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Undernews For December 6, 2010

Undernews For December 6, 2010

Since 1964, the news while there's still time to do something about it

Huckabee's housing policy
The Arkansas Times reports Mike Huckabee and his wife are building a $3 million home in Florida and that they're taking on a $2.8 million mortgage.
Fun numbers
William Gale, head of the Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institution, tells CBS News that federal taxes are actually "at their lowest levels in 60 years."

0.3% Percent of Wikileaks documents that have been released
Obama defines sin
When he was running for the Senate in 2004, Obama was interviewed about his religious views by Chicago Sun Times columnist Cathleen Falsani. The most curious exchange was this:

Do you believe in sin?


What is sin?

Being out of alignment with my values.
Obama flips and flops on pot
California Watch - The Obama administration has warned Oakland over the licensing of four giant pot farms, saying the plan is in violation of state and federal law and could trigger multiple legal actions against the city. Officials from the Justice Department’s civil division and the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco delivered the blunt message to Oakland City Attorney John Russo, according to two officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to talk about the meetings. “The warning is clear: These are illegal, large-scale pot growing operations, with Oakland planning to get a cut of the illicit profits,” said one official. . .

Even though pot remains illegal under federal law, the Obama Administration has taken a hands-off approach to California's medical marijuana operators so long as they are in unambiguous compliance with state law. However, after closely studying the Oakland plan some federal officials have concluded the ordinance violates state law because it treats pot farms as distinct business entities for tax purposes, thus severing the direct connection between cultivator and patient that underpins the legal standing of a medical marijuana collective or cooperative.
Planes more dangerous than terrorists
The odds of dying on an airplane as a result of a terrorist hijacking are less than 1 in 25 million ¬ which, for all intents and purposes, is effectively zero ¬ according to Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. By comparison, the odds of dying in a normal airplane crash, according to the OAG Aviation Database, are 1 in 9.2 million. This means that, on average, pilots are responsible for more deaths than terrorists. In the same vein, the average American is 87 times more likely to drown than die by a terrorist attack; 50 times more likely to die by lightening; and 8 times more likely to die by a police officer, according to the National Safety Council’s 2004 estimates. I can go on, the point is this: the risk of a terrorist attack is so infinitesimal and its impact so relatively insignificant that it doesn’t make rational sense to accept the suspension of liberty for the sake of avoiding a statistical anomaly.- Evan DeFilippis, Oklahoma Daily
What a Washinton tea party looks like
After Francisco "Quico" Canseco beat Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.) as part of the Republican wave on Nov. 2, the tea party favorite declared: "It's going to be a new day in Washington." Two weeks later, Canseco was in the heart of Washington for a $1,000-a-head fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club. The event--hosted by Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.)--was aimed at paying off more than $1.1 million in campaign debts racked up by Canseco, much of it from his own pocket. - Washington Post
Flotsam & Jetsam: At a loss for words
Sam Smith

One of the beats that I have found myself covering over the past few decades has been cultural, political and ecological entropy, enervation, eradication, and extinction. Beyond the cataclysmic – such as climate change or the end of the First American Republic – there has also been dysfunctional devolvement in little corners of former joy such as the decline in music of melody, interesting chords, dynamics and rhythmic variety. Even Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of the 50 best songs found only 4% of them from the past 30 years but 58% from the 1960s.

Still, I have harbored childlike faith that certain things still mattered even if the evidence suggested otherwise. One of these illusions has been that words still have a purpose beyond selling something, creating a vaudevillian slapstick response, expressing anger or causing some other exaggerated and often insincere emotional display.

But the other day I found myself forced to face reality. The editor of a newspaper I have long admired, Britain’s Guardian, gave a lengthy speech that included words of high praise for a new literary genre:

It is, said Alan Rusbridger, an “amazing form. . . a highly effective way of spreading ideas. . . changes the tone of writing.” It harnesses “the mass capabilities of humans” to provide information that is "new, valuable, relevant or entertaining” and encourages "people who can say things crisply and entertainingly.”

I am sorry to report that he was speaking of Twitter.

Rusbridger was no less enthusiastic about the Internet as a whole:

“I want to discuss the possibility that we are living at the end of a great arc of history, which began with the invention of moveable type. There have, of course, been other transformative steps in communication during that half millennium – the invention of the telegraph, or radio and television, for instance – but essentially they were continuations of an idea of communication that involved one person speaking to many.

