Thursday, January 8, 2009

Happy new year

Al Franken Is the Right's New Punching Bag

He may take a Senate seat from the Republicans in Minnesota, but Al Franken is just the kind of Democratic pariah the GOP has been waiting for.

Al frankenThough legal wrangling may prevent him from being immediately seated, comedian Al Franken was certified the winner in Minnesota's Senate race today with a lead of 225 votes, putting an end to a weeks-long recount battle. With the usual hapless Democrats failing to generate much outrage, Franken is in line for an even more prestigious honor: the right wing's favorite punching bag.

"Al Franken is a very tempting target because he is so outrageous," said Republican strategist Brad Blakeman. "It's similar to Joe Bidenwe hope that Al Franken is the gift that keeps on giving."

Bill O'Reilly called Franken "a smear merchant and a rank liar unqualified for any elected office," and "a far left extremist" who "traffics in hate."

Franken's prominence comes at a time in which Republicans have struggled to find an easy Democratic bogeyman. Barack Obama is still overwhelmingly popular. Hillary Clinton, formerly the party's nemesis, earned a newfound respect among conservatives as the voice of moderation on withdrawal from Iraq. Rod Blagojevich is too local. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are a particular favorite of Matt Drudge, but relentless attacks on them failed to prevent heavy losses in 2006 and 2008. Ted Kennedy, suffering from brain cancer, is off limits.

So Franken provides an inviting target. His style of politics runs directly counter to the civility preached by the incoming president. Franken is author of the bestsellers Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which trashed conservative talk hosts like Bill O'Reilly and baited some to respond with their own heated attacks.

Even while on the campaign trail, where Franken tried to project a senatorial gravitas, he found time to hit the right where it hurt. Politico reported that he was behind one of the most brutal Saturday Night Live sketches of the election, in which John McCain approves a series of increasingly horrifying attack ads against Obama ("Barack Obama has fathered two black wedlock").

If Obama's strategy is to dial back the blue/red civil war to a detente, Franken's is to escalate it to World War III. Now Franken is poised to become that rare politician whose very existence is a wedge issue to be exploited.

Senator Al Franken is a big fat idiot

Home Preparedness and the $50 Billion Straw

By Scott Burns

By now, having watched your house fall in value, your 401(k) plan slide toward nothingness, your job security disappear, your benefits fade, the complete failure of business management, the disastrous failure of regulatory control, the finger-pointing of the political parties, the shameful desire of a state governor to sell a Senate seat and the revelation of an epic $50 billion fraud, none of us could be blamed if we wanted to move to Montana and shun the company of human beings.

Having written a newspaper column for more than 30 years, I thought I was pretty tough-minded. But today, watching our dysfunctional institutions, I feel something like the shock and horror a parent must feel when he discovers that a beloved son or daughter is actually a serial killer. I don't understand the recklessness, the greed, the dishonesty. I don't fathom the unrelenting self-aggrandizement of the politicians, the executives, the lenders big and small, or the investment bankers. I'm quite sure you don't, either.

So here's the big question.

What can we do to feel safe again?

Should we push the politicians for fundamental reform?

No way. They simply aren't qualified to provide it. Neither party has shown any willingness to stop promising benefits that have to be paid for by our children and grandchildren. Their Ponzi scheme, more politely known as Social Security and Medicare, is far larger than the alleged fraud of Bernard Madoff.

The tough answer is that we have to change. The moment we ask the politicians, regardless of party, we're disempowering ourselves and empowering them.

That is the opposite of what we need to do.

We need to make the politicians and business leaders get concerned about what they can do to regain our trust, our vote, and our business. We need to operate from a position of strength and self-reliance, not weakness. We need to become the kind of citizens that Thomas Jefferson thought we were.

It won't be easy, but here are some of the basic steps. Think of them as resolutions for 2009 and later.

Go Cash. We can't pressure the politicians if we're as debt-strapped as they've made the country. We need to do whatever it takes to eliminate the menace of credit card debt. We should make it a goal to pay all of our bills in full monthly and build enough equity in our homes that we can self-finance most outsized expenses. That means the end of a debt-driven consumer society.

Our belt-tightening (read: lower standard of living) may last as long as five years.

The lending industry won't like this. We may owe them money, but we don't owe them any consideration. The bankers--- investment and lending--- should consider themselves fortunate not to be tarred, feathered and run out of town.

Happy 2009 from a futuristic point of view


Every year the Futurist magazine compiles the forecasts and predictions of assorted visionaries and is now out with its "Outlook for 2009 and Beyond."

