Things You’re Not Really Supposed To Talk About, Part 1

Yesterday I got the idea to write a list of “things you’re not really supposed to talk about, sometimes for good reasons, but which it might be wise for everyone to talk about more.”

The list of things grew and grew as I wrote. It became unmanagable. So now instead of publishing a long, meandering, rushed and possibly ill-advised essay attacking certain taboos that may be at least partially justified, I will post each item as an occassional series under the abbreviated banner, “things you’re not really supposed to talk about.”

This is the first thing that came to mind.

Your unfinished novel

Continue reading “Things You’re Not Really Supposed To Talk About, Part 1”

Bookmark Black Hole 9-24-2013

Barely sorted and with little commentary this time. But good stuff in here, some of it by friends.

Zong Qinghou, China’s second-richest man, was injured in a knife attack near his home in Hangzhou last week, after a man approached him looking for a job, then slashed his hand with a knife when he refused. …

The suspect was identified as a 49-year-old migrant worker surnamed Yang from the neighbouring province of Jiangsu, who borrowed 30,000 yuan (€3,667) earlier this year and travelled to Hangzhou in search of work. He went to Mr Zong’s house after he saw a TV programme about his help for migrant workers.

If it was his “job” to do these kinds of things, and there was no real way to track him without many months of work (and even then, only to the degree that the NSA has a “good idea” of what he did), then there’s no real accountability there at all. At this point, it seems reasonable to use this to assume that the NSA’s systems aren’t even remotely secure, and have regularly been abused, without anyone at the NSA even knowing about it.

“NSA FISA Business Records Offer a Lot to Learn”

Their “need to know” culture and the maze of classifications and code words often prevents the right hand from knowing what the left hand is doing. This is deliberate and is to help figure out who the insider threats (“moles”) are, based on who had access to what info before it leaked outside NSA. But the result is also that nobody is really in charge. There are too many details that don’t percolate up and down the chain of command, so stuff happens that isn’t supposed to happen.

“I didn’t find any literary value,” said school board member Gary Mason before the board voted 5-2 to ban the book.

There’s an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners, the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity. More than anyone else except Clinton himself, Band is responsible for creating this culture. And not only did he create it; he has thrived in it.

The killing of bin Laden, she says, was a bonding experience.

The unique thing about our times is that the technological life cycle has accelerated to the point that media outlets can barely assimilate the last new wrinkle before the next one (or ones!) emerge. This hasn’t made living on the top of the media heap any sort of burden, but it has diminished the power of the status quo. There has never been a better time to start your startup.

Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.

Violence is widespread and, sadly, deeply human, just as the adaptation for violence under certain circumstances is similarly ingrained in many other species. But war is something else. It is a capacity, and involves group-oriented lethal violence. Thus it deserves to be distinguished from rivalry, anger, ‘crimes of passion’ or revenge, or other forms of homicide.

The scene at the Menlo Park auditorium, and its conflation of “believe in yourself” faith and material rewards, will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a Sunday inside a prosperity-gospel megachurch or watched Reverend Ike’s vintage “You Deserve the Best!” sermon on YouTube. But why is that same message now ascendant among the American feminists of the new millennium?

Sandberg’s admirers would say that Lean In is using free-market beliefs to advance the cause of women’s equality. Her detractors would say (and have) that her organization is using the desire for women’s equality to advance the cause of the free market. And they would both be right. In embodying that contradiction, Sheryl Sandberg would not be alone and isn’t so new. For the last two centuries, feminism, like evangelicalism, has been in a dance with capitalism.

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter.

Guess.

Yes.

No.

No.

No.

The magazine, the sponsors and some of those in attendance saw it as a kind of ceremony that warranted respect. In effect, it is a corporate ritual, an alliance between a media organisation, GQ, and a commercial entity, Hugo Boss. What dawned on me as the night went on is that even in apparently frivolous conditions the establishment asserts control, and won’t tolerate having that assertion challenged, even flippantly…

A lot of parties could have benefitted, first and foremost, the Western interests linked to the mining in the Katanga province, starting with the Belgians but including the French, the British and the Americans.

The 113 bus from Tavistock to Dawlish in Devon takes passengers on a scenic route through Dartmoor, and runs just three times a year

Overstated headline, interesting read.

Freaky.

Weird to see this in the WSJ.

[T]he corporation with the exclusive contract to negotiate sales for the Postal Service’s $85 billion real estate portfolio is C.B. Richard Ellis (CBRE). And that the company is chaired by Richard C. Blum, who is the husband of US Senator Dianne Feinstein…

A BBC spokeswoman later explained: “This morning as Simon McCoy was preparing to introduce this story, instead of picking up his tablet to hold as he went to air, he mistakenly picked up a ream of paper that was sitting next to it.

“In the rush of live news, he didn’t have an opportunity to swap the items, so simply went with it.”

What My German Grandfather Did For America During The Second World War


And why it matters now

Update: This post was republished by CounterPunch, with revisions.


My grandfather, who helped raise me, was not a weepy guy. That almost goes without saying for men of his age and background: second-generation German, a butcher’s son, who grew up during the Great Depression in a tiny, remote town near the Canadian border.

But I did see him cry a few times and one of those times comes to mind now.

I must’ve been about seven or eight years old. I asked my grandfather what he did during World War II.

He told me. Then he started to cry.

Paul F. Pein worked as a pharmacist until his death and as such had been trained in chemistry. He told me that after his entry into the service, the U.S. military moved him, his wife and his young daughter (my aunt) from Washington State to California.

There, in a factory, he made poison gas that went into shells.

I remember I had to ask him what a shell was. I imagined oversized bullets marked with skulls and crossbones rolling along an assembly line. I am pretty sure he said the gas was mustard gas.

I remember feeling disappointed. I suppose I had hoped he would open a hidden chest and show me the glittering dagger he had plundered from the corpse of a Nazi colonel slain in hand-to-hand combat.

It was many years before I began to understand what my grandfather had told me and why the memory so upset him. To this day I am still not sure that I have allowed myself to process all the implications of this buried history, so far is it from the myth of the Good War.

It seems the U.S. chemical warfare complex was no great secret back then. Approximately “250 sites in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and 3 territories are known or suspected to have buried chemical warfare materiel” dating to WWII, according to a National Academy of Sciences report published last year.

The Army is still cleaning it all up, slowly.

US Chemical Warfare Cleanup Sites

Then as now poison gas was always portrayed as a weapon of the enemy. Sure, we may have stockpiled the stuff in depots from sea to shining sea, but that was just in case the bad guys used it first.

One country’s atrocity was another’s just defense.

I wonder if one of the munitions my grandfather made might’ve been aboard the Liberty ship SS John Harvey.

No doubt he wondered the same thing.

The John Harvey was involved in what historians describe as the only known release of chemical weapons during the war. (Clearly that accounting sets aside the Zyklon B used in the German concentration camps.)

This is what happened:

In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just might use poison gas. … Hitler, it was said, was not a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would redress the strategic balance in his favor. Intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent called Tabun.

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a policy statement condemning the use of gas by any civilized nation, but he pledged that the United States would reply in kind if the enemy dared to use such weapons first. John Harvey was selected to convey a shipment of poison gas to Italy to be held in reserve should such a situation occur.

A Luftwaffe raid sank the John Harvey while the ship was in port in an Italian city under British control. Everyone on board died in a great explosion.

The crew had not known about the cargo: 2,000 mustard bombs. The poison spread rapidliy through the water and air.

Ensign K.K. Vesole, commander of [the nearby SS] John Bascom‘s armed guard detachment, was having difficulty breathing. Many of the other men were gasping, but it was Vesole who noted something strange about the smoke. ‘I smell garlic,’ he said, without realizing the implications of his remark. A garlic odor was a telltale sign of mustard gas. The gas had become liberally intermixed with the oil that floated in the harbor and lurked in the smoke that permeated the area.

Mustard gas-laced oil now coated the bodies of Allied seamen as they struggled in the water, and many swallowed the noxious mixture. Even those not in the water inhaled liberal doses of gas, as did hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Italian civilians.

The hospitals overflowed as doctors and nurses struggled to treat the “mysterious malady” afflicting so many sailors and civilians.

The story gets worse:

British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was particularly adamant that this aspect of the tragedy remain a secret. … Churchill believed that publicizing the fiasco would hand the Germans a propaganda coup.

Although the gas was mentioned in official American records, Churchill insisted British medical records be purged and mustard gas deaths listed as the result of ‘burns due to enemy action.’ Churchill’s attempts at secrecy may have caused more deaths, because had the word gone out, more victims, especially Italian civilians, might have sought proper treatment.

The author of this historical essay, Eric Niderost, concludes that it was “a tragedy made worse by the perceived exigencies of wartime secrecy.” Thus the imperatives of propaganda — the Allies’ need to be seen as the unambiguous good guy — multiplied the harm to the innocent.

Maybe there are lessons in this history.

Maybe YouTube videos by anonymous partisans don’t tell us everything we need to know about chemical warfare in Syria.

Maybe the imminent U.S. bombing campaign there has less to do with the use of chemical weapons than it does with global power politics and other “perceived exigencies” deemed unfit for public discussion.

Maybe Barack Obama’s “red line” is rhetorical cover for a fait accompli, as was George W. Bush’s last-minute ultimatum to Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Or maybe — more likely, I think — Obama is making it up as he goes along, as are his entourage of the “best and brightest” and the hawkish lifers in the military and intelligence establishment, always rushing in where there are no exits.

The first casualty of war is truth

Make no mistake: Most of what you’ve been seeing and reading about Syria today is propaganda. The style and medium are different. But in subject and approach it is not much different than the propaganda directed at my grandfather’s generation and at his father’s generation during two successive world wars.

