Sad Irony

January 29, 2011

A common economic complaint in the United States these days is that our manufacturing base has eroded, meaning that we don’t actually make stuff here anymore.

It turns out that the tear gas canisters fired by Egyptian police at protesters yesterday were made in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.

Tear gas: a weapon of terror used in Egypt, made in Pennsylvania.

As a Pennsylvanian, I feel compelled to apologize and point out that we’re not all pusillanimous sacks of crap who are content to earn a living by making and selling instruments of terror to brutal dictators, although that’s meaningless cold comfort to anyone who’s actually had to inhale our home cooking in the last few days.

I’d hope we can all look forward together to a world where nobody has to face tear gas anymore, but as long as somebody’s willing to make it, somebody’s willing to buy it, and somebody’s willing to use it, I doubt that’ll happen anytime soon.

Flavor Flav Knows Where You Live

January 26, 2011

This would almost be enough to make me want to put a GPS navigation system in my car:

Almost.

There Goes My Literary Hipster Street Cred

January 26, 2011

It’s been entirely too long since anything new popped up here. Deciding to remedy that situation this morning, but not wanting to attempt any actual work involved in creating a real blog post, I began running old entries through the I Write Like web site, which purports to analyze writing samples and match their word content and style to those of well-known (a.k.a., real) writers, to see what would appear.

The site claims the overwhelming majority of posts I’ve run through it match David Foster Wallace most closely, with a couple of stray entries each mirroring Chuck Palahniuk and Cory Doctorow.

The kicker is that while I’ve heard of all of these guys, I’ve never actually read any of their books. Hell, I’ve never even watched the movie version of Fight Club, despite my wife’s continual attempts through the years to make me see it.

There goes my literary hipster street cred. Maybe my status as some literatus with a B.A. in English is tracing thin ice these days, too.

The problem is that while I read a lot, most of what I read for fun is stuff that’s old enough to easily fall into the realm of public domain. Maybe I should start catching up with the twentieth century now that it’s over.

Jesse James, Meet Frankenstein(‘s Daughter)

January 8, 2011

It looks like Colonel Sanders in a Gothic dungeon. I have no idea what's going on here, either.

From the I-Can’t-Believe-Something-Like-This-Actually-Exists Department, here is a film called Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. It’s available to watch and download, for free, on the Internet Archive.

You’re welcome.

Einstürzende Cosgrove

January 4, 2011

The kids had dueling stereos playing in the living room this morning. In the one corner was Sparks Fly by Miranda Cosgrove, and in the other corner was Halber Mensch by Einstürzende Neubauten.

I swear I am not making that up. They were also perfectly content to have both playing on repeat mode for several hours.

The overall effect of the aural clash was the impression that Dieter from Sprockets had been tapped to run Nickelodeon (which, now that I think about it, would do a lot to explain how much of the humor in shows like iCarly and SpongeBob SquarePants somehow makes it in there).

Dieter from Sprockets, from Wikipedia.

We all know who SpongeBob's real creator is.

The Cosgrove CD was a Christmas present from the grandparents to our three year-old son, while the Neubauten album is something I’ve had in one format or another for many years.

That a couple of preschoolers would enjoy listening to treacly tween pop isn’t the least bit surprising, but their enjoyment of Einstürzende Neubauten is only surprising until you stop and think about it for a moment:

  • What do toddlers and early preschoolers enjoy doing? Banging and scraping stuff together loudly, especially if they’re metal pots and pans, with occasional random screaming.
  • What has Einstürzende Neubauten made a career out of doing? Banging and scraping stuff together loudly, with occasional screaming.

Add the two together, and of course little kids are going to like avant-garde German industrial music from the mid 1980s. They haven’t had the chance to form a preconceived opinion that it’s strange yet; all they know is that it sounds kind of like what they like doing anyway.

Add processed pop music targeted at kids to the mix, and they’re all over it — which is how we ended up with Einstürzende Cosgrove playing in the living room, over and over again, all morning. To them, that isn’t weird at all. I, on the other hand, was ready to curl up into a little ball muttering, “Can’t sleep – clowns will eat me,” by lunchtime.

I can’t help but wonder what a DJ mashup of the two albums would sound like, if only for the entertainment value provided by potential track titles like “Kissin’ Yü-Gung” or “Shakespeare Brennt.”

Anyway, now is the time on Sprockets when we dance.

