“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.”
— Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
At a February 13 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to question newly appointed Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, on United States policy toward that country, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) impugned Mr. Abrams’s veracity since he is a known liar who narrowly escaped felony perjury charges in 1991 by cooperating with Iran-Contra Affair Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Mr. Abrams took exception to Ms. Omar’s statement. She went on to outline his participation in war crimes and meddling in the internal affairs of several Latin American countries, all while serving as the Reagan administration’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, an Orwellian title for someone who demonstrated contempt for human rights if they got in the way of his neo-conservative anti communist dogma.
None of the activities and attitudes Representative Omar outlined as pertaining to Mr. Abrams are in dispute, yet in the February 13 public hearing he didn’t want to own up to them. Elliott Abrams has been the point man for dirty work abroad for Republican administrations for nearly 40 years, and yet he expects American citizens and the people of the world to believe he has performed his services only for democracy and for human rights. When someone points out publicly how his record has demonstrated the exact opposite, Mr. Abrams gets testy, even nasty. Apparently his narcissism doesn’t allow for anyone calling him out as the nasty person he truly is, though it’s interesting that in his reaction he confirms it.
Everyone around the world must know, and the Venezuelans in particular must realize, that since the current presidential administration has assigned Elliott Abrams to the case in Venezuela that country is now in for a nasty, horrific time at the hands of the new envoy. It is as if a hockey team has sent in its most egregious enforcer off the bench. With Mr. Abrams on the job, Venezuelan oil will soon be back within the control of big American and European fossil fuel companies and the international banks will be able to squeeze indebted Venezuela dry, and that’s the endgame of the whole regime change charade and manufactured humanitarian crisis of aid supplies rotting at the Venezuelan border. The only ones who don’t know this, or pretend not know, are corporate media outlets and the consumers who uncritically suck at the corporate media teats of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and major newspaper and radio outlets. Slap a patina of democracy and humanitarianism on it, no matter how flimsy, and the American public will largely stand up and salute it, no questions asked, lest they be branded unpatriotic. It worked in 2003 for the Iraq invasion and has worked innumerable times before.
And it’s a tactic which has always worked wonders for Elliott Abrams in his career of promoting democracy and humanitarianism, while only incidentally serving corporate and government interests, which are the same thing. What a great guy! Anyone who believes otherwise is unpatriotic, and possibly a communist. A reasonable person might question why the despicable Mr. Abrams is representing the United States abroad in any capacity at all rather than lying low in shame, if not in jail, but then to stay sane a reasonable person had best give up such honest questions in today’s America.
A scene from the 1984 film Dune, directed by David Lynch, with José Ferrer as the Emperor, Siân Phillips as the Reverend Mother Gaius, Kenneth McMiIlan as the Baron, and Alicia Witt as Alia. Warning: gruesome images.
It wouldn’t be surprising news if the current administration resurrected for its damnable purposes Mr. Abrams’s fellow war criminals Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger. Now that’s a triumvirate of inglorious foreign policy pros to sicken the world! In their world it’s bad enough up is down, 2+2=5, and evil has the upper hand, but everyone is also expected by the current administration, its leaders and its followers, and even by the press, the so-called Fourth Estate for its purported independence from power, to not only swallow their hypocritical bilge, but attest to its toothsome flavor and heartily endorse it for others to swill in large doses. Here’s to you, Mr. Abrams!
Last week there were reports in astronomy news of the detection of anomalous fast radio bursts from another galaxy for only the second time ever. That doesn’t necessarily mean the bursts have happened only two times in the history of humanity, merely that it was the second time humanity has detected them. Astronomers have no explanation for the source of the bursts, only conjectures, among them the possibility of intelligent origin.
The Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) Observatory atop Mount Haleakala on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where astronomers first observed and then named the interstellar object, Oumuamua. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.