I’m not saying atrocities haven’t taken place in Syria — they almost certainly have, although the circumstances are unclear and will probably remain that way forever. The best propaganda begins with a truth. The atrocities in Syria are being magnified and exploited to further a political program which will certainly to result in more death, but which presents few clear positive outcomes.

That sort of exploitation has been the constant role of atrocity stories since World War I and long before.

The ongoing Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library features many fine exhibits, one of which is a copy of a 1916 book published in the United States with British backing. The book is called German Barbarism: A Neutral’s Indictment. It’s available for free online.

"German Barbarism" by Leon Maccas"

The book contains a full chapter on “German use of prohibited implements of war.” The chapter dwells largely upon the grievous wounds inflicted by “dum-dum” bullets, but Germany’s chemical arsenal also makes an appearance:

Moreover, the German missiles used against the Russian troops often gave off poisonous gases which caused the death of the wounded, and which were expressly forbidden by the Hague Conventions (1899) “of which is to spread asphyxiating or noxious gases.”

Such horrors, surely, could not soon be forgotten. But they were. The same generation of Americans so shocked by Germany’s use of poison gas on the European battlefield would order the production of huge stockpiles of mustard gas and nerve agents. Just in case.

That is the magic of propaganda: Correctly applied it can justify any action no matter how hypocritical. Americans killed by American mustard gas become the victims of “burns due to enemy action.” Nanking was an atrocity. Nagasaki was a necessity. Al Qaeda is our mortal enemy, except when it’s our ally. War crimes must be punished. But our comrade who ate that poor fellow’s heart, he must have been just a little over-enthusiastic.

The very day that Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “cowardly…obscene” chemical attack by the Syrian government, documents emerged finally proving that the CIA had cooperated with Iraq in its 1988 chemical attacks on Iran. The documents were “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched,” Foreign Policy reported.

All this doublethink takes on a cumulative effect. As a consequence, most Americans are unable to form a valid opinion about the wisdom of further expanding the country’s military presence in the Middle East. (Not that the public, or Congress for that matter, is being consulted.) The problem is compounded by a near-absence of independent reporting in Syria. The story of the civil war there is being told by the combatants, who have countless reasons to mislead, exaggerate and fabricate.

The combined result is a situation much like the prelude to WWI, when the public was clueless about the deals their leaders had cut with one another, and the leaders made epic misjudgments thanks to bad information and their own overconfidence. It was a set of circumstances in which “crucial decisions led from an isolated act of terrorism to the outbreak of a world war,” as the late historian James Joll writes in The Origins of The First World War.

Consider this passage on the crisis of July 1914, which followed the assassination by Serb and Croat nationalists of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand:

The Austrians had believed that vigorous action against Serbia and a promise of German support would deter Russia: the Russians had believed that a show of strength against Austria would both check the Austrians and deter Germany. In both cases the bluff [was] called, and the three countries were faced with the military consequences of their actions.

Sixteen million people died in that war.

One hundred years later our international order remains defined by secret diplomacy, veiled motives, spheres of influence and domino theories.

This is not about the Syrian people

David Ignatius, who finally apologized for “being wrong on the overriding question” of whether the Iraq invasion “made sense,” exemplifies the dangerous arrogance of the U.S. foreign policy establishment when he argues in favor of bombing Syria.

“The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies,” Ignatius writes, “should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons.”

Note that Ignatius does not say “the main reason.” He says “the main rationale” — a word which has another sense than “reason.” Here “rationale” can be read as “the public explanation.”

The real reason for bombing Syria, as Ignatius makes clear, is maintaining “U.S. credibility.” That translates to keeping Russia and Iran in line by “remind[ing] people that U.S. military power is not to be taken lightly.” As a casus belli that is somewhat harder to stomach than saving innocents from an evil, dictatorial war criminal. But there it is. Welcome to the moral universe of the delusional “strategists” who plague America’s op-ed pages.

Enforcing the chemical weapons taboo is entirely secondary. The safety of Syrian civilians, who have been killed by the thousands over two years of conventional war, is somewhere farther down the list. Only now, after having been gassed to death, have the Syrians become noteworthy and better yet, useful. Now they are pawns in a propaganda campaign.

In addition to obscuring the basis for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war by substituting humanitarianism for realpolitik, Beltway propagandists are minimizing the consequences of the all-but ordained aerial bombardment to come.

Obama’s war plan is being described as “limited” and “focused,” much like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were portrayed before the fact to a gullible press corps and a public thirsty for revenge.

Too few are asking the obvious question: What happens next?

The war cheerleaders of the Beltway are spouting some remarkable absurdities. Take Ignatius’s younger colleague at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein. Summarizing Kerry’s Monday speech on Syria, Klein (or one his equally co-opted crew) wrote the following:

“‘Military action’ doesn’t mean war, of course.”

Oh yeah. “Of course.” Until I read that Wonkblog post, I was fairly certain that military action did mean war, in fact, was the very definition of war.