Why WikiLeaks Matters

December 9, 2010

I’ll preface this by saying that my professional background was in journalism and public relations — specifically in the field of sports. I worked closely with newspaper sports reporters for many years, especially those at our local daily papers. What I’ve seen happen there over the past 10+ years can help greatly in understanding why an organization like WikiLeaks is of vital importance to investigative journalism and with it, the survival of free speech and democracy, no matter what you may think about the documents they’re releasing right now, and also why the current assaults on it are so frightening.

When I graduated from college over 11 years ago and landed my first — and so far only — “real job” handling communications for a collegiate athletics department, few could see it happening at the time, but a combination of technological and economic factors was emerging that had already sent the newspaper industry into a terminal tailspin, one that has only intensified through the years.

At the time, we had three local newspapers. Two were dailies; one ran six days a week in the mornings, while the other ran six days a week in the evenings. Plus, there was a weekly, larger, Sunday paper. It was an unusual arrangement, in that all three newspapers were owned by the same family and operated out of the same building, yet they all competed with one another for stories. Because it has always been a family-owned operation, our local papers weren’t subject to quite as severe monetary pressures as their corporate-owned brethren, but they were heavily buffeted all the same.

Those outside the media business might not know this, but newspapers never made money by selling subscriptions and individual copies. Their revenue principally came from selling advertising space throughout the paper, as well as selling small ads in the classified section.

Classified section revenue began to dry up with the advent and growth of free websites like Craigslist. You can’t underestimate the difference that shift has made in the economic fundamentals of the newspaper industry. To see the extent of the damage, just take a look at the size of the classified section in your local paper today, and then locate a copy of that same newspaper from about 20 years ago, and see how large the classified section is there. Every column inch lost, and there are staggeringly many, is revenue lost.

The other source of revenue, regular advertising, has dried up as more people began getting their news online through a variety of sources, not just (and often not at all), their local paper’s web site, causing subscription rates to decline. A company isn’t willing to pay nearly as much for a print ad if far fewer people are ever going to see it.

The effect of this has been devastating. As the years went by, it became harder and harder for me to get stories from reporters into our local papers as their sports departments’ staffs, as well as the column inches with which they had to work, shrank as a result of less revenue. Plus, as the sports sections slowly got smaller, less original work from their own reporters and columnists appeared in the shrinking space. Regional and national stories were covered by stuff picked up from the wire services increasingly often. In local sports, it was a lot cheaper to cobble together bits and pieces from postgame press releases I’d fax and email in, as well as post on our school’s web site, rather than send a reporter to cover the game.

Things continued to get leaner for the three papers until, finally, a couple of years ago, the morning and evening papers were merged into one. That unified paper was not any larger than the separate morning and evening papers were, by the way. Half of the space devoted to coverage evaporated overnight.

The result of this long decline is that the space devoted to sports coverage in our local papers over the course of an average week today has probably contracted to about a third of what it was ten to fifteen years ago.

If you think what’s happened to our county-wide daily newspapers is bad, you should see what’s happened to our very local, small-town weekly newspaper. Actually, you can’t because it doesn’t exist anymore.

So what the heck does all of this have to do with WikiLeaks? It’s this: if something as popular and generally non-controversial as the newspaper sports section can be so thoroughly decimated, what do you think has happened to investigative reporting and hard news coverage? How often does your local paper send reporters to cover things like every town council, zoning committee, and school board meeting these days? The resources to do those things all too often don’t exist anymore.

It isn’t just small-town papers that have been hit in this way — our largest papers and newsmagazines have all seen significant reductions in staff and space as well. You may think that there are plenty of other news outlets to take up the slack, but that isn’t the case. Television news has never had the capacity for investigative journalism that print media had. Let’s face it: money shots of memoranda don’t make enthralling TV that attracts viewers. Popular news web sites like those of Google, Yahoo, and AOL don’t generate much, if any, content; they mostly aggregate it from — you guessed it — the ever-shrinking newspaper industry. Most bloggers don’t actually contribute any new information, they just provide their opinions on stuff — I know that’s what I do on the rare occasions like this when I’m not fulfilling this space’s usual function of making erudite-sounding fart jokes.

Paradoxically, while the number of news sources has exploded over the last decade, the number of people able to make a living doing actual reporting has diminished substantially. It’s hard to imagine an organization like The Washington Post having the wherewithal and manpower to doggedly pursue a story like Watergate all the way to its conclusion today. You can think whatever you want about the content WikiLeaks is releasing right now; that doesn’t change the fact that, at this moment, they’re just about all that we have left that’s fulfilling the kind of large-scale investigative and whistleblower role that newspapers used play to a much greater degree.

And that is precisely what makes today’s hacktivists and news organizations like WikiLeaks so vital — they are what has so far stepped in to fill the investigative journalism vacuum created by the newspaper industry’s collapse. They’re the ones who are actually providing a platform for those digging up or leaking information previously unavailable to the public, putting it out there, and letting the chips fall where they may. That’s a critically important role in any society that at least fancies itself free.

And that’s what makes the current attacks against WikiLeaks so profoundly disturbing. I know absolutely nothing about Julian Assange’s personal life; for all I know the charges against him stemming from his personal life could very well be perfectly legit. What I do know is that we’ve never seen anything even remotely like the current assault on WikiLeaks’ operational capabilities, coordinated among various governments and corporations to try to shut down servers and cut off the organization’s ability to receive donations from the public.

For all Richard Nixon’s rage at The New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers, he never tried to destroy their printing presses, get ink and paper vendors to withhold ink and paper, or get banks to freeze all the paper’s assets and thereby immediately shut it down. Even if he had thought of the latter examples, there hopefully wouldn’t have been a bank, ink supplier, or paper vendor back then that would have gone along with it. As reporting on the Watergate story mounted, nobody in the mainstream media called for the summary execution of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. And presuming such things had managed to occur back then, and that the perps had gotten away with it, what kind of world do you think we’d be living in as a result today?

But that’s exactly what’s happening today, and it’s happening without charges, without trial, without convictions, and without much of a chance of any of those things happening, because it appears no actual law has been broken by WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents it has received. WikiLeaks is a news organization, not a terrorist organization. If it becomes classified as latter, then so is every news organization that has ever published anything labeled “secret” or “confidential” — and that’s just about every news organization in existence.

I know that transparency in government and business necessarily has its limitations (for example, I wouldn’t want my income tax returns or bank statements published publicly, nor do I think would anyone else want those things happening to themselves). But that does not change the fact that what is happening to WikiLeaks right now is nothing less than a full-scale assault in broad daylight on journalism and freedom of speech by an open collusion of governments and businesses. It desperately needs to be resisted by more than just a bunch of childish, mask-wearing doofuses who think pwning a credit card’s online brochure for a few minutes constitutes “payback.” Salon.com’s Dan Gilmour explains why better than I ever could:

Media organizations with even half a clue need to recognize what is at stake at this point. It’s more than immediate self-interest, namely their own ability to do their jobs. It’s about the much more important result if they can’t. If journalism can routinely be shut down the way the government wants to do this time, we’ll have thrown out free speech in this lawless frenzy.

. . . I’m deeply ambivalent about some of what WikiLeaks does, and what this affair portends. Governments need to keep some secrets, and laws matter. So does the First Amendment, and right now it’s under an attack that could shred it.

I Solve Your Holiday Shopping Dilemmas

December 2, 2010

Overpriced three-piece tool set.The Sharper Image 3-Piece Tool Set.

Do something or other with this stylish 3-piece tool set. Includes three people who’ve purchased items from The Sharper Image. Only $259.99!

Meet the Host of the 2022 World Cup

December 2, 2010

From the U.S. Department of State:

“Qatar does not allow individuals with HIV/AIDS to enter the country . . . Qatari authorities have confiscated the passports of U.S. citizens who acquired Qatari citizenship . . .  In several cases, Qatari authorities informed U.S. citizens that their U.S. citizenship had been revoked. However, foreign governments have no authority to revoke the citizenship of a U.S. citizen . . . The Embassy strongly encourages U.S. citizens to avoid large crowds and demonstrations whenever possible . . . Local and third-country-national young men have been known to verbally and physically harass unaccompanied, expatriate women . . . Qatari police have arrested U.S. citizens suspected of or witness to a crime, including traffic accidents involving injuries to pedestrians or the occupants of other cars, traffic arguments, slander, and a variety of lesser offenses . . . Insulting someone in public is considered a punishable offense . . . Proselytizing is illegal in Qatar . . . Homosexual activity is considered to be a criminal offense, and those convicted may be sentenced to lashings, a prison sentence, and/or deportation.”

GOOD GOD, DON’T EAT THAT! – Thanksgiving Leftover Edition

November 29, 2010

Since I’ve occasionally used this space to write about Frankenstein-like food concoctions I’ve created that would frighten Rachel Ray, I’ve been thinking it might be time to start a catchily-titled series of on-again, off-again posts about off-kilter, improvised recipes I’ve come up with — maybe something like, GOOD GOD, DON’T EAT THAT!

This installment of GOOD GOD, DON’T EAT THAT! revolves around a typical Thanksgiving dinner leftover: herbed potatoes. You know the kind; potatoes are cut up into small pieces, mixed with a blend of oil and herbs, and baked in the oven. Normal people will typically use red potatoes to do this.

However, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house this year, and my parents don’t qualify as “normal people.” They know less about cooking than I do. My mom’s favorite food is boiled chicken. That’s right, plain boiled chicken. For seasoning, there might or might not be a stray bullion cube casually tossed into the water. One year for my birthday, I got to feast upon an unrisen orange cake. Then there was the Christmas my mom made sugar cookies and forgot to add the sugar. That one worked out okay, though, because my sister had a very bad cold at the time, so we just fed all of them to her since she couldn’t taste anything. She didn’t know their flavor was practically inedible until after she’d eaten all of them. I won’t go into details about The Great Scone Incident of 1981, other than to say that it explains the origin of the mysterious dent in the kitchen floor of their old house. My dad used to try to make something he called “snowballs” during the holidays, except they ended up looking like underwater mines and managed to suck all the moisture out of your mouth in addition to being totally devoid of flavor.

Anyway, the potatoes they baked this Thanksgiving were a mix of red potatoes, white potatoes, yellow potatoes and sweet potatoes. None of these — especially not the sweet potatoes — cook at the same rate. So, some of the potato chunks were a little al dente while others had turned to paste. Also, the herb dressing the potatoes received was a little unorthodox. My parents had purchased some fresh tarragon to use for the potatoes, because that’s what they heard you’re supposed to use. They didn’t use the tarragon, however, because, according to my mom, “It smelled kind of funny, like it was going bad.” It turns out the smell my mom interpreted as rancid was actually the smell of fresh tarragon.

At any rate, at the end of the day we were given a vat of the oddly un-herbed “herbed” potato leftovers to take home. They sat in the fridge until this afternoon, when I decided I’d better use them up. Since they were a little weird to begin with, heating them up in the microwave didn’t seem like the best option. Plus, I had about half of a leftover onion in the fridge, as well as a few corn tortillas that were nearing their expiration date, so I decided to combine all of them.

The potatoes were already herbed and oiled, but I added more olive oil to the pan for the onion. Once it was hot, I added the potatoes and onion and let them sauté/fry for a while. When they were done, I put them into a bowl with some shredded cheddar cheese and let the cheese melt. Then I added the corn tortillas, one at a time to the still-greasy pan, and spooned the potato and onion mixture into them and let them cook some more (and absorb more oil in the process). To each of the “tacos,” I then added a little bit of Tabasco Sauce, quite a bit of ranch dressing, and a shred of romaine lettuce.

The result was like a mutant offering to the Gods of Taco Bell. I’ve convinced myself that these inbred tacos aren’t as horrifically unhealthy as they certainly are, because:

  1. I added olive oil to the already oiled potatoes. That’s healthy, right?
  2. Corn tortillas are whole grain, which everybody knows has fiber and crap.
  3. Romaine lettuce is supposed to have vitamins and shiznit.
  4. I used fat free ranch dressing, which we all know makes it totally okay. Actually, I purchased the fat free variety by accident, but that’s neither here nor there.
  5. The potato mixture contained sweet potatoes, which according to all the latest dietary research are supposed to be able to summon Jesus or something.

The result ended up tasting surprisingly good, although the kids refused to touch them. Unlike me, they know better.

Fire Up The Torches!

November 24, 2010
The 2009 Gävle Christmas Goat.

The 2009 goat, before it went all Guy Fawkes on us.

This just in: the Christmas Goat of Gävle, Sweden, will arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many previous incarnations at 3:00 p.m. local time November 28.

I give it about five days this year. If anyone wants to start a pool as to when it will take the flaming dirt nap, let me know.

If, in the meantime, you want to send the goat an e-mail and ask it to reflect in Swedish upon the meaning it finds in its rapidly impending mortality, you can do so by contacting gavlegoat@merjuligavle.se.


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