Archive for the 'Public Broadcasting – PBS/NPR' Category

Lead Causes Violence, Lack of Pirates Causes Global Warming

I have seen so many theories for the cause of the significant reduction in violent crime in the US since 1993 that I am starting to lose track, let me try to recall just a few from memory:

  • 3 Strikes, Mandatory Minimums, and other “Tough on Crime” Measures  enacted in the 1980’s
  • Stricter federal enforcement of gun control initiatives including the Brady Law 
  • Long-term results of social programs started in the mid-1960s
  • Improved overall economic conditions that began in the early 1990s

But the cause reported on the NewsHour tonight (in a story on leaded toys or “Toxic Toys” from China) is perhaps the most ludicrous: environmental lead (in particular in the form of leaded gasoline).  I am not making this up, a study release from what I now formally considered a prestigious source, the University Of Pittsburgh Medical Center (Lead In The Environment Causes, 2005) directly attributes this drop to efforts in the US to reduce exposure to lead.  These efforts were primarily through: phasing out leaded gasoline, lead paint, and lead plumbing.  Now this meme has apparently wriggled its way out of the crackpot journals of UPMC and into the mainstream news thanks to the NewsHour. 

Lead Paint and Violence?This theory is just slightly more specious than the farcical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Pro-Pirate argument (that the rise of global temperatures, hurricanes, and tornadoes is inversely proportional to the number of pirates).  Hmmmm, I guess these geniuses at UPMC couldn’t imagine that poorer and less educated people, i.e. those already at a significantly higher risk of becoming violent offenders to begin with, are more likely to live in older houses in which lead is still a problem.  Or they also couldn’t somehow wrap their heads around the fact that countries with lead levels significantly higher than the US (many countries still sell leaded gas in fact) still have much lower levels of violent crime than the US.    

Viva La Pasta y Los PiratesSo unless the PBS NewsHour wants to start reporting on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its pro-Pirate initiatives, they should not give credence to such equally meretricious arguments.

Gary Sellers – Nader’s Raider, Eccentric, and All-Around Good Person

2 Degrees of Freedom from Ralph Nader

Last night I was half-watching a PBS Independent Lens program on Ralph Nader (“An Unreasonable Man“), when the program showed one of his first aides, or Nader’s Raiders as they were called, Gary Sellers.  I thought to myself, that man looks remarkably like a Gary Sellers I once knew 25 or so years ago. 

That Gary Sellers, though I had heard tales that he was a Washington Lawyer (which I frankly didn’t believe), lived in a tiny trailer up on Knobley Mountain in Short Gap, WV.  The trailer was in the middle of a cherry and apple orchard on the top of a hillside of a beautiful piece of property that overlooked the farms and rivers of the northern Potomac Highlands near Fort Ashby, WV.  On a clear day from up there, you could see for 40 miles.  It really was a lovely piece of land except that you had to drive by some sort of deep gravel pit on the way in and an oft-used coal mining road ran through the middle of the orchard (probably some of the reasons why he left in the late 1980s – and like many such places of beauty, this orchard is now a McMansion farm). 

Gary used to make friends by bartering his cherries for goods and services in town.  Which is how my family met him, when my step-father traded some car work for a “day pass” to the orchard.  This barter-system became a way of life for our family for many years and Gary became a family friend.  And if Gary didn’t need to barter in order to obtain life’s essentials, I knew no different.  For indeed, he seemed to live simply enough to me.   As far as I knew, his only possessions were whatever old, deteriorating car he happened to own at any given point and a small camper that sat among the overgrown weeds and fruit trees of his hillside orchard. 

In fact, had I not just potentially learned that he was once a lead assistant to Ralph Nader during Nader’s most productive period and afterward was indeed an active and diligent Washington lawyer as was always rumored, I would have continued to think of him as basically an aging hippie – perhaps a Timothy Leary who happened to like black cherries instead of LSD.  Furthering this belief, was the fact that Gary did not seem to be bothered by the basic concerns of life, such as money and transportation.  He drove what might once have been considered cars but had become broken-down wrecks.  And the fact they he could not be bothered by such mundane details as obtaining reliable transportation led to many misadventures (and sometimes even the need to borrow cash). 

In Memorium  

Pre-Google, I might have never been able to confirm who this televised Washington lawyer Gary Sellers was and probably would have chalked it all up to coincidence.  But I did look up this Gary Sellers, the Washington Lawyer, the one-time Nader ally and later Nader critic, champion of worker safety and openness in government, and indeed he was that Gary Sellers, the aging hippie and jalopy-driving cherry-monger living off the land.  Sadly, I learned this fact by reading his obituary in the Washington Post.  I was saddened to learn that he died last March, as way too many Americans still do (even with Nader’s safety efforts), in a car accident.  