I don’t pretend to have a solution for the Syrian bloodshed. Maybe there is no “solution” that can be imposed by outsiders.

If America’s goal in Syria is to minimize civilian casualties, it’s hard to see how dropping bombs furthers that goal in the short term or the long term. If the goal, however, is to preserve the perception of America as an unbeatable, ubiquitous military power, then and only then does a bombing campaign begin to make sense.

At least Ignatius, abhorrent though his case for war may be, presented that case forthrightly.

Obama should do the public a favor and level with us. It doesn’t matter what Americans think about this war in Syria — in fact, things will be easier for him if they go on not thinking about it. What the Syrians think matters even less. What matters is how Vladimir Putin and some Pentagon bullies will judge Obama’s manhood — excuse me, his “credibility.”

My grandfather was a troubled man in many ways but he had a sense of humor and, as I mentioned, a professional understanding of human physiology.

I think he could’ve settled this with a measuring tape.

Bookmark Black Hole 8-27-2013

I’ve had little time for blogging the past couple of weeks so the black hole is bigger than ever, big enough to drag us all inside its guilt-inspiring maw.

Best thing I’ve read in weeks.

Perhaps most alarming, he discovered in his heavily redacted file that he was considered a terrorist suspect even after the Unabomber had been apprehended in 1996. After the 9/11 attacks, he realizes, “I had graduated from being a Unabomber suspect to being an anthrax suspect.” Even today, his international mail often arrives opened. A private investigator explains to him: “Once you’re a suspect and you’re in the system, that ain’t goin’ away. … Anytime there’s a terrorist investigation, your name’s gonna come up.”

You can bet I’ll be buying a copy of Harper’s at the earliest opportunity.

‘You realise,’ said the spook, as we sat on a bench in Berkeley Square opposite Maggs Bros. Ltd., by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, purveyors of rare books an manuscripts, ‘that the capitalised lines on page twenty-nine of A Clockwork Orange give the HQ location of the psychotronic warfare technology?’

The NSA scandal has generated more noise than signal and here is a fine example of that noise. The whole point of the NSA is to spy on foreign governments. That’s why it was news when the agency got caught spying on Americans. The NSA spying on the UN is not news, it’s a tangent.

This is why the NSA story matters:

At this point, Rep. [John] Doe’s imagination is running wild not only about what’s in his own NSA file but also what could be done with what’s in his file should NSA officials choose to use it against him. Could some of it be leaked to the press? Could some of it be given to the guy running against him? Could some of it secretly find its way to law enforcement agencies or the IRS?

Rep. Doe is worried about all of this because he wants to retain his congressional seat, and one day he even might want to run for senate or governor or even president. He also doesn’t want his wife and kids finding out about all the, shall we say, shenanigans he pulls when he’s in D.C. and away from his home back in Bumblefuck, USA. So with all that in mind, how eager is Congressman Doe to defy NSA officials’ wishes by voting to curtail the agency’s power and/or launch a congressional probe into the agency’s abuses?

Not that eager.

David Sirota gets it.

Juan Cole gets it too.

Former CIA man Barry Eisler also gets it.

To the National Surveillance State, therefore, coverage of [Glenn Greenwald’s boyfriend]’s treatment at Heathrow isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. And why not? The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too.

I’ve heard a lot of post-9/11 air-travel horror stories but this is one of the worst. See also this defensive pushback from anonymous TSA employees in response to the above.

All the same, this seems like an overreaction.

Access to Facebook is a human right, in Mark Zuckerberg’s world, but not the freedom from censorship.

To be clear, it is not Gates personally but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which invested in the private prisons company. Granted, Gates has some experience building prisons…

This sort of organizational dissembling skews your psyche. After I left Microsoft, I was left with lingering paranoia for months, always wondering about the agendas of those around me, skeptical that what I was being told was the real story.

Yuck.

So say scientists.

18 … 20 … 21 … 25 … 30 … 33 … 39 … 40 … 44 … 53 … 70

Australia First’s policies include reducing and limiting immigration and “abolishing multiculturalism”.

Is it time to revisit the question, “What is WikiLeaks, really”?

I wrote about Jesuchristo Hombre in 2007.

Maybe.

The Daily Mail deserves every bit of scorn heaped upon it, but posts like this are why it won’t be going away.

Strange pronoun usage in the headline of an otherwise well-put-together piece

Guaranteed income: Not as crazy as it sounds.

An update.

You say public diplomacy, I say propaganda.

And here an interview with RT’s editor in chief Margarita Simonyan.

Funny.

LA Weekly weighs in.

During my tenure at Demotix I corresponded with one of the Bahraini journalists mentioned in this article. They’re victims of geopolitics. I’m sad about this.

Musharraf, who became a key U.S. ally in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, pleaded not guilty.

For those keeping score, Jack Shafer is right again.

And somehow neglects to provide a phonetic pronunciation guide to his name.

It only stands to reason that the other workers are in “exciting” and “fulfilling” rooms.

The author “is a former Vice Chairman of Moody’s.” Elsewhere on Project Syndicate, “the world’s smartest op-ed page,” he writes of Edward Snowden: “The CIA should still hit him, for high treason. He won’t be alive five years from now, unless he is working in a Siberian dirt mine.”

Neat idea.

Yeah—who needs government involvement in the economy?

Still haven’t gotten around to watching this. Can someone summarize in Tweets plz?

Between this, Herzog and Breaking Bad, my viewing schedule is full.

The married general couldn’t stay away from a captain on his staff. She fell hard for her boss and called him “Poppa Panda Sexy Pants.”

This and more.

By acceding to this conspiracy of silence, we as journalists – and I would also indict the school system in this – have helped create a generation of socio-historical idiots where race is concerned. You may think that description is a little harsh. I would ask you to spend some quality time talking to some of my many earnest readers who insist with a straight face that conservatives fought for civil rights in the 1960s and died to stop slavery in the 1860s. You may just change your mind.

[I]n May of 1888, in an effort to cure him of this “problem” having recently walked in on him “on the job,” Dr. Proust gave his 16-year-old son 10 francs and sent him off to a local brothel. … [T]he visit didn’t go to plan.

Lots of good stuff in here. The pathos!

I remember sitting in the room with my agent and he looked disgusted, like, “I’m representing you.” Then, there were other opportunities where I just fucked them up so badly. And, to this day, I’m not exactly sure why. …

If something good happens for you, post it on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or wherever you make your social-media home, but don’t overdo it. Enough with the marketing! Enough with the goddamn marketing already! I’m sick of it.

Tipped by Daniel Simpson

The Inca Empire may be the only advanced civilization in history to have no class of traders, and no commerce of any kind within its boundaries.

This story wins August. Bonus slow-news-month points because it describes events that took place in July.

[A] 24-year-old man clutching a bag full of marijuana and ecstasy pills managed with relative ease to get on board an empty government jet used frequently by Chancellor Angela Merkel, while it was parked at a closed military section of the Cologne airport.

The man, a bodybuilder of Turkish descent named as Volkan T., proceeded to stage a raucous, one-man party. Reports said he stripped down to his underpants, sprayed fire extinguisher foam around the elegant cream and beige interior, pushed buttons in the cockpit, released an inflatable emergency slide and danced on the wing of the Airbus 319.

The Future Is Small

What I learned about the publishing business by listening to old records and reading music industry blogs

I stayed up later than I should have last night listening to music. It turned into a nostalgia trip, as journeys through the MP3 hoard so often do.

As a teenager growing up in a remote, rural area of Washington State, in a dial-up age before the arrival of Napster, my cultural lifeline was the U.S. Postal Service. There was not even a band called the Postal Service yet. Anyway, the old reliable U.S.P.S. delivered to my family’s P.O. Box a steady stream of cheaply printed catalogs from indie and punk labels around the country, and sometimes actual records from said labels.

My favorite subscription was the Kill Rock Stars 7-inch singles club, not in the least because it put the profoundly encouraging idea in my head that in a not-too-faraway place called Oly, young people were doing interesting, exciting things.

Last night I got to Googling some of those old labels. To my surprise and delight they all appear to still be in business: Not only KRS and K Records in Olympia, but Alternative Tentacles, Matador, Dischord, SST, 4AD and Touch and Go.

I don’t know what the balance sheets look like at these labels. I’m sure the bread-and-butter customer for any one of them is notably older than was the case two or three decades ago. I’m also sure there are artists signed to these labels who can’t afford to be full-time musicians, and so keep unsatisfying day jobs in bars, restaurants, offices and the like.

Everyone knows the music business ain’t what it used to be. Touch and Go evidently went through some deep and painful cuts a few years back. Here’s what the label’s founder, Corey Rusk, said at the time:

“It’s not coming to an end,” Rusk said, “but it won’t be the same company it has been for the last 20 years.”

Hey!

He sounds just like a newspaper editor.

Surely I’m not the first person to make the connection between the music business and print media. The outside pressures on those industries are similar if not identical:

  • Technological “disruption” (ugh) and a consequent devaluing of creative labor

  • Fewer new customers interested in the product

  • Fewer old customers with spare time and disposable income

The failures of the respective industry leaders are also similar. Foremost would be short-sighted, backward-looking and risk-averse management on the business side.

Neither industry has hit bottom. U.S. album sales are at “historic lows“–what could possibly change that trend? Daily newspapers will continue to fold until the majority of cities no longer have one. The magazine aisle will shrink. As for books… I’ll just say I had plenty of elbow room the last time I strolled the aisles of Powell’s.

This is the point where someone always says, “well, print is dying, but the internet is thriving–someone will figure out how to make money there,” or, “who cares about CDs and vinyl? Musicians will make money on iTunes and Spotify.”

