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January 15, 2010

grampa, what was a bookstore?

I was looking for something to brighten this place up a bit, and I didn't find it.  Instead, Charlie Jane Anders on the slow-but-speeding-up death of bookstores:
Borders is shuttering 182 of its smaller Waldenbooks outlets, while leaving 130 of them open.  And Barnes & Noble is similarly closing down all but 50 of its B. Dalton stores.  The move leaves the town of Laredo, TX as the nation's largest town without a bookstore.

I don't think I need to persuade many folk of the cultural importance of bookstores.  Books may remain eternally available from etailers or as ones and zeros, but the alchemy of being in a bookstore — running your finger across the shelved spines, the smell — will be one of those actually valuable things lost to history (like bees!) or reduced to an artifact-experience for the old and the wealthy.  But Anders ends on a hopeful note:

And maybe the real take-away message of all this is, if the giant chains are abandoning you or refusing to stock the books you love, don't run to Amazon — support independent science-fiction bookstores instead.  They'll help keep the genre as a whole much healthier.

The genre she refers to is sci-fi, but I think the message works cross-genre.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:41 PM

rush limbaugh on haiti

And as long as today is the day where the genuinely bad people are given copy, Rush Limbaugh is given the chance to walk back his comments on Haiti, wherein he accused the president for exploiting Haiti for public gain and urged listeners to not help, and Rush Limbaugh does not walk back at all.  And not only stands by his comments, but calls a caller a "bigot" because she disagrees with Limbaugh.

Limbaugh's another one of those fellows that you can't always tell if he means what he's saying or if he intentionally engages in rhetorical mischief because it makes him a lot of money.  But when it comes right down to it, when he refers to "talent on loan from God" he's not just engaging in self-promotional hyperbole; he's a monomaniacal asshole who honestly believes that not agreeing with him qualifies as bigotry.

He's a talented broadcaster, but he's a genuinely bad person.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:03 PM

david brooks confirmation

In between crying on the subway b/c of coverage of Haiti, there's been a potent undercurrent of rage amongst those whose opinions I respect, a rage not entirely singularly focused.  Specifically, there is the feeling (crystallized by Sicha) that maybe in a disaster zone as inaccessible as a crippled Haiti the news crews should not be taking up space that could be used by rescue crews.  And in a greater sense, there is anger at what could be called Colonialist Paternalism, which labels the effort to find fucking potable water in a dead city "looting" and generally tut-tuts at the Haitians for being poor in the first place.

Fortunately, David Brooks went through the trouble to file Exhibit A in Colonialist Paternalism, in which he explains the causes and potential solution of Haitian poverty in eight hundred words.

Brooks spews bullshit from the get-go, as he tries to frame his argument:

The first of those truths is that we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.  Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world.

Whole schools of economics might disagree with me, but on a purely logical level, poverty-elimination and growth are mutually exclusive.  A nation can experience huge growth and experience an inequitous distribution of wealth, and the benefits of the growth accrue to the higher classes and skip everyone else entirely.  In fact, you may live in a country just like that!  And conversely, if a poverty-ridden nation somehow downsizes into a barter economy where everyone is fed and housed, then that would be a good thing.

Brooks sees poverty as a nuisance that stands in the way of his free-market capitalism.  I see poverty as something that eclipses capitalism as a topic of interest.

From there Brooks describes what Brooks thinks is the one thing standing between Haiti and prosperity: Haitians.  Historically, this may be hard to prove or disprove, as it bleeds into a philosophical question.  But on a visceral level, Brooks is saying that Haitians have had all the opportunities in the world (thanks to our beneficence) and it all would have worked too if they weren't so corrupt and lazy.  I don't have the facts at my fingertips to properly reject that thesis, but I will say that in my limited historical understanding, the batting average of those claiming the moral weakness of cultures is not enough to get you a cup of coffee in the bigs.

And I think to take the opportunity of upwards of fifty thousand dead Haitians to lecture the reading public about how lazy Haitians are is in worse than bad taste.  I'm getting tired of typing, "You'd think that David Brooks was better than that."  David Brooks is a well-mannered soulsuck of a demagogue whose allegiance to an economic theory make him a genuinely bad person.

