Archive for March, 2010

Oops, I made an owchie

 | March 23, 2010 6:44 am

So, the weather is fantastic here in Switzerland, and I finally got motivated enough to bike into work.  It’s no small commitment, I have a 28 km ride, which includes climbing the Albis Pass.  Okay, it’s a pretty small pass, but my bike only has two front chain rings, so it’s actually a pretty tough hall, especially after a few weeks of slacking on the training.

My poor condition probably explains why I was feeling tired and easily distracted as I had to navigate the tricky traffic & trams around Bahnhoff Enge.  I was in the narrow space between traffic and a tram line, when I realized that I had gotten way too close to a tram island (basically a curb in the middle of the road).  I rubbed against it, and didn’t handle it well, and totally wiped out.  Below you see the result:

my biking injury

The worst thing is now I have to go and buy a new pair of leg warmers.  Well, okay that’s probably not the worst thing, but it does suck.

What I found surprising is how many of my colleagues suggested that I go to the doctor.  I did get the first aid kit from the hallway and clean and disinfect it myself.  Really, what more would a doctor do?    I wonder how much of my doctor reluctance comes from not having had health insurance for so long while living in the states?  Go team Obama on that one.

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Manufacturing consent and copyright law

 | March 21, 2010 10:26 am

The New York Times has a lengthy article entitled “A Supersized Custody Battle Over Marvel Superheroes”, discussing an ongoing legal battle over copyrights regarding character created by Jack Kirby between 1958 and 1963.  It is useful to analyse such reporting, to see how consent is manufactured for policies which benefit the power-elite (read large corporations), and harm the public, in this case the public domain.

First, a brief history lesson which needs repeating, as the vast majority of America has never even heard of the public domain, and has no understanding of how copyright law differs from property law, which differences defines how copyright violation differs from theft.  Copyright is (intended to be) a short term abridgement of human rights, specifically the right to free speech, in an effort to encourage and reward creative works.  They provide the creator of a work with a temporary monopoly on the spread of his or her ideas.   The main players behind the creation of copyright and patent law in the United States were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who clearly had mixed feelings on the subject.  The fundamental idea was that through creation of this temporary (state enforced) monopoly, congress could “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”.  A useful brief history can be found here.  Once this temporary copyright expired, the intellectual work would return to the public domain.  The original period of copyright length in the U.S. was 14 years, and the author had the right to extend the copyright for an additional 14  (Details of the historical development of copyright law can be found here).  The feeling was that this was an appropriate length of time to allow a creator the opportunity to benefit from his or her creation with an acceptable abridgement of human liberty.  In other words, copyright is a tradeoff between reward for the creator (incentive) and civil liberty, particularly to provide an incentive for publication and distribution.

As costs and times for distribution and publication decrease, the cost function for this tradeoff change, implying that copyright lengths should decrease.  In the last century copyright and publication has become dominated by an oligarchy of powerful corporations, primarily the members of the RIAA and MPAA, with Disney being a major villain.  These corporations have  championed a series of extension to copyright, each time adding a small fixed amount to the existing copyright lengths,  so that copyrights can now be extended to the life of the author + 70 years.  There is no reason to expect that these corporations will allow their increasingly valuable copyright portfolios to expire, so as waves of valuable intellectual property stand to enter the public domain (where they belong), we can expect the armies of lobbyists to swarm Congress’ halls once again.

So what does all this have to do with manufacturing consent?  In the NYT article, the article never mentions the concept of public domain.  It never discusses the fact that Kirby’s creations, now at 50 years of age, should have entered the public domain 32 years ago (under the original terms of copyright law).  There is consideration of the harm done by such copyright litigation which has no redeeming social value.  Jack Kirby, 16 years dead, is not going to be rewarded by this lawsuit, nor will the current process encourage any kind of creative work, beyond creative legal wrangling.  The underlying message of the article seems to be “look, thanks to the efforts of this lawyer and our wonderful copyright system, this guys heirs are gong to be getting a payday!  Isn’t the American copyright system grand?”  Rather than the message we should all be reading, which is “Look, this legal vampire is trying to make a lot of money of this copyright vampire.  The copyright vampire deserves to suffer, since without it’s machinations these works would be in the public domain and contributing to our culture.  But the legal vampire isn’t contributing anything to our culture either, and giving money to Kirby’s heirs isn’t doing anything for anyone either, other than using the legal system as a kind of lottery”.  The real lesson to be learned here is the following:  We need copyright reform.  We need copyrights to be shorter, and we need them to remain in the hands of the creator, not in the hands of some parasitic corporate behemoth.

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Jobs versus good government.

 | March 11, 2010 3:22 am

I actually want to write about Obama’s attempt at student load reform, but before I do I want to mention an excellent article at truthout discussing Beck, Coulter, and Limbaugh. The author (one Davidson Loehr) gives a brief review of Julius Streicher, who would seem to be the closest thing to a real life Howard W. Campell Jr. as exists, and compares his crimes (for which he was hung at Nuremburg) to the activities of Coulter, Beck, and Limbaugh. It’s a good read, and mostly on the money. He makes a very strong case against Coulter and Beck, but if the quotes he uses for Limbaugh are the best he could find, his case is pretty weak there. Limbaugh is probably guilty of little more than paving the way for Beck and Coulter and Fox news.