That argument is callous in its ignorance. It’s faith-based, without regard to the numbers behind either business. It’s also quite often self-serving, a last-ditch argument put forward by people who stand to gain from the new media order.

Like this guy. Sure, it’s a “golden age” for journalism if what you mean by journalism is the mix of bluster and audience-siphoning aggregation that Henry Blodget has perfected at Business Insider.

Ask any experienced reporter if the nonstop online publishing cycle, combined with years of staff cutbacks resulting from the vaporization of advertising revenue, leaves time to do a proper job with every story. Buy that reporter a couple of beers first, so you get an honest answer.

I’ll save you some time: The answer is “no.”

At least two recent coinages describe the problem succinctly. They are “hamster wheel” and “churnalism.”

Ask a musician if their cut of the revenue from downloads or streaming could ever replace the income they would’ve made through equivalent album sales. The New York Times did earlier this year, and here’s the answer they got from independent artist Zoe Keating:

Even for an under-the-radar artist like Ms. Keating, who describes her style as “avant cello,” the numbers painted a stark picture of what it is like to be a working musician these days. After her songs had been played more than 1.5 million times on Pandora over six months, she earned $1,652.74. On Spotify, 131,000 plays last year netted just $547.71, or an average of 0.42 cent a play.

“In certain types of music, like classical or jazz, we are condemning them to poverty if this is going to be the only way people consume music,” Ms. Keating said.

I think that also counts as a “no.”

The reason I’m rehashing all of this is to establish a couple of premises to my argument:

1.) The medium matters.

2.) The business model matters even more.

Now, finally, I’ll get to the point.

The point:

3.) Publishers and practitioners of literature and journalism have a lot to learn from the indie rockers I grew up listening to.

It’s my sense, based on an extensive reading of journalism and publishing trade sheets over a period of years, combined with casual eavesdropping on music industry jawbones, that musicians are well ahead of journalists and writers in coping with the collapse of their industry.

This is counterintuitive. Musicians are supposed to be dumb, especially when it comes to business. This Is Spinal Tap, remember? And writers, they’re paid to be on top of things–they’re the intelligentsia! (I don’t buy into those particular stereotypes, but I would grant that you’ll find fewer advanced degrees in a room full of musicians than in a room full of writers… not that advanced degrees offer any reliable indication of intelligence or savvy.)

So how is it that Jeff Tweedy, a serial college dropout, beat the music industry?

He wasn’t just lucky and talented, as this great profile of Tweedy the entrepreneur makes clear. He was smart.

Realize, before I proceed to pile heaps of praise on Tweedy, that I am not even a Wilco fan.

It’s taken more than 20 years for [Wilco frontman Jeff] Tweedy to build the needed industry expertise and a devoted fan base. Forging independence has meant learning to fire friends, eschew hefty advances, and build out infrastructures for touring, marketing and merchandising.

When Tweedy signed Wilco’s first record deal in 1995, with Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records, he refused big cash advances for tour support and recording, preferring to keep the band’s debt obligation low. It went against the prevailing wisdom of the day…

After signing with Nonesuch, Tweedy’s operation took on more and more of the duties traditionally handled by a record label. His team…began handling the band’s marketing and publicity. They used the Wilco loft to record songs and warehouse merchandise. All they really needed from Nonesuch was distribution.

Contrast Tweedy’s astute navigation though an uncertain period with that of the typical newspaper executive. The Typical Newspaper Executive failed to grasp that free online syndication meant giving away the store to Google and Yahoo!, proceeded to let Craigslist roll into town and vacuum up the classified ad market, and finally shouldered mountains of debt to buy a new printing press and headquarters office, a decision which forced him to decimate his company’s employee headcount when faced with a sudden cash flow problem called the Great Recession.

In every instance cited above, Tweedy eschewed the easy money, dove into the details and found his own solution to a problem. Publishers took the opposite course.

  • Learn to fire friends? That would interfere with the industry’s time-honored tradition of cronyism.
  • Eschew hefty advances? The dollar figures seem to keep getting bigger for a chosen few, even as the readers continue to flee.

  • Build out infrastructure? Newspaper execs have known that the future was digital since, oh, before I was born, but most didn’t consider hiring full-time programmers and developers until a couple of years ago.

There’s another anecdote in the article where Tweedy sacrifices Wilco’s contract with a big label rather than make changes to what would become a gold-selling album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

How many publishers and editors have that much faith in their product, these days? To trade money in the bank for some possibly misguided notion of artistic integrity? It basically never happens. Even storied titles like The Atlantic have sacrificed their reputations in the desperate frenzy for pageviews. Good work has become incidental to the primary mission, which is attracting attention. Who wins here? Not the readers. Definitely not the writers. Only the suits win.

This is what Tina Brown was talking about when she said there’s no respect for content anymore. People laughed at her, because that’s what people do on the internet, and she made it easy for them, but she was absolutely correct: The number-crunchers have killed the soul of her craft.