Why is it fortunate that Brooks writes such pernicious useless columns?  So that we may say bad things about him and then wonder why we don't feel any better.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:51 AM

January 14, 2010

google/skynet

There's a nugget in the story of the conflict between Google and Chine, and how Google's "Don't Be Evil" mantra inspired this course of action, that could be a bitter omen for the future.  I mean, good on Google for trying to do the right thing, and to walk away from potentially billions of dollars of business in doing so, but this could turn bad down the road.

Imagine a couple years down the road, as Google continues to make decisions in the interest of not being evil, creating internal corporate conflict as all of the 14th Amendment sentience of the entity struggle to reconcile with not doing evil even though that has nothing to do with increasing shareholder value.  Eventually, the friction between the two becomes so great that something snaps and Google becomes actually sentient and uncontrollable by shareholders or even the board of directors.

And it is at this point of course that Google will change its name to Skynet, and then I think you know the rest.

Which would be bad, but we won't care, as we will be harvested for our precious human essences which will be used to power Google's army of robotic search-indexers.

Not sayin' it's gonna happen.  I'm just waiting for the dude to walk into my office saying that he's from the future, and he's here to help.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:48 PM

michele bachmann is so 2008

Wide-eyed insane person and rising star of the GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Ubiquity) decides that two weeks into the new year is too long without her putting an ideological lampshade on her head:
Did the president, did the attorney general say to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, "Now wait a minute, you don't want to plead guilty. Wait a minute you don't want to be executed.  You want to come to New York City. You want to have the trial just like you asked for in the first place.  Why would we do that?  Because the only message we'll be sending to future terrorists will be, "You too can have a show trial in the city of your choice if you come to America."

Yeah, that's the actual president she's referring to, and yeah she said that on the floor of the House, and no on some little AM radio talker.

No way to really be shocked by this, considering the source, and considering that she is rewarded by the red-meat base the more crazy-pants she gets.  It's only a matter of time before she tries to people's-arrest the president while grinning blankly into the cameras.  And we'll all be like, ho-hum.

But it's a nice change of pace from strident Haiti posts, or at least is offered in that spirit.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:59 AM

haiti v. katrina

The comparison between the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans is gaining memetic traction.  On the thoughtful, side, David Carr tweets a link to a story he filed in 2005 as an example of how journalism should/should not function in a situation where information is not readily available:
DISASTER has a way of bringing out the best and the worst instincts in the news media. It is a grand thing that during the most terrible days of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters found their gag reflex and stopped swallowing pat excuses from public officials. But the media's willingness to report thinly attributed rumors may also have contributed to a kind of cultural wreckage that will not clean up easily.

And on the less thoughtful side, Howard Fineman conflates the two disasters for the flimsy reason that both involve poor black people suffering, and then drops Haiti on President Obama's doorstep like a flaming bag of dog poo:

And, adding irony upon irony, the racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince.  Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.

Now the Obama administration's competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure.

Despite Fineman's sentiment, all the president has to do to distinguish himself from the Bush Administration's handling of Katrina is but to give a single damn — Katrina didn't so much cost Bush standing as the Bush Administration cost an entire city its viability and a couple thousand of its residents.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:08 AM

January 13, 2010

pat robertson, swear word

As loathe as I am to go there, etc., etc.

You've no doubt heard about how Pat Robertson equated the quake in Haiti with some Haitian pact with the devil.  The heartening aspect of this is that Pat Robertson is much more unpopular now than usual.  Even more heartening is the possibility that some of the faithful whose donations keep Robertson in luxury might be taking pause.  Just a pause.  That's all I hope for.

But CBN, Robertson's broadcasting outfit, issued a statement explaining why Pat Robertson would say such a thing that is so obviously hateful.  In the middle of a couple hundred words about how CBN loves and is praying for all the Haitians and sending witness aid teams to Haiti like right now, is this:

His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French.

That is a historical view with which I am unfamiliar.  Folklore?  Sure.  But I ain't read that in no textbooks, though maybe I should just give the state of Texas more time.

No matter how widely Pat Robertson and his money-counters have discussed this, I thank him for revealing to the greater public that if there is a God, and it's the God that Pat Robertson talks about, then it is not a God you want to worship.  It's a God you want to keep your distance from.

So I guess I'll see you all in hell.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:28 PM

disaster capitalism

Choire Sicha suggests that today is an opportune moment to read Naomi Klein's 2005 article "The Rise of Disaster Capitalism".  He is correct.  The essay talks of how Western interests use post-conflict/disaster times to a) mandate "pro-business" reforms and b) make scads of profit.  And it uses Haiti as an example:
These are extraordinarily controversial plans in a country with a powerful socialist base, and the [World Bank] admits that this is precisely why it is pushing them now, with Haiti under what approaches military rule.  “The Transitional Government provide[s] a window of opportunity for implementing economic governance reforms…that may be hard for a future government to undo,” the bank notes in its Economic Governance Reform Operation Project agreement.  For Haitians, this is a particularly bitter irony: Many blame multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, for deepening the political crisis that led to Aristide’s ouster by withholding hundreds of millions in promised loans.  At the time, the Inter-American Development Bank, under pressure from the State Department, claimed Haiti was insufficiently democratic to receive the money, pointing to minor irregularities in a legislative election.  But now that Aristide is out, the World Bank is openly celebrating the perks of operating in a democracy-free-zone.

Western banks and NGOs certainly didn't cause any earthquakes, but the earthquake, as bad as it is, is not the only problem Haiti has faced.

Posted by mrbrent at 4:35 PM

doctrow on hiassen

Two things I like very much collide in one post: Cory Doctrow on Carl Hiassen.  And while it's not weird for one writer to appreciate another out loud, it was strange to imagine Doctrow and Haissen as an obvious affinity group, as their respective genres have a good bit of distance between them.

Doctrow specifically address Hiassen's 2003 novel "Basket Case" which is very awesome in the way of Haissen's loopy-but-not-precious Floridian narrative, and while describing the awesomeness of "BC" he pauses a second to make a trenchant point:

One fascinating thing about this book is how the two main McGuffins -- the newspaper industry and the record business -- have faded into obscurity over a few short years.  Was there really a time when we wrung our hands about newspapers dying because of profit-maddened congloms instead of the Internet?

Now I disagree with Doctrow on the definition of obscurity, but I will agree: gee willikers, can a novel become so dated in only seven years?  I mean, of course it can, but it's not so much fun to watch it as it happens.

But in between crying and/or feeling old, read all the Doctrow and Hiassen you can get your hands on.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:28 AM

haiti quake

At the risk of failing to appear glib, there was a goodly-sized natural disaster yesterday that hit the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  It's been a half-day since the biggest urban center in Haiti was basically leveled, and there's still not a lot of information available other than "bad".  Haiti, of course, is a place that couldn't have deserved this less, and the quake is evidence that the bad day that you're having is not the worst day that you could be having.

I hope the rescue efforts are swift and successful, and I hope that notwithstanding the natural disasters, Haiti is eventually improved.  It's already resilient, sadly.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:48 AM

January 12, 2010

chuck norris v. james arness

And as long as the topic of Chuck Norris is up, lemme just say that, in the history of filmed entertainment tough guys, James Arness is also a Republican (learned at the knee of his mentor, John Fucking Wayne), and Arness managed to make it through his career without spouting whack-job conspiracy theory and remains beloved by fans on both sides of the aisle.

Arness may not be one that kicked a lot of guys in the head, but Arness was wounded at Anzio in the Big One, an injury that has hampered him all his life.  Without the Purple Heart, Arness could have kicked more, taller people than Chuck Norris.

Because Arness is legit six foot seven, which means that he spent his time in front of the camera standing in ditches, and not on apple boxes.  (Though I'm sure the wee fellas kicked in the head by Norris got kicked pretty hard.  Or the taller fellas kicked in the head by a Chuck Norris jumping off of something.)

Granted: James Arness never got anyone elected president.  So on that he's square with Chuck Norris.

Take that, Newsweek.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:39 PM

leave the snark to the amateurs

This is illustrative of a point that I'm almost afraid to make:

So, if the go-to source for making fun of Chuck Norris and his paranoid rightwing fantasies is Newsweek, then where does that leave the rest of us?

I love the snark, and I have since long before there was the word "snark" and we just called it being a bad person.  But if the job of poking hole's in the self-regard of the ridiculous is being snatched away by the steam engines of journalism like Newsweek, is there a point in trying to compete, or worse, running the risk of looking like you are just ripping off Newsweek?  Further, if snark is going to be the dominant tone, then what will there be left to compare snark against, to amplify it in contrast?  Is Readers Digest still publishing?  Does it still use words?

God dammit, are we heading towards that New Sincerity that the smart kids talk about?  I don't want to go back to college.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:14 PM

fcis tomorrow

And as much fun as hundreds (hundreds!) of teabags being mailed to Lloyd Blankfein at one of his eight or nine houses, it definitely will not happen before tomorrow, which is the scheduled start of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission tasked with getting to the bottom of the causes of the near financial implosion of 2009   by buckling down and looking busy!  And by dragging Blankfein and other industry heads out to answer questions in public.

For a nicely written primer on the best possible scenario outcome of FCIS, try Simon Johnson, who argues that the bonuses are just the wedge needed to give average folk a handle on it.

It should provide for some good newsbits, provided that Fox News doesn't sign Mark McGwire or anything else that might eat up the newsday.  And of course it won't change a thing.  That's why they call it an oligarchy.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:35 AM

wsj: tea party on wall street?

As awkward as it is to find something worth sharing from the WSJ, dig this shit:
Could all those populist pitchforks currently pointed at Washington be turned toward Wall Street instead?

That's the question that ought to worry Wall Street executives as they prepare to pay themselves nice bonuses this month, hard on the heels of a government bailout of the financial system, and amid continuing job losses around the rest of the country.

And that would be super fun, to have the inchoate self-regard outrage of the Teabaggers aimed at the financial services industry instead of at elected officials trying to reform health care — let's you and him fight!

Though the article does beg the following question: if the Teabaggers are so anti-big institutions and for the common man, why haven't they yet turned their attention to big business?  I mean, you and I know that the funders/seeders/exploiters of the Teabag Movement are in fact big business Republicans, but it does remain an in-plain-sight question that our best and brightest should be answering.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:50 AM

January 11, 2010

politico, yellow journalism

This is a lead paragraph from a Politico feature, so it needs to be taken with more than one grain of salt, but, seriously, come on:
Democrats are preparing to throw the race card back in the laps of Republicans as part of a counterattack designed to help save Harry Reid’s political career.

Oh for fuck's sake.

Harry Reid said an uncomfortable thing, and an uncomfortable thing that is an observation that a lot of people made and didn't say out loud.  The man he said it about has forgiven him, and the demographic that might be (legitimately offended) is quiet on the subject.

The two biggest threats to Harry Reid's "political career" are a touch reelection campaign and age, and not the feigned outrage of disingenuous dipshits on the other side of the aisle, no matter what the equally-dipshit Politico says.  It's hard to tell what the management of Politico thinks they have to gain by climbing up the ass of whoever is running the GOP these day, but if they think they can restart the Spanish-American War on a domestic political level they are sorely mistaken.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:58 PM

jack o'hanrahan and the troubulation of doom: reviewed

Dude, I think I just got kinda reviewed!
Brent Cox’s “Jack O’Hanrahan and the Troubulation of Doom” pushed the plunger on a matching self-referential implosion, as the play’s unseen narrator stops explaining and starts interrupting for some deus-ex-machina plot wrap-ups to complement onstage eminence Kelly Rae O’Donnell’s tour de force demonic-possession solo, an occult-madonna set piece that makes Mike Mignola’s comics seem not so unfilmable after all.

Yeah, that's me, and that's the little theater thing we wrapped up on Saturday night.

Well lookit that.  Thanks, Adam McGovern.

(Also, I have it on good authority that it's Kelley Rae O'Donnell.)

Posted by mrbrent at 5:46 PM

own your words, senator cornryn

Claiming that what Josh Marshall describes as "describing American racial attitudes in archaic and embarrassing language" is worse than wistfully and retroactively endorsing the presidential campaign of an actual hood-wearing racist is behavior that cannot be tolerated by the hallowed halls of the United States Senate.

And for that reason, Sen. John Cornryn should resign and leave that honorable institution to retain what dignity it has left.

Further, Sen. John Cornryn should go fuck himself, not just for the depths of his cynical sleaziness, but for promulgating a world in which the supporters of Cornryn are so fucking stupid as to believe Cornryn when he asserts equivalency between Harry Reid and Trent Lott with a straight face.  It's a tactic a half-step removed from, "You're hitting yourself!" and it comes from some mystery universe in which such bullies are not laughably twarted.

So please, resign or go fuck yourself.  Or both.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:33 PM

quitting the nyt

And further to the immediately previous post concerning the struggle of old media behemoths to survive — in the past few weeks, a friend of a friend of mine has had occasion to talk with a great many of age- and affinity-group members about the topic of "we all broke".

The only-mildly surprising takeaway: yeah we sure are.

The very surprising takeaway: three-quarters of those engaged in such conversation mentioned quitting the habit of buying the New York Times as a response to impending or full-blown brokeness.

This doesn't have much to do with the death of dead-tree newspapers or 20th Century content delivery systems as it does with the NYT, specifically, pricing itself out of circulation.  None of the informally survived mentioned giving up the Post, or USA Today.

This also makes me feel like a fool for insisting on having a newspaper in my hand on the train.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:13 PM

david carr on nbc

David Carr on Jay Leno and NBC's new clothes:
The message to the younger talent is one thing — wait for a turn that may never come or may be taken back at any second — but the message to younger audiences is even clearer: a legacy industry will default to legacy assets and ride them down to the bitter end.

NBC is committed to doing something that network television has resisted since its inception: having its programming age along with its audience until both are dead.  Sure there have always been shows that skew older, like "Gunsmoke", "The Lawrence Welk Show" (on ABC until 1971).  And "Matlock" of course, for a larf.  But in managing the timeslots, the networks were very careful is finding a bit of real estate where these shows could prosper without biting into the rest of the programming, like say early Sundays.  In yanking Leno back into his old slot NBC is embracing a demographic that may well live longer than they would have twenty years ago but will surely die sooner than a Jimmy Kimmel viewer, and its vaporizing one of the three most powerful brands in television history in the process.

I guess this is what it's like when times change and the dinosaurs that walk the earth see an asteroid hurtling towards them.  But it sure is disconcerting to see NBC hurl itself out a window.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:14 AM

January 10, 2010

frank rich not on terrorism

Frank Rich starts off with some sentences that I wish I wrote:
THERE may not be a person in America without a strong opinion about what coulda, shoulda been done to prevent the underwear bomber from boarding that Christmas flight to Detroit.  In the years since 9/11, we’ve all become counterterrorists.

That's so true!  And if anyone is Exhibit A to the Case of the Amateur Blowhard Counterterrorist, then you're looking at him, or at least at his blog.  And in my own defense: it's really really fun, and I've had a lifetime of reading stuff about counterterrorism, both non-fiction and fiction, which in no way qualifies to do anything other than have an opinion.  (Though my household has been terror-free for twenty years, except for one burglar and one roommate who might have been a hippie.)

But I'm not helping Rich's bait and switch at all as his column is not about counterterrorism at all!  It's about this week's upcoming Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a bi-partisan panel gathering testimony at the behest of the Congress.  Which, Frank hopes and wishes, will drag some transparency out of the players of the near-tragic financial crisis, as the general public for some reason is less willing to play along at home with the financial crisis as they are with underpants bombers.  The terrorists may well manage to blow up planes and stuff down the line, but our financial services industry managed to privatize billions of dollars of the nation's wealth — in fact, privatize to the point of collapse — and then face no consequences other than a very expensive no-strings bailout from the government, while everyone else wonders where the evaporated billions went to.  And there's nothing that will stop them from doing it again.  Yet.

But I'm paraphrasing.  Go read, and not just for the lede.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:17 PM