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March 5, 2011

public transit

Apropos of nothing, really (but no, not random), I just want to say how much of a fan of public transportation I am.

I grew up in the suburbs, so I am very familiar with the car culture that comprises 95% of America.  Cars are awesome, as a matter of fact, and I still like driving to this day.  But I've lived in cities since high school, and as convenient as it would be for all of us city dwellers to hop in our autos and zoom around to where we are going, we live in places that were designed and laid out well before the internal combustion engine was a faint possibility — i.e., they didn't really leave any space to put the cars when they were not being used.  So motorists may certainly navigate this nation's cities, but they may only do so slowly and expensively.  (Which, knowing what we do now about the unintended consequences of the internal combustion engine, is probably a good thing.)

With a robust public transportation system, you get moved from one place to another, and you generally get to do what you want with your time while you do it.  Friends/family back home are aghast at my 45 minute-each-way commute to work.  But, I respond, I'm not behind the wheel.  I'm reading the paper, or doing a crossword.  It's not wasted time, and it's better for the planet.

Granted, our system here in NYC, the MTA, can be troublesome, as they are not well run — aging infrastructure, skyrocketing fares, service cuts — but the alternative, being slave to a motor-buggy, is much worse.

I guess I'm moved to say this because it's one of those weekends in which the MTA has shut down a significant portion of lines for construction, which is a total pain in the ass, but, again, is much better than the alternative.  Hopefully someday the city will get serious about having drivers subsidize public transport and not the other way around.

But it's a nice day.  If it's a nice day where you are, get the hell off the Internet and go outside.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:44 AM

March 4, 2011

corporate personhood slip

Lost in the shadow of the Westboro "you have a constitutional right to be the kind of person that everyone hates" decision was a decision from the day before, which was a decision we should all dance and sing about — SCOTUS decided unanimously that corporations do not have a right to "personal privacy".

This may not seem like a lot.  Also, it does seem like common sense, as what kind of "personal privacy" could some kind of person without the traditional flesh and blood aspect of people like you and me expect?  But remember that the idea of "corporate personhood" is a fight that has been fought for a hundred years, and is directly responsible for a U.S. business environment in which legislative votes are pretty much openly and freely bought and sold (for example, see only today's EPA arm-twisting story).

So even this small judicial victory, denying ATT the right to be protected from disclosure by the FCC of information that ATT wanted to be kept private, is enormous, because it's the first major decision against corporate personhood and not for it in a long long time.  Yes, we are accustomed to our sleek little plutocracy, but it does not have to be so forever.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:14 AM

March 3, 2011

pants in mibk

Here's a weird little thing, a short story that I wrote for the zine MIBK.

The story is called "Pants", and it's a nasty little dystopic little thing.

At the time, it was for a paper-only issue of the zine, but I can't say I'm unhappy to see it online.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:15 PM

maria bustillos on shari'a

So it's one thing for a certain breed of patriot to be very suspicious of Islam in general and "sharia law" in specific.  It's another thing for a loudmouth like me to make fun of those people that are scared of "sharia law" for being scared and not very well educated and knuckleheaded in that particularly American way.  But it is another thing entirely to patiently explain exactly what Shari'a actually is and how the fear-mongering centering on it is an exaggeration at best, as did Maria Bustillos for The Awl:
Shari'a is not a single doctrine, but a huge and often self-contradictory moral, philosophical and religious tradition, much like that expressed in the authoritative texts of Christianity. "Jihad" means "struggle"—and it is, in fact, a central tenet of Islam—but for moderate Muslims it largely means the personal struggle to live a better, more peaceful, forgiving and unselfish life. "Islam" actually means "submission," and the kind of submission it generally seems to mean is like the Buddhist kind, a peaceful acceptance of things as they are.

It is a nice long walk through the topic, wandering in and out of the consequences of the interaction of religion and society, and you will learn things from it.

And it is an important reminder that important questions generally cannot be explained in the length of a television news segment, or with a bare couple hundred words.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:12 AM

March 2, 2011

treasure island

Another thing I liked: "Treasure Island".

Yes it is a play.  I was (what I thought at the time) dragged to see it last night.  It's a play, a musical even, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island".  "Oh joy," I thought.  "Just what a soul wants to spend his Tuesday doing, seeing a musical based on RSL."

I was very wrong.  It's as good a show as I've seen in two years.  It is a very straightforward adaptation of the classic, immaculately cast and performed, and the staging is a marvel.  It actually swashes buckles.  And it has the best sailing sequence that I've seen on stage or screen.

And why it works is its straight-forwardness.  There is no snark, no post-modern winks, just a period adventure story.  And as far as the "musical" aspect of it goes, there is no band and decidedly no indie rock.  The play is sweetly framed by actual sea shanties sung by the able cast.

It just works and everyone should go see it, specifically those of you with kids.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:13 PM

things other than face-punching that might befall andrew breitbart

The strategy is this: say your secret prejudice that you never tell anyone about is that you think children are ugly.  And there is this other person, who you have been in conflict with for so long that you forget what it is that you conflict over, but there is this other person that you oppose automatically.  If they say, "Blue," you say, "Not blue! Orange!"  I mean, who cares and what does it matter, but definitely not blue.  So what you do, probably unintentionally, in the course of your arguments with/struggles against your old enemy, is try to prove that they are guilty of the secret thing that you are guilty of, whether on-topic or -off.  Regardless of what it was you were fussing over, the other guy thinks children are ugly!  There is some primitive part of us that leads us to the point where we believe that the most hurtful libel we can level is the libel that we are personally the most scared of.

Having said that, let me also say that I would not find it funny were Andrew Breitbart to get punched in the face.  I don't want to punch Andrew Bretibart in the face, and in fact the concept of Andrew Breitbart getting punched in the face has never crossed my mind.

