“Sorry, Not My Table”

This article in today’s Times got me a little riled up. Go ahead and read it, I’ll be here when you get back.

We are often told, by free-market and small-government advocates, that industry should be left to regulate itself, that responsible business leaders will by and large act appropriately. And that does happen – businesses develop codes of conduct and other self-regulatory mechanisms, mostly to avoid the government stepping in and imposing restrictions and codes (or to forestall more regulation than the government may have already imposed).

But what if an industry knows, to a very high degree of confidence, that it is unlikely to face government intervention no matter what? Where is the incentive to be responsible then? The arrogance of gun manufacturers is unchecked – with no credible threat of seeing laws to limit sales or to require them to assist law enforcement, there is nothing to prevent them from maximizing profits at any public cost. And any that do try to take a more publicly responsive and responsible tack are blackballed and pressured to reverse course.

It is possible to disagree about the causes of and appropriate responses to gun violence, just as it is possible to disagree about the causes of and appropriate responses to childhood obesity or global climate change. But in those areas, industry participants have shown willingness to self-regulate, at least in part, in relevant areas (such as not marketing sugary foods to kids, energy efficiency programs, and so on). The necessity and efficacy of such efforts is always subject to debate and discussion, but at least there is a discussion. In contrast, gun manufacturers simply wash their hands of the whole thing, denying any responsibility or even connection to the question of gun violence, and they do it with impunity because they know that Congress will never dare defy them with laws, or if such laws ever do pass, that the Supreme Court will negate them.

I don’t usually buy into the stereotypical image of “corporate fat cats” chortling over their martinis down at the Club as they regale one another with stories of buying a Senator or three and jamming their agenda right into the face of the commoners, but it’s hard to read the testimony of these gun company CEO’s and not see it.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that… kind of… is getting started… again.

Following the demise of Posterous, I’ve relocated this thing to WordPress. It appears I may have lost my “30 Songs in 30 Days” page, since it was not exported with the rest of the site. Ah well. A few hours ago, I was sure this whole site was lost to the ages.

So here we are back again. I hadn’t added anything since last October, and who knows when I’ll find the Next Postable Thing? But here it is. I hope to start up Daddy Music again over the summer.

I’m also on Tumblr,¬†with this little side gig. I may move that over here after I get used to the WP environment.

Robyn Hitchcock @ Evanston SPACE, 10/14/12

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Had a chance to see Robyn Hitchcock perform last night at S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston. It’s a great venue in general – small, intimate, nice acoustics. It made last night’s audience comfortable enough that someone called out “How you doing, Robyn?” as he walked through the room to get to the stage. (He didn’t answer, just held up a “wait a second” finger, sorted out his mugs of soy milk and coffee, put on his harmonica holder and started the first song.)

The intimacy of the venue is well-suited to Hitchcock’s style. As he plays and sings, he looks around the room, staring intently at various people. (That’s how it seems anyway. He’s undoubtedly concentrating on the music and can barely see whoever is in his line of sight.) He stops one song in the middle to adjust his guitar tuning. His between-song banter is conversational, albeit not interactive.

Speaking of that banter… Like many of Hitchcock’s lyrics, it’s not so much stream as whitewater rapids of consciousness. He free-associates his way around the music, conducting both sides of several conversations between Holmes and Watson and talking about Devonshireshireshire and the history of airplane toilets. It’s impossible to remember most of it, but a couple of lines stuck with me (albeit possibly paraphrased):

“Under socialism all guitar strings are in tune with one another; under capitalism, each guitar string is in tune only with itself.”

“This baby is about how songs are made.”

After a really great set, Hitchcock went off for a few minutes and came back for a four-song encore. As he said “These are some songs from my record collection.” All covers, all clearly influential on his own music. (You can almost draw a straight line from All Tomorrow’s Parties to half the Hitchcock repertoire.)

