Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Episode 2: Dr. Alan Glasser

Our sophomore episode is now live! I talk with Dr. Alan Glasser from the University of Washington's PSI (Plasma Science and Innovation) Center. We discuss nuclear science, nuclear power, science in general and religion. Exciting stuff. Click the play button below to make it happen:

XML/Podcast feed to follow shortly. In the meantime, if you'd like the download the file for later, click here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Science Saturday

I am preparing to record an interview with Dr. Alan Glasser on science, among other things, and I came across this short clip of Ken Miller on the human genetics and our primate ancestors. Although the uploader of this video chose, I think, a title too provocative, the subject matter is facing. Take a look:

The intriguing bit, which he waits until the end of the topic to reveal, is that Miller admits to being a theist, but not a creationist. I am fascinated by the growing distrust of science and terrified that one of the outcomes of this distrust may that an entire generation of Americans loses their incentive to help expand the frontiers of knowledge. More on this later...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

SOPA, Protest, and Acting "As If..."

If you turned on your Internet yesterday you may have seen subtle (or gross) evidence of a boycott of some pending legislation. Namely the House of Representative's SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and its Senatorial counterpart PIPA (the Protect IP Act). Both bills inscribe new powers granted to the Federal government to police the web for copyright infringement. While the case for the need for such powers is far from settled, opposition to the bill has centered around its callous disregard for due process in this newly declared war on piracy.

Instead of me attempting to describe the biggest problems about SOPA and PIPA, please watch this video primer from noted Internet pedagogic guru Khan Academy:

The key point the narrator makes here is "...on just a whim [the government] could take down any site with user generated content..." Of course, it would be foolish to think that, if enacted, the newly minted Internet Police would take down Facebook or YouTube (those sites are too wealthy, have too many lawyers, and too well connected to face a serious threat of shutting down), but they won't. However, the number of these suspected sites that would be in violation of copyright infringement would be so large it could represent a majority of the webpages on the Internet (there are over 340 million pages on the web, by the way). But obviously they can't do that, so what would follow would be a witch hunt of sorts, highly politicized, that would mire the courts and the very infrastructure of the Internet for years.

So, cue Internet activism! Yesterday, January 18th, sites like Google and Wired censored their pages in part, or like Wikipedia, blacked them out entirely. And it worked, for now. Congressmen and Senators, likely seeing the potential backlash from future voters, did an about face. The number of legislators who stated as explicitly for/against flipped from 80/30 to 64/108. The combined voice of many large cultural entities on the Web *did* shift the political trade winds in this instance, and we should take note.

However, we should always be cautious. The sponsor of SOPA, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, will continue to mark up the bill in February, effectively putting the legislation back on the table. And, even more likely, if it cannot be passed into law in its current form it will added into other future legislation; legislation against which it will be even more difficult to rally congressional opposition.

There is much too much say about the intricate web of influence bearing down on this legislation (the poster child for this is the newly minted CEO of the MPAA and astoudingly hypocritical Former Senator Chris Dodd) from movie and music industry lobbies to video game developers and publishers. Not surprisingly, this is a bipartisan effort fueled by the coffers of entertainment industry lobbyists to secure complete regulatory capture over the public's interest in creative works. Not only solidifying their control over the law, but the enforcement of those laws as well.

Infuriating as the legislative situation may be, I was more intrigued by the notions of another commentator, a man who is invisible to lawmakers, the mass media and, well, just about everyone else too out of touch with the Internet to comprehend it without some kind of grossly oversimplified and utterly misunderstood analogy. That man is Maddox, pre-blog era blogger and creator of The Best Page in the Universe™. Known primarily for his take-downs of pop culture icons (i.e. Joan Rivers, Jar-Jar Binks, etc...) or his indignant and incendiary backlash against duplicitous and fraudulent internet businesses. He's the foul-mouthed, spitfire contrarian most people would prefer to ignore forever. But buried within the satirical sass lies the seeds of bitter truths.

Maddox's current page has a rant with a large title splashed across which states "I Hope SOPA Passes." Why, you ask? It's not because Maddox owns a multimedia empire vulnerable to those pesky digital pirates. Quite the opposite. He's a small blogger who is able to keep "above water" from the revenues from his online store. Maddox's satirical appropriation of images or clips from other copyrighted works are key elements his commentary. Such is the case with most content creators on the Internet. It's the protest itself he finds unpalatable. He wants SOPA to pass...

