Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dot Common

Ever see a street mime perform?

Ever watch a parade?

Ever peruse a bulletin board?

Even listen to a friend bitch about the President or Congress?

Ever read a blog?

According to a Pew Research Center study, a tipping point occurred last year: more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines. Who can blame them? Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it. This is not a business model that makes sense.

--Walter Isaacson

The Internet is turning economics inside out. For example, everybody on the Internet now wants stuff for free, and there are so many free services available.

--Uri Geller (I wonder if he now bends spoons for free.)

Ever draw a picture?

Ever play a musical instrument?

Ever compose a poem?

Ever sign a petition?

Ever write a blog?

The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values. By Andrew Keen

--Book title

My problem is that it fundamentally undermines the authority of mainstream media. We think two things going on simultaneously, the rise of the user-generated content, which is unreliable enough and corrupt, and a crisis in professional journalism, professional recorded music, newspapers, radio stations, television and publishing. And that is the core of our culture. Once we undermine the authority and expertise and professionalism of mainstream media, all we have is opinion chaos, a cacophony of amateurs.

--Andrew Keen, in an interview on National Public Radio

In recent years, there's been two charges leveled against the Internet and the blogosphere. One, that it's free, and two, that it's dominated by amateurs.

Let's take the first one first (duh). Is the Internet really free? According to Time Warner Cable of NE Ohio, it's "only" $34.95 a months for a full year. Cox Cable is $32.99 a month. Comcast is "as low as" 19.99 for 6 months, but you have to be an existing customer. AT&T offers $19.95 for a full year. Why is Time Warner and Cox so much more than the other two? I think maybe they have monopolies in certain areas. Of course, you don't need cable or even a telephone if you want access to the Internet. Just go to Starbucks. But they do expect you to at least by a latte. Buy one everyday for a month, and you've spent at least twice as much as if you had gone with Time Warner! Finally, there's the, ahem, library. Even that's your taxpayers dollars at work.

Anyway, getting things for free is not completely unheard of in our capitalistic system. I mentioned some goods and services you don't have to pay for at the very beginning of this essay. However, I left out two of the most significant. You don't have to pay for non-satellite radio (well, you have to buy the actual radio, but you know what I mean), and, if you're willing to settle for just six or seven channels, TV is free as well. Of course, nowadays most of us do pay for TV, and, if you want something "on demand", you pay even more. There was a movement afoot about a year ago to get people to pay even more for specific sites on the Internet, usually those originating in print, but it never went anywhere. More about paying for content at the end of this piece.

The second charge leveled against the Internet, and, more specifically, the blogosphere, is that it's dominated by amateurs. Really? You don't say! Let me peruse the "List of Blogs" at the left to see if this is true. Be right back...

...OK, not counting The Huffington Post, which is more of an online newspaper, only five of the 24 blogs are by professionals, meaning at one time or another these folks have drawn a paycheck for their writing (though not for their blogs, which are free.) I can't say for sure that the other 19 blogs are written by amateurs, since most are using assumed names. There's maybe four I'm not quite sure about. Of the fourteen blogs I'm pretty confident are by amateurs, what will you find? Photography, poetry, essays, autobiography, theology, visual art, travelogues, comic archives, philosophy, and even an occasional short story.

Now, I want you to reexamine the two quotes by Andrew Keen. They're easy to find.

Before the advent of the Internet, amateur photography, amateur poetry, amateur essays, amateur autobiography ("Dear Diary..."), amateur theology ("Now I lay me down to sleep..."), amateur art, amateur travelogues ("Want to see some slides from our trip to Bermuda?") amateur archives ("I'll trade you my 1964 Daredevil with the Wally Wood story for that 1966 Spiderman with the Johnny Romita cover."), amateur philosophy ("Ever wonder if you're the only being that exists and everything else is in your imagination?" "Sorry to interrupt, bub, but you want another?"), and amateur fiction, weren't considered corrupt, chaotic, or a fundamental threat to our values. Instead, they were called hobbies.

Politics isn't usually thought of as a hobby, but people sometimes approach it that way, as Billy Joel once noted ("and the waitress is practicing politics"). It's why campaigns depends so much on volunteers. And some people just like to talk about politics. I'll grant you there's a lot of harsh opinions about politics on the Internet. But you can also find similarly harsh opinions about politics in a bar, (actually, you can find harsh opinions on just about anything in a bar.) Maybe if we'd stop comparing the Internet to older media such as TV or newspapers and instead to Earth as a whole, we might have a better understanding of it. It's not called the World Wide Web for nothing.

On my profile page, I call myself a writer, but it's not my profession. Would I like it to be my profession? Sure. Would I like to make a lot of money writing? You bet. Would I like to achieve such heights of success and renown through writing that I'm asked to replace Simon Cowell as a judge on American Idol? Damn right I would! But if none of that comes to pass, if writing can't be my profession, I still want it as a hobby, even at the risk of undermining the authority of the mainstream media.

Speaking of that mainstream media, just what is it that makes the likes of Andrew Keene so hostile to the lowly amateur? Wouldn't simple indifference be enough? It was before the Internet. Maybe it's just frustrating to climb up the media ladder, only to have it seemingly kicked out from under you by a temp with a laptop.

There's now a consensus that the mainstream media's big mistake was putting its' wares on the Internet at no extra charge. Doing so blurred the distinction between the professional and the amateur. Does Howard Stern broadcast on ham radio? Does Jonathan Franzen leave 100,000 words on the bathroom wall? Does Plácido Domingo join in when you sing in the shower? No to all of these. Yet on the Internet, the Aristocracy--print newspapers and magazines--live on the same block as the Great Unwashed, aka amateur bloggers.

I first wanted to write about this over a year ago, but couldn't quite get my mind around it (a recent post by fellow blogger Elisabeth made me want to revisit the subject.) At that time it looked like newspapers and magazines might go extinct. Since then, however, an unlikely savior has emerged: Steve Jobs. I understand that those who own and control the mainstream media are excited by that new iPad of his. As consumers aren't accustomed to getting things for free on such devices, media titans can now charge for subscriptions to such formally printed material as The New York Times , or Better Homes and Gardens.

So it looks like the professionals might get to keep their cherished hierarchy after all, while leaving the rest of the Internet to the amateurs, the proletariat, the teeming masses.

Works for me.

In Memoriam: Leo Cullum 1942-2010

Cartoonist. The New Yorker.

"When I'm not cartooning, I'm wrestling, and then showering, with my demons."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Quips and Quotations

A lion's work hours are only when he's hungry; once he's satisfied, the predator and prey live peacefully together.

--Chuck Jones.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Corruption Eruption

The following post is a review of a drama currently playing in Cuyahoga County, where this blogger lives. But I'd like those of you who don't live in Cleveland's home county to read it anyway. Combine politics with some of the more unsavory aspects of human nature, and this production could someday open at a theater near you.

For the past three years, the people entrusted to run Cuyahoga County have been the target of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. There doesn't seem to be one, overarching political scandal. It's just seemingly every elected official in the area getting away with whatever shit they think they can get away with. According to indictments, search warrants, and other FBI reading material, various public figures, some of them with numbers instead of names, have accepted free improvements to their homes, trips to Vegas, massage therapy in Vegas, wide-screen TVs, meals, booze, campaign contributions stuffed in envelopes, and other assorted non-birthday and non-Christmas gifts, in exchange for lower taxes, contracts steered to particular businesses, and county employment (the last seems particularly weird to me. Bribing an employer to give you a job? C'mon, they're supposed to pay YOU!) Elected officials were also occasionally bribe givers rather than bribe takers, enticing people not to run against them in exchange for nonelective government positions. Beats kissing babies.

One of those indicted, known for the longest time as "Public Official Number Two", turned out to be the County Auditor, a familiar face to Cuyahogans as it's plastered on all the county's gas pumps. That's what the auditor does, he regulates gas pumps. He also appraises houses. I'm not exactly sure the connection between gas pumps and houses other than that if you own a home in the suburbs you need a lot of petroleum to get around. Anyway, one of the many charges against the Auditor is that he lowered property appraisals for certain homeowners in exchange for free goods and services. Why did they want the price of their homes devalued? So they could pay less taxes on it (if these homeowners really wanted their property values decreased, all they had to do was hire a couple of hookers to walk up and down the street.)

Public Official Number One turned out be the County Commissioner, a man who resembles Boss Tweed, physically and, according to the indictment, non-physically as well. Except Boss Tweed never went to Las Vegas. Re-read the second paragraph. What happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas. But that's the least of the commissioner's problems. He allegedly had sex with a job seeker, and received free kitchen appliances, a new roof on his house, limo rides, and free appliances from those wanting to do business with Cuyahoga County. Amazingly, he's allowed to keep his job as long as he's out free on bail. He's just not allowed to talk to any county employees or make any decisions involving taxpayers' money. He might as well buy himself a pair of crutches and start quacking.

Once the County Commissioner was indicted, many felt the investigation had gone as far as it could go. But according to the Cleveland Scene , an alternative weekly, the County Prosecutor, whose office wasn't involved in a single arrest (it's all been an FBI production), may now be in the G-men's cross hairs. Not literally, of course. Unless he resists.

The above paragraph was written about 24 hours before the one you're reading right now (you didn't think I write this stuff in one sitting, did you?). In that interim, the aforementioned Prosecuter appeared on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Something about getting a friend a job at the county morgue. Story broke in time for Halloween.

Nice county I live in, huh?

Yet it's hard to say what effect all this has on the average Cuyahogan. I suspect a decision by the CEO of Ford or GM to close an auto plant or two would have a greater impact on the lives, and livelihoods, of people living in the county. And if such a decision was made, it wouldn't be local political chicanery but because there's some poor, desperate people in some Third World country willing to do the same work for the price of a Big Mac.

But if these politicians weren't doing any real harm, nor were they doing any real good, and good is what they're pretty much expected, and paid, to do. If they really believe personal gain is their main job function, they should at least tell us so when they're campaigning:

"As your next County Potentate, I promise I'll have a new patio addition built on to my house. I need that much more than my opponent needs that waterproofed basement!"

A couple months ago an election was held to restructure county government. It passed, and we'll soon have a county executive and council rather than three commissioners. I voted for the change, basically to send a message, but I wonder, why would an executive be any less likely than a commissioner to accept an enveloped stuffed with money? Will he have a smaller mailbox?

Every November the stuffed-shirt editorialists lay out a major guilt trip over voter apathy ("people died at Omaha Beach so you could help pick the next domestic relations court judge!") OK. Fine. We all should do our civic duty. But in exchange, the politicians shouldn't regard the average voter as nothing more than a coat check clerk at an orgy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Memoriam: Stephen J. Cannell 1941-2010

TV writer-producer. The Rockford Files, and some 40 other shows that I didn't like quite as much as that one.

"Jim Rockford was the Jack Benny of private eyes."