Monday, June 24, 2002

Posting will continue to be a little light this week, as I'm concentrating on some minor content and design overhauls -- as a preliminary to moving this site off Blogspot. I'll formally announce the new URL when it's up and running.

(And to those of you who've sent me e-mail or requested reciprocal links -- bear with me.)

Monday, June 17, 2002

MORAL EQUIVALENCY WATCH: Now this really galls me: This afternoon, Reuters carries the following story with this headline:

U.S. Critical of Israel's West Bank Fence:
The United States on Monday criticized Israel's construction of a fence to keep out West Bank Palestinians and said it opposed unilateral attempts to demarcate borders without negotiations....

What especially galls me is the way Reuters (and pretty nearly other mainstream news organization) routinely continues to paint this monolithic portrait of "The United States" in every such lede, as though we-the-citizenry all got together and came to a consensus agreement on the wording of some press release.

I didn't actually have to read another paragraph to know for certain that this pronouncement was yet another in a long line of State Department positions designed to mollify the "Arab Street" and maintain plausible deniability with our friends in the House of Saud.

But I couldn't resist taking the bet. Sure enough, speaking on behalf of "The United States" was State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking at a daily briefing:
Boucher said the United States is worried the fence could make life harder for ordinary Palestinians, when Israel should be removing the barriers restricting their movements. ... "To the extent that it affects ordinary Palestinians, I think we do remind the Israelis that offering hope to Palestinians, offering them a decent life, an end to the barriers is an important part of achieving security and peace and that remains on our agenda," he added.

No, sir. What you, Mr. Boucher -- and your boss Colin Powell -- must understand is that you do not speak for "The United States" when you attempt to draw a picture of moral equivalency between the delays endured by Palestinian commuters during a time of war, and the inconveniences faced by Israeli civilians when metal shrapnel becomes embedded in their eyes and brains.

Tell you what, Mr. Boucher. The next time we all have one of those consensus get-togethers, here's what I propose that you say on behalf of "The United States":

While it's sad and tragic that they must now resort to physical barriers, The United States supports the right of the people of Israel to defend its borders any way they see fit. The unrelenting terrorist attacks on innocent Israeli civilians must come to an end, and the Palestinian Authority must be purged and reformed of corruption at the highest levels, before The United States can even begin to discuss its role in mediating a permanent, peaceful solution to the conflict."

And as for you, Reuters -- it's up to you to make clear that "The United States" does not monolitically subscribe to every little sniveling, cowardly, appeasing remark that eminates from Foggy Bottom. Would it have been so difficult to amend your headline to read State Department Toady Critical of Israel's West Bank Fence?

REALITY CHECK: Justin Weitz brings to my attention this piece in the Jerusalem Post, which lays out in plain, dispassionate language why a Palestinian state would not be economically viable at this time:

If created, there is a strong possibility of serious civil strife and an over-reliance on international aid from Arab and EU countries. Much of what was promised in the past never arrived.

The business sector has not developed as hoped back in 1993. The majority of successful Palestinian entrepreneurs live outside the boundaries of the proposed state, and have shown little inclination to invest in the PA, preferring markets where there is a stronger chance of financial return. Put simply, they continue to invest in the global markets for business and not nationalist reasons, and there is little sign that this would change with the creation of a state.

Consequently, many Palestinian families would become increasingly reliant on one or more members of the family working in Israel or Kuwait. In these circumstances it is difficult to see how a state could raise enough taxes to pay for even the most basic services for its citizens.

When the PA is ready to address these points in plain, dispassionate language, there may be a basis on which to elevate the discussion to level of negotiated implementation. But for now, as they remain fixated on tearing down instead of building up, there hardly seems any point in giving them so much as the time of day.

Adds Justin, for good measure:
I've heard some people say that if the PA is entrusted with the day-to-day upkeep of a state (schools, hospitals, waste management, and other boring stuff), the Palestinians will settle down, start nation-building, forget about explosive belts, and start to live in peace. The PA has had such control since 1994, when Israel withdrew from Jericho and Gaza. Nothing has changed and nothing has been developed. Guys, lend me some of whatever fabulous hallucinatory drug you're using. Life's too depressing for sobriety.

Friday, June 14, 2002

LOOPHOLES and LOOSE ENDS: Mind Over What Matters weighs in on the raging debate over gun show "loopholes" at Protein Wisdom. Read the whole thing, of course, but I'm all the way down there at Comment #14. (As usually, I don't really take a position at all -- I just reduce the whole exercise to one of semantics. But that's par for the INTP -- always collecting more data, never committing to a judgmental position until all the data is in.)

Invisible Man? Naah -- I'm working on my reputation as an urban recluse again. Also, I'm feeling just a bit logy this evening -- the ol' hypothyroid must be acting up again -- and I don't really feel like being out in this soggy weather. So, I'm afraid I'll be a no-show at tonight's NYC Blogger Bash. Next time for sure, folks.

TUNEBLOCK!™ Those irrascible Brunching Shuttlecocks have the scoop on this bold new solution in the war to protect the rights of artists whose songs are "illegally hummed in public and strummed in dorm rooms":

Starting in a very short while, all new music published by RIAA members will feature TuneBlock™, a method whereby special harmonics included in the songs will erase all memory of the melody, chords, and words from your mind shortly after you hear it, leaving nothing but a pleasant sensation of having enjoyed something.

Think of it. Every musical experience will be like the first time. Every track will be exciting and new. And you'll never have a song stuck in your head again.

We're the RIAA: Shut Up and Listen !

Thursday, June 13, 2002

ZILBER IS HALF-RIGHT: So says Michael Lopez over at the excellent High-ed Intelligence:

"The recording industry cannot survive in any recognizable form," but it is not caused by an unwillingness to develop talent. Rather, it is the pressure under which recording companies have come that has forced them into a feast-or-famine mindset, where they must get the maximum return on their investment. The failure to develop new talent isn't a cause, it's an effect.
I'll grant you, some of what I was prattling on about in this space last week may have been a tad speculative. I'm not a professional recording artist; I have no dog in this fight, except as a listener and fan, on the outside looking in.

So let's hear from one actual professional musician who has come to depend on all file-sharing and distribution technologies to support his livelihood — and he's mightily pissed. Jim Infantino, the superego behind "Jim's Big Ego," one of the best little bands you've never heard of, addressed his newsgroup thusly on May 3:

Hey guys.

Yesterday I had lunch with Jonathan Watterson, whom some of you may know. I had an enlightening and endarkening discussion with him about the state of digital freedom and the current efforts of the RIAA to use our tax dollars to limit our freedom of expression in order to bolster their antiquated business practices. The RIAA stands for (evil and also for) the Recording Industry Association of America. They are collectively shutting down web radio (and have shut down much of it already) by pushing the FCC to levee taxes upon independent web broadcasters like RadioBoston (still webcasting somehow) and WERS (no longer webcasting.

Let me be clear — to play one of my songs on these stations they might have to pay $20 a shot and NOT ONE PENNY GOES TO ME OR ANY OTHER INDEPENDENT SONGWRITER/PERFORMER. As you know, I am fine with people trading my mp3s, Gnutelling my songs, ripping cds of mine, etc, but this feels like the worst kind of criminal thievery. I am enraged.

I urge you to get active. Please visit Jonathan's site. There is a lot going on right now that needs attention and needs to be stopped. The death of Napster was nothing compared to what is going on now. Our rights to videotape TV shows, use Tivo, and customise our operating systems is being threatened. The implications are disasterous to composers, programmers, any one who would be creative in the audio, video or digital.

Below is a letter I wrote to Michael Capuano, my Rep — please call or write your reps once you get informed. I will be working with Jonathan to organize some educational musical benefit this summer. In my small way I want to get the word out that we are all being ripped off by the RIAA. Read up. Thanks for reading my kvetchy email - here's more kvetching, if you want to read on:

> From: Jim Infantino
> Date: Thu May 02, 2002 04:42:24 PM
> To the Honorable Michael Capuano,

> I am very concerned about recent efforts on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America to limit the freedom of speech of Americans like myself. I am a performing songwriter unaffiliated with any record company and am very upset by the RIAA's attempt to discourage the creation, promotion and distribution of independent music world wide.

> I recently tried to tune into one of my favorite local radio stations on the web while I was out of town and found that WERS at Emerson College was no longer able to broadcast on the web because of new fees and requirements by an agency called the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel. I did some reading about the fees they would have to pay and found that they would have to pay .02 cents per song per listener for every song they webcast. If there are 50,000 listeners worldwide at any given moment, they would have to pay $10 to broadcast that song once.