Because that's exactly what we need to wake up from this slumbering, do-nothing, "occupy everything," stagnant, non-action slump we Americans are in.

He goes onto pointing out the other types of things this protest culture believes:

  • Boycotting gas for a day makes a difference. It doesn't. Delaying when you buy gas by a day only broadcasts your intentions to oil speculators so they can profit. And the oil still gets purchased a day before or after anyway.
  • Neurotically recycling every single shred of garbage in your home makes a difference. It doesn't. Even if you, your neighbors, and everyone you've ever met recycled everything and reduced your waste output to zero, it wouldn't even make an observable impact on overall waste production in the world. Household waste and garden residue account for less than 3% of all waste produced in the US. That's less than the average statistical margin of error, and most people don't even come close to producing zero waste.
  • Changing your profile picture on Facebook will get people to: A) stop abusing kids B) stop molesting kids C) stop killing kids and D) do anything.
  • Signing an online petition, or changing the front page of your website to protest SOPA will fix anything.

The kind of irrationality Maddox rails against has been described by Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek as "fetishistic disavowal." He clarifies this as the the way in which we know our behavior is not actually having the desired effect, but we continue to do it and act as though it does anyways. This is the same tendency that like to call "theater." For example, the increased presence and authority of the TSA in domestic airports. They are agents of the security state designated to catch potential terrorists on domestic flights, but have failed to catch even one terrorist. This is a kind of "security theater" wherein we employ thousands of agents, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, to give us the impression of security, in the absence of evidence that they really accomplish the goal of increased security. In fact, the TSA's own "Top 10 Good Catches of 2011" were forgetful or clueless, yet innocent, people. I am also fond of describing "dog poop theater," wherein a dog owner must pretend to pick up poop off of a strangers lawn if the canine didn't defecate, for fear that someone will see them if they don't pick up "the poop." But, I digress.

This "disavowal" is, at its core, rooted in our ideologies. It is a kind of faith we place in overarching narratives about causality, about the outcomes of our actions. But more importantly, the narratives about our own agency in the world. Us humans are perpetually caught between the contradictory notions that we are ultimately helpless to larger forces at play in the universe and simultaneously the boundless masters of our own destiny. Our ideologies create the lens through which we view this contradiction, and either empower us to action or comfort us in our misfortune.

My answer to this, and my rebuttal to Maddox, is that while we should be critical of over-praising ourselves as saviors but we should celebrate every little victory we achieve, even if the victory is merely symbolic. The SOPA win is praiseworthy and significant, just the same as the Occupy movement, because it brings new issues to light, new discussions to the fore. But, we should not go to sleep afterward and become complacent. And we should never be afraid to dream, for in dreams possibility is without limit and only from dreams that humanity's true marvels have been realized.

EDIT: A must-read follow up to the on-going SOPA fiasco.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

If You Listen to One Thing Today: Mike Daisey and China

Monologist Mike Daisey on China: The Place Where All of Our Junk is Made:
Chilling and brilliant. Give a listen.

Monday, January 9, 2012

On the Limits of Debate (Election 2012 Edition)

As I stated in my previous post, watching the Republican candidates debate is a "mind-bendingly elaborate insult to rational discourse," and very few inside the media are wont to scrutinize the inanity of the process. While the debates themselves were, in the past run by a non-partisan and independent organization, the League of Women Voters, since 1988 the debates have been a collusion between the two ruling parties, and hence a sham. Not only does the Commission on Presidential Debates effectively exclude third-party and unpopular opinions for national, televised debates (the sole avenue through which most Americans learn about the candidates), but the participants agree on ground rules (those topics for which they can and cannot discuss) behind closed doors and without any form of public participation. The process as it stands now is unrepentant political theater at its purest and a conspiracy in the truest Twainian sense:

“A conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public”

So it follows that yet another mechanism of discursive gatekeeping has been inscribed in the process itself, limiting the candidates who may appear (and hence their ability to be "known" by the electorate), limiting the scope and boundaries of the topics discussed, and ultimately constraining the potential range of policies any given President may be able to enact.

If the above breakdown sounds cynical and defeatist, I admit for the moment, that it is. But every so often, the contradictions that exist within this closed system yield unexpected results.