“That's not dead as an idea. But what's happening today – the mass ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through a traditional intermediary – is truly transformative.”

There was in his speech no hint that he had noticed that, since the Internet was born, countries like Britain and the U.S. have moved demonstrably to the right, away from freedom of speech and towards an increasingly state and corporate defined language and thought. Was the Internet to blame? Perhaps not, but certainly and sadly it has proved no great engine of political or intellectual liberation.

And what about the atomization of individuals that has occurred during the computer age? Teenagers don’t even drive as much because many are just as happy simply texting each other. Is that better than sitting around in a room gabbing with one another? It hardly seems a transformative step in communications.

To be sure, I use Twitter regularly. And far from being anti-technological, I was one of the first of my crowd to own a phone answering machine. I was co-editor of my high school’s first photo offset yearbook. I was one of the first reporters in Washington to use a battery operated tape recorder, the Review was part of the 1960s photo offset alternative press revolution and it went on the Web in 1995, less than five years after its creation. I sometimes explain my longevity in the trade to the fact that technology has improved steadily in inverse proportion to my own deterioration.

But along the way, I learned something important: not all technology is your friend. Some of it makes your life better, some is just fun to play with, and some pretends to be something that it really isn’t. Sort of like people, when you come to think of it.

And it can vary by who's using it. For example, I don't need to travel much, so I have little desire for an IPhone which, when all is said and done, accomplishes far less than what I can do at my desk - especially with five personally programmed buttons on a Logitech XM Revolution wireless mouse instead of having to punch keys or symbols a third the size of my thumbs. For someone on the road all the time, it's a different story but for me an IPhone would slow me down.

Similarly, one of the things that I find odd about Twitter - and its slightly more wordy cousin, Facebook - is that when I first started playing with computers, such as an 8k Atari, I found that they were mainly useful for killing time. Once you tired of games and started dreaming of something truly useful, you were flummoxed by minimal memory and other technical limitations.

That soon changed. In fact, the remarkable history of the computer as a consumer item has been a progression from simple games to a once unimaginable infinity of choices.

That is, until Mark Zuckenberg came along. One of the things both fascinating and frustrating about both Twitter and Facebook is that they have many of the same limitations of early computers, only these now stem not from undeveloped technology but from overdeveloped corporate intent.

As one Facebook user complained:

There is a messaging limit
There is a search limit
There is a friend limit
There is a group limit
There is a poking limit
There is a wall posting limit

There is a 420 character limit on Facebook status updates and the only virtue that can be found in this is that it is three and a half times more than Twitter's limit.

Rusbridger may consider this a step forward in human development but it is essentially reducing everything to the length of a thirty second commercial.

Besides, how transformative would our history have been if we had had to rely on the likes of:

"AbeLin32 - Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liber. . . ."

"JayHover - I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any ot. . . "

Typically, nothing that tantalizing turns up on Facebook or Twitter when I check them. Instead I stare at the incomprehensible, the obscure, the self-indulgent, and the morose - lightly seasoned with the informative, funny and profound.

Sometimes the latter makes the former worth wandering through, but on most days I find myself getting fatigued before I can even click on "Older Posts."

On the other hand, I daily check around 2000 headlines on Google Reader, selected from publications of interest, and I never surrender the task, being ever enticed by the chance that a major story lies concealed just one page down.

The reason, I suspect, is that Google Reader is a catalog of that most venerable predecessor of Facebook and Twitter: the headline. Succinct literary candy luring the reader into further exploration.

What the headline writer had for lunch, or how the house painting is coming along or how well she just did in Three Towers Solitare is not part of the headline trade, for which generations of readers have unknowingly been blessed.

And it is not accidental. The good headline writer thinks first about the readers, ensnaring them into an article through succinct data, compressed ideas or even bad humor.

Thus the recent headline about NASA's loss of film from the first moon landing: "Small Step For Man; Giant Gaffe For NASA."

Sometimes it can accidentally get out of hand, as when a Florida newspaper ran a head about a kidnapping: "Police Hold Tongue In Widow's Snatch."

One of my own best contributions was when I was editing a paper on Capitol Hill and wrote a story about reaction to a local movie theater that had just moved into the porn business: "Neighbors Want Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Not Nitty Gritty Gang Bang."

I also went through a period of writing light verse - again an act of voluntary verbal compression - and so am not opposed on principle to space limitations - but I have also learned that rationed writing is actually far more difficult than unregulated rambling, and to have 500 million people doing the latter on the same site can be a little hard to take. To make it work you have to approach it as haiku and not random dump of one's brain.