Intelligent origin of unexplained phenomena can never be ruled out until it is, of course, otherwise explained. All the same, there are likely and less likely explanations based on experience. The scientific method narrows down the possibilities, and it saves time, money, and energy to investigate the most likely possibilities first, rather than looking into unusual ones. Is a tuft of hair snagged on a tree branch from a bear or from Bigfoot? Everyone already knows of bears, while the existence of Bigfoot remains the source of speculation. It makes more sense for an investigator to analyze the tuft of hair to see if it came from a bear than it does to try linking it to a being for which there is no other physical evidence, and then to move on from there.
Likewise the investigation of interstellar anomalies. For now, astronomers could attribute the fast radio bursts to an extraterrestrial intelligence, but since any evidence for the existence of such intelligence remains in dispute, astronomers will no doubt look into purely natural sources first. A case in point was the appearance in the solar system in 2017 of the interstellar object Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning “first messenger”, given it because a University of Hawaii observatory discovered the object and astronomers conjectured it was the first interstellar object observed by humanity to transit the solar system.
News reports latched onto musings by some astronomers that the object could be a scout sent ahead by an extraterrestrial civilization. Certainly it could have been that, and the object’s unusual size and behavior as it moved through space prompted the astronomers’ musings. But the conjecture was never more than an aside in otherwise sober scientific report. It was interesting speculation which was ultimately debunked by observation of Oumuamua when it came nearer the inner solar system before leaving the neighborhood in 2018.
It is still best to keep an open mind to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence either broadcasting a signal of its existence or taking notice of the Earth and investigating. It goes without saying that the universe is a such a vast place that it would be folly to think life exists only on this one planet. The intelligence of some of the life on Earth remains open to interpretation. The Hawaiians lived on the most isolated archipelago on the planet, and yet one day in 1778 two strange ships appeared over the horizon of the vast ocean surrounding their home islands and the Englishmen aboard those ships, led by Captain James Cook, changed their lives forever, and in many ways not for the better.
People have only their own experience by which to judge how a first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence might develop; anything else is conjecture about less likely outcomes, like guessing whether Bigfoot might prefer classical music over hip-hop. Is there anything in the human experience to suggest that first contact of a less technologically advanced civilization with a previously unknown, more powerful civilization would be anything but traumatic for the former? And considering that humanity is still taking baby steps toward the stars, it is perhaps wise to guess a first contact at this point would put Earth’s people at a disadvantage. There is no evidence on which to base the conjecture that more advanced civilizations would also be more benevolent than we ourselves have been in dealing with the less powerful. Experience of people on Earth with each other suggests otherwise.
An illustration of Robinson Crusoe by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) for a 1920 edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic fictional tale of a sailor marooned on an island off South America. Crusoe has the island to himself and yearns for human company, yet when he encounters the primitive man whose footprints Crusoe discovers unexpectedly in the beach sand, he abuses his greater power in order to enslave the man.
The Hawaiians living in splendid isolation in 1778 did not have the advantage of being able to see farther than their own eyes could see. It’s ironic that partly because of the isolation of the islands they make nearly ideal posts for astronomical observatories which can see light years into interstellar space. It seems nothing can stop progress, however, whether good or bad. Even if the Hawaiians had seen Cook’s ships coming from farther off than the horizon, they could not have stopped them. At most they could have prepared themselves for the inevitable, if such a thing is possible. It’s highly unlikely they would have signaled the ships since it appears the Hawaiians were generally content and had no need of strangers. Some people on Earth feel differently about the situation now after humans have fouled the nest, but still it is perhaps best not to look abroad for saviors since their good intentions are not assured, and instead limit ourselves to quiet observation and keeping a low profile while gathering evidence. In the meantime, we had best act as our own saviors here on Earth, imperfect as we are, or future generations will condemn our stargazing as a fool’s errand.
Regardless of the outcome of today’s runoff election in Mississippi between incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy, Senator Hyde-Smith will have exposed herself at the very least as an insensitive idiot through her recent remarks, and more likely as someone whose cossetted upbringing among conservative white people in Mississippi never gave her an idea how offensively her remarks would be received by those outside that bubble.
John C. Stennis takes his seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1928, the same year he received his law degree from the University of Virginia. Between 1928, when Mr. Stennis started his career in government as a Democrat, and 1988, his last year as a senator from Mississippi, the major political parties realigned, with the major shift coming in reaction to Civil Rights legislation passed during the Lyndon Johnson presidential administration.