Paying customers respect integrity

I suspect Tweedy had a reasoned basis for the confidence he demonstrated in ditching his old label. I’ll bet he knew his audience a hell of a lot better than the suits did.

There’s a reason indie musicians in general have a better understand of their audiences than mass-market writers, editors and publishers: The musicians have no choice. They’re stuck in tiny clubs with the audience for hours at a time. Writers and editors, by contrast, tend to be reclusive and antisocial. To them the audience is largely theoretical, even as analytics enable a second-by-second analysis of reader behavior.

That tendency is less true within the small indie publishing scene. The McSweeney’s mini-empire, with its quirky storefronts, its virtual T-Shirt booth and its extensive tour calendar, is probably most successful at cultivating its audience. There are others. I was at an n+1 event in London not too long ago. The audience was very eager to make a personal connection with the writers and editors on stage. My former employer, Willamette Week, tried to build a personal connection with its audience through events like Candidates Gone Wild and Music Fest Northwest, which also created an opportunity to sell tickets.

Some digital-first nonfiction startups are also trying to make it work the indie way. Off the top of my head I can think of Byliner, The Atavist and NSFWCORP.

I might add the Maximum Fun podcast network to that list, although I’m not exactly sure what pays the bills there. There’s also the Authentically Local network — tagline: Local doesn’t scale — although it’s admittedly more of a branding campaign than an enterprise of its own.

Many of these startups follow a time-tested model that entails requesting money in exchange for a product.

That is also very indie. If I, as an unemployed teenager in a single-wide trailer in a town of 2,000 people, could scrape together enough money to join the KRS 7-inch singles club, then large numbers of college-educated yuppies who care about quality writing and honest news reporting must be willing to pay for it, as well.

Maybe that is a faith-based argumet. But I have come to believe that direct reader support is the only strategy that can ensure editorial independence in the digital age.

Which is not to say I’m super optimistic about the future of journalism and literature. I don’t think any of the digital indies will ever outgrow their print predecessors.

Really, though, who cares about scale?

Venture capitalists care about scale. The big, speculative money will continue to chase media startups that aim for the lowest common denominator, because that’s what scales.

Fame-seekers care about scale. That breed of writer who sees his or her byline as prerequisite to a television contract will never want for opportunity.

Writers and journalists who are truly concerned about the preservation of their craft should not obsess about scale. They should care about their craft, first and foremost, and about finding their audience.

That audience might be be smaller than the readership a writer might’ve enjoyed in bygone days through attachment to a mass-market publication–but those readership numbers were probably bogus, anyway. (Have you ever watched how people flip through a newspaper or magazine on an airplane? Short attention spans are not new.)

Under the traditional advertising model, greater reach meant more money for a publication through increased rates charged to advertisers. Those higher rates subsidized expensive, ambitious reporting and all manner of long-form wankery. Editors and writers never really knew how many people read a given article, so any attempts to pander were inevitably imprecise. It was a blissful ignorance that fostered creativity and courage.

That’s not how it works anymore. Going big means going dumb.

And just like there is a share of music fans who don’t want to hear Top 40 dreck, there are readers who yearn for more substance than a Top 10 list can provide.

The trick is to find them. And again, where publishers are just figuring this out, indie musicians have been at it for decades.

The blog that started me thinking about all of this is the cantankerous Lefsetz Letter. I found it months ago and got hooked by the author’s merciless and hilarious evisceration of the Rolling Stones anniversary tour. Despite his occasional tendency to write IN ALL CAPS, Lefsetz is persuasive and unsentimental in his assessment of the new media landscape.

Here’s one relevant passage from his blog, on the death of the major labels:

[T]he major labels aren’t coming back. Never ever. Don’t pay attention to the hype. Sure, they can make superstars of the bland playing to the masses, but most people just don’t care. And the action is in the rest of the morass, the amalgamation of all of the indies.

Another recent post on Spotify — he calls it “gasoline on embers” for the major labels — contains this revealing aside:

If you go indie, you get paid more. … Indies now make up a greater percentage of the marketplace than ever before. They’re gaining leverage.

Finally, and even more apropos, he writes:

Indie labels thrive because they’re a trusted source. …

Indie label owners are irascible. They’re more into music than profits. They’re opinionated. They cull through the options and then serve up music you’ll be interested in, if they’ve already gained your trust. …

Since we have no trust in the majors, they hype us, sell us, try to convince us. But we ignore them, because we don’t trust them. …

You start off with quality. Then you try to build trust.

Lefsetz’s whole post on trusted sources makes for an insightful read. If I were managing a big newspaper or magazine or publishing house, I’d tell the owners to hire this guy as a consultant. But that won’t happen and anyway it would do no good. The mentality of corporate media executives, and I include the new tech tycoons like Jeff Bezos in that group, is not receptive to the message Lefsetz is putting across.

The future is small. The indies are sherpas. They have survival skills. Watch what they do and learn.