According to an report by the market research firm Pear Analytics, Facebook is composed of 40% pointless babble, 38% conversation, 9% matters of pass along value, 6% self promotion, 4% spam and 4% news. That's a lot of words and bad images to rummage through to find something worthwhile.

(Social networking researcher Dannah Boyd has argued that the "pointless babble" should really be called "social grooming" or "peripheral awareness" by those wanting "to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling, even when co-presence isn’t viable.")

While Twitter, Facebook (or Dannah Boyd, for that matter) are not helping us use words well, neither are they the only cause of our problems.

For example, a few years ago I wrote:

|||| Consider this 2005 report from Lois Romano in the Washington Post: "Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as 'proficient' in prose -- reading and understanding information in short texts -- down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient -- compared with 40 percent in 1992."

Or this 2004 report from the NEA: "A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports drops in all groups studied, with the steepest rate of decline - 28 percent - occurring in the youngest age groups. The study also documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade. . .

"Literary reading declined among whites, African Americans and Hispanics. . . By age, the three youngest groups saw the steepest drops, but literary reading declined among all age groups. The rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 18 to 24, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population. . .

"Reading also affects lifestyle, the study shows. Literary readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than are non-readers. For example, literary readers are nearly three times as likely to attend a performing arts event, almost four times as likely to visit an art museum, more than two-and-a-half times as likely to do volunteer or charity work, and over one-and-a-half times as likely to attend or participate in sports activities. People who read more books tend to have the highest level of participation in other activities."

The New English Review adds:

"Carol Iannone, citing a National Endowment for the Arts survey, reports 'For the first time in modern history less than half the adult population of the United States had read even a bit of poetry, fiction or drama in the entire year. While in 1982, almost 57 percent of Americans were literary readers' - those who read literature on their own, not for school or work - that percentage had shrunk to less than 47 percent in 2002.'" ||||

In short, regardless of Facebook or Twitter, America is losing its literacy.

It is perhaps some comfort to remember that literacy has been widely enjoyed only for a short portion of human history. According to one study, for example, the illiteracy rate in France dropped from nearly 70% in the early 18th century to less than 10% in the late 19th century - over a period of approximately 160 years. In the hundred years before 1970, the America illiteracy rate dropped from 20% to 1%

And while the results were even better elsewhere - in Sweden the ability to read approached 100% by the end of the 18th century, that often didn't include writing. As late as 1841, 33% of men and 44% of women in England signed marriage certificates with a mark because they didn't know how to write their names.

In a happier place and a happier time we would treat our few centuries of growing literacy as something to cherish, expand and pass on. Instead, as in too many other ways, we seem to be slipping backwards. And even the editor of the Guardian is cheering us on, declaring the mundane to be magic, the trite to be tumultuous and our future resting on an ability to slash ideas and information down to 120 characters with a few dots of ellipsis added as a concession the hopelessly verbose.

On the whole, I'd rather watch YouTube.
As we were saying. . .
As for Harvard suit and establishment toy boy Obama, just remember that this is a guy who is such a coward that he was afraid to vote for a limit of 30% on credit card usury. - Progressive Review, 2007
Cliche challenge
Our update of the top overused words . has Twitter beating Facebok for the top spot, followed by blog, change, Google, inappropriate, awesome, absolutely, shit, and infrastructure.
Morning line
The Obama administration has, in its assault on Wikileaks, launched the greatest government censorship since World War II. It, along with some private institutions such as Columbia University, has threatened citizens if they even read matter in media that is constitutionally protected.

Part of the problem is that the Obamites are control freaks, but beyond that we suspect they greatly fear the content of future releases since nothing published so far explains their hysterical reaction. Stay tuned and remember, as we noted some years back, that the greatest poltical division on our planet is between the peoples of the world and their governments. - Progressive Review
Death of freelance music in New York City
NY Times - Night after night highly trained players traipse from Washington Heights or the Upper West Side or northern New Jersey or Long Island to play church jobs and weddings, Lincoln Center and Broadway summer festivals and fill-in jobs at the Met and the Philharmonic. They occupy the ranks of a dozen freelance orchestras, put the music in Broadway musicals and provide soundtracks ¬ or at least they used to ¬ for Hollywood and Madison Avenue. They form the bedrock of musical life in a great cultural capital.

It was a good living. But the New York freelance musician ¬ a bright thread in the fabric of the city ¬ is dying out. In an age of sampling, digitization and outsourcing, New York’s soundtrack and advertising-jingle recording industry has essentially collapsed. Broadway jobs are in decline. Dance companies rely increasingly on recorded music. And many freelance orchestras, among the last steady deals, are cutting back on their seasons, sometimes to nothingness.

Contracts for most of the freelance orchestras expired in September, and the players face the likelihood of further cuts in pay, or at least a freeze. All these orchestras rely on donations and, to a small extent, government grants. The Great Recession has taken its toll, putting a number of them under severe financial pressure.
Some advice from Yogi Berra for Barack Obama
You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.
Arizona Republicans institute death panel policy
NY Times - What distinguishes the reductions recently imposed in Arizona, where coverage was eliminated on Oct. 1 for certain transplants of the heart, liver, lung, pancreas and bone marrow, is the decision to stop paying for treatments urgently needed to ward off death. The cuts in transplant coverage, which could deny organs to 100 adults currently on the transplant list, are testament to both the severity of fiscal pressures on the states and the particular bloodlessness of budget-cutting in Arizona.

Republicans have argued that the new health law will lead to rationing, warning even of “death panels.” Democrats have responded that care is already rationed, with 50 million people going largely without insurance, and that the law will bring greater equity. The Arizona case, said Diane Rowland, director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, “is a classic example of making decisions based not on medical need but based on a budget.” And, she added, “it results, potentially, in denial of care to individuals in a life-or-death situation.”
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was beside himself with rage over the fact that the US government had failed to keep all these things secret from him. . . Then - like the Good Journalist he is - Blitzer demanded assurances that the Government has taken the necessary steps to prevent him, the media generally and the citizenry from finding out any more secrets. . . The central concern of Blitzer - one of our nation's most honored 'journalists' - is making sure that nobody learns what the US Government is up to. - Glenn Greenwald, Salon

Atheists come out of closet for Christmas season

Why Republicans are either dumb or liars
Since 1950 we have had five tax increases on the rich.Four out of five times unemployment went down.. . . Since 1950 we have ten cuts to the top marginal rate. Six out of ten time unemployment has gone up. - Larry Beinhart, Huffington Post
Louisville Orchestra seeks bankruptcy protection

From readers' comments
Is deficit commission guilty of criminal misconduct?

This is just a slightly more indirect version of the way the entire government is run these days. All the politicians at every level are owned by their corporate and billionaire campaign donors. These non-profits are also owned by the same collection of greedy thugs. As long as only the rich get a say in what the government does, the people are screwed. Unfortunately, a majority of the people can't even see that this is what's happening and allow themselves to be advertised into supporting policies that keep them poor and powerless.

Universities talking up humanities

- Since there are few jobs in the humanities field, only people who do not need to make money when they graduate can afford to pursue humanities.In some ways since a humanities degree won't lead to a living wage job, it is kind of dishonest to try to encourage people to get humanities degrees, if all they will do is pull espresso for a career after getting the degree.

- You don't have to major in the humanities to benefit from taking courses in the humanities. At their beginning, universities were not intended to be vocational schools. They were intended to provide a well-rounded education that gave you the mental tools to pursue whatever you wished.

Prosecution of waterboarding

Reagan civil rights division prosecuted a Texas sheriff and two deputies for waterboarding. Convictions upheld. Numerous military prosecutions, some involving the Phillipine Insurrection. Hence your point about the law not promoting WB does not hold water. - Steve Truitt

Why does one multi-billionaire get to decide our education policy?

The biggest laugh is that Gates himself is a college dropout.

Noah's Ark museum

"The Ark and the flood is one of the few historical events which are well known in the worldwide global circle." Dang, I keep checking my history books and can't seem to find Noah there. The books must be wrong.

Bikes are not a major answer to urban transit

I guess Mr. Imhoff doesn't know much about marketing, and getting people to make a change in how they commute is just that, a marketing problem. You don't market to the audience you already have captured; you market to a new audience to capture new prospects. That DC's lowest percentage of commuters are bicyclists just points to the fact that that is the segment that needs to be grown. Also, when there are cities that have 32% to 37% of commuting trips made by bicycle (see Copenhagen et al), that again just shows that DC isn't doing enough to encourage that segment.- AgustinG


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