Senator Hyde-Smith has of course attacked those attacking her for her idiotic remarks regarding public hanging and vote suppression because that is what plays best these days among emboldened white supremacist fascists in the Make America Great Again (MAGA) crowd which constitutes her major constituency. Retractions and sincere apologies are signs of weakness to those people, who would call for her lynching if she ever showed any human decency. Instead she has claimed her words were twisted by the media and by her political foes, even though she can be seen speaking those very words on video. As for suppressing the votes of liberals, she says she was only kidding.
Ha-ha, Senator Hyde-Smith, you are very funny with your joking about Jim Crow vote suppression of liberals, by which of course everyone in the 37 percent black state of Mississippi knows you mean suppressing the votes of black folks. That stuff is indeed side-splittingly funny! And your “good old gal” remark about how you like someone so much that you’d be at the front row of a public hanging if he invited you, by which everyone in the state of Mississippi, where public lynching of black folks over 100 years from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era was a well-known occurrence, why that’s a knee-slapper, and goodness knows little ol’ you meant no harm by it, did you, Sugar? Bless your heart!
It is likely that hundreds of thousands of Mississippianswill vote for Senator Hyde-Smith in the runoff election. Unless those voters were living under a rock, they had to have heard the Senator’s remarks or heard of them. They will vote for her anyway. For too many of them, most likely the MAGA fanatics among them, her recent remarks will be reason enough to vote for her. She is an awful person, and like the awful person currently occupying the Oval Office of the White House, she is a symptom of what’s wrong with the country, not the disease. The disease is carried by all those voters in Mississippi and elsewhere who are laughing with her, rather than being appalled not just by her remarks, but by the mindset that brought them out of her mouth in the first place, and then made her turn on everyone but herself to quiet the uproar over them. Look at your friends, neighbors, and family for those carrying the disease of not taking cruelty seriously, and laughing at the debasement of the Other.
Secretary of Defense designate Elliot Richardson, right, talks with Senator John C. Stennis, D-Miss., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, prior to his nomination hearing at the U.S. Capitol on January 10, 1973. By the 1970s, Republican conversion of conservative southern Democrats was nearly complete. Mr. Stennis would retain his Democratic Party affiliation through the remainder of his career, though in name only since he was aligned ideologically with conservative Republicans. In 1982, he was the last Democratic senator elected from Mississippi.
Nike’s new advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick poses some ethical questions for him and for potential buyers of Nike’s athletic apparel. It does not effectively pose any ethical questions for the company, Nike, because they have never been overly concerned with that sort of thing, as continuing controversy over its reliance on overseas sweatshop labor attests. For Nike the new advertising campaign is strictly a business proposition.
Nike Headquarters near Beaverton, Oregon, in July 2010. Lake Nike is in the foreground. Photo by Brandon Carson.
Mr. Kaepernick has been under contract with Nike since 2011, but this is the first time the company has prominently featured him in their advertising. The campaign has everybody talking, and that of course is the goal of all advertising. Nike may or may not support the cause of protesting police brutality and racial injustice, but more likely they are simply capitalizing on Mr. Kaepernick’s notoriety and are willing to sit on the fence about his protest cause, no matter what their ad slogan implies about it.
What’s more difficult to parse is the willingness of Mr. Kaepernick to make himself the face of such an amoral corporation. It’s hard to believe that a socially aware man like him would be completely unaware of the lingering taint of Nike’s historic exploitation of cheap, non-union labor. Nike has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of athletes under contract to promote its products, but none have been primarily renowned for social justice causes as much as Colin Kaepernick. There are substantial financial incentives for him in participating in Nike’s advertising, though it beggars the imagination to believe he is unaware of the conflicting signals he is now sending people who have supported his protest.
The targets of Nike’s advertising, the buyers of its shoes and other athletic gear, are probably mostly unaware of Nike’s history of exploitative labor practices. That has to be what Nike is counting on and why they are willing to put forward a controversial figure to promote their products. Nike knows its target market is under 30, and to many of them Mr. Kaepernick is a hero, while only a minority of them may know or care about Nike’s history of bad labor relations. Nike is still in business, after all, and doing better than ever. For Nike’s young customers, there is likely no dissonance bubbling up from this advertising campaign.
It is mostly older folks who are upset with Mr. Kaepernick’s kneeling protests, and Nike doesn’t need their business to stay afloat. The campaign is a cynical, amoral ploy by Nike, which is no surprise, but it’s puzzling to consider Mr. Kaepernick’s motivations, if they are indeed any deeper than face value, such as how Nike depicts him on their poster, accompanied by a slogan with echoes of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, or as Nike might appropriate it, Just Do the Right Thing.
New York Giants football team co-owner Steve Tisch has spoken out publicly against the National Football League’s (NFL) new policy of punishing teams which allow players to kneel for the national anthem, saying he doesn’t intend to punish any Giants’ players for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality. Mr. Tisch also criticized the current president of the country for weighing in on the issue, particularly since he appears to misunderstand the reason for the protests and believes the players are against the flag and the anthem, and therefore America.
Considering the Troll-in-Chief’s poor grasp of many issues, such as his recent characterization of the small Balkan nation of Montenegro as a place filled with “very aggressive people” who could involve the United States in World War III in order to come to their aid as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is possible he does not understand the true reason for the protests initiated by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when he was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. It is equally likely he saw how many in the corporate media used the shorthand term “anthem protests” and how it caught on with much of the public who superficially skim news stories, a group of people which often includes his most loyal supporters, the Trumpkins, and he exploited people’s ignorance to mis-characterize the protests as disloyal demonstrations by spoiled, privileged athletes. There is deep irony in Chief Bone Spurs shamelessly dumping on black athletes as spoiled and privileged ingrates when many of them worked their way up from poor backgrounds to earn a lucrative spot in the limelight afforded to only a tiny percentage of those playing sports.
On July 7, 2016, community members and Black Lives Matter activists gather outside the Minnesota governor’s residence in Saint Paul hours after police shot and killed Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster.
The Troll-in-Chief knew very well his Trumpkins would eat up his slanders of the black athletes. Almost all the players kneeling in protest of police brutality were black, largely because unnecessary police killings have affected black people most of all, and as such the protests were in tune with the Black Lives Matter movement. What better way for the Trumpkins to vent their resentment against millionaire black athletes than to ignore the real reason for their protests in favor of slamming them as un-American? They don’t support our troops, who died for a colored piece of cloth and a song glorifying war! Actually, if anything, those troops died defending the right of the NFL players to kneel or stand for the national anthem. That’s a complex, abstract concept, however, and for the Trumpkins it’s much easier and more satisfying to howl hateful epithets at black players for doing something they don’t like, even though the players have a perfectly legal and moral right to do it.
Warning: Police brutality! Clip art by liftarn.
The current president has harbored a grudge against NFL owners since the 1980s when they refused him membership in their club after his ill-fated stint as owner of the New Jersey Generals franchise in the United States Football League (USFL). He probably sees stirring the pot of the “anthem protests” as revenge. He likely couldn’t care less about the real issues involved. That’s the definition of a troll. In the 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, the leaders of a small Balkan nation named Freedonia exhibit equal parts comic ineptitude, corruption, ignorance of facts while manipulating lies, and demonization of imagined internal and external enemies as a way of distracting the populace and covering their own tracks. A superficial comparison with Montenegro might come to mind, though a deeper understanding of the satire in the film reveals a more apt match with the current leaders of our country.
The title of this post is of course a riff on the infamous remark made by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he praised his appointed leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the inept Michael Brown. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, the current president latched onto the unusually low death toll number of 16 as evidence the destruction was not all that bad and didn’t require the full measure of emergency response from the federal government. This week, a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine puts the death toll at a much higher number, possibly near 5,000, making Hurricane Maria the second deadliest hurricane to strike the United States or its territories after the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900 killed over 6,000.
A 1948 advertisement for paper towels in The Ladies’ Home Journal.
How did the number of fatalities related to Hurricane Maria climb from 16 to 5,000? A good part of those who died were victims of the dysfunctional infrastructure on the island after the storm, and they succumbed over weeks and months due to lack of power for medical equipment, poor emergency response due to destroyed roads, overstretched hospital facilities, and lack of wholesome food and clean water. Many of the dead were not accounted for in the first days after the disaster, and government officials were either negligent or overly optimistic in placing their faith in the early number of a mere 16 dead after such a major disaster. Some in government, like Supreme Leader no doubt, used the low number to justify their lackadaisical and incompetent response to the crisis.
Americans have short memories, and government leaders count on that trait in the near term after any crisis in which they might be held accountable. Put a rosy spin on things, no matter how unrealistic, and more often than not after some argument from the press the commotion will die down and eventually be almost entirely forgotten by the public. That’s how the Big Lie works. In the current American political climate, one third of the people will believe whatever lie Supreme Liar pops off, like paper towel rolls he tosses to his adoring fans, no matter how ugly and detached from reality those lies are, because they reinforce their own self-serving beliefs; another third of the people don’t care much one way or the other as long as it’s not their power that’s shut off; and the last third of the public sputters and fumes about the situation, but finds it can be an uphill struggle on a slippery slope to keep the lies in front of anyone who will listen, be outraged, and help refute them. The lies from this presidential administration keep piling up, a malodorous mountain of them, swarming with flies. It will take more than some paper towels to clean it up.
Telling someone off, no matter who they are and how high and mighty they may seem, is as American as apple pie. In fact, the more important a person purports to be, the better for all concerned in our society that someone tell that person off sooner or later, either before or after they get too big for their britches. That’s democracy. Last October, when Juli Briskman was out for a bicycle ride in Sterling, Virginia, and the motorcade of the Duffer-in-Chief passed her on the road on their way back from yet another weekend on the links, Ms. Briskman exercised her rights as well as herself by flipping off the Duffer and his motorcade. Her gesture was every bit an expression of American freedom as the “thumbs up” gesture the Duffer favors using, or even the one where he points to the person next to him in an awkward and strange display of his dominance.
Ms. Briskman is now suing her former employer,Akima, a federal contractor in the facilities maintenance business, for unlawful termination in order to collect legal fees and the severance pay they promised, but never gave her. Akima’s management used the excuse of an obscene social media posting by Ms. Briskman to fire her, because she posted the photo of herself flipping off the president’s motorcade after it had already circulated widely through the news media. She was making a political statement on her own time when she flipped off El Presidente, and she posted the picture on her personal social media account, with no reference to the company she worked for, yet the Akima bosses saw fit to throw her under the bus once it became widely known she worked for them, a federal contractor seemingly at the mercy of the whims of El Presidente.
The Women’s March on January 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., one day after the installment of Spanky the Pussy Grabber in the Oval Office. Photo by Liz Lemon.
It’s unfortunate Ms. Briskman lost her job over her political statement, though considering how Akima management reacted it is perhaps best for her in the long run to get away from those people. What’s particularly interesting about the lawsuit she is bringing against them is the effect it may have on employers’ control over their employees lives outside of work. There has been a trend toward companies’ monitoring of employees’ social media accounts, and whether the companies or the public disapproves of any individual’s social media postings or political activity outside of work should be immaterial under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is worth noting the irony that the Supreme Court, with its 2010 decision in Citizens United, upheld the notion that the political campaign expenditures of corporations qualify as free speech, with protection under the First Amendment, yet there has been no Supreme Court ruling on the broad capacity of corporations to intimidate their employees when it comes to the employees expressing themselves freely on their own time.
People are free of course not to work for such corporations, just as they are free not to work for a corporation like Sinclair Broadcasting, which forces its employees to spout the company line over the airwaves on the company’s time, whether they agree with it or not. The problem comes when these companies acquire undue influence throughout their particular industry, and can then effectively blackball not only dissent, but the dissenters as well. That’s where the courts are supposed to step in to protect the rights of individuals, the rights that are codified in many laws from the Constitution’s Bill of Rights on down to state laws against discrimination and unequal treatment of all sorts. But it’s expensive to fight large corporations in court. The corporations know that, and they will often act in that case in what they perceive as their own best interest, letting the legal chips fall where they may, which often as not happens to be in their favor.
A fine display of the art of telling someone off in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, from the play by David Mamet about real estate salesmen, and starring Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and Jack Lemmon. Warning: foul language.
There ought to be a better way, and in fact there was a better way at one time. It was called “unions”. Corporations have non-disclosure agreements, arbitration agreements, end-user license agreements, and any number of other agreements in legalese meant to tie up individuals one by one and render them powerless against the mighty corporation with its cadre of lawyers on retainer. An individual such as Juli Briskman has to rely on a GoFundMe campaign in order to go to court to ensure her rights are respected, and to be able to pay the fees of attorneys working on her case as well as necessary household expenses while she looks for a new job. She is actually lucky, in that her case has generated sufficient publicity to get people interested in donating to her cause. Most people have to fight on their own, falling back on scanty resources. Unions, as corrupt and inefficient as some of them were, helped keep corporations in check, and now that the unions are almost entirely gone there is no check remaining on the corporations, not with the government in their pockets, and so now they seek to control every aspect of our lives, economic, social, and political.
Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries performs at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in Australia in March 2012. Photo by Eva Rinaldi. The title of this post is taken from a line in the 1994 song “Zombie”, written by Dolores O’Riordan and performed by her and her band mates in The Cranberries, namely Noel Hogan, Mike Hogan, and Fergal Lawler, on their album No Need to Argue. She wrote the song in response to news of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing in 1993 that killed two children and injured dozens of bystanders. The zombies of the song are those emotionally hollow, walking dead who will not let go of old political grudges and slights, and persist in their violent ways without concern for whom they harm. The song exerted a large influence in pushing the warring sides in Northern Ireland toward peace. Dolores O’Riordan died unexpectedly Monday at a hotel in London, where she was staying while she worked on a short recording session. She was 46.
The original music video of “Zombie”, which has made an enormous impression around the world since its release in 1994. The notable thing about Ms. O’Riordan’s singing voice, besides her range, her clear enunciation in an Irish accent, and her use of keening and wailing, was her honest, unaffected vocal presence. There are so many recording tricks available to music producers now that things like a poor, thin voice can be masked with production and electronic effects, and the lyrics can be lost in all of it, though for some songs and performers listeners may not care about that. But while The Cranberries and their producers, notably Stephen Street for the early albums, took advantage of such effects as layering Ms. O’Riordan’s voice with multiple recordings, they never appeared to do so in an effort to disguise a lack of talent, but in the interest of adding depth and harmony to a song. Listening to her sing in settings where no recording gimmicks were available confirms that sense. The tremolo in her voice when she sings parts of “Linger” is all from her and her talent and her capacity for investing emotionally in the lyrics she wrote.
A 2012 visit to the NPR studios showcased the quality of Dolores O’Riordan’s voice and the musicianship of The Cranberries. The set list of five songs from first to last was comprised of “Linger”, “Tomorrow”, “Ode to My Family”, “Zombie”, and “Raining in My Heart”. Something Else, the last album Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberries made, was a 2017 collection of some of their hits along with a few new songs, all done acoustically with the accompaniment of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. For almost any other rock band such a presentation might come across as a pretentious, formulaic repackaging done primarily to generate revenue by capitalizing on past success. The Cranberries could get away with it because they were unassuming musicians surprised by their own success, whose sincere desire was to record an album of something genuinely new for themselves and for their fans. The songs they crafted were their own style, despite the pigeonholing common in the music business, where styles are called grunge or pop or folk or rock. They were some of all those things, not wholly invested in any one style. They were who they were (and remain, of course, while three of the four band mates live), young people from working class families in and around Limerick, Ireland, without grand desires to upend the world of music, which they did not do in any event. No matter. They worked steadily at crafting some great music while saying worthwhile things in their tunes, and the Irish songbird Dolores O’Riordan was not just a singer and guitarist and songwriter for the band, but an exemplar for them and us of a true original.
Two bits! There, that feels better now, doesn’t it? A sense of completion and the comfort of familiarity. The phrase “two bits” indicates twenty-five cents specifically, and can also mean something cheap generally. The digital currency bitcoin apparently derives its name from the old fashioned uses of “bit” to indicate parts of a dollar or other currency. At the current exchange rate of around 15,000 dollars to one bitcoin, however, a bitcoin itself represents anything but parts of a dollar. Quite the opposite.
From the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the irresistibility of finishing off “Shave and a haircut, — —-“.
The record high valuation of bitcoin may not stand for long, and in six months one bitcoin may be worth 30,000 dollars or it may be worth 150 dollars. No one knows for sure, and that’s what is fueling a lot of argument and speculation. High amounts of speculation in the market are what inflates a bubble, and the question with bitcoin is whether it is indeed a bubble and when it might burst. That generates more speculation. More small investors buy into the market. Historically what has happened in such cases is that something happens, a large investor or two gets spooked, dumping shares on the market, a selling panic ensues as everyone tries to get out of the market while the watch the value of their investment plummet, and that’s it, the bubble burst.
Bitcoin or something like it will be around for as long as there is an internet and a demand for a monetary barter system which is decentralized and doesn’t involve significant charges going to middlemen such as banks or credit card companies. As more people use digital currency and more merchants accept it in transactions, the volatility of its valuation will settle down. Tulips are still around, after all, and people still value them, just not to the unrealistically high degree they did when the bulbs were novel. The long term problem with digital currencies generally, and bitcoin in particular, will be in decreasing the horrendous energy demands of mining them and, to a lesser extent, processing transactions. The electricity demands of mining bitcoin are now equivalent to those of Serbia, and will soon be on a par with Denmark’s electricity use.
Much of the mining occurs in China, using electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. At a time when combating the effects of global warming is becoming a top priority, the mining of bitcoin could present an ecological catastrophe when it reaches the same level of energy consumption as that of the entire industrialized world, as it is predicted to do in the early 2020s. The digital currency genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no stuffing it back in. That leaves two options, or a combination of both – finding more energy efficient ways of mining digital currency, or using more environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar.
The solar energy option is immediately attractive because it would help defray installation costs of solar arrays more quickly and because poorer countries, which are generally nearer the equator and hence in sunnier climes, could see income from a source that is neither environmentally nor socially destructive the way production of sugar or other cash crops has been for them. Puerto Rico, the United States territory that recently had its conventional power grid devastated by Hurricane Maria, could benefit by rebuilding with the intention of using solar energy at least partially for the profitable production of digital currency. Surplus energy from the arrays built with money from bitcoin mining would power homes and businesses at subsidized rates for people who could not afford it otherwise in very poor parts of the world. Smaller, locally owned solar arrays would be a better way to produce power because of the inefficiency of transmitting solar power long distances either in the form of direct current, or after inverting it into alternative current. Decentralization of the means of production would also serve to keep power and money in the hands of locals.
Bitcoins accepted at a café in Delft, The Netherlands, in 2013. The Netherlands became a center of the tulip trade in the seventeenth century during “The Tulipomania”, and remains a primary grower of the bulbs to this day. Delft lent its name to a particular kind of pottery and the shade of blue it is renowned for, which has also been applied to some flowers bearing the same shade of blue. Photo by Targaryen.
Should you invest in bitcoin? That depends on your outlook. In the currently volatile market, investing in bitcoin should be treated like gambling. In other words, don’t invest any more of your government backed (in the United States the currency is actually backed by the Federal Reserve System, a private institution of the banking industry, though it is insured by the federal government) currency than you can afford to lose. For some people that can be quite a lot, but for most people that would amount to very little.
Should you get involved in bitcoin mining and processing of transactions? At the current valuation of bitcoin, that could be quite profitable. Tomorrow its valuation could drop below the cost of the electricity required to mine it. At any rate, the “mining” simile is somewhat inaccurate, since in a comparison of the digital currency market to real world mining, the people with computer equipment engaged in its production and in the processing of transactions are actually more like the merchants in a nineteenth century American mining town who sold goods to the miners who were hoping to strike it rich.
The opening scene of Powaqqatsi depicts working conditions at the socially and environmentally disastrous Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. This 1988 film by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass, is the second in his Qatsi trilogy of meditative documentaries.
A very few of those miners struck gold, and most went bust, while the merchants usually did consistently well, a few becoming household names still known today, like Levi Strauss. If you do get involved in bitcoin “mining”, it might help to connect the equipment to a solar array rather than the conventional power grid, because then when the bubble bursts and the valuation of bitcoin drops to the floor, you can possibly still operate at a profit when others cannot, or at the very least you will have an inexpensive, environmentally friendly source of power for your other ventures.
In a surprising development, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ), recently introduced a bill, called the Honest Ads Act, that would impose the same types of regulations on internet political advertising that have long held sway over political ads in print, radio, and television. What’s surprising about it is why it took this long to regulate online political advertising, and that until now there hasn’t been regulation of the same sort as in other media. A reader of online news could be forgiven for having assumed that internet political ads were subject to regulations similar to what has existed in other media for decades, such as disclosure within the ad of who paid for it. Not so.
What took Congress this long? Congress has been behind the curve for years on technological developments, and so in this case the more relevant question is why are they acting now. The answer is presumed Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, and specifically the placement of advertisements as well as so-called news stories on social media sites that the Russians allegedly intended to influence the election results. All that has yet to be sorted out in ongoing investigations, but in the meantime it will be a positive development to have online political advertisers more openly accountable.
A demonstrator in a Trump mask at one of the March for Truth rallies that took place around the country on June 3, 2017. Photo by kellybdc.
Much has been made over the past year especially, because of the election, of the effect of “fake news” on the electorate, the majority of which now appears to get its news through social media feeds on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Those sites have made noises about doing a better job monitoring the reliability of news sources, but ultimately they cannot effect a major reduction in fake news without entangling themselves in issues of censorship, and consequently losing user trust even beyond the drop in trust they experience when another fake news story makes the rounds.
Forty and more years ago, when there were three national television news outlets and one or more print, radio, and television news outlets in every middling city or larger throughout the country, all of them reliant on a few news service gatekeepers such as the Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters, the daily news reached a consensus that most people plugged into. There were drawbacks to such centralization, of course, but in general there existed a set of generally agreed upon facts from which disputants could diverge.
Now the news has atomized to the point that someone with a large Facebook following can spread a story with no basis in fact, and those followers will spread the story some more. There are no editors sitting on the story until it is verified. The engineers at Facebook and Twitter are not interested in the job, nor do they seem to think it should be their job. Their job is to watch what their customers watch so that they can boost their company’s revenue by effectively targeting advertising based on those results.
It is as if a newspaper’s staff printed almost everything that came across their desks, with little or no editorial judgment on the contents, and focused most of their energies on the advertisements. A newspaper could not do that because of physical limitations on paper, ink, and space, but an online news feed has no such limitations. A reader can scroll on forever, if so inclined. It’s a buffet that the social media sites are serving up, and it’s in their interest to try to specifically please each person they serve, a task made possible by the interactive nature of the web, where each user click is tabulated as a vote in favor.
From the 1976 film The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau shows the foolishness of making assumptions based on limited information.
There’s only a limited amount then that the news feed providers can and should do to monitor the reliability of the content they provide. Every little bit helps, which is why it’s good news that Congress is belatedly getting around to at least subjecting political advertisements to regulations that would alert interested readers to the provenance of online political advertisements, therefore allowing the readers to judge for themselves the veracity of the ads.
Ultimately people who read news online from a multitude of sources have to exercise critical thinking more than ever before in evaluating the reliability of what they are reading. The days of passively accepting the news in predigested form from trusted sources are over, and that’s all for the good really, but it also means being on guard and skeptical more than ever, much as people want to indulge their lazy tendencies toward confirmation bias, or believing what they want to be true.