Hitchcock has played at S.P.A.C.E. previously, and I will be keeping my eyes open for another show there. I wish you all could have been there.

 

Setlist:

Only The Stones Remain
I Got The Hots For You
The Wreck of the Arthur Lee
The Museum of Sex
Dismal City
No, I Don’t Remember Guilford
English Girl
Flavour of Night
I Don’t Know Anything About You Any More
Uncorrected Personality Traits
Queen of Eyes
Sometimes a Blonde
I Often Dream Of Trains
Victorian Squid
Up To Our Nex
I’m Falling
Olé! Tarantula

Encore (covers):
Terrapin – Syd Barrett
All Tomorrow’s Parties – Velvet Underground
Simple Twist of Fate – Bob Dylan
Soul Love – Bowie

 

Thoughts on Space Exploration (Long)

It has been a long time since I posted anything here, so why not jump back in with something so long that nobody will bother to read it?

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I got into a bit of a kerfuffle last night and today when I posted a little thing on Facebook about the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Basically, I said that the landing was an amazing achievement, but I am not currently a big proponent of manned space exploration. A friend objected, and in the exchange, my views on the subject have crystallized a bit.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, America was experiencing a transition composed of postwar economic prosperity, anti-Soviet paranoia, and nascent social transformation. (I am no historian, so I’m sure I have grossly oversimplified and mixed things up. But this is how I view it from here.) When the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, people were both terrified and disappointed. Terrified because of the threat that the Commies were going to drop atomic weapons on us from space; and disappointed because we were supposed to be the big winners from World War II – the saviors of the free world, the stalwart champions of industry and technological achievement. For the Soviets to accomplish a feat like getting a satellite into orbit before we did – why, that was inconceivable!

So when President John F. Kennedy promised us in 1961 that the United States of America would send a man to the moon by 1970, the nation was stirred. For the anti-Communists, here was a chance to put the Soviet Union back in its place. The U.S. was the dominant industrial and economic force in the world, and we could Do This Thing. Others, particularly in the younger generations, were engaged in the civil rights and other social change movements, and for a lot of them, the gee-whiz optimism of the promise – especially coming as it did from JFK – matched up with their hope for a transformed society. Kennedy’s vision was inspirational, and as tragic as his assassination was, I think the mythic status conferred on him as a result helped keep people behind that vision.

And of course, in the end, Kennedy’s vision was realized and NASA put the first human beings onto another world on July 20, 1969.

There is no question that the moon landing was an awesome accomplishment, and not just because we beat the Soviets and got a big boost to our sense of American exceptionalism. (In fact, I would say it was awesome despite that; I’m not a big fan of exceptionalism as a policy driver today.) The moon landing inspired a lot of technological develoment and the feat itself drove many young people into scientific and engineering fields, as had the effort to get there in the first place. It allowed NASA to develop the space shuttle program. All in all, the net benefits, in my opinion, more than justified the costs – which included, tragically, the deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launchpad fire.

Unfortunately, I do not think the same factors are in play today in considering manned space exploration. As a society and a nation, we are in a very different place. We don’t have a Soviet Union to race against – our biggest enemy is a stateless radical religious ideology that has no interest in development of new technology, and no interest in exploration and expansion into space. The the extent it has any interest in space-related technology, it is focused only on obtaining and using such technology as a means to inflict damage and death on its ideological opponents.

We are no longer experiencing the kind of economic advantage that we had 50 years ago. The U.S. is not the sole dominating force in industry and commerce. For reasons that can be, and are, endlessly debated (especially in an election year), we are suffering from an anti-prosperity that makes it very difficult to justify pie-in-the-sky idealistic projects. Our economy is fragile and our priorities are different from those half a century past. Recession, a decade of very expensive war, and spiraling debt have put our national focus much more on the question of what tangible benefits are obtainable from each and every expenditure.

Another factor, which seems counterintuitive but which I think is important, is that technological advancement has been so rapid and so incredible that we no longer have “holy shit!” reactions to innovation. A lot of people carry around in their pockets and purses a tiny plastic box that contains thousands of times more computing power than the machines that controlled the Apollo spacecraft, through which we have access to a global network that contains nearly all human knowledge to date and vast stores of entertainment, all available nearly instantaneously. I won’t go into a litany of all the amazing technology that we take for granted, but I think it’s clear that our expectations have been skewed. The Space Shuttle was launched 135 times. At first it was pretty breathtaking, but in time, it became almost as commonplace as a truck leaving a shipping dock. The public generally took real notice of the shuttles only in the case of the two fatal disasters – Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

All of which is a long way of saying that I don’t think the public spirit in America today is as likely to be inspired by the vision of humans stepping on Mars as it was decades ago about the moon. Not right now, anyway. (One has only to look at the public reaction to Newt Gingrich’s “moon colony” speech to get an idea of how different attitudes are, though it’s also fair to attribute some of that reaction to the public perception of Gingrich himself.)

On top of that, it seems to me that a great deal of the exploration and discovery we are most interested in at the moment can be accomplished by the sophisticated unmanned equipment NASA and others have been developing over the past several years. My friend argues that there are things a human can do that robot probes can’t do, and that is undoubtedly true. The question is whether those specific things are sufficiently important that they justify the expense required to get humans to Mars (or wherever). Not only do astronauts require extensive life support to get there, they require continued life support once on the surface, and they have to be able to come home. All of those things add a very large number to the bottom line costs, and at the moment, I don’t see that any added benefit the human presence might provide justifies that very large increment.

Make no mistake. I want to be able to send people to Mars and elsewhere. I personally would love to see it happen. But I don’t think it ought to – or can –  be a first priority right now, even in the narrow area of space exploration priorities.

NASA is starting to do a better job of promoting its mission, as evidenced by the very slick “Seven Minutes of Terror” video it released to describe the Curiosity landing scheduled for August 5-6. Geek culture is on the rise in many ways; the Kepler exoplanet survey has a lot of potential to inspire young people about space exploration; and there are fascinating stories almost every day about new technologies in a multitude of fields, many of which will undoubtedly contribute to future human exploration of other worlds. Contra that, we have a weak economy, a couple of wars still costing vast sums of money, a public zeitgeist that is complacent half the time and terrified half the time, and a cynical political class that is more interested in gaining and maintaining power than in developing and promoting a unifying national vision. We may reach a tipping point sometime in the next couple of decades, if everything doesn’t go completely to shit before then, and I sincerely hope we do. But without the kind of incentives that we had in 1961, we aren’t there now and we may not get there for a while.

Dinosaur Sez: “Don’t Give In To The Asteroid!”

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and a monthly contributor to The Providence Journal, among other publications. This essay is one of this year’s Delacorte Lectures at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The Delacorte Lectures, presented each week in the spring semester, examine aspects of magazine journalism by a leader in the field of magazine publishing.

Long before I took myself off Facebook, I doubted the so-called revolutionary potential of the Internet. In part my viewpoint was formed early on by the annoying smugness of the pre-crash dot.com “entrepreneurs,” who always seemed to be murmuring initial public offering nonsense at a table next to mine in tony restaurants.

I recall one such occasion in the year 2000 when Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s Magazine, and I were dining in indirectly lit luxury, somewhere near San Francisco on our promotion tour to celebrate the magazine’s 150th anniversary.

Lewis was born skeptical, but when he heard the three men at the next table discussing in hushed tones what sounded like easy money, he couldn’t help himself and he inquired about how we could get in on the ground floor. “It depends,” said one of them smoothly, “on what kind of platform you want to establish, how you want to present your content.” I said that I wanted to publish a magazine filled with sentences, not build a tree house, and the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

Click through for the whole thing. It is … fascinating, at least. And will make you look around to see whose lawn you should be getting off of.