This post was divided into separate posts 10-07-09. Those posts are linked below.
March 2009 Archives
Reposted as single post 10-07 from 03-26 Notes
But Papers Won't Be Paper
In our last post ("Yotta-Yotta-Yottabytes: Content Makes Kings, Print Dies") we touched on themes in ongoing conversations all over the web and in newspapers about the seeming demise of reporting -- not just science reporting -- any reporting. We mentioned copyright and aggregators, and questioned trends towards online aggregation that mimic print monopolization. Clearly aggregators add value by collecting in one accessible place news for all the readers. Aggregators also fulfill their own business goals by collecting more advertising revenue than, say, two person online content generators. But lots of unresolved issues need to be ironed out.
To me a key question is intellectual property -- I know, so yesteryear. But consider the site that collects all the free Creative Commons lectures from Universities like Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, and posts these under a non-Creative Commons site license with prominent use of the Ivy's names (to establish the site's credentials). "Academic Earth", not to be confused with LexisNexis's "Academic Universe", now promises that they will "try" to keep the content as "open as possible". In another move bound to endear AE to the professors whose lectures they use, the site owners "grade" the lectures, starting with "B".
Last week, I saw another site with text and photos from older works (before 1921) released into the public domain, with warnings that the company had "added value" (imperceptibly), so that now all the works were copyrighted and needed to be purchased. 1 These are two examples in the wide open arena where creative content producers try to eek out a living, copyright protection flounders under the ubiquitous ease of internet infringement, and sites that recycle, remix, or analyze content, navigate sometimes unclear boundaries.
This week Google removed thousands of videos from its YouTube site, based on a Warner's demand to removed all of its copyrighted songs, even including those obscure videos where your aunt Milly sings her favorite 60's tune while your uncle plays the piano. As of last week, every video was taken down, robotically removed.
In another case, last week BoingBoing posted a note submitted by site "Apartment Therapy" about a take-down notice the NYT sent to the home decorating site. A.T. said:
"We are shocked & disappointed their [NYT] first contact with concerns about our use of their images (in posts about their stories!) was a threatening letter & DMCA takedown notice to our ISP who have warned us they will disable our servers if we don't comply with the NY Times request." (emphasis ours)
But to be fair, it's not the first time NYT contacted Apartment Therapy. BoingBoing wrote another post five years ago excerpting another AT protest about the New York Times, who in that June, 2004 situation, contacted them by phone to again request they take down copy-righted content. Was that the "first" time? Who knows.
BoingBoing had one take on the Apartment Therapy/NYT mediation: "Pop quiz: You're a troubled media dinosaur struggling to find your way on the Web. What steps can you take to actively discourage people from linking to you, thus reducing your pageviews and revenue?" BoingBoing readers weighed in on whether that was a fair assessment. Some BoingBoing commenters observed that the decorating site actually posts all the photos and content from NYT articles, making the link to NYT several clicks in totally meaningless. While AT may come to some agreement with NYT the larger issue of copyright is less likely to sort itself out prettily.
1 I stumbled on several sites like this last week -- unknown name.
10-07 reposted as single post from Notes 03-26
Although it's been twenty years since images of oil-drenched birds (~250,000 initially killed) filled our newspapers after the huge Prince William Sound spill, the damage remains.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council recently reported on the status of some species in the Sound. Ten species are "recovering, ten are considered "recovered", and two, the Pacific Herring and Pigeon Guillemots, are "not recovering". The fate of many more species is unknown. We last wrote about the Exxon Valdez spill when we looked at the stated reasons the Supreme Court decided to lower the damages in the case to $500 million.
16,000 gallons of oil continues to seep out into the ecosystem bit by bit during rains. To address the ongoing pollution, the US Government and the State of Alaska sent Exxon-Mobil a demand for $92 million dollars to fund the joint-federal restoration plan in 2006, but then President George Bush and Governor Sarah Palin didn't press the company to pay up. The Public Employees for Environmental Safety (PEER) and Professor Rick Steiner from the University of Alaska have written the Obama administration and the Attorney General of Alaska asking them to act to collect Exxon-Mobil's debt.
Reposted as single post 10-7. Already posted in Notes 03-26
When Banks Will Be Banks
Name the event -- 9-11, terrorism, the Chinese economy, global warming, one banking crisis or another -- each motivates its own little publishing industry. uthors write and publishers publish, eager to meet the demands for new knowledge. The financial crisis got people thinking about recessions, depressions, credit default swaps, mortgages, and financial markets, and we now can chose among all the best sellers, "The Subprime Solution..", and "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets..", "The Trillion Dollar Meltdown..","The Forgotten Man", "The Ascent of Money..", "The Return of Depression Economics.." -- more titles everyday. These new books are intriguing and fun, and they'll hopefully help the floundering publishing industry keep its head above water.
But really, when it comes to banking, you don't have to buy a new book, you can just as well read an older one, such as John Galbraith's 1975 "Money: Whence it Came and Where it Went". The book works its way from the Mississippi Bubble to the Bank of England, through the history of the American monetary system up until 1971, with plenty of insights for today's banking woes. Many people have heard of the Mississippi Bubble and its architect, John Law, but I especially like Galbraith's telling.
John Law moved to France in 1716, fleeing a murder charge after dominating a duel in England. Law had inherited a fortune and won even more as a gambler. In France, Law set up a bank and began to issue guaranteed notes, something that France appreciated. The country found Law's entrepreneurial effort a great solution to its fiscal insolvency, having gone broke under the reign of Louis XXVI. With Law's notes, which he instituted in lieu of the gold, standard, France paid its bills and Law's bank flourished. His bank issued more and more notes.
Law then decided to issue notes for a land bank in what was the large land mass of Louisiana. Rumor had it that America's southern swamps were filled with gold. Buoyed by the fame his bank brought him, Law also turned his efforts to economic and social reform. He lobbied to get rid of tolls and tariffs and rallied the clergy to give unused land to peasants.
Wrote Galbraith (28):
"The miracle of money creation by a bank, as John Law showed in 1719, could stimulate industry and trade, gave almost everyone a warm feeling of well-being. Parisians had never felt more prosperous than in that wonderful year."
Law's economic plan began to unravel along with the first bank, when one day one of his note-holders decided they wanted their gold. They cashed in their notes. Then others cashed theirs. Then more and more people got nervous about whether the bank had enough gold to meet all its obligations.
To restore confidence, the government recruited slum-dwellers to march through the streets of Paris with picks and shovels, as if gold really had been found in Mississippi and France was dispatching miners to ships that would sail off to America and cart gold home. No sooner were folks were paraded through the town to the docks, however, when villagers found them back at home in the ghettos -- people got wise to the ruse. The giant scheme caved, leaving note-holders with nothing but songs and bitter ditties to sing. As Galbraith writes (p28):
"...Here, in the briefest form, was framed the problem that was to occupy men of financial genius or cupidity for the next two centuries: How to have the wonder without the reckoning?"
Some people think this version of Law's story is too harsh, and modern bibliographies are much more flattering to John Law's legacy then John Galbraith. Calling Law a forward thinking economist, Antoin E. Murphy wrote in a recent book, "John Law: Economic Theorist and Policy-Maker":
"just as Napoleon cannot be judged by his defeat at Waterloo, so also the theory and policy of Law should not be judged by the financial crash of 1720."
Napoleon historians would no doubt dispute the comparison too.
Galbraith was a Keynesian, and it's not clear that his opinion of John Law, that fit his opinion of bankers in general, would have been changed by the recent, more favorable bibliographical accounts. Here's his 1970's impression of the banker community (p302):
"[I]n money matters as in diplomacy, a nicely conformist nature, a good tailor and the ability to articulate the currently fashionable financial cliche have usually been better for personal success than an inquiring mind....failure is often a more rewarding personal strategy than success."
His judgement derived from the belief, simply, that economic and monetary systems can be well managed.
"There is reluctance in our time to attribute great consequences to human inadequacy -- to what, in a semantically less cautious era, was called stupidity. We wish to believe that deeper social forces control all human action....But we had better be aware that inadequacy --- obtuseness combined with inertness --- is a problem..."
How would he have felt about the current crop of bankers (p303)?
"It will be no easier in the future than in the past for layman or the lay politician to distinguish between the adequate individual and the others. But there is not difficulty whatever in distinguishing between success and failure. Henceforth it should be the simple rule in all economic and monetary matters that anyone who has to explain failure has failed. We should be kind to those whose performance has been poor. But we must never be so gracious as to keep them in office."
He would most likely not have been any more charitable to those who architected our current economic mess then he was to the bankers of his day. There's no substitute for his insights though.
A fossil find in China reported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences adds a new twist to scientists' understanding of dinosaurs. Scientists discovered a 28 inch fossil of a young dinosaur in a rock slab in Liaoning Province in China. Tianyulong confuciusi lived about 125 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous period. The fossil has long filamentous structures that some scientists speculate may be progenitors to avian feathers or "dino-fuzz".