Moving on to Obama’s student loan overhaul: I just read an article at the NYT called Obama’s Student Loan Overhaul Endangered. For those of you who don’t know, the American student loan system works as follows: Most student loans are made by private, for profit companies, with government guarantees. In other words, the private companies take the profit, while the federal government takes the risk. This is essentially the same problem people discuss with the bank bailouts (and the airline bailouts, and the automotive bailouts…) with one important difference: Here the situation is planned in advance. It’s not an attempt at averting an even worse catastrophe, it’s just an example of successful (for the profiteers) lobbying. For federally subsidized loans, the govt makes the interest payments until graduation. Student loans are exempt from bankruptcy, so even if you go bankrupt, you will still owe on the student loans.

Obama’s plan is to loan the money directly, which would save the government billions of dollars, which he would use to expand Pell grant scholarships. This is no-brainer policy reform. The only people who lose out are the lenders, who, let’s face it, are parasitic users who have obtained their risk-free, merit-free profits by gaming the U.S. political system.

But the education bill is strongly opposed by some Senate Democrats, particularly those in states where for-profit student lenders are major employers. In a letter to the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, six Democrats said they disliked the president’s proposal.

“We write to make you aware of our concern with provisions of contemplated student lending reform that could put jobs at risk,” the senators wrote. “Increase our nation’s commitment to higher education funding is a priority, but we must proceed toward this objective in a thoughtful manner that considers potential alternative legislative proposals, while still delivering an equivalent amount of savings over the next ten years.

So, who should be haranguing for this? They are: Senators Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jim Webb of Virginia. Now, I’m a huge fan of Webb for his courageous attempt at justice reform. He’s also one of the most reasonable and ethically consistent senators with regard to foreign policy. I might not agree with all his conclusions, but I thnk he’s a pretty good guy who works hard at being ethical. So in the end, the system is to blame, not the individuals. I’m not familiar with the others, but probably the same holds true. It’s not hard to see how this probably played out: Contributions buy you access. Once the lenders have access they make a spiel about how this is going to cost their state X jobs, and probably paints the whole thing as a political liability for the Senator in question. At that point the senator in question either cynically decides in favor of the local over the national interests (this amounts to self interest through the election process), or decides that he (or she) has to pick their battles carefully, and this one isn’t worth fighting.

What really gets me is couching the conflict of interest in terms of national interest vs jobs, where the real issue is national interest v.s. private wealth. Why? Well, the loans are going to made anyway, which means the jobs are needed anyway. The only difference is who’s doing the work, and where. So it’s not a question of jobs, it’s a question of whether or not we want to let some asshole(s) with money and connections profit from the student loan process or not. Who are these assholes? Well, Sallie Mae is at the top of the list.

The whole “jobs vs X” line is overplayed, and pretty transparent. It used to be used to great effect to torpedo environmental protections. Of course, environmental protections typically create jobs. It’s automation and outsourcing that destroys work places. Hopefully the american voter is gradually getting wise to this line of bullshit. So write your senator and tell them you don’t fall for that jobs versus X bullshit anymore, and you expect him (or her) to vote with your interests in mind, not with Fannie Mae’s.

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The info wars: Disney

 | March 10, 2010 3:28 am

I recently listened to an old Alex Jones – Noam Chomsky interview.  I absolutely detest Alex Jones, who’s essentially the Rush Limbaugh of the tinfoil hat crowd.  What I find reprehensible in his pseudo-journalism is the net effect of it, which is to discredit and marginalize legitimate points of concern in the political spectrum, for example corporate manipulation (well, ownership) of the media and manufacturing consent being perhaps the most vital.

The problem is AJ has a much bigger audience and visibility than intelligent, reasonable individuals (like Chomsky) who are working hard at exposing this stuff and educating people.   So when you start talking about corporate and elite ownership of the media, the average person will likely have heard these concepts first from a wing-nut source like Alex Jones, and will likely glaze over.  So while A.J. ended his interview with Prof Chomsky by calling Chomsky a corporate-elite schill, the truth is that A.J. does far more to further the corporate-elitist agenda.  I’ll be discussing that at some other point, but I want to talk about a concrete example of this kind of corporate media control that’s taking place right now.

Maybe you’ve heard about the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood?  These guys a a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, parents and individuals whoare trying to “reclaim childhood from corporate marketers”.   They managed to push Disney into offering refunds on their “Baby Einstein” videos, because (surprise!) watching a video doesn’t educate your kids, and in fact watching videos is probably harmful for young kids, no matter what’s being watched.  This wouldn’t be a problem if Disney hadn’t claimed that these videos were “education”.

So Disney had to offer refunds, and the companies involved had to drop the word “educational” from their marketing.  Good news all around.   But mega corporations (and Disney’s among the worst) doesn’t like it when people try to execute some kind of democratic control or accountability.  So Disney called up the Judge Baker Children’s Center (a Harvard affiliated children’s mental health center).     Apparently Disney put pressure on Judge Baker, who in turn pressured the heroes in this story not to advocate against corporations, and not talk to the media.  Wow.  Now the JBCC is evicting the C.C.F.C., apparently because “the mission of the C.C.F.C — to protect children from harmful exploitation by corporate marketers — is not in line with the Judge Bake mission”.

Now Karen Schwartzman said Judge Baker received no money, and no promise of money from Disney, so one has to wonder what form of motivator Disney used?  Hints of research grants (this wouldn’t be money to JB after all, but to the childrens center), or pressure through Harvard (does Disney donate or have joint research programs with Harvard)?  Or perhaps it was just the threat of frivolous lawsuits.  Disney is a particularly nasty beast, because, in addition to having the huge financial resources available to all major corporations, they have such an overwhelming hold on the American collective unconcious.  I think it’s hard for the average American to think of Disney as evil, which no doubt has  helped in Disney’s efforts to plunder and deny the public domain.

There’s a fairly good article at the NYT.

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