Take this Vlog discussion between linguist James McHorter and Brown University's Glenn Loury on Ron Paul and the Republican debates:

Once again, Ron Paul is the key here. The process as it is produced a candidate for whom a portion of his political message runs diametrically opposed to political orthodoxy, namely the sacrosanct triumvirate of the domestic security state, the "war" on drugs, and military intervention and occupation abroad. This is so shocking because even the Democrats were afraid to run a candidate so boldly in opposition to warlord Bush in 2004, fearing the label of being "weak on defense."

Glenn Loury very lucidly (and I think accurately) denounces the requirement of each candidate to "genuflect" appropriately to satisfy the overarching Republican narrative (Obama must be stopped at all cost, taxes must be cut to end recession, America needs to fight and expand its wars indefinitely, entitlements must be eliminated, etc...). They make reference to the idea of Ron Paul's odious views as akin to "farting in church," which in and of itself invokes a startling image of the ideological groupthink in which the political and media classes are embroiled.

The conclusion drawn by both commentators is intriguing, namely that Ron Paul's views on domestic policy are abhorrent, but seeing as how the media elite have done everything in their power to make him invisible (and when they cannot ignore him outright, paint him as "unelectable"), it is fascinating to hear his views on foreign policy in such close proximity to the perpetual caterwauling over whom would bomb Iran MORE.

It is difficult for me to produce an opinion more articulate and striking as the above two commentators, but I would only say that despite my aforementioned cynicism, I think that the mere inclusion of Paul's anti-Imperialist critique in the debate signals a larger civilizational trend for the growth of civility in our fractured world. In 2003, on the eve of starting an unprovoked, illegal and immoral war on Iraq, we saw some of the largest world-wide protests ever recorded. Despite the ubiquitous gloom and doom impressed upon us by global events, we are becoming more civilized; the voice of reason, and those willing to repeat and amplify that voice, are growing. Strange days, indeed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More (Apocalyptic) Thoughts -- In Long Form

In building this podcast/discussion enterprise, I am slowing realizing the value of "long form" material. Certainly my first podcast, which clocks in at roughly 1 hour 15 minutes, is a tangent from your standard "The Day in 100 Seconds" web fare. It may be my own self-righteous inclination to prosecute discussions in the same manner as one would patronize a potful of tea. To that end, I will make no apology for long-windedness, I will merely aim to make what I present to you worth your precious time.

Mea culpas aside, my reflections on the New Year® have wandered into darker territories, as the current political circus revs up for what promises to be a mind-bendingly elaborate insult to rational discourse. Author and journalist Chris Hedges appeared on C-SPAN on New Years Day to perform an impressive three-hour marathon of interview and caller questions (as has become C-SPAN's signature format for notable guests). He lays out a case, in first 15-or-so minutes, for the downfall of the American Empire and the rise of "Corporate Totalitarianism." Take a look here (apologies as C-SPAN's archive does not allow embedding):


For Hedges, the decline of the economic opportunity, as well as the erosion of civil liberties (and the pernicious cultural manipulation used to create popular consent for this disenfranchisement) are really a failure of institutions. Journalism, trade unions, populist politicians/legislation; these are the firewalls that once insulated the vulnerable citizenry from political and economic dispossession, but are now lost to decades of concerted class warfare by the corporate elite.

Hedges view is certainly not unique. His is essentially a Chomskyan worldview, delivered through the experiences of the baby boomer generation, informed by the dissent of such figures as I.F. Stone and Dwight Macdonald, all with a dash of Liberation Theology-flavored radicalism. He certainly makes all of the tell-tale allusions to anarcho-syndicalism (the Wobblies) as well as to the Bernays/Lippman program of the "manufacture of consent." Hedges also has the distinction of a front-line journalist, which can produce an understandably bleak (but well informed) critique of powerful institutions.

While Hedges laments the "slow motion" destruction of the tools available to popular movements to affect change, he ultimately concludes (as he does in his 2009 book 'Empire of Illusion') that hope rests solely in mass popular movements, akin to the labor struggles of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

This strikes me as another case of "Chomsky's Wager." Legendary author and activist Noam Chomsky has long maintained that given the proper education, the masses will grow to understand the blatant contradictions between our national self-image (freedom and democracy) and the actions carried out by those who purport to work in furtherance of these ideals. Ultimately, these revelations will give rise to a populist moral imperative to eschew the misguided violence and control that these institutions utilize, and either co-opt them or abolish them outright in a wave of mass actions.