Bookmark Black Hole 8-9-2013

Skip the first half of the first section if you’re sick of reading about Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post.

Disruption, cont.

Post reporters complained afterward that [Katharine Graham’s father, Eugene] Meyer “went over their articles and changed them so that their writers were all disgusted.”

Hmm.

“You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.”

Jang is a controversial figure. He may or may not believe that he’s the second coming of Christ, according to an investigation by the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, but apparently many of his followers are convinced that he is.

Smart guy.

This is my favorite feature in Charles Pierce’s Esquire blog.

In an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog, Risen notes that Holder hadn’t responded to the request. That’s why Risen and his counsel decided to release the letter.

To call this anything but a political prosecution is naïve in the extreme.

The law won

The first story by my friend and former colleague Mariah Blake at her new gig at Mother Jones confirms what many suspected.

If you have to ask…

A book excerpt.

I always enjoy a Michael Lewis story.

Brave new world

Let us hope this technology is used for fun instead of evil.

Yet another reason to stay away from the City while in London.

Doom and gloom with a dose of defensive Baby Boomer self-exculpation from Dave Winer, the creator of RSS.

Over there

This BBC documentary is a good primer on the weird MEK cult and its American friends.

“In the early years of the fifties, the Communist Party always emphasized class struggle, and getting rid of feudal influences. Now they never talk about it. Instead they talk about national revival – the hundred years of humiliation under Western imperialism, and how the Party saved China from it.”

In 1919, Ho Chi Minh was a 29-year old Vietnamese nationalist living in Paris. Like nationalists across the colonized world, Ho was inspired by the words of Woodrow Wilson around national self-determination… He was not alone. Nationalists in Africa, China, and India also held onto Wilson’s words as a great promise. Of course what none of these people knew was that Wilson was a white supremacist…

Finally

Includes a video of Henry Rollins on selling out.

The second monkey attack happened after his wife locked him in a cage with one.

This argument does not seem very convincing, but there it is.

Heating with Radium.

Everything else is not too far from the mark.

In England we find dogs that were named Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo and Terri … Purkoy … Colle, Talbot and Gerland … Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland a list of 80 dogs that took part in a shooting festival in the year 1504 has been preserved. They reveal the most popular name was Furst (Prince). Other names included Venus, Fortuna, and Turgk. Some dogs got their names from the work being done by their owners: Hemmerli (Little Hammer) belonged to a locksmith, while Speichli (Little Spoke) belonged to a wagoner.

Ah, simpler times! Except for plague, famine, war, etc.

My favorite is “Nosewise.”

Introducing The Jeff Bezos-Washington Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon

A free tool for Washington Post readers

The Bezos-Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon, for short, is a browser bookmarklet intended for use on washingtonpost.com or anywhere Post stories can be found.

The bookmarklet highlights certain words, phrases and names whose presence may indicate a potential conflict between the Post‘s editorial integrity and the financial interests of its new owner, Jeff Bezos.

For example, on any given Post story the Crayon would highlight the following words:

  • Amazon” (Bezos’s other company),
  • books” (an Amazon product),
  • Walmart” (an Amazon competitor),
  • sales tax” (something Amazon actively lobbies around), and
  • Barack Obama” (the greatest individual beneficiary of Amazon’s political donations),
  • Batman” (the intellectual property of an Amazon partner, DC Comics, to which Amazon has exclusive digital graphic novel distribution rights).

Here’s what it looks like on the page:
Continue reading “Introducing The Jeff Bezos-Washington Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon”

We Already Know What Kind of Newspaper Owner Jeff Bezos Will Be

Remember when Amazon pulled the plug on Wikileaks?

There’s already a great flood of commentary wondering whether Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Washington Post, will be a good king or a bad king.

The tech crowd is predictably enthusiastic. Henry Blodget is excited about the “cool synergies.” Granted, he’s the beneficiary of a Bezos investment, as the billionaire-worshippers in the comment threads at Hacker News would also like to be one day.

Just as predictably, much of the commentary from traditional journalistic quarters, is of the hem-hawing, wait-and-see sort. That’s the only prudent response, and not just because no one really knows what Bezos will do with the Post.

Everyone writing about the Post deal must be aware that Bezos could be signing their paychecks in the not-too-distant future, if not as a newspaper properieter then as a seller and publisher of books. He is quickly becoming one guy you definitely don’t want to piss off in the media business.
Continue reading “We Already Know What Kind of Newspaper Owner Jeff Bezos Will Be”

Bookmark Black Hole 7-29-2013

I’m trying something a little different this time.

Soothing miscellany

“He periodically ran for president of the world, always unopposed.”

Paris Review interview with Ken Kesey

Grey Lady, right on schedule, catches on to a scene many months after the ’60 Minutes’ segment

Biden narrowly avoids monkey attack

“On the ‘Hippie Trail’ through Afghanistan to India, 1967-1979”
Continue reading “Bookmark Black Hole 7-29-2013”