Though I was only in my early teens, Gary always treated me well and in a way that teens respect and appreciate – like we were peers or friends.  He had a genuineness that kids are very keen at detecting (but are forced to turn off this filter later in life so we can later cope with the generally phoniness of the world).  To be sure, he was definitely an eccentric (as evidenced by the many light-hearted stories that are associated with him), but he was also exceedingly friendly and giving – in a word, the perfect aging hippie (albeit one with a secret alter-ego as a Washington lawyer).  

What better testament to a man is there than to be fondly remembered by all who knew him and to know that he left the world a better place (as he most certainly did through both orchard planting and safety regulations)?  With his work here now done, may he now be able to spend eternity tending to his black cherry trees on a beautiful hillside on the other side of heaven. 

Gary Sellers among the Cherry Blossums

A Blog Entry on the Sinister Nature of Blog Entries

Or “Why the Future (of Mass-Media) Doesn’t Need Us”

Rage Against The MachineI simply love it when someone presents a really good (meaning reasonably well thought-out) contrarian view to widely held and agreed-upon notions.  Such as Bill Joy did with his anti-technology argument in “Why the Future doesn’t Need Us.”  Another grumpy technology-kill-joy by the name of Andrew Keenhas been making the rounds lately, griping about “these kids today,” what with their modern-day Frisbees (MySpace), Rock-n-Roll (YouTube), and Hula-Hoops (Blogs).  He is pimping his new book “The Cult of the Amateur” and appeared on the PBS Newshour a while back.  

There is a Point Here Somewhere

Now, it would be easy to dismiss as a hack and a Luddite someone whose only experience with the Internet was running a dot.com-bubble-era company into the ground (audiocafe.com).  But amid the clutter and shrillness of his argument, there is some useful meaning to be extracted somewhere in the mire of Keen’s digital diatribe.  While Keen’s gripes are so many it is often hard to see his overarching premise or exactly what he is saying the real problems are, the theme seems to be this:

We are losing high quality media content in favor of the lower quality, user-generated content of Web 2.0.  “The so-called ‘democratization’ of the Internet is actually undermining reliable information and high-quality entertainment”

Just in the first chapter of his book (which you can read here), he bounces freely between topics ranging from

  • “Digital Darwinianism, Survival of the Loudest and Most Opinonated” i.e. problems with
    • The pure chaos and noise of the flattened internet information model
    • The inability to find reliable, high quality information
  • Dismay that Search Engines are the new Big Bother (“1984 2.0“)
    • True enough, people enter their most private thoughts/questions into these commercial tools
    • These commercial tools then turn this very personal information into a means of selling advertising and products
  • (A possibly misguided belief) that free content sites, such as YouTube (in the case of TV) and craigslist (in the case of newspapers), are cannibalizing and destroying legitimate paid content venues
  • Justifiable authorship concerns
    • Source, bias, and reliability of information
    • Skill, quality, and experience
    • Copyright, loss of income
  • A general lamentation on the pure inanity of it all and ultimate further dumbing down of the culture.

Cult of the Amateur Cover

O Tempora! O Mores! – Oh the times! Oh the morals!

Since some of Keen’s primary targets (along with YouTube and Wikipedia) are blogs, I find it a little ironic that when I wanted to find out more about this intriguing character that I was directed where?  You guessed it – to his blog at http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/.  Also, there was a Wikipedia article and some YouTube videos, but I won’t rub that in – I guess blogs and YouTube are OK for him and his “high quality content” but not for the ordinary rabble.

As far as Keen’s observations go, they are much like Joy’s – big on problems, not so good on proposed solutions.  The book is half polemic and half hyperbole.  He cherry picks the best of traditional media, the Bob Dylans and the New York Times-es, while completely ignoring the very same “corrupt, trivial, and inane” aspects that he is criticizing in Web 2.0. 

For argument effect, Keen sometimes makes statements that surely he can not truly believe.  For instance, he repeats the myth that craigslist ads cannibalize local newspaper revenue.  Does anyone who has ever been to craigslist believe 1) someone would actually pay for most of these ads or 2) these ads would ever appear in a newspaper?  Is there anyone who has ever paid $50 for a 15 word, 1-day newspaper classified ad that didn’t feel a little bit exploited themselves?

The Problems According to Keen

Internet as a “Chaos of Useless Information” and “Libertarian Anarchy”

The Internet has resulted in less culture, less reliability, less organization, and less ability to find high quality information.  Bloggers and other amateurs simply lack the resources to produce quality content in terms of being able to travel, assemble teams, gain internal access to facilities, and hire editors/quality control personnel. 

At some point we need trained experts to filter information for us and tell the masses what are the most important issues of the day.  To extract any value from information, we need hierarchy, organization, and expertise.

“Digital Narcissism”

He remarks that there are “a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.”  True enough, people are showing off, bragging, revealing inane details about themselves, and putting virtually their whole lives on the Internet. 

Internet as an “Echo Chamber” and as a Great Divider

We are staying in places on Internet that just echo/reflect our own ideas.  We aren’t being exposed to different and diverse ideas and cultures but are becoming further isolated and stratified.  We go to the Internet just “to confirm what we already believe.”

We don’t know our own neighbors but we intimately know the videos of YouTubers and the ideas of bloggers (many who just share our own ideas).  “Internet democratization … is not improving community. It’s not increasingly developing rich conversation.  It’s not building collaboration.”  There is a “fragmentation of taste” and a “channel for every one of us in which we are the solitary broadcaster and sole audience.”  

Internet Anonymity

Because of anonymity, we will never truly know the motivation behind those who produce the content and therefore can’t judge the reliability.  And as Keen calls it, “an anonymous culture where people seem to be perpetually insulting one another.”  The Internet manifestation of the anonymous driver “sticking up his middle finger.”

The Internet as a Reflection of Ourselves

The Internet shows the lighter and darker aspects of humanity.  It is “youthfulness, playfulness, energy, and excitement.”  But it is also “addiction to pornography and  gambling,” as well as all of the other unhealthy aspects of the Internet: compulsive and impulsive shopping (eBay), incessant chattering, and virtually any other unhealthy human habit in digital form.  Keen makes an excellent point here and we very seldom hear about the addictive and unhealthy nature of Internet activities.    

The Solutions

In Keen’s own words (on the NewsHour), he says

“[Internet self-expressers should] should ask themselves, “Is this really valuable?  Do I need to tell the world what I’m eating for breakfast?  Do I need to tell the world what I think of the latest TV show?”  Much of the self-expression on the Internet is wasteful. …” 

He also suggests that, in free societies (one can argue whether this ever truly exists), there is no need for anonymity on the Internet.  He believes removing anonymity would quickly self-correct problems with unreliable and uncouth information. 

An Inane Blogger’s Take on Keen

Who knew icanhascheezburger, Chris Crocker, the Numa-Numa kid, or the Chocolate Rain guy could wreak such havoc?  Is time spent watching inanity on the Internet any less wasteful than time spent watching inanity on TV?  If this original “high quality media” was so great, why would people even be seeking out other alternatives?  And isn’t actively producing content such as blogs or other media, no matter how inane, more beneficial than merely passively absorbing content. 

Exactly which of these Web 2.o sites is the villain? 

  • Blogs and Social Networking sites: MySpace, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Photos and Videos: Flickr and YouTube
  • Encyclopedias: Wikipedia, Math World
  • Media Discussion and Aggregation: Forums, Digg, Slashdot

And do any of these sites not have an analogue in the non-Internet world (even if the barrier of entry is now considerably less)?

I find that I read much more news than I ever did before when I received newspapers.  And I find the quality of the content, even the novice-generated content, much higher.

It just seems like the old Cathedral versus Bazaar argument.  That there is only one traditional way to produce content and it must be handed out by those content elites.  More recently this argument was made with Proprietary versus Open Source Software

But Keen’s elitist argument has been repeated again and again down through the ages.  That is that there should be centralized gatekeepers who tell the population what they should think, how they should behave, or what they should consume.  Be these gatekeepers high priests, politicians, or modern-day media moguls.

In the final analysis, as Keen points out, the Internet, and now Web 2.0, for good or ill, is like all media, be it cuneiform or stone slabs: a Mirror of Ourselves.  Hopefully this time not just a lazier, darker, and more inane reflection and manifestation of ourselves.

Beliefs, Flaming Lips, and Happiness

I live in a backwater which is so remote that we do not even have access to National Public Radio (NPR) radio broadcasts.  Fortunately, NPR does a pretty good job of providing internet access to and streaming their programs, especially for a pseudo-government entity.   

NPR is often criticized, perhaps sometimes fairly, for having a liberal bent, but they actually have some excellent, thought-provoking programs.  And as Stephen Colbert often remarks “”thoughts/facts/reality have a well-known liberal bias”. 

One of my favorite segments is “This I Believe” a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition, it is actually an idea revived from a 1950s radio program.  The essays are weekly submittals from intellectuals to celebrities to Average Joes and everyone in-between.  It has even spawned a website where anyone can submit an entry. 

As one might expect, the contributions are often just a reflection or accumulation of the contributors’ collective experiences.  A few ones I have liked:  

But I think this week’s installment was one of my favorites.  It was presented by Wayne Coyne, singer for the band The Flaming Lips (which I have never heard of but I take it is an odd combination of an Indy Rock band, Frank Zappa, and the Blue Man Group). 


Wayne’s
summation of belief is to “try to be happy within the context of the life we are actually living.”   He even anticipated the thought I often have when I read the entries of successful celebrities who have achieved their life goals when he assures the reader that “I felt this way even when I was working at Long John Silver’s. I worked there for 11 years as a fry cook.”

I like that:  “Try to be happy within the context of the life we are actually living.”   

Not a very good advertising campaign perhaps – but excellent advice.  Now I’m off to do just that.

“Happiness is a pint of Guinness”