Scientists long ago designated two orders of dinosaurs, Ornithischia("bird-hipped) and Saurischia(lizard-hipped), based on the confusing 19th century classifications of differences in the two order's pelvic structures. Modern day birds actually descended from the Saurischia dinosaurs, which includes Tyrannosaurus rex and Archeopteryx, and scientists discovered protofeathers in the order Saurischia about ten years ago. At that time scientists were surprised to learn that dinosaurs, as well as birds, had feather-like structures. Now with the Ornithischia find, scientists wonder whether both orders evolved feathers separately, or whether all dinosaurs, even the most primitive ones, had feathers.
But that question won't be answered quite yet, since scientists don't know whether the filament structures in Tianyulong originated in the epidermal or dermal layer. If they originated in the epidermis then they could be protofeathers with implications for behavior, flight and physiology, according to Ohio University professor Lawrence M. Witmer, whereas if they originated in the dermis they would be structural and interesting, but without the same implications for evolution.
In the meantime, artist Li-da Xing has rendered Tianyulong confuciusi with what looks like a decorative boa pasted to its back.
Reposted as a separate entry 10-06 from an earlier "Notes" post.
Once upon a time, kids had very little to play with. Video games were not yet invented and children no longer had to herd farm animals, so they amused themselves by playing jacks, and red-light/green-light, and games like "telephone", also known as "Gossip", or "Chinese Whispers" and other ethnocentric names. Have you heard of this game? Children sit around a circle and whisper a message one to another and then at the end marvel and laugh at how distorted the message turns out when the last child announces what he heard. You probably don't remember, but that's what they say. The point is, this happens in science too.
An essay by Carel ten Cate in the journal Animal Behavior criticizes this foundational study of animal behavior, ethology, one that most college biology textbooks feature. In ten Cate's "Niko Tinbergen and the red patch on the herring gull's beak", the author analyzes Nikolaas Tinbergen's Nobel Prize winning research that describes how herring gull chicks beg to be fed by pecking on the red dot on the adult gull's beak. Tinenberg found that the baby gulls will peck at a red spot more vigorously than black or other colors. He called the red dot phenomena "signal stimuli". In response to the chick peck the adult bird regurgitates half-eaten food for the chick to eat. You can read ten Cate's essay in Animal Behavior Volume 77, Issue 4, April 2009, Pages 785-794.
(Photo: Herring Gull Chick, by John Haslam, via Wikicommons licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 License.)
When ten Cate looked over the research he found that Tinbergen never did the definitive experiment to prove his theory, rather he extrapolated from data collected in various of his experiments, then in a series of retellings, came to an abridged tale of his actual research experiments that he printed in his books and which has been subsequently retold incompletely in many other textbooks. The problem, ten Cate says, is that these summaries make Tinbergen's experiments look much more clear cut then they actually were. Ten Cate's assessment of Tinbergen's research as rather incomplete and sloppy science contradicts what the Nobel Prize Committee wrote in 1973:
"One of Nikolaas Tinbergen's most important contributions is that he has found ways to test his own and other's hypothesis by means of comprehensive, careful and quite often ingenious experiments."
Of course all the history books have it that Tinbergen did the research, but ten Cate not only vigorously questions his subject's methods, but points out that "mostly undergraduate students" did the work. But wait. Ten Cate's lab actually repeated Tinbergen's experiments and found that his theories did hold true, that is, herring gull chicks do peck at red more than other colors. So the bottom line criticism is that Tinbergen took some shortcuts that make modern scientists blanche? Or blush? Or nothing?
Why the ta-do? The experiments have been proved, behavioral psychology and ethology are solidly established as branches of science -- decades of pigeons pecking at red and green lights, mice running through their paces. Before ten Cate's analysis of Tinbergen's post-experiment data analysis, other scientists had also pointed to various experimental flaws in Tinbergen's research. But scientists seem to concur that overly critical analysis of experiments from 50 years ago is unfair and unwarranted. So then what then should we make of ten Cate's results?
Should we examine more closely the work of priests and their peas, or experiments done by neurobiologists in their lonely labs? Should we comb through all the textbooks with all those way too neat, way too definitive descriptions of historically worthy experiments? Would that benefit the science endeavor? Or should we take ten Cate's paper as an interesting footnote to Tinbergen's still fascinating and landmark research?
The Demise of the P-I, or Happily Alive for Forty Extra Years and Counting?
A string of recent newspaper closings has precipitated another flurry of worry and pontification about changes in media and reporting. The outpourings have come in waves, and now papers in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Diego, and Chicago threaten to shut down their presses. The closing of the 150 year old Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver's Rocky Mountain News print editions last week motivated the latest phase of hand-wringing.
Yes, it's a shame that the 150 year old Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I) has ended. But in their grief, people seem to overlook pertinent details surrounding the paper's demise. If they looked closer, I think they'd be asking, should we really think of this as a paper's demise? Or simply a change in format? They also might consider that the P-I hasn't been quite right for some time.
By 1981 the P-I had posted losses the previous 12 years. So to ease the suffering, that year the P-I penned a joint operating agreement (JOA) with the competing city paper, the Seattle Times. Management structured the agreement under the anti-trust exemptions set up by the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. The goal of the act was to keep to more than one editorial board in cities where one paper might have made more economic sense given the costs of printing and circulation, and so the law basically saved the PI when economics should have probably sealed its fate.
Under the Times/P-I JOA agreement, the P-I served as the morning paper, while the Seattle Times served as the evening paper. The Times stopped printing its morning edition and the Sunday paper carried a joint masthead. The business and operations of both papers -- printing, circulation and business functions -- were performed by the Seattle Times.
Opposition to the JOA was fierce, and included P-I employees, advertisers, readers and other local publishers who for two years challenged the proposed JOA in courts. In 1983 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and the JOA between the Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I went through. But the animosity between the papers was famous and no one should be too surprised at the closing of the P-I given the combination of economic downturn, turmoil in publishing, and the paper's already disadvantaged place in the city's newspaper hierarchy. So we could look at P-I's switch to the internet in another way, cold-hearted as it may seem: The P-I managed to stay afloat despite being less than whole since 1969 -- 40 whole years -- what a coup.
Like Seattle's two paper agreement, Denver's Rocky Mountain News operated under a similar agreement with its sister city paper before it also closed last week. In Denver, both papers will continue to publish on-line.
Many factors play into the unfortunate swoon of the newspaper industry, including a decrease in readers and print advertising, a bad economy, and greedy owners who began to acquire papers determined to profit mightily. Cuts and bad news coverage on the part of newspapers accelerated the downward slide, as did competition from online media. Will the economics of newspapers, which has been in flux for the last half a century, finally motivate new models of investigative reporting? Or will entrenched newspaper publishers stall progress by laying the blame for their failings squarely on online media?
Fact or Fallacy? Bloggers Who Hate the Mainstream Media and the MSM Who Hate Them Back
This perennial conflict, of online media "versus" newspapers, was perhaps precipitated by internet denizens, who threw plenty of taunts to the mainstream media in the early days. Print media in turn reacted to online media with various degrees of denial and acceptance that differed for different papers. On September 20, 2005, for instance, the Financial Times ran an article about an expat named "Hemlock", who blogged from Singapore. The entire article, "Hemlock, 'the obnoxious expat' BLOGGING," talked about the blog, but the closest the FT got to mentioning where you might find "Hemlock's" site was this sentence: "His website's location on the geocities network..." No URL. Where, why? Clueless or purposefully obtuse?
A year later, the FT became more inflammatory and its writers began expressing scorn and derision for blogs -- perhaps fear masquerading as bravado. In 2006, the paper ran a series of articles with titles like "The Fallacy That Bloggers Have Replaced Real News Hounds." (March 22, 2006.) One 4,445 word magazine article laid it all out in its title: "Time for the Last Post: The Evangelists Say That Blogging - Instant, Democratic and Cheap - is About to Finish Off Newspapers and Make a lot of People Rich. They're Wrong. Most Blogs are Boring, Overblown and Don't Make a Penny." (Yes, that was the title). If it was on HuffPo it would have been 70 pixels high. In his February 18th article, Trevor Butterworth panned blogs and the "revolution" (his quotes) they rode in on: "...[W]e must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor." The reason the blogging "revolution" seemed to be thriving, he said, was because it was uniquely American:
"In many respects, the American media in all their stuffy isolation brought the bloggers upon themselves... In contrast to the British and European media, which had their origins in the Enlightenment and the belief that journalism was a forum for debate and argument - even philosophy, according to David Hume - the American press is a 19th century creation animated by the pursuit of fact."
"Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet."
The "Enlightened" European Broadsides
Butterworth paints a lovely picture of the European and British media, products of the Enlightenment. But it's fiction. In the book "Infamous Scribblers", Eric Burns provides details of journalism history and the facts refute Butterworth's version.
In the 1600's London broadsides issued the same sort of sensationalism that dominates today's news, complete with titles like "Sir Walter Raleigh His Lamentations!", and "No Natural Mother But Monster." The predecessor to broadcast journalism in those days came from "running patterers", who would run through London streets yelling news. The patterers would take opposite positions on street corners, each trying to yell their news louder. This is how newspapers in Europe started.
The earliest American paper printed was called Publick Occurrences, and was published in Boston. Benjamin Harris, a publisher who had been jailed in London for printing seditious news, abandoned his London newspaper and sailed to the other side of the pond, where he started Publick Occurrences in 1690. The paper printed stories about hangings and rapes and other eye-catching drama. Burns recounts the "international" story the paper ran of the French King who "used to lie with" his son's wife. Interestingly, in a sort of predecessor to blogs, the Englishman's Publick Occurrences ran for three pages with the fourth page blank so readers could add comments and their own stories before passing it on.
While Burns documents the ignoble history of journalism, he also points out that the Federalist Papers were first published in the New York Independent Journal. Thomas Paine, John Adams, John Dickinson, and John Peter Zenger, also published in American newspapers. Butterworth knows not what he speaks.
Based then, on some false premises, he concludes:
"Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn't leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium."
This: "the pornography of opinion doesn't leave you longing for an eroticism of fact" is simply delicious coming from the author of a fact deprived 4,500 word opinion piece. Futhermore, having perused the offerings on British news stands, I opine that British papers even today remain far from enlightening.
Yet at the same time you can't deny the little fragments of truth in Butterworth's assessment. Consider that Trevor Butterworth is a researcher at Stats.org, a controversial organization that promotes anti-science opinions, an organization funded by conservatives and has listed dead people on its board. Stats.org apparently doesn't necessarily always get its facts straight and definitely sides with (or some say shills for) industry on issues like bisphenol A, alcohol advertising, and global warming. More to the point, however, Stats.org now has its own blog and Butterworth also contributes to the Huffington Post. So perhaps since his diatribe, he's come round on the blogging "revolution"?
Mediating the Blogging/MSM Landscape
Having more internet savvy than the Financial Times, the San Francisco Chronicle published about 45 articles covering blogs and bloggers from 2005-2006. For the most part, the articles tracked the rising blog phenomena, with only sporadic jabs at the medium. One editorial, on March 13, 2005, astutely titled "It's not Whether Blogger's are Journalists, It's Which Are", concluded:
"To flatly say "no" [they're not journalists] leaves out a universe of those who find news, challenge our thinking and otherwise breathe oxygen into the democracy -- in itself a pretty good definition of journalism...It's a big tent. Why shouldn't there be room for bloggers?"
Author Dick Rogers' point seems as wise 4 years ago as it does today. However while journalists are on whole far more accepting of blogs than 4 years ago, many in mainstream media can't let go of the idea that MSM is superior and that online media should conform. Mark Morford, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote last week:
"The truth remains: You pick up the Times, the Post, the Chron -- or read their online products -- you immediately have an anchor, some credibility and authority, not to mention a sense of place and context. In whatever you read, you know there has been, at minimum, some real editorial oversight and integrity of product borne of trained, experienced editors and writers who, believe it or not, still value accuracy and truth above all else."
Morford presents an idealistic view of the present state of newspapers. Indeed, mainstream media may have fine intentions, some great journalists and editors, some fantastic articles, and a few worthy publications. But just as often you get misinformation and meaningless or misleading press releases posing as news. Just as often the end product falls far from the rosy goal. And all of this motivates bloggers to blog.
It's not simply a case of one side and the other. Robert Scheer, who worked for the Los Angeles Times for almost thirty years, talked to Democracy Now last week about traditional news media in a larger conversation about the AIG bailout. He refuted the idea of a golden era when everything in print was good, pointing out that the regulatory changes that led to the current financial tsunami went uncovered for decades by the business sections of papers:
...The good old days were not so good for mainstream journalism, and certainly not when it came to covering business stories....Much of the reporting was done by press releases.
...I saw very few mainstream reporters there. There was no critical reporting of those stories. They basically went along with what the lobbyists want. Bank of America and the other banks spent $300 million that year getting the legislation--their license to steal, in effect--and it was not covered. The Telecommunications Act was not covered.
... [B]usiness reporting has been a scandal. Why? Because the same people who own the newspapers benefit from the tax breaks, benefit from the loopholes. They're on the other side. I mean, General Electric, which is in trouble, after all, owns NBC. So these are not pristine owners. There are some exceptions of some families that have tried to do a good job, but in the main, the people running media in America, who own it, benefit and want the kind of deregulation of the whole business community that has brought us to our knees.
One could take exception to Butterworth, or Morford, or Rogers, or Scheer, depending on your point of view, but they all have one point in common. Who will pay for the hard work that's behind good reporting as newspapers disappear? One hundred visits to an FDA panel meeting may bore a reporter to distraction, but the small details reported from each FDA hearing make history. Such mundane beat-reporting might not warrant 70 pixel font. But does that make it less worthy of reporting?
Furthermore, why make the argument just about bloggers and newspapers? Why do we jump so quickly to conclude that today's state of online media represents the final model, then proceed to criticize it as such? Bloggers will accept criticism for many things, but maybe the current online paradigm, typos and all, is only an intermittent solution to the many shortfalls of mainstream media.
Content is King For Some -- The Aggregators?
Just as Rogers did 4 years ago, a recent article in Conde Nast's Portfolio questions the finger pointing between mainstream and online media. The blog quotes Time magazine, who asked of Arianna Huffington, in a somewhat complementary but snarky article about the Huffington Post if she would be able to continue networking successfully with print media, while she was "killing their business?" Was she bucking for a lawsuit someone asked?
Of course she said no, and Portfolio agrees, just as Craigslist wasn't to blame for downfall of newspaper advertising. Rogers says, "Huffpo, Craigslist, Craigslist, Huffpo -- can't we all just agree to blame Google?" Indeed, the greatest aggregator is Google, and this may be an issue. Aggregators are great for a blurb and a link, but most online aggregators live for advertising and ever more advertising -- dollars, profit. In this advertising model, more content is better.
- If you're the Huffington Post with 3,000 bloggers, 6,000 is better -- and free content from the New York Times and everywhere else is efficient for profits. Link? Why link if you can get away with posting the whole article?
- If you're a pharmaceutical company there's little cost to data mining research if journals are free like PLoS, so won't you keep demanding more data, cheaper?
- If you're a publishing company of any sort, more content means more money.
- If you're Google, all the world's webpages might be fine, but expanding the index to include all the world's books is even better. Including all the world's health information would generate even more profit, not only in advertising but in collecting and selling it to interested parties.
One can't deny that search technology is great or that we don't each benefit a small amount from the ability to search. But the people who are pushing for more free content are those who stand to benefit disproportionately compared with any one individual. Aggregator HuffPo benefits, Google benefits more. We admire Google for replacing desktop computing with better accessibility to the "World Wide Web", just as we admire Microsoft for bringing an end of punchcards and mainframes. PLoS's open source science publishing means free science news, so why complain?
Perhaps this well worn logic resonates, but should we examine more closely what we lose with "free"? We benefit in small ways, but we also pay, in tangible ways as well as ways we may never know. We pay for "Search" by viewing advertising and by yielding unknown amounts of privacy.
In a world of penny payments via advertising, based on the dying model of newspapers, what do content providers get?1 Why does the idea that "content yearns to be free", apply to the millions who produce content, when content makes kings of those who aggregate enough of it? Is this really the democratic model? Some claim, yes. Others say transparent government and companies would provide the data that newsrooms used to collect, leaving journalists to less mundane tasks. Theoretically, yes, that would work, and we're all holding our breath.
Today, rather than pushing new models in an industry that's still very much in flux, many of us are embracing the current flawed model built on the newspaper's own advertising model. On the web, successive aggregators each gain a little more profit then the content feeder below them. CondeNast makes some money. HuffPo makes a little off of CN's content, then Google makes so much more advertising revenue off HuffPo and CN.
If the road ahead continues to be corporate expansion at all costs, will this model stimulate the same monopolistic behavior which took down newspapers and banks? Can't we do better? Why enable those who can snap their fingers and data-mine yotta-yotta-yottabytes2 of information for patent-worthy or publishable tidbits to enrich themselves, when their wealth accumulates so disproportionately to the actual producers of the data? Is this yet another pyramid scheme?
1 The New York Times sent out take-down notices to some blogs who were reposting NYT content last week.
2 A yottabyte (YB) is one septillion (one long scale quadrillion or 1024) bytes. A Zettabyte is larger.
Acronym Required has written previously on open-source and open-access publishing, and on print media and its decline. To be continued.
US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) talked to Rachel Maddow Tuesday, and she asked him about the bonus cap provision that disappeared from the spending bill.