> So WERS has quit webcasting — but it raises a more serious question: where does that money go? Having read some literature from the Copyright Office, it seems to me to go to the RIAA. I hope I am wrong. This is a federal tax on radio stations that play music by independant artists like myself, and not a penny goes to ASCAP, BMI or SESAC to be distributed to the songwriters and copyright holders. Why is that?

> Additionally, I understand that on April 23rd, representatives from the RIAA asked the Appropriations Committee for funding to prosecute copyright-related crimes. I am shocked that somehow our government has decided that the RIAA represents all songwriters in this country. Unlike ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, a songwriter cannot elect to join the RIAA to benefit from their profits — it is a collection of private companies. It seems that any suits on their part should stay private.

> Finally — it is upsetting to read about HR2281 — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Hollings Bill or the Consumer Broadband and Digital TV Promotion Act. These acts would restrict innovation and invention and make the software that I use to record and encode my own songs at home illegal.

> As a songwriter and performer who relies upon the digital realm to distribute my music, I am firmly against legislation and regulation aimed at curtailing what I consider my freedom of speech. I am further infuriated by the RIAA's urging that fees paid by distributors and broadcasters of music be increased without any intention to pay the independent artists who supply a significant amount of that music.

> I don't know if you are involved in any of these proceedings. But you are my representative — so I am writing you first. I don't do a lot of this. I hope I have expressed myself appropriately and clearly.

> Sincerely,

> Jim Infantino
> Brighton, MA

THOSE ROTTEN CAPITALIST SATIRE-MONGERS! It was bound to happen sooner or later: China's state-run Beijing Evening News was actually snookered by a story in The Onion, which "reported" last month that members of Congress were pressing for construction of a brand-new Capitol, complete with a retractable dome and luxury boxes, in order "to stay competitive."

After being forced to run a retraction and acknowledge its own error, the Chinese paper nevertheless proceeded to criticized The Onion, "apparently still not fully aware of the publication's mission as a purveyor of satire and laughs," according to the L.A. Times.

"Some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money," the paper said. "This is what the Onion does."

(Thanks to Mike Flynn for the tip.)

Meanwhile ... back in the real world ... The Onion reports this week that the body of Mad Magazine reporter Phil Fonebone — kidnapped at the hands of Blecchistani extremists three months ago — has been discovered at an undisclosed location near Potrzebie.

The motivation for the attack remains unclear, but, according to a report by the Al Jerkzeera News Network, the kidnappers were seeking a ransom of "$35 million—CHEAP!" from the editors of Mad.

Though many of the specifics regarding Fonebone's murder remain unclear, some details are known. The body was badly decomposed, but coroners identified it by its oversized, folded-over feet.

As for the identity of the perpetrators, reports suggest the involvement of one or more mysterious, trench-coated espionage agents dressed in either all-white or all-black clothing, and described as "angular, birdlike males with wide-brimmed, pointy hats."

DEPARTMENT OF INEXPLICABLE REFERRALS: Okay, I'm stumped. How did anything on this page produce a successful match to the following search?

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

I'M AN ENGINEERIST! Finally, a label I can wear with dignity.

Monday, June 10, 2002

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: Again from the New York Times -- David Bowie embraces the inevitable:
"I don't even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don't think it's going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way," [Bowie] said. "The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.

"Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity"; he added. "So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen."
Depressing news for those of us who dabble at music composition, but who are not so technically proficient that we're prepared to perform in front of a live audience. Still, it's hard to imagine a scenario -- the RIAA's protestations to the contrary -- where all historical protections afforded to intellectual property will remain rigidly, permanently in place in the digital age. Guess I'd better start practicing my arpeggios again.

Quoting the same passage, Dave Copeland adds: "[W]ouldn't you love to be able to download an album and then spend the $16 you would have paid for the CD on tickets to a show? If only, Dave. If only. A pair of tickets for the upcoming Yes reunion show at Radio City just set me back over two hundred bucks! God bless'em that a bunch of aging prog-rockers, who never had a #1 hit in all the years since the band was founded in 1969, can command that kind of tribute at this late date. But they shouldn't expect to sell many CDs the day after. My discretionary entertainment budget for the year is completely shot.

HOMELAND INSECURITY - PART TWO: Writing for the New York Times, Frank Rich echoes what I'd said in this space last week -- and more. Here's an excerpt:
The cure Mr. Bush now proposes for such ailments — a big new federal bureaucracy with 169,000 employees that stands apart from the F.B.I. and C.I.A. bureaucracies — is still another avoidance of accountability and still another repudiation of the efficient, lean-government corporate Republicanism that he supposedly champions. (No wonder Democratic leaders are falling over each other to take credit for thinking of it first.)

This Rube Goldberg contraption will take months to pass in some form and may not be in action before Google arrives at the F.B.I. It allegedly requires no new funds (a feat to be achieved only by Enron off-balance-sheet bookkeeping) and reshuffles the same deck of lightweights we have now. That includes the irrepressible John Ashcroft, who this week announced a plan to have the I.N.S. fingerprint 100,000 Middle Eastern visa holders. The day after he did so, his own department's inspector general testified before Congress that the I.N.S. and F.B.I. were still "years away" from integrating the fingerprint files already in their possession.

Instead of creating a new organizational chart, Mr. Bush might have enlisted one man to hose down our security bureaucracy: Rudolph Giuliani. Instead of speechifying that "only the United States Congress can create a new department of government," he might have followed the suggestion of Stansfield Turner, the former C.I.A. chief who, like others, has called for the president, "with a stroke of the pen," to give the director of central intelligence the authority to coordinate the 14 entities in our intelligence apparatus. Rather than take such old-time C.E.O.-style action, the president wrapped himself in the mantle of Harry Truman. These days that's a sure sign that the buck-passing will never stop.

Friday, June 07, 2002

HOMELAND INSECURITY - PART ONE: Faced with the challenge of making our security agencies more accountable, George W. Bush has proposed to revise the organization chart. Is this supposed to make me feel more secure?

On the contrary -- I now have a pretty good idea why Bush failed as a businessman in the private sector. This is pure Pointy Haired Boss territory. This is not merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic -- it's rearranging the seat assignments on Flight 93.

Let's put it this way: When the Commandant of the Coast Guard reports to Tom Ridge instead of Norman Minetta, will he be any better equipped to stop the suicidal lunatic with the suitcase nuke from steering his skiff under the Brooklyn Bridge?

The problem isn't with the lines of responsibility on the organization chart. The problem is with the names pasted in the boxes. The self-righteous career bureaucrats -- whose indifference, incompetence and criminal negligence caused the problem in the first place -- have got to go.

When I hear that John Ashcroft has decided to "spend more time with his family," I'll start to feel a little bit more secure again.

Thursday, June 06, 2002

Dee Dee, you idiot.

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

ROCK IS DEAD - PART ONE: The recording industry is in the toilet. USA Today reports that "in 2001, album sales dropped 2.8% compared with 2000, the first dip since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. The gap widened in this year's first quarter, when sales fell 8.3% from the same period in 2001, far steeper than the 1.2% drop from 2000 to 2001.

Happy Fun Pundit adds this observation:

The problem today is that groups with real talent aren't being allowed to grow. Many classic artists started out slowly in record sales, and some never had big hits at all when they were making records. It took a large body of work to establish a fan base.

Consider The Grateful Dead. Their only top-10 hit, "A Touch of Grey", charted 22 years and several liver operations after the band's first album. Despite the lack of individual hits, they became immensely popular and turned into an enormous cash cow on tour. Today, their albums sell better than they did when they were first released.

Had The Grateful Dead started up last year, they would have been cancelled by the record company after one or two albums, and faded into obscurity. And of course, if a record company signed The Grateful Dead today, they would have forced Jerry Garcia to change his name to 'P. Doopy Doo' or dropped him from the band because he wasn't trending well with the 12 year-old female demographic.

But Happy Fun's observation is hardly unique where the recording industry is concerned. Talent is no longer "allowed to grow" in any media! Take television. For every marginal show like Once and Again or Family Guy -- which live out their entire fragile existences "on the bubble," surviving only because it's a personal favorite of the CEO's mistress, or somesuch pretext -- there are a dozen more gems in the rough, discarded prematurely, without so much as a sigh of regret, because the desired demographic simply didn't materialize overnight.

It wasn't always thus. Critics often recall that Cheers finished dead last in the ratings at the end of its first season, and that Seinfeld wasn't a certifiable hit until its fifth year. Whereas, most shows now have 2-6 weeks to either make a splash or hang it up. The Tick may have been too outré to find a large audience, but we'll never know -- it was snuffed out with half a dozen episodes yet to air. Undeclared was written off after 17 episodes; the producers were told not even to bother filming five more that had already been bought and paid for. And if you're enjoying your weekly fix of Andy Richter Controls the Universe? Sorry -- I blinked and missed it.

I haven't followed the day-to-day goings-on in the comics industry as closely as I once did, so I can't name the names off the top of my head -- but with circulations of all the major titles dropping to levels comparable to well-financed fanzines, it's a given that no publishers are thinking in terms of building new, long-term multimedia franchises like Spider-Man anymore. It's all they can do to prop up the old ones with one relaunch after another.

And magazines? Never mind all the industry standards that grew and burst along with the dot-com bubble. If a well-financed general interest magazine like Talk couldn't be allowed five years it needed to grow to profitability, what chance does anything have?

What's the problem? Why isn't talent allowed to grow?

Well -- actually -- in at least one media, it is. Right here. For the moment, the one thing that's going like gangbusters looks to be -- blogs! For what are they, if not incubators for growing talent?

Of course, for this phenomenon to survive and flourish, idjits like me have to keep putting their energies into these things for virtually zero compensation, while we let our unfinished spec screenplays and other professional pursuits languish. But then, neither do I have a million-dollar investment riding on the success or failure of Mind Over What Matters, nor am I in direct competition for "hits" with all those people whose links appear at right. My career won't suffer if I skip a week of blogging, or if this guy's blog starts getting more traffic than mine.

And we'll see -- if I stick with this thing long enough, it'll pay off in sufficiently improved skills and name recognition, so that I have a prayer of getting an agent to read my screenplay one day.

Which brings us back to the music business -- and it seems so obvious!. What they need to allow the talent to grow is the audio equivalent of blogs. In other words, MP3 file sharing systems -- entities like Napster -- through which young talent can circulate their gems in the rough, for free.

And wouldn't you know? The RIAA simply won't have it! Go figure.

Short-sighted? Try hard-wired for extinction.

It's as though DC Comics had used legal threats and intimidation to snuff out a Batman fanzine with a circultion of barely 1,000. As though Disney was determined to prevent anyone from painting unauthorized pictures of Uncle Scrooge. As though 20th Century Fox was bent on crushing the spirit of its fan base by shutting down amateur websites devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Oh -- that's right -- all those things actually happened, too. Yet the other media giants have not lately been extremists in the defense of their properties. For all the bluster heard lately about the evils of selling used books on Amazon, no public libraries have been shut down by fanatical book publishers in the name of protecting authors' royalties. DC and Marvel Comics have never colluded, behind the veneer of a "trade organization," to lobby Congress for the authority to shut down all fanzines for all time. Meanwhile, Paramount is well aware of all the "slash" fan fiction websites in which various Star Trek characters are often depicted boldly going where no manhood has gone before -- and yet these Mary Sues have been pretty much left alone.

Only the recording industry is determined to prevent its fans from having any fun whatsoever. Only the recording industry demands that its fans queue up in rigid, single-file formations in front of Wal-mart to buy their CDs, take them home to enjoy them privately -- on one sole sanctioned device -- never to share their experience with someone else. Only the recording industry seems determined to reinvent popular culture altogther, no longer to be a collective experience, but one of solitude.

It's not going very far out on a limb to predict that these efforts are doomed to failure in the long run. After all, the whole point of popular culture is sharing -- being part of a community. Everyone needs to belong; and popular culture is the fiber that binds us together. Desperate though they may be to protect their empires now, sooner or later Big Music must acknowlege reality -- that they're fighting the bad fight, against a million years of genetically hard-wired evolution. Genes want to propigate. Information wants to be shared.

The recording industry cannot survive in any recognizable form if it is no longer willing or able to incubate new talent -- not unless some other entity is allowed to do it for them. And when they finally concede that Napster was the best culture-sharing, talent-growing tool they've every suffocated in its crib -- when they allow new Napsters to live and breathe freely -- more new artists will again develop large followings, and sales will rise accordingly.

Of course the RIAA will continue to resist. Every outfit on this list may see their offices paved over for parlking lots before any sea change takes place. But it will only take a few more years of 10% declines for that to happen. And few will weep when no one remembers what WEA stood for.