Nota Bene #120: Crazy Ivan

“If you can make a woman laugh, you’re seeing the most beautiful thing on God’s earth.” Who said it? Continue reading

NASA, American exceptionalism, and me: older, and less viable

Fourth in a series

As a child turning teen in the late 1950s, the black-and-white RCA in the living room received only three channels … well, four, but we didn’t watch PBS. So I read. Newspapers, of course (after Dad finished sports and Mom finished news). And books. The library was only two blocks away, so I spent afternoons there sampling the stack. I was a small-town boy at the end of the idyllic “Father Knows Best” decade of Eisenhower placidity, a geeky kid feeling the first pangs of puberty.

I longed for adventure beyond being a Boy Scout or tossing a football with neighborhood pals. In the library I found adventure stories set in space, spun with well-chosen words and exquisitely crafted plots.

I discovered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End.” Then Robert A. Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire.” Science fiction (or, in Clarke’s case, science prediction) captivated me. I became a sci-fi cognoscente.

Then, in 1957, came the shocker: Sputnik. Continue reading

Who owns the story of the future?

Back to the British Library this evening for another interesting panel discussion as part of their Science Fiction series, this one on “Who owns the story of the future?” Given the extent to which we’ve seen the media get compromised by corporate ownership over the past two decades, at least in the US, this turns out to be a really good question—where do the narratives come from that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world as it is today, let alone of the future. And one that people seem to be interested in, given that it was literally a full house. Part of that may have been the fact that two of the speakers were William Gibson and Cory Doctorow, who have clearly thought about these issues in some detail. Plus, they’re old hands at this sort of thing. The other panel members all looked just as interesting, all being writers on what the future may or may not hold.

First, Jon Turney, the moderator, has edited The Rough Guide to the Future. Mark Stevenson has written An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. And economist Diane Coyle has just published something that is sure to go on my reading list—The Economics of Enough (reviewed here by Fred Pierce). I haven’t read any of these, I have to say, so this was a bit of an adventure—going to talks with people you’ve never heard of can be a dicey proposition. On the face of it, Coyle appears to be genuinely frightened of what the future might hold, whereas Stevenson, I imagined, might be pretty chipper about things, a representative of the Matt Ridley view of the world.
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“How to build your own industrial civilization”

So, what sort of machines do you need to create an industrial civilization—kind of like the ones we have now, but more sensibly sourced. I remember taking a sociology course years ago where we started out with a similar question, although we conceived the question more broadly—what does civilization as we know it rely on? The answer then (decades ago, before the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog had been felt) was something along the lines of “technology.” But this is a much better question. We rely on machines for all sorts of stuff, still. Yes, yes, we tell ourselves we’re in a post-industrial economy and all that. Right. These guys have thought about this question, and you know what? You need 50 machines—“The Global Village Construction Set.” A Meccano or Erector Set for grown-ups, with some further but important constraints: “Open Source – Low-Cost – Modular – User-Serviceable – DIY – Closed-Loop Manufacturing – High Performance – Heirloom Design – Flexible Fabrication.” No Tech Magazine has the scoop. Here’s who they are. And here’s their blog. Now get to work.

ht—Climateer Investing

It hurts to be Left Behind–just ask the "base"

The comedian Colin Farrell has astutely observed that people always are quick to claim personal characteristics that are the exact opposite of who they actually are. Gregarious party-types often say, “But really, I’m very shy.” Lazy people talk about how hard they work. And of course, racists are forever making sure everyone knows that some of their best friends are black and they’re not prejudiced, but…

All of us do that at one time or another, claim personality traits that are 180 degrees from reality. Maybe we lie to convince ourselves. Or maybe we’re trying to deflect anticipated criticism. If I say I am an idiot before you can say it, then somehow it takes the sting out of it.  “You can’t fire me. I quit” sort of thing.

It’s no coincidence that the best-selling Christian fiction series is called Left Behind.   Continue reading

American mobility: all the places I've lived – 2011 update

If you’ve been around awhile, then yes, you have seen this item before, a couple of times. It originally posted on Jan. 25, 2008 and was updated on April 19, 2010. Unfortunately, I tend to move a lot, and it’s about to happen again. So every time I pull up the tent and head off somewhere else, I’ll be refreshing the post and giving people a chance to offer their thoughts on their own mobility and that of their families, friends and neighbors.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to packing.

We’ve become a very mobile culture. Education, jobs, adventure, marriage – there are a lot of things that call us away from home in ways that were unprecedented even a generation ago.

I’m like a lot of people in that I’ve moved around a lot, especially in the past few years. For instance, this coming Saturday will mark my 15th move since fall of 1993. Continue reading

For a fine thing gone: goodbye to Jamal Place

I am heartbroken.

We just got a letter from a small charity we support in Chicago, Jamal Place. Jamal Place provided social and vocational services for underprivileged young men, many of whom had some level of disability. They are closing their doors due to lack of funding.

Today I am supposed to be doing what I get paid to do these days in my semi-retirement, writing an important speech for an important man. But instead I am sitting here, staring at the keyboard and unable to find a single noun or verb on the topic of “changing business models.” Instead the only words that will come are words of sadness for a little pissant, underfunded charity that I knew was always one bad week away from closing its doors anyway.

Five years ago, my daughter invited us to a fundraiser for Jamal Place. Continue reading

A royal wedding

So, like two billion other people around the world, we’re still watching this on television. Imagine. Two billion people. That’s like, what, nearly one third of the world’s population? We have some Republican—i.e., anti-Royal—friends who are probably wondering what the appeal of this is. This is an outdated institution in this day and age, right? Apparently not. Anything that can attract two billion people to stay glued to their televisions is worth comment, and, like the institution or not, commands some degree of respect, if only for the spectacle.

It’s a commonwealth thing, to some extent. The commonwealth, after all, includes about one-third of the global population, and it seems to be well represented, not only at the wedding itself, but in the crowds outside. There are visitors (