"When something gets through the United States Senate, it doesn't happen by osmosis. It got done because Senator Snowe and I spent a lot of time. We got a legal opinion. We knew Wall Street was going to come out and fight this aggressively. Now, I think, we'll finally get it done, but unfortunately, it's a little late."
The Huffington Post also wrote about Wyden's1 statements, but HuffPo quoted him as saying about the missing language: "it didn't die by osmosis." [Emphasis mine]. This is more difficult to demonstrate on video, but YouTube does have a video on reviving wilted lettuce. It's not death by osmosis, rather, in the time lapse video the sad dying lettuce is put in water for a second life -- sort of. The end result is speeded up 720x.
1 Senator Wyden maybe has osmosis on his mind. His office has proposed a forward osmosis water purification to be developed in Oregon. Wyden's office posted a list of 2010 Defense appropriations bill projects. The water purification system would allow soldiers to hike farther in the dessert.
Aspiring to be FOX News
We often take to task those who would begrudge science research money. Politicians like to use science projects to make points about "pork", but often the projects they begrudge involve piddly dollar amounts, especially considering the pay-offs science yields. Science research has both long term and short term benefits -- more efficient food production for example, as well as employment and livelihoods for scientists, farmers, workers in start-ups, marketing professionals, accountants, and maybe even bankers. None of these positives are trivial or laughable. But politicians like John McCain won't readily point out the benefits. McCain ranted recently about about a "honey bee factory", because as always, the ha-ha-ha value of these rants is apparently priceless. 1
In 1 In Science as Political Joke Fodder we looked at John McCain's multiple attacks on science and asked why science? In "Fruit Flies, Astronomy, DNA...There Goes The Economy", we analyzed Sarah Palin's attack on olive fruit fly research in France and the source of her information, the lobby group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).
Yesterday we came across a Harper's blogpost that pulled information straight from CAGW talking points.2 The author criticized the $410 billion omnibus spending bill for earmarks in his "Weekly Review", focusing on two projects that have been circulating in the news:
"more than 8,000 congressional earmarks, among them provisions for improving blueberry products in Georgia and controlling the spread of Mormon crickets in Utah."
Was Harper's jumping on the whole earmarks bandwagon? We hadn't been following the earmark protests, but where did the Harper's information come from? John McCain talked about both science projects the Georgia blueberries and the Mormon Crickets in his speech to the Senate on the Bill. CAGW called out the Mormon cricket research this year and mentioned listed the blueberry research last year in its 2008 budget pork database.
A few weeks about FOX News composed a video called "$209, 000 for Blueberries? From there blueberry research story went viral, to the New York Times, blogs, and sites that aggregate press releases. For politicians and media flexing against "pork", science spending is a favorite target, because face it, the organic dried blueberry lobby hardly buys a lot of advertising on FOX News.
People criticize earmarks as a way of securing funding and say that these no bid grants should go through the appropriate venues and compete for money. (I'm sure scientists might do this, if science were funded to adequate levels. Or maybe scientists wouldn't -- since this must be easier than writing a grants?) But, confusingly, some of the people who make these points about the harmful, not transparent nature of earmarks, like the group Americans For Prosperity, take distinctly anti-science positions. Americans For Prosperity for instance ran a "Hot Air Tour campaign" in 2008, where they completed a hot air balloon cross-country tour under the slogan, "Global Warming Alarmism: Lost Jobs, Higher Taxes, Less Freedom." According to the group: "Climate alarmists have bombarded citizens with apocalyptic scenarios and pressured them into environmental political correctness. It's time to tell the other side of the story." CAGW attacks particular research based on who funds their lobby efforts.
Taxpayers for Common Sense calls earmarks a "petri dish of corruption". Perhaps they make a valid point that calls for a more thorough exploration of alternative means of funding. But simply calling out research that sounds silly, as Harper's did seems less productive.3
209,000, How Much is That?
Why focus on $209,000 worth of blueberry research anyway? Why such a relatively tiny number? Is it because most people make less than that in a year and can actually fathom the number? To get perspective, consider this:
- $209,000 is the amount FOX News and Harper's are up in arms about. 209,000 seconds is 2.42 days, 1/137th of a year.
- 165 million was paid in AIG executive bonuses this week (because of "the contracts" -- pardon me while I die laughing). 165 million seconds is 1,910 days, or 5.23 years.
- In the past 6 monthes, AIG has taken out $170 billion in loans from the US government, which in seconds, is 5,387 years.
- The Service Employees International Union criticizes Geithner's trillion dollar Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) because the taxpayers absorb significant risk and there's no guarantee that the money will be used to make new loans. 2 trillion seconds is 63,377 years.
Buy a Scientist a Petri Dish, He's Corrupt for a Lifetime
It's all relative. And as we've pointed out before, scientists work for much less than your average banker. Today with AIG's multi-million dollar "retention" bonuses, 20K-40K for a scientist is small change. But every person who is kept off the unemployment rolls keeps money in the taxpayer's pocket -- so to speak -- momentarily anyway, oops, now AIG has it.
New York State Attorney General Cuomo released details today of his AIG investigation and reporting that 73 employees received bonuses of $1 million or more in 2008. Say the average scientist make 50K per year, and no bonus was over 1 million, two generous assumptions. What would taxpayers rather do with that money? Employ 1460 scientists? Or keep 73 bankers on the dole?
1Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) is an organization started by the late J. Peter Grace, who was CEO of W.R. Grace & Co. for 45 years and Jack Anderson, a syndicated columnist. CAGW was an extension of the Grace Commission formed when President Ronald Reagan, who appointed J. Peter Grace to aim at decreasing the role of government. CAGW extended from the Grace Commission.
W.R. Grace is a chemical company whose pollutants contaminated Woburn, Massachusetts well water, causing cancers and resulting in a drawn out court case chronicled by Jonathan Harr in "A Civil Action". CAGW is a lobby favorite of conservatives and lobbies. We previously noted that attacks on science from Sarah Palin and John McCain originated with CAGW. CAGW works with a wide range of industries tobacco, software, pharmaceutical, to avocado growers in Mexico, targeting specific actions based on the desires of groups who pay CAGW.
2 In my opinion, Harper's is sort of a mixed bag on science and sciencey subjects. They've published some great pieces on the environment like Tom Bisell's excellent "Eternal winter: Lessons of the Aral Sea disaster", in 2002, or Erik Reece's "Death of a Mountain: Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia."(April, 2005) On the other hand they've published some infuriating articles from a scientist's perspective, like Celia Farber's ridiculous "AIDS and the corruption of medical science", a misleading and factually false view on HIV and the treatment of AIDS, that was criticized by top doctors, virologists, researchers, microbiologists, immunologists, and the Treatment Action Campaign, a South African NGO. (Here's the 37 page PDF that documents the errors)
3Harper's has published some great pieces about lobbyists. See for instance Ken Silverstein's "Invisible hands: The secret world of the oil fixer", in the March issue maybe still on the newstand, or Silverstein's Their men in Washington: Undercover with D.C.'s lobbyists for hire, or his piece on John McCain and the Reform Institute.
59% of Americans who answered a Gallup Poll said they were "Outraged", by the AIG bonuses. This compared to 26% who were "Bothered" and 11% who were "Not Particularly Bothered". What? No "No opinion" choice? In this case, had my executive bonus ennui ebbed to the point where I actually picked up the phone when Gallup called, I could only have rallied if "No Opinion" had been presented as an option.
Outrage: Are you as fatigued from outrage as I am? If you look for "outrage" on Google Trends, which tracks keywords across the newspapers like PerthNow, the Rhinelander Daily News, and the North Wales Chronicle, you'll find that the steady state "news reference volume" of "outrage" has increased gradually since 2004. This means nothing, but despite the lack of any empirical data, my opinion is that outrage has been overdone lately. Bailout outrage, and Madoff outrage, and TARP outrage, and crooked mortgage lender outrage, now Obama's "outrage" at the bonuses. Phheww. Sell outrage someplace else, we're all stocked up here.
Being that I'm bored to death of the outrage, I thought I'd return the favor and highlight some of the details of the blueberry research that we talked about in our last post. Conservatives and liberals alike zeroed in on the pork in the Omnibus Spending Bill, like the 209,000 dollar blueberry grant to Georgia.
Blueberries! Research! History! Yay!
Blueberry farming is important to Georgia, since it has a "farm gate value of $59.4 million in 2005" and production with an "economic impact of $97.4 million". The history of blueberry cultivation is told by two University of Georgia scientists in a paper posted at the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS). We'll highlight some of the content here.
The early history of cultivated blueberries is most well known in Florida. In the 20th century a logger in Florida who had been transplanting plants from the wild and cultivating blueberries on his farm, met up with a marketing guy, "a Yankee", and together they sold blueberry plants to other communities in Florida. "Most plants sold were transplanted from the wild without regard to fruit quality. Some of the plants sold were not even [the prized] rabbiteye blueberries but species that don't produce commercial quality fruit." However enough higher quality plants were sold to qualify as a "blueberry boom". According to a history of blueberries told by the Georgia scientists, the boom then collapsed for multiple reasons:
"due to variable fruit quality, competition from new plantings of northern highbush in northern states, poor horticultural practices, and the depression (Mowry and Camp, 1928; Horan, 1965).
A statement in a 1926 Florida bulletin summed up the nursery stock situation: 'A great deal of promiscuous experimenting will doubtless be done before the business of handling stock for this fruit will be standardized as has been done for the great stable fruits of the day' (Coville, 1926).'"
Despite the collapse of the early industry Florida scientists managed to establish some strains that worked well for the region. From the early 1900's, when there were no viable options for commercial berries, you just gathered what you could in the woods, science and research made commercial blueberry farming not only possible, but a thriving industry and livelihood for many.
Tobacco's Out. Blueberries are InBlueberry research started in Georgia in the early 1900's when scientists as well as random individuals like railroad engineers on fishing trips collected plants, cultivated and cross-bred plants to produce commercial crops. In 1944 the first blueberry breeding position was created in Georgia.
"The position was filled by Dr. Tom Brightwell, who received his initial blueberry training under the famous Mr.Stanley Johnston of Michigan State University. In the fall of 1945, the Alapaha Blueberry Research Farm was established in a section of the flatwoods district just 25 miles east of Tifton. This has proven to be one of the great decisions made by Dr. Brightwell...."
"It is of great compliment to the character of Dr. Brightwell that he stayed focused on breeding blueberries in a state where no industry existed at the time. Numerous attempts were made to entice him to switch to some 'important' crop."
"Starting in 1950 the cultivar releases began with 'Callaway' and 'Coastal', which were a large improvement over the wild types, but did not have commercial shipping quality."
Around 1970, citizens in Bacon Co. Georgia sought help from the Rural Development Center of the University of Georgia to grow blueberries as a cash crop. The US Surgeon General had targeted cigarette smoking as a risk to health, and tobacco farmers saw the future demise of their livelihoods. Science continued to improved blueberry farming in Georgia and the authors conclude"
"It appears that Georgia has a bright future in blueberry production. The foundation of the industry laid down by so many scientists and growers over the past 60 years has opened this door."
Blueberries don't grow on trees, I guess you could cornily say, it's research and science success that puts them in your energy bar.
This is a continuation of our last post "The Galt Gestalt". We admit, one post is probably enough, Ayn Rand has been memorialized quite enough, thank-you very much. Companies like the demolition contractor at the World Trade Towers site proudly name themselves "John Galt this" and "Fountainhead" that. They also name themselves after Howard Roark, and at least one company, an architectural design firm in Minneapolis, named an imaginary "Howard Roark" as a senior partner of the firm.
Thousands of books and hundreds of institutes all over the world celebrate Rand's ideas -- the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, the Ayn Rand Institute, Ayn Rand Society, RebirthofReason.com, Liberty Institute, AtlasShrugged.com, The Atlas Society, The Objectivist Center, Objectivsm 101, Objectivism Reference Center, ObjectivistAcademiccenter.org, AynRandInstitute.ca, and so on.
With all that, who needs more Ayn Rand stuff? Well, the recent outpouring of Randism might benefit from more "balance". The gushing accolades over "Atlas Shrugged" at FOX News and cable news channels -- by announcers who Americanize Rand's first name to "Ann", instead of "Ayn" rhymes with "all mine", or as Rand would say, "swine", might benefit from a more adult reading of her book.
In our post "The Galt Gestalt" we talked about modern day Ayn Rand acolytes -- those who maybe didn't have the opportunity to write books with her like Alan Greenspan, but who still forward her ideas and writing. We admit, we at Acronym Required did read her books -- in junior high school -- as the fiction they are. So we're always surprised that full grown adults actually say that Rand's half a century old books foresaw America's current economic state.
In the "Galt Gestalt", we reviewed the movie "The Fountainhead", with its fallible characters Howard Roark and Dominique, set among quarries and "modern" 1940's buildings -- all Roark's "creations". We challenged Rand's portrayal of Roark as a "creator" rather than a destroyer or terrorist, and questioned how such daft writing by could be misinterpreted for 2009 economic wisdom. We observed that today's coterie of Rand admirers pick and choose the parts of her philosophy they like and disregard the bits that don't fit their political agenda -- like her complete intolerance of mixing religion with politics. Indeed, she warned Reagan on mixing politics with religion:
"What we are seeing is the medievalism of the Puritans all over again, but without their excuse of ignorance....The New Right is not the voice of Americanism. It is the voice of thought control attempting to take over in this country and pervert and undo the actual American revolution....."
You don't hear too much talk of that these days, do you?
Was Roark a "Creator"? Or a Terrorist?
Some executives say that "The Fountainhead" is their very favorite work, but maybe they never read it, or maybe they never got to the end. Because incongruously, in "The Fountainhead", Howard Roark blows up buildings with explosives, then defends his crimes by telling a jury some fantastic gobbledygook about great "creators" who stood up to all the men. Each individual scientist or inventor, he intones
"lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement..."
How can a novel where the main character dynamites buildings be seen as a blueprint for America, a nation that reviles people who even associate with those who associated with those who threatened to blow up buildings? There's some irony to the fact that former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, who is actually a respected professor and Chicago community service leader, is labeled a "terrorist" by the same people who hold fictional dynamite wielder Howard Roark as a "hero".
Rand-ites Who Transcend Rand's Scorn
Perhaps these people who adulate Rand, the creator of the hero terrorist are just fantastic hypocrites. It's true, everyone, including us, capably cherry-picks their evidence. So just as Rand's most fervent admirers cherry-pick her ideas, she cherry-picked her evidence, her ideals, and her followers. Today's Randites are consistent then in their love, because Rand consistently scorned those who most fervently embraced her ideas. Do they know that Rand dismissed libertarians as "a random collection of emotional hippies-of-the-right who seek to play at politics without philosophy"? It's a dysfunctional relationship, for sure, but they loved and love her just as Howard Roark pined for Dominique in the quarry in the "The Fountainhead" and made statutes in her image while she married other men.
Why the enduring adoration? Why are sales of "Atlas Shrugged" still booming, aside from the fact that it's impressively thick but vapidly light read -- a delirious combination of Harlequin romance and "For Dummies" -- perfect airplane reading? "Thick book you have there..."
Americans and The Myth of the Rugged Enterprising Individual
What is this persevering and hypocritical adulation of Rand? Is it the refusal to let go of the myth of the rugged individual? Historically, the US had some very hardy Americans, Teddy Roosevelt, for instance. Read accounts of his Amazon exploration and shudder at his rugged manliness. But the US and its corporate economy certainly hasn't been a wunderkind of noble individualists recently.
Way back in 1984, Roger Rosenblatt wrote about this strange phenomenon, asking in Time magazine's ("The Rugged Individual Rides Again"): "Why the pretense--why the evident pleasure--in seeing the country as a collection of loners?"
Now, twenty-five years later, the myth may be less intact, but politicians still pimp it. It has served the GOP well since Ronald Reagan rode in with his "Morning in America" theme. Perhaps it made sense for Reagan then, 30 or so years ago, because Reagan came up in Hollywood at the same time as Ayn Rand. He seemed to be acting out his fantasy part as the rugged individualist, with his ranch, the far-away (albeit perhaps diseased) look in his eye, and his incessant portrayal of individuals with mythical powers -- "Tear down this wall!" (- another myth).
Two decades later GW Bush didn't ride horses around a ranch like Reagan, but he did purchase that dried out piece of land in Texas, where he would gamely pull on gloves -- Ironclad Icon Series Extreme DutyTM gloves no doubt -- over soft citified hands so he could hack at brush for rolling cameras. The American rugged male image is very particular, you see, and can't be properly projected from the decks of a Kennebunkport yacht.
Rugged Individual Jumps the Shark
If the whole American rugged individualism was seen as "hypocritical" by the mainstream magazine Time, over two decades ago in 1984, it's even more far-fetched played out by GW Bush. And when Bobby Jindal took a stab at the iconic myth the other day the whole idea jumped the shark.
Talking about how he went down to the docks after Hurricane Katrina and saved some people threatened by bureaucracy Jindal deadpanned:
"Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people. There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens."
It took mere hours, if not minutes, for people to uncloak Jindal's lies. Perhaps for Americans "enterprising spirit" has been exploited so much they just tend to be skeptical and cynical.
Interestingly, while everyone attacked the part of Jindal's story about the Katrina survivors when they found out that Jindal wasn't on the scene at all, the larger myths that his tale served stayed preposterously intact. First, despite his claim, there is no bureaucracy in the US that impedes "enterprising spirit". There is bureaucracy without a doubt. But the federal government largely enables and serves interests of business and corporations, foremost, property rights and laws. Occasionally, like with the Clean Air regulations, the federal government attempts to protect individuals. Obviously, as Jindal's talk unraveled into lies, we recognized just how fantastic the notion that he's the rugged leader leading all the rugged individuals.
Rugged Individual or a Cog in the Machine
What's interesting about Rand's perseverance as an American male fantasy is that we're so far from the Cold War era in which Rand became a political fixture. Nevertheless the rugged individual myth is one that the American people still cling to. This myth still matters because it not only nourishes the GOP, it feeds GDP.
Every day docile citizens drive off to jobs in their all-terrain SUVs, which perhaps keeps all these workers thinking about how "rugged" they are. Politicians and businesses and economists push the conceit since its certainly an easier populist sell than all the proceeding political-economic models -- monarchy, colonialism, feudalism, slavery, etc. But the myth is outdated.
A global economy needs global leaders, and individuals who work together as "teams", as annoying as that concept is. Today, the enemy is certainly not "the collective", although that might have been a believable enemy for someone who immigrated from the Soviet Union half a century ago. Nor is the enemy "the government", which has secured property laws, patent law, corporate law, free trade, privatization, and an entire infrastructure that serves capitalism and private enterprise. There is no salient enemy. Except perhaps terrorists who explode and burn buildings -- like Roark.
Of course that is not what we hear from media because there would be no television news if not for enemies and wars, and if the market did not first go up, then come down, and if there were not Democrats who opposed Republicans and Republicans who opposed Democrats. How could we go to all our boring jobs day after day if we did not have the network news anchors to break things up, with their histrionics, their drama, and their enemies? This eases the boredom and it helps us feel whole and human, even as so much of what humans do is totally dehumanizing. But lets separate entertainment from information and policy. We are not rugged individuals.
Rand & Marx
But if anyone believes Rand predicted economic events of today more than half a century ago, you should read more carefully to see how many predictions she made that were just plain wrong. Adjust your attitude slightly and Ayn Rand is no more than a cheap novelist who coincidentally, seemed to get a lot of her ideas from Karl Marx.
On economic ideas, her books advocate capitalism, but her ideas were bounded by her experience, that is, Bolshevik history and the Cold War. Some people see Lenin in her work but it's Marx, whose philosophy Rand opposed mightily, who she seems most often quote. Both Karl Marx and Rand ruminated on the higher purpose that humans sought through fighting nature with labor. For instance, compare Marx's words about the purpose of man, and compare those of Rands's Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead".
- Karl Marx said: "He [man] opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces. in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants."
Howard Roark said: "The creator's concern is the conquest of nature".
Sixty years ago when Rand wrote her epic stories, humans were still ensconced in what we would dub today as "a war on nature". Indeed many still farmed and fished, though far less than their ancestors. But now in the 21st century humans have decimated so many ecosystems, how can we perpetuate the belief that we humans don't have the upper hand? In fact, our domination is so complete that the North and South poles are collapsing back in on us. Paradoxically, nature still presents challenges, but it's global warming, which is really a fight against ourselves. Our 21st century reality is vastly different than what Rand and Marx knew. Do we benefit as a society from compelling individuals to prove their worth in big highway cruisers?
In addition to their "man against nature" framework, Marx and Rand shared other constructs. Marx had his class struggle as do Rand's followers. Today the internet swirls with talk about "Going Galt", the folly that professional workers should walk off the job if the tax rate increases. Marx and Rand also both used architects to illustrate their vision of the ideal laborer, loner builders who worked for themselves, strictly for their own purposes, for the sake of work.
- Karl Marx, writing on how bees build intricate hives noted, "...what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own..."
- Howard Roark said: "Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision...His truth was his only motive. His work was his only goal. His creation...gave form to his truth. I am an architect.
Marx bemoaned the fetishization of labor, the degradation of man's work to capital. Similarly, Rand's architect worked motivated by his vision, his creation, his truth. Neither were motivated by pay, never mind taxes. If there is a class struggle, its not against the government, which is printing money to save large corporations as we speak. Most Americans work for these corporations, and even if they're a self-employed electrician, their income is completely entwined with the banks. There are few "creations" to speak of unless the banks making financial instruments counts, and as we've learned, putting rugged individualist cowboys into the world of finance can do real harm.
Ayn Rand and CEOs -- She Completes Them & How Swiftly they Swoon
Rand endures partly because she's not part of the curriculum. It's a not so secret society for those who might well have shunned economics. Economics departments don't include Rand in their curricula, yet hundreds of people outside of academia acknowledge how much Ayn Rand influences them. Apparently it doesn't matter to her fans that "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" are cheap potboilers full of hypocritical ideas antithetical to the modern economy.
In a 2007 article, the New York Times interviewed John A. Allison, CEO of BB&T, one of the largest banks in the US, who said of "Atlas Shrugged".
"I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.'s that 'Atlas Shrugged' has had a significant effect on their business decisions...It offers something other books don't: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete."
And there I was thinking all that math I learned in economics and business classes was so important, when all I needed to read was Rand's overly thick Harlequin romance?
Then in January, 2009, the Times reported that Allison's company BB&T profit fell 26% in the 4th quarter of 2008, and so the bank accepted $3.1 billion in government money". Poof? Just like that? Enterprising spirit of America gone? Rand out the window? To hell with "principles"? Mr. Allison can you comment? Should we shelve Rand next to Marx, now that it's 2009 not 1945?
Worshipping the individual and the market may be what business leaders say they like to hear, but when push comes to shove, they discard that line of thinking as soon as something more self-serving appears.
Rand's ideas don't make for successful individuals any more than they make successful businesses. A few years ago Americans strongly believed in their rugged individualism, as they flipped houses and extracted equity and took out big mortgages from aggrandizing lenders. Now they're feeling a little chastised, mad even. Americans are now in 2009 caught up in the throes of a financial behemoth of their collective making, generated by private banking and enterprises they don't understand. But ironically, what better time to encourage them to feel like rugged individuals again?
Rugged Individual - In Size 3X Stretch Pants?
But, although "rugged individualism" is evidently music to emasculated workers' ears, it's hard to buy. The USA is, after all, a country where 30% of the people are obese. Rugged doesn't usually come in size 3X stretchy pants. As well, Rand preached "reason" not religion, but 50% of the people believe in the Creator, not the "creator", and will tell you that humans roamed the earth with dinosaurs 6000 years ago. In 2009, the fact that the GOP tries to lead by encouraging this pathetic a level Randian thinking from its citizens doesn't bode well for the nation of "knowledge workers".
But the GOP may be unable to come up with anything else. The party seems superglued to the rugged individual image and in it's service, they've forwarded the most unlikely series of messengers -- Joe the Plumber, Bobby Jindal, Michael Steele, Sarah Palin. Nice try, attempting to be both the party for "one-armed midgets", and the party of rugged individualists a la Reagan? Seriously Republicans and America in general, the individualists, the midgets, and everyone else deserves a more up to date and congruous image.
Of course in the frightening series of public relations debacles by the GOP and their media, Rand actually plays a tiny role. The rugged pioneering individualist myth is a strained fictional construct. But unfortunately, Rand fans and some in the GOP do have one winning strategy, which is to promote the facile idea that far, far less government is better (except military and police). It's a winning strategy because the US (and every other state) will never have no regulation. Government regulation is what ensures "free markets". Therefore Ayn Rand fans have a permanent platform in their cries for less government.
Like the unlikely longevity of the myth of the rugged individualist, now it's painfully obvious that deregulation is not the answer. But it's child's play for Randians to argue that George W. Bush was no Ayn Rand, and we need still less regulation. When we examine the notion however, it's clear that this too is part and parcel of old plot lines from outdated fiction. Although mid-century may be faddish and fine for furniture, if orange plastic chairs and aqua blue polyester are your thing, by any measure, it doesn't work for economic policy.
The Rand Rage
Everyone's reading Ayn Rand. Have you noticed? The other day the Freakonomics blog wrote about a "recession icon of sorts emerges, wrapped in a Snuggie, puffing on a pipe -- and now with a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged on his lap." Back in January, Stephen Moore fantasized in the Wall Street Journal:
"If only "Atlas" were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster."
Sure enough, two months later -- look! Sales of Atlas Shrugged went up AND the stock market rose. Yay, Citibank is living richly again! Is it Rand? Moore explained his thinking: "Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read "Atlas Shrugged" a 'virgin.'" Then what? To pub this in context, Rand's fictional women were routinely flung to the ground by her male heros and defiled or deflowered -- Ahhh, the good 'ole days? Apparently he didn't get the message that Rand abhorred libertarians.
The Movie is Better
I 'd last read "Atlas Shrugged" (1942) and "The Fountainhead" (1957) one summer in high school and found Rand entertaining. To be clear, I wasn't a conservative, ideologically precocious teenager, I'd probably just finished up the Hardy Boys series and was looking for racier stuff. I admit, I wasn't submitting essays to her namesake institute's high school writing contests (all the rage now), -- I read Rand as pure fiction.
My recent dilemma was how to refresh my adult mind on Rand's ideas without adding another 1000+ page book (Atlas Shrugged) to my staggering reading list, albeit a real page turner. Sure, I could have skipped the book and read the reviews. But then I would have risked misinformation, like those who regurgitate PJ O'Rourke's interpretation of "The Wealth of Nations" and think they're reading the real thing.
I reasoned that I could reread the "The Fountainhead" faster. It's a fraction of the size of "Atlas Shrugged" and although its written a decade earlier, it's laden with the same notions. I then stumbled upon "The Fountainhead", the movie. Even better. At 113 minutes, you save hours of reading, and you can multitask while you watch, because the movie is no more than pablum for simpletons.
Beyond efficiency, there's another reason to watch the movie. When you read, your mind puts you in the story. You're standing at the quarry described in "The Fountainhead" (1949) in your 2009 shoes and 2009 hairstyle, with your 2009 global attitudes and 2009 cultural disposition and intelligence. You end up thinking what readers of Atlas Shrugged think these days -- Wow! Atlas Shrugged is just like 2009 -- wasn't Rand clever? You'd then maybe be pre-dispositioned to the same specious comparisons that Stephen Moore made in his WSJ article:
"In one chapter of the book, an entrepreneur invents a new miracle metal -- stronger but lighter than steel. The government immediately appropriates the invention in "the public good." The politicians demand that the metal inventor come to Washington and sign over ownership of his invention or lose everything."
This, Moore says, is "eerily similar" to the banks' dealings with Paulson last year when they "signed a document handing over percentages of their future profits to the government". Really Moore? No. Actually it worked the other way. The government gave the banks the public's money, and the government isn't likely to gain much from those banks.
Consider other examples of Moore's specious reasoning, for instance scientific research. Like many federal institutions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funds research at public universities, and eventually those advances get transferred to private industry, which patents and profits from research paid for by government. Arpanet, developed by the Department of Defense, is now the internet and quite lucrative for businesses. Rand's followers, like Moore, should maybe follow Rand's own advice:
"When you look for the source of an historic idea, you must consider philosophic essentials, not the superficial statements or errors that people may offer you. Even the most well-meaning men can misidentify the intellectual roots of their own attitudes."
You can avoid all of this historical misinterpretation by watching "The Fountainhead" yourself. Rand wrote the script and was heavily involved in the editing so you'll have an authentic experience.
Quarry in the Quarry
As you watch the movie you can ask yourself: Despite what Moore and others say, is this a story we want to claim as the bulwark of our economic system? Why was Alan Greenspan such an acolyte? (Picture Greenspan as a little 13 year old) Is it weird that a US Congressmen presents the book "Atlas Shrugged" to departing staff? Is the USA circa 1957 relevant to the USA circa 2009?
Here's a quick synopsis of the movie. The female protagonist of the "The Fountainhead" (1949), "Dominique", rides up on her tall white horse while Howard Roark mans his drill in the quarry, all testosterone and biceps and brawn and pride and drill. Sparks fly from the dysfunctional male/female tension typical of Harlequin romances. Like any bodice ripping potboiler-romance paperback, Dominique and Roark are each other's "quarry" -- but Rand goes the extra mile and sets the story in a quarry too.
Roark is an outcast architect who chooses manual mining labor rather than sacrifice his "ideals" as an architect who designs aesthetically challenging and unpopular buildings. In one scene Roark lets a fellow architect take credit for his drawings. Then Roark finds out the builder altered his plan, gets mad and dynamites the entire complex burning it to the ground. So the 2009 business take away is what? Teamwork is for sissies? Terrorism should be rewarded?
How about when Roarke throws the high falutin' Dominique to the ground in violent, mad lust? So 2009? Or when Roark stands up in front of the jury after his dynamiting and arsenic spree and delivers his big speech on the superiority of "creators". And Roark says of himself and his heroic fellow "creators" :
"The great creators -- the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors -- stood alone against the men of their time. Every new thought was opposed; every new invention was denounced....He held his truth above all things and against all men. He went ahead whether others agreed with him or not, with his integrity as his only banner. He served nothing and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement..."
Roark is not so much noble creator, as he is a one man Weather Underground. His narcissistic speech does nothing to explain how anyone benefits from rampant vandalism, how misrepresentation of authorship is good business, or how societies would sustain themselves with such irredeemable selfishness. In reality, back then or in 2009 we would be locking this man up as a felon. But alas, in the movie, the jury acquits him.
Rand Redefined "Creator" to "creator", Disdained Religion
Just as Adam Smith followers rarely mention the "Theory of Moral Sentiments", politicians who adopt Ayn Rand's ideas selectively pick points that they find useful and reject other significant sections of her philosophy, hailing her wisdom only when it supports their agendas.
Rand, a Russian immigrant, thought America's founders had made a big mistake in the Declaration of Independence by saying that men were "endowed 'by their Creator' with certain unalienable rights." So she had Roark redefine the word "creator", and she banished the big "C", so each individual became his own "creator", little "c". That said, though she hated today's libertarians.
In 2009 at least 50% of the population believes in the Creator, big "C". Rand was intolerant not only of this, but of Reagan and the "New Right", who she criticized for mixing religion with politics. She predicted dire consequences for Reagan's embrace of religion in his campaign:
"[R]eligious zeal is merely a variant of irrationalism and the demand for self-sacrifice--and therefore it has to lead to the same result in practice: dictatorship... While claiming to be the defenders of Americanism, their distinctive political agenda is statism....."
"[C]hildren, we are told, should be indoctrinated with state-mandated religion at school. For instance, biology texts should be rewritten under government tutelage to present the Book of Genesis as a scientific theory on par with or even superior to the theory of evolution..."
"What we are seeing is the medievalism of the Puritans all over again, but without their excuse of ignorance....The New Right is not the voice of Americanism. It is the voice of thought control attempting to take over in this country and pervert and undo the actual American revolution....."
Those who see all the parallels between "Atlas Shrugged" and today's banking aren't saying anything about Rand's predictions for teaching religion in schools, a practice that GW Bush remained strategically equivocal about but that conservatives embrace whole-heartedly.
Helping is Futile and Other Anomalies
During the Cold War, the US fought Communism and Socialism, so it seems natural that Rand's writing was popular with politicians and citizens. Marginalized conservatives half a century ago naturally embraced her virulent opposition to Communism, since it fit into the narrative they were building. Now the Randian movement (and conservatives) drudge up other enemies. One such enemy is altruism.
The Simpsons satirized Ayn Rand in "A Streetcar Named Marge" -- where one poster in the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" declares "Helping Is Futile". And they're not joking. When the Asian Tsunami wiped out over 200,000 people across Asia, the Ayn Rand Institute urged western governments not to give aid. Ayn Rand criticized altruism because she predicted in was a slippery slope to Communism.
"the New Right is leading us, admittedly or not, to the same end as its liberal opponents. By virtue of the movement's essential premises, it is supporting and abetting the triumph of statism in this country--and, therefore, of Communism in the world at large."
Ayn Rand ranted about the "New Right" movement that ascended into politics with Reagan, and charged that by accepting of the "New Deal", the Marshall Plan and social programs they were destroying the USA.
Twaddle to Live By?
At first I thought that since "The Fountainhead" movie was old, the age of the movie might be clouding my opinion. But while her book was popular in its day, it's worthwhile to know that she also had voracious critics, who had virtually the same criticism as today's critics. A 1949 New York Times review had only scathing words for the movie: "[A] more curious lot of high-priced twaddle we haven't seen for a long, long time"...."Loaded with specious situations"...."wordy, involved and pretentious"...."not the most brilliant demonstration of logic in pictorial form". The author thought Roark's "creations" were abominable: "his work, from what we see of it, is trash".
By the end of the movie I realized my high school memory of Rand was too complimentary. I'm not movie critic, but "The Fountainhead" would dissuade most from any delusion that Rand has something to offer 2009. Do we really need to recruit "high-priced twaddle" to support modern day economics or policy?
If you read PJ ORourke instead of "Wealth of Nations" to understand history, or Crichton instead of the IPCC climate change report report to understand science, you might also subscribe to Rand's philosophies and encourage today's economic and business minded people to embrace her outdated simplistic idea. But pundits and admirers of Rand's fiction sweep under a gigantic rug all the anachronisms and flaws of "objectivism".
Historians with Atlas Shrugged in their hands convince you Americans are nothing but a lot of individualists and historical winners. They would trace a history that connects today to yesterday, wealth to happiness, to Reagan, to Rand, to the glorious defeat of Communism, to the Invisible Hand, and to Jesus Christ himself. But these are gauzy, fatuous connections, built around tawdry tales like "The Fountainhead".
Why is everyone really touting Rand? Perhaps so that in a down economy they can with a clear conscious, drive by all the food lines and spit on people? Who knows? But if major constituencies and leaders of America continue to embrace Rand's half-century old bodice ripping "philosophy", shouldn't we worry?
Often, science seems under attack. On one hand, we know there will always be politicians who attack science like volcano monitoring, simply because they can. But don't you just wish politicians would change? How? Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a biology student who applied to medical school, doesn't get the bulk of his campaign funding from individual geologists from the Northwest. And given the opportunity to run for president on a right leaning platform, how much influence will Rocks for Jocks really have?
The most alarming outcome of these political ploys, these self-serving displays of idiocy, is how the 'freaky science meme' courses through the population, gathering speed and strength. True, many people simply believe what they believe. But politicians who are derogatory towards science foster an atmosphere that's indulgent of general distrust for scientists. Creationists start crawling out of the woodwork. Then before you know it pedigree dog owners on the Upper West Side are openly discussing the *evil dognappers* who want to steal their precious pooches to supply "the burgeoning industry that is--collecting dogs and giving them to laboratories for experiments.".
We always wish the reporters would ask the "Marilyn Pasekoff[s] (Hogan, German shepherd)" who they find "walking in Riverside Park", just one more question, that is: "Describe an experiment you imagine occurring in these 'laboratories' with these pedigree dogs." Right? Blankets thrown over Pomeranians and Great Danes when researchers sneak them through the back doors of Columbia University and New York University before hoisting them up on the lab bench in the dark of night?
The good news, perhaps a mild antidote to such nonsense, is how the Obama administration continues to follow through with campaign promises -- to fund science, to end the ban on embryonic stem cell research, to address global warming and healthcare. Nothing like eight years of GW Bush administration anti-logic, anti-science leadership to give scientists a very heightened appreciation for an administration that seems to understand how important it is to make science and technology just slightly more relevant again.
Test Tube Confidence
And in a global economy this is a global endeavor. Following in President Obama's footsteps, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced last week that he wanted to properly fund science and technology and assure a future where the financial sector is the servant of industry, and never its master. Bold.
(But what will replace manufacturing?) Students protested Brown's speech at Oxford, referencing the global meltdown and job losses at local car plants.
One women in his audience commented on the new focus on science -- '"don't mention the Economics-word, let's talk about mixing chemicals in a test tube - at least that works."' Cynical as she was, to scientists coming out of the great drought of political support, even this is a refreshing change in populist rhetoric. Science "works"? You think? I'll put that in my back pocket!
However not all is well, naturally. Canadian scientists are concerned about their flat or decreasing national science budgets. The Ottawa Citizen reports that the three granting councils which fund most academic research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, have been asked to cut $148 million from their budgets over the next three years.
The government cuts occur despite protest by industry and academic scientists who worry about the nation's science and technology standing (as well as their own careers). Funding levels have remained flat or decreased under the conservative government and Canadian scientists now worry that talent will move across the border to the US and better funding. Ironically, the Canadians now cite US wisdom in prioritizing science.
Science, Now Rich Enough to Be Taken Hostage
Finally, one last change that illustrates a certain new-found importance for science. Admittedly, this is again, a case of squeezing lemonade out of lemons. Obama administration science advisory nominations, John Holdren for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenco for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are are seen by certain politicians as appropriate targets for political blackmail. That's pathetic. That's rich. Scientists sigh. Oh, the danger of being important.
So with the focus on science, not only in the US but in the UK too, are we dreaming to imagine a time when science attains greater respect and citizens reject anti-science stances? As the New York Times reported in February, The Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SIBC) announced that it would hold its 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City, instead of New Orleans, because of the law Governor Jindal signed last summer allowing teachers to use "supplemental textbooks" to "help students critique and review scientific theories".
The laws framer's insisted they had no subversive religious agenda, but the forthright group "Catholic Exchange" announced when the bill passed: "Bobby Jindal Signs Law Allowing Intelligent Design in Louisiana Schools". Louisiana was one of several states to pass legislation during the Bush administration allowing schools to teach of alternative (creationist) views. Framed as "the controversy", these new curriculum changes pander to right wing voters. Will these voters and politicians continue their anti-science fervor as Obama government recognizes science and science regains its footing? We can hope not.
Science Budgets That Look Friendly: Barack Obama's budget proposal looks good for science although we know this will get kicked around in Congress. Science reports these proposed budget increases:
* NIH is slated to receive $7 billion over the $70.5 billion dollar budget, including $6 billion for the National Cancer Institute.
* NSF: The budget asks for a 8.5% increase to $7.045 billion dollars.
* DOE: The projection for 2009 is $33.9 billion, in addition to $39 billion for energy programs under the stimulus package, and $1.6 billion for the Office of Science.
* NASA: $18.7 billion has been requested, which is a $700 million increase over this year's figure. The stimulus package included $1 billion.
Public Health, Thai Style: Thailand's Anti-Smoking campaign run by the Thailand Health Promotion Institute demands that all cigarette boxes be printed with one of several disconcerting graphics, to dissuade smokers from smoking. So smokers will be able to blow artful cigarette rings while regarding a box adorned with rotting teeth, a body tethered from emphysema to hospital ventilators, lung cancer, or skeletons. The country intends to run similar warnings to dissuade alcohol drinking.
Branding Triplets: Peter Orszag started an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) blog last week. The first title announced a new slogan: "Discipline, Efficiency, Prosperity". Perhaps the OMB is signaling that branding strategists have swept through to overhaul the agency's image, and that the marketing team incredibly found a few unspoken for adjectives still available after the run of the late 90's. Or perhaps enough companies have gone out of business now that some adjectives are newly available for government agencies to use.
The OMB promises a turnaround from the apparent Bush era slogan: Dissemble, Procrastinate and Ruin -- and offers the new blog to open up channels of communication.
Our only experience with Cabinet blogs was reading Mike Leavitt's blog, a communique that wasn't usually a font of transparency. For instance, Leavitt traveled to Africa several times to support PEPFAR and the Bush public health agenda. During Leavitt's 2007 visit, African president Thabo Mbeki was be writing about Leavitt's endorsement of the African National Congress's (ANC) nutrition and HIV/AIDS policies (in Mbeki's usual misleading manner). However, Leavitt's blog of his trip would read like a vaguely concerned tourists introduction to the country. 'All these orphans -- that's going to be a problem....' No mention of HIV/AIDS policies. Dissembling.
I guess there's only so much transparency allowed on a government blog.
Paper Cuts: This map shows the distribution of 15,590+ jobs lost from newspapers since 2007. Unlike many online denizens, I actually still subscribe and enjoy paper media. Oh well.
Poland Spring and Nestle Deterred?: The town of Shapleigh, Maine voted against Nestle in the company's bid to test the spring water in their town for possible bottling. The townspeople reject the idea of Nestle extracting water from their springs. Their vote may or may not accomplish their objective, pending likely legal challenges and the fact that the townspeople don't have say over state owned or private drilling sites in the town. The movie, "Flow" documented the extraction of water in Michigan.
Rahm Emmanuel Runs the Republican Party: Sunday, Rahm Emmanuel told Bob Schieffer that Rush Limbaugh was "voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party." Emmanuel explained that when Republicans "attack" Limbaugh they have to then "turn around and come back and basically said that he's apologizing and was wrong." Sure enough, a couple of days ago, RNC chairman Michael Steele told CNN's D.L. Hughly that he, Steele, not Limbaugh, was the "de facto leader" of the party, and Limbaugh merely had a show that was "incendiary" and "ugly". Today Steele apologized to Limbaugh.
Measles -- Science In Action: Last week a man returned from Europe with measles symptoms, caught from a friend. Once home, he came into contact with 73 people, which the San Francisco Communicable Disease & Prevention (CDCP) center contacted after activating an Infectious Disease Emergency Response. The man claimed to have been vaccinated twice against measles but couldn't document this. Instead he asserted that his disease symptoms proved that vaccinations don't work. Two of the man's children were also unvaccinated.
The aptly named Andrew Resignato, the director of the San Francisco Immunization Coalition, noted that since the average person doesn't understand vaccines or disease or science, these perennial outbreaks among the unvaccinated are to be expected. Last year a measles outbreak infected 12 people in San Diego. Earlier this year, a different man returning from India set off another Emergency Response in San Francisco.
Octopus Are Our Friends: Nothing like an octopus that inadvertently manipulates the water flow in its pool to plunge reporters into anthropomorphic sentiment. The Los Angeles Times reported that a female octopus at the Santa Monica Aquarium "disassembled the recycling systems valve, flooding the place with 200 gallons of seawater". This octopedal dexterity motivated quite a few comparisons to humans.
The two-spotted octopus, which if spread out, according to LA Times reporter Bob Pool, would be "the size of a human forearm", "floated lazily in the water that remained in its tank", then "watched intently through glass walls and portholes as workers struggled to dry the place out in time for the day's first busload of schoolchildren to arrive on a 9:30 a.m. field trip." (Emphasis mine) Octopus fans immediately started writing in to suggest that the aquarium should name the unnamed octopus, from "it" or "she", to "Flo". Sure, why don't we just invite "Flo" to tea and sandwiches while we're at it?