On the subject of Chomsky's Wager, I am ambivalent. I am skeptical of the redemptive power of a righteous mob in service of objective truth (for reasons which I should not need to expand upon here). A set of assumptions underlies the surety of Chomsky's solution, the foremost of which is that societies of a sufficiently large size possess the capacity to undergo such gargantuan shifts of public consciousness. The emotional fervor evoked by American patriotism and nationalism within the electorate are powerful, if not insurmountable.

Also, I find it dubious that Americans, despite the gradual dissolution of their rights, who live in an uncommonly open and prosperous society would seek to destabilize their immediate material and social lives for an alien and unfamiliar future. Their economic safety net, albeit a crumbling one, is reinforced by a comforting ideological safety net, which is so persuasive that seemingly no amount of military aggression, domestic repression and economic disenfranchisement has yet been able to unseat. The American dream is an enduring delusion.

In contrast to Hedge's gambit, I humbly direct you to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Last year, Zizek appeared on a Dutch television program to expound on ideas from his book "Living in the End Times." Watch the master at work:

Zizek's unique political and social perspective is born out of the turmoil of Soviet-era Yugoslavia. He is known primarily for his study (and appropriation) of the French Psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan's cultural theories and as labeling himself as an unapologetic Communist. For Zizek, the problem is (and always has been) ideological in nature, as it is ideologies that create and sustain the semiotics and mythologies that comprise our sense of self. As Zizek is fond of repeating "It is not what lies in the wheelbarrow, it is the wheelbarrow itself."

It is our vulnerability to adopting factually falsities (the example in the above video of the hedge fund millionaire, claiming the market wasn't allowed to work because government intervened) that is the trademark of ideology. It is the propensity for the simplistic, false, and irrational to supersede the quest for truth. Zizek often uses a dialectical method of analyzing cultural phenomena, looking at the obverse as well as the inverse.

I appreciate the way it was put by H.L. Mencken: "For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong."

Viewing our crisis from a Marxist perspective, Zizek links the ideological issue to that of our economic system. He claims that recent economic crisis was decried by Capitalism's apologists that "tr[ied] to put the blame on how we were not faithful enough to the fundamentals of the system." Zizek goes on to state that "...Capitalism today is a matter of religion, in the sense of it's built on trust." In other words, our failures amounted to a problem a lack of devotion to the Church of Capitalism, not that the problem might be Capitalism itself.

Ultimately, Zizek concludes that "[n]either the market nor the state... will do the job..." of rescuing us from ourselves. Zizek does offer a solution, however it is difficult to know whether or not to take him seriously. He calls for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" to be sole hope of human social liberation.

His critics accuse him, and rightly so, of sometimes espousing contradictory positions in his meandering and raving polemics, but like Marx himself, the methods he uses to frame the problems may be more valuable than the solutions offered. My own view on Hedges and Zizek lies somewhere in between.

Ideology represents the single greatest achievement of the human species (the ability for different tribes to organize around common principles) and has led to much of the advancements that we hold dear. But the ideologies of our past, as well as the institutions we build to sustain them past the lifespan of any single human, die hard. The speed of information, the quickening of the pace of communication and the shortening of attention point us towards quick hits, not long games. The pining for the old newspaper, the proud union, or the inspired political party betray our inchoate desire for the benevolent dictator; if only we found the CEO/president/spiritual leader that understands us best, the future could be salvaged. Perhaps the secret is not to look for salvation at all.

The little apocalypses we create may merely be visions of our personal ends. And the future may be beset by chaos; we are buzzing little bees without a queen.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011: A Year for Recaps

With the New Year® already in swing, the compulsion to nostalgize grows, and the beast must be fed. I'll refrain from boring you with a personal eulogy of all things tragic about the last year, but, I urge you to take the time and watch Charlie Brooker (the UK's answer to Jon Stewart) and his snarkey, sobering and always insightful commentary on the now-by-gone annum:

With a runtime of about an hour, you'll definitely want to make time for this clip, but it is well worth it. Not least of all was the glimpse into the events that the British obsessed over, but didn't show up on our news radar here in America. Perhaps most bizarre was the super-injunction scandal, which was tantamount to institutionalized press censorship.

Also of note: Brooker's commentary contains a mini-documentary by the brilliant filmmaker Adam Curtis on embattled publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch and his rise to power. Curtis' incisive, and award-winning, explorations of topics like the manipulation of public mind garnered much praised, but his works has not yet received too much attention in the states. If you have *more* time today, I recommend getting comfortable and watching The Century of the Self... you'll thank me for it.

And, I digress. Happy New Year to you all!