However, if Breitbart were to slip on a banana peel and land with his face in a birthday cake, I would find that funny.  If Breitbart were to get thrown from his ATV while four-wheeling and land in a deep, muddy creek, I would find that funny.  If Breitbart were to get hit in the nose by a wiffleball bat swung by his toddler son, aiming for something else, I would find that funny.  If Breitbart were to get splashed by a taxi cab driving through a puddle, I would find that funny.  If Breitbart were to mistake the salt for the sugar, put the salt on his corn flakes and then make a very sour face after tasting the corn flakes, that I would find funny.  You know, even if Breitbart were to get his foot stuck in a mop bucket, or his head stuck in the bannister, I would think that funny, if Breitbart could get his foot/head safely unstuck.

As much as I find Breitbart distasteful and wrong, the only ill I wish him is embarrassment and shame, because maybe those could spur some kind of introspection, some kind of self-realization.  Whereas face-punching, tempting as it is, all of us being imperfect, rarely inspires anything other than face-counter-punching.  And where's the use in that?

Posted by mrbrent at 10:26 AM

March 1, 2011

how do you tell the cato institute from the others?

I was driving around yesterday morning and got to listen to a show from Philadelphia's NPR station (I think it was this show), and the guests were a professor from Duke University specializing in the history of the labor movement, and some mook from the Cato Institute.  They were discussing Wisconsin, of course, though the conversation, if you can call it that, quickly jump-cut to progressivism vs. free market conservatism.  The professor wiped the floor with him, and not that she had to work that hard — he was truculent and disingenuous, and his talking points were littered with bald rhetorical ploys, up to and including "the Democrat party".  But the professor went the extra mile, calling out not only him but the Cato Institute in general.  It was rousing.

And today, after my commute and now behind my desk, I realize that I miss the experience of hearing a Cato Institute expert get knocked around on the radio like that.  Every day should start like that.

I should be so lucky.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:36 AM

February 28, 2011

dan sinker is @mayoremanuel

It's official, the reveal of the author of the @MayorEmanuel twitter feed is no letdown.  In fact, it's a lovely piece by The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal.  The author in question was Dan Sinker, the founder of the zine Punk Planet.

Mr. Madrigal does a bang-up job of isolating exactly what made the feed to irresistible:

Whatever we end up calling @MayorEmanuel, the feed shares some characteristics with the picaresque novel. In the picaresque, adventures tend to happen in episodes. There's usually some sort of (anti-)hero bopping around and you don't necessarily expect one adventure to logically lead to the next. With reference to the traditional Spanish genre which emerged in the 17th century, scholars even like to talk about the fragmentation of the picaresque as indicative of a "refusal (or inability) to conceal the labour or process of writing." Writing happens in fits and starts, so the finished product should look that way, too. And that's the thing, with a Twitter narrative, your lines come stamped with a time and the kind of software used to send the message. You can't conceal the process of writing, so you have to learn to love that transparency.

Kudos first to Mr. Sinker, who made an actual lasting piece of Twitter/narrative (the genre of which has yet to be named), and to Mr. Madrigal for a feature that's as good as @MayorEmanuel was.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:35 PM

laurie penny on uk uncut

And this is a report from London by Laurie Penny, a shoe-leather journalist of a leftist bent.  Her hook is that a British protest movement, UK Uncut, has captured the imagination of American gasbag Glenn Beck, who in his five-minutes-from-nervous-breakdown style has proclaimed that the Uncut movement is a global conspiracy and probably has something to do with a Caliphate and it's all right there in the Book of Mormon!  It got me to click; I'm predictable.

But the real story is the Uncut movement itself, which is taking to protesting corporate entities who have wriggled out of their obligations to pay taxes.  Ms. Penny describes them:

They make their point with flashmobs, bail-ins, street parties for pensioners and preschoolers, reclaiming the private space of banks and tax-avoiding businesses, relentlessly restating the hypocrisy of the financial elites. Courageous, yes; Baader-Meinhof-style conspiracy, no. What is most amusing, having spent time with the principled young people who began it all, is how thoroughly the commentariat is failing to understand what the hell is going on here.

While it might be curious to wonder why Beck would wring his hands at a threat to the oligarchy, it this curiosity is outweighed by the pure awesome of an organized movement against the oligarchy (or, if you are uncomfortable with metaphor, corporate entities who shirk their civic responsibilities and obligations while exploiting a malleable judiciary).

And Beck is right about one thing (as Ms. Penny points out), it has spread to the United States.  Ha.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:03 AM

anonymous v. koch industries

It's a little Schadenfreude party this weekend, as Anonymous has announced its intent to mess with Koch Industries.  From the press release:
The Koch brothers have made a science of fabricating 'grassroots' organizations and advertising campaigns to support them in an attempt to sway voters based on their falsehoods. Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and Citizens United are just a few of these organizations. In a world where corporate money has become the lifeblood of political influence, the labor unions are one of the few ways citizens have to fight against corporate greed. Anonymous cannot ignore the plight of the citizen-workers of Wisconsin, or the opportunity to fight for the people in America's broken political system. For these reasons, we feel that the Koch brothers threaten the United States democratic system and, by extension, all freedom-loving individuals everywhere.

OK, it's a little florid, but... wait, press release?  Digital vigilantes have press releases now?

In any event, hopefully the shareholders of the various businesses under the Koch Industries umbrella will see that political speech about what's good for business is not necessarily good for business, especially when the political speech is in the form of the clandestine financing of sham grassroots movements.  I.e., freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences.

Actually, who am I kidding?  Rule of law is the rule of law.  I just hope the authorities clamp down on these Anonymous lawbreakers before they do something like, maybe, hork a couple terrabytes worth of incriminating emails.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:07 AM