Contemplating our immediate future would seem to be a dispiriting and joyless task -- look what it's done to Al Gore -- but these futurists come across as a cheerful and optimistic bunch. Take this forecast:

"People will have more sex." The reason is that women's growing economic power around the world will give them more choices, and one of those choices apparently will be to have more sex.

Perhaps that has some bearing on another forecast: "Americans may turn away from antidepressants." According to the anthropologist who made this call, the 100-million antidepressant prescriptions Americans take "kill the sex drive" but many may quit taking them, one surmises, so they can participate in the general randiness of women having more economic power.

Even stuff that we lay people think is almost surely bad, the futurists view with equanimity like, "Everything you say and do may be recorded." Implanted nanodevices will allow all our conversations and activities to be recorded and recoverable, enabling you to relive junior high at will.

That's because digital storage capacity will grow so large that it will be measured in "yottabytes" -- 1 septillion bytes of data -- allowing "the ability to record and store every second of one's life on a computer (and no doubt post it on Facebook)." Woody Allen said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. Now you won't even have to do that.

This development will come too late for some of us. "Retirees will increasingly return to the work force." It would be nice to be able to send a replacement. This forecast didn't say the retirees were doing it out of boredom or necessity, but implies it's the latter. One-third of Americans who retire are back on the job two years later and -- here's something to look forward to -- "40 percent of seniors say they plan to continue working until they die, and two-thirds of Americans say they doubt that retirement is possible for the middle class."

Clever and Creative Billboard Advertising

Clever and creative billboard advertisements

Creative uses of billboards in advertising campaigns by various companies.

Alien Billboard

A creepy billboard in Ann Arbor, MI. [link]

Alien billboard

Formula Toothcare Billboard

Formula Toothcare "builds strong teeth." [link]

Formula toothcare billboard

Heineken Billboard

This outdoor campaign from Heineken is an example of how an innovative idea can have a huge impact in a traditional approach. [link]

Heineken billboard

The shape of things to come

A self-confessed 'pretty unlikely early adopter', the digital guru Clay Shirky still proved to be uncannily prescient about the impact of the web - which is why Tom Teodorczuk is getting his media forecast for 2009

Clay shirky

Clay Shirky, with his bald head and composed manner, bears a resemblance to REM's frontman, Michael Stipe, and his prognosis for the future of the media industry could be encapsulated in the titles of two REM songs - Monster and Shiny Happy People. On the one hand, the leading web thinker and adjunct professor of New York University predicts further gloom for traditional media: "2009 is going to be a bloodbath." Yet he foresees that a recession may produce greater industry clarity by forcing radical action, which he explains as a boss saying to staff: "'Bonfire, this is Hail Mary time!', instead of: 'This year we made as much money as last year but we're still restructuring dramatically.'"

Much of the success of Shirky's recent book, Here Comes Everybody, about internet technologies and the effects of mass democratisation of the web, came from its simplicity and the absence of jargon. "As with the printing press, the loss of professional control will be bad for many of society's core institutions," he writes. In conversation he is just as plain-speaking, saying, for example, that "Management has a hard time destroying parts of its business unless the alternative, obvious to everyone, is that there is no choice." Based in the unlikely environs of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, a stone's throw from a fusty independent bookstore in downtown Manhattan, rather than Silicon Valley, Shirky, 44, is unburdened by traditional media ties. After Yale, he worked as a painter and theatre director before becoming ensnared by the web in the early 90s thanks to his mother, a research librarian. He has consulted at News International and lists the BBC as a current client. "The advantage I had over people in the traditional media industry is precisely what I didn't know," he says. "I was a pretty unlikely early adopter."

No one, of course, can know what a future media landscape will look like. But, given that Shirky was among the few to have forecast 15 years ago that classified advertising would be sold online rather than via a newspaper ad, his crystal ball is more estimable than most others. This is his forecast:


The great misfortune of newspapers in this era is that they were such a good idea for such a long time that people felt the newspaper business model was part of a deep truth about the world, rather than just the way things happened to be. It's like the fall of communism, where a lot of the eastern European satellite states had an easier time because there were still people alive who remembered life before the Soviet Union - nobody in Russia remembered it. Newspaper people are like Russians, in a way.

Jeff Jarvis said it beautifully: "If you can't imagine anyone linking to what you're about to write, don't write it." The things that the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast have are good storytelling and low costs. Newspapers are going to get more elitist and less elitist. The elitist argument is: "Be the Economist or New Yorker, a small, niche publication that says: 'We're only opening our mouths when what we say is demonstrably superior to anything else on the subject.'" The populist model is: "We're going to take all the news pieces we get and have an enormous amount of commentary. It's whatever readers want to talk about." Finding the working business model between them in that expanded range is the new challenge.

Why pay for it at all? The steady loss of advertising revenue, accelerated by the recession, has normalised the idea that it's acceptable to move to the web. Even if we have the shallowest recession and advertising comes back as it inevitably does, more of it will go to the web. I think that's it for newspapers. What we saw happen to the Christian Science Monitor [the international paper shifted its daily news operation online] is going to happen three or four dozen times (globally) in the next year. The 500-year-old accident of economics occasioned by the printing press - high upfront cost and filtering happening at the source of publication - is over. But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button.

The torch are passed!

God's Unconditional Love Officially Terminated

Earth- Mass panic ensued among Christians last Sunday when God issued a formal statement from Heaven saying that His pure and sublime love, on which millions of people depend, will no longer be provided unconditionally.

"If you want my love you're going to have to earn it," said God, backed by a chorus of Seraphim who continuously sang His praise. "This generally involves being a good person, and making at least one genuine attempt to benefit humanity over the course of your painfully short lives."

The termination of His divine love came as a startling shock to the roughly 1.9 billion Christians around the world who have grown accustomed to waking up every morning to the warm and comforting embrace of an infallible, omnipotent being of indescribable power who cares about each and every one of them on a deeply personal level.

"I was always told that God was the only person who loved me more even more than I love myself, but I guess that's not the case anymore," said Luke Benet, 4th generation Christian. "This worries me because I think it means I'll have to actually take stock in myself, and maybe even start giving a damn."

Prior to the revocation, God's transcendent love was forcibly showered upon every person on Earth with no stipulations, costs, or behavioral expectations. This generous distribution format, referred to by God as the "Free Love" model, had been maintained by God for over 2,000 years. Now many who have taken His love for granted are pitifully looking for ways to earn it back.

"I've already sacrificed a few stray cats, but who knows if that's the sort of thing an omnipotent being would like," said Nate Rogers, church-goer and racquetball enthusiast. "If only He left us with a more concrete set of guidelines, or maybe some rules that we could follow in order to please Him, then maybe I wouldn't be caught whistling in the dark."

The Ponzi Scheme Presidency

Bush's Legacy of Destruction
By Tom Engelhardt

It may finally be 2009, but in some ways, given these last years, it might as well be 800 BCE.

From the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, the palace walls of the kings who ruled the Assyrian Empire were decorated with vast stone friezes, filled with enough dead bodies to sate any video-game maker and often depicting -- in almost comic strip-style -- various bloody royal victories and conquests. At least one of them shows Assyrian soldiers lopping off the heads of defeated enemies and piling them into pyramids for an early version of what, in the VCE (Vietnam Common Era) of the 1960s, Americans came to know as the "body count."

So I learned recently by wandering through a traveling exhibit of ancient Assyrian art from the British Museum. On the audio tour accompanying the show, one expert pointed out that Assyrian scribes, part of an impressive imperial bureaucracy, carefully counted those heads and recorded the numbers for the greater glory of the king (as, in earlier centuries, Egyptian scribes had recorded counts of severed hands for victorious Pharaohs).

Hand it to art museums. Is there anything stranger than wandering through one and locking eyes with a Vermeer lady, a Van Eyck portrait, or one of Rembrandt's burghers staring out at you across the centuries? What a reminder of the common humanity we share with the distant past. In a darker sense, it's no less a reminder of our kinship across time to spot a little pyramid of heads on a frieze, imagine an Assyrian scribe making his count, and -- eerily enough -- feel at home. What a measure of just how few miles "the march of civilization" (as my parents' generation once called it) has actually covered.

Prejudiced Toward War

If you need an epitaph for the Bush administration, here's one to test out: They tried. They really tried. But they couldn't help it. They just had to count.

In a sense, George W. Bush did the Assyrians proud. With his secret prisons, his outsourced torture chambers, his officially approved kidnappings, the murders committed by his interrogators, the massacres committed by his troops and mercenaries, and the shock-and-awe slaughter he ordered from the air, it's easy enough to imagine what those Assyrian scribes would have counted, had they somehow been teleported into his world. True, his White House didn't have friezes of his victories (one problem being that there were none to glorify); all it had was Saddam Hussein's captured pistol proudly stored in a small study off the Oval Office. Almost 3,000 years later, however, Bush's "scribes," still traveling with the imperial forces, continued to count the bodies as they piled ever higher in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani borderlands, and elsewhere.


Send Your Comments to...

Please submit your comments on any of the items above - referencing them BY Title - to: