell..." They would deny there is any connection.
They are pretty careful about those kinds of things. They will never say, "We are out here to help set you up in business." They will always help out their friends. "Let me introduce you to someone. The Prime Minister of Malaysia is coming."
GNN: It sounds to me like some sort of extended Skull and Bones, an Old Boys Network crafted onto a religious context.
SHARLET: The religious context is real. The Old Boys Network is about business. This is about more than business. This is about maintaining a certain kind of power, a certain view of how power should be distributed. The Episcopalian Old Boys Network was a lot more easygoing than this. This is a lot more militaristic. Really at its fundamental core, almost monarchist. We would be told time and time again, "Christ's kingdom is not a democracy" This is their model for leadership. They would often say, "Everything you need to know about government is right there in the cross - it's vertical not horizontal."
GNN: In that vein, reading your article I got the impression they are praising guys like Adolph Hitler and Ghengis Khan -- a lot. Is that a fair assessment of your intention?
SHARLET: In fact, Harpers made me cut back on that stuff. [They said] 'We know it's true, but this is already so much to absorb.' That's why I included that line at the end of the story. The leader of the group is having dinner with the younger members of that group and is talking about the bond, the covenant. And he says, "Can anyone think of someone who had a covenant?" And the answer, of course, and everyone knows it, is "Hitler."
This goes back to the 1960's, Vereide was instructing young men by having them read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich -- "Look at what those guys did." But they will say, "We are not trying to kill Jews." What we are talking about is imagine if you took the "Hitler Concept," and they'll use that phrase, the Hitler Concept, to work for Christ, or the Mao Concept. We're not right wingers, they'll say. You can use the Mao Concept.
GNN: Define what they mean by Hitler Concept.
SHARLET: A loyal leadership cadre, which is interesting because guys like Hitler and Stalin were famous for purging, but they seem to focus on a couple of guys. "If two or three agree" is a phrase they use a lot. If you can get together and focus you can accomplish anything. You don't need to sway the electorate. You don't need to convert everyone to Christ. Everyone doesn't have to believe in Christ, and that's where they differ from other fundamentalists. Some fundamentalists really distrust them for that. [They say] "We need to convert everyone, the high and the low." The Family says, "No we don't need the high." All these guys Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden is another guy they cite a lot, are guys who understood the power of a political avant garde. That's what they mean by the Hitler Concept. Also keeping your message simple, and repeating it again and again because there is only one message and it is "Jesus Loves." You can express lots of different things with that term.
I always try to play the devil's advocate. They are not the traditional right wing bad guys. They have been able to do what they do for so long because no one has been looking for this kind of thing.
A lot of this is already in the culture, take [the book] "Ghengis Khan Business Secrets," for instance, the admiration authoritarian leaders.
GNN: Here's where I'm confused. To me they sound like Nietzsche. They don't sound like Jesus Christ. They sound like they are creating the Nietzschean superman above the moral universe the rest of us slaves live in.
SHARLET: I don't think I mention Nietzsche in the article, do I?
GNN: I don't think so.
SHARLET: That's really perceptive of you. Many of them love Nietzsche. They think he's fascinating.
GNN: But he hated Christianity. He was the ultimate amoralist.
SHARLET: I know it's weird. There is one really wacky fundamentalist group that thinks Doug Coe could be the Anti-Christ. They're not sure yet, they might need to shave his head and see if he has the mark of the beast.
They have gotten into trouble with a lot of evangelical groups. They invited Yasser Arafat to the National Prayer Breakfast.
They've boasted, and I don't know if it's true, that they had special permission from the State Department to bring anyone they wanted to the Cedars, that they'd brought some Sudanese on the terrorist list to their mansion headquarters and they'd love to get Osama bin Laden down there.
GNN: But where does Christ fit into all of this? This seems like a lot of Old Testament stuff, not the new [Testament], meek-shall-inherit-the-earth Jesus part.
SHARLET: That's an interesting point. For them, Jesus is just a regular guy, a buddy, a guide, the standard evangelical stuff, no sex. It's sort of a weird hipster puritanical view. If you met them you wouldn't think they were uptight.
GNN: Actually, they sound like complete homophobes to me.
SHARLET: They definitely think homosexuality is a sin.
GNN: But they seem like they can't stand women.
SHARLET: They're just not that interested. It's a very gendered point of view. Jesus is everywhere. Jesus is right there with you on the basketball court.
But at the upper levels there is this weird emphasis on the Old Testament. It's in the story, they talk about King David, who in some ways was a really bad guy. They are really interested in the biblical concept that whether you are good or bad it doesn't matter, what matters is whether you are chosen. That's part of the Hitler Concept. It doesn't matter whether Hitler was good or bad, Hitler was chosen for leadership. That was part of God's plan. Nothing happens that isn't part of God's plan.
GNN: Let's cut to this house where these six congressmen are living on C Street in DC. What is the connection, if any, to the Bush Administration? The White House seems to have its own relationship to religion and people who are influencing them on religious issues. Is there a relationship here?
SHARLET: Yes, though I will say it is not exclusively Democrat or Republican. They say there are six guys at the C Street house, there were eight when I was there. They say there is one for members of Parliament in England, and I think there are similar ones in other capitals. The house is constantly rotating. Steve Largent used to live there. John Elias Baldacci, a conservative Democrat who is now the governor of Maine. As for the Bush connection, there is Ashcroft. I discovered in their archives a correspondence between Ashcroft and Coe that began in 1981. Al Gore at one time referred to Doug Coe as his personal hero, which is easy to believe. Doug Coe is an incredibly charming man.
The Bushes have visited the Cedars many times, but all presidents have. Bush Sr. when he was Vice President was hosting dinners for Middle Eastern ambassadors there. There are going to be people at all levels.
GNN: When you say someone "is a part of it" what does that mean? Are you in or out, or is it a loose thing?
SHARLET: It's a loose thing. But there are levels of participation.
GNN: Are they codified like the Masons or something?
SHARLET: There is an inner core group that is codified in their documents, called the Core. I don't know who is in it other than Doug Coe. The documents I saw only went up to the late 80's with senators, congressmen, and a lot of military men. Before he died, Senator Harold Huges was Core. Former Senator Mark Hatfield used to be Core, and may still be. In the AP article, there is an Air Force officer who I hadn't known about. Then there are associates, usually about 150 associates and they are the key individuals in their areas, and then there are the people who are in a cell with an associate and they are very close. And then there are close friends. Senator James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, is frequently, for instance, referred to as a close friend. President Museveni of Uganda is a close friend. There is no membership card. In all of their letters there is a paragraph that says this is a private, confidential relationship and we don't talk about it when they are recruiting a new person into the group.
GNN: Are there formal events and meetings, other than this national prayer breakfast?
SHARLET: There are literally thousands of governors', mayors', prayer breakfasts around the country. Some of those probably launched forty, fifty years ago and have long since lost their connection to the mothership, as it were. But that's the idea. They're part of the movement. The system is in place, that we should turn to God to make all our decisions. Up until the 1970's, they had Core meetings around the world, but that's as far as I saw in the documents.
GNN: So how scared are you of this group? Are they a force for fascism or some sort of cult-like group with big connections that comes and goes?
SHARLET: I think they are definitely a force for fascism. I think a lot of the way the world looks is a result of their work. They were instrumental in getting U.S. government support for General Suharto, for the generals' juntas in Brazil. Just take those two countries alone, they are two of the biggest countries on Earth. Those countries might have been progressive democracies a long time ago had it not been for U.S. support for those regimes ...
GNN: But don't you think the CIA and the U.S. government's own agenda had a lot to do with those decisions?
SHARLET: Yeah, but they made those connections.
GNN: What are the connections between the CIA and the Fellowship?
SHARLET: A lot of their key men in a country would be the intelligence officers in the American embassy. Throughout their correspondence, that's the kind of guy they would like to have involved. They always had a lot of Army intelligence guys involved, Pentagon guys.
Doug Coe in the early 70's was touring the frontlines in Vietnam with intelligence officers and South Vietnamese generals. That's the level of connections they are talking about, like the Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova [convicted by a Florida jury for the torture of thousands] and Honduran general Gustavo Alvarez Martinez [a minister also linked to the CIA and death squads]. They are the people who brought those people in. They said you need to meet this person. That's how it works.
Their diplomacy can affect some good things, like the truce in Rwanda. They had a lot of connections with the South African [apartheid] regime, where they were generally a moderate, even a progressive force. But it's kinda hard to name a nasty regime around the world that doesn't have really well-documented connections to them. Franco was a hold-out. So they started winning over a bunch of ministers in the Franco regime and then they went to Franco and said this is a good group, we can do business with them.
GNN: Why hasn't there been more mainstream press on this?
SHARLET: Lisa Getter of The Los Angeles Times, a Pulitzer prize winning investigative reporter, did a piece on it, but there was no follow-up. I got a little press out of it when my article came out. There is a big reason there hasn't been a lot of press about it and that's the war. On the other hand, and this isn't a conspiracy theory, if they can't see it then it's not there. I mean if you read that your local congressman is sitting there saying Hitler is a leadership model, the local paper should at the very least call up and say, "Congressman Tiahrt do you believe Hitler is a good leadership model?" If he had said, "Noam Chomsky is a great philosopher" then there'd be an investigation in a minute.
Why they are not following up on it? I don't know. Partly because it's so crazy, and partly because there is this idea that religion and politics are separate and religion is a personal thing. The media has always been pretty dumb when it comes to religion. In the New Yorker profile of John Ashcroft they talk about his weekly prayer breakfast, Steve Largent, [former congressman from Oklahoma] in The New York Times, same deal. I think they interviewed him while he was living at the house. The reporter never asked, "Hey, how did you get involved in this? Is this something that existed before you?" The reporter sort of implied it was Largent's idea for the weekly prayer breakfasts.
It hasn't been that secret. The New Republic did an expos� in the late 60's, early 70's, and no one really followed up. Robert Scheer did a piece on it in Playboy in the 1970's.
GNN: Any fallout from the members?
SHARLET: I've talked to several who swear we are still friends.
One guy did say, I'm paraphrasing, 'You're a traitor and you'll be dealt with as a traitor.'




Anthony Lappé is Excutive Editor of GNN.tv. He has written for The New York Times, New York, Details, and Salon, among many others.
© 2008 Guerrilla News Network All rights reserved.View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/16167/

Thursday, March 20, 2008

R.I.P., Arthur C. Clarke



"The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion."

-- Arthur C. Clarke, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! : Collected Essays, 1934-1998 (1999), p. 360


"Finally, I would like to assure my many Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim friends that I am sincerely happy that the religion which Chance has given you has contributed to your peace of mind (and often, as Western medical science now reluctantly admits, to your physical well-being). Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide whether we have any future."

-- Arthur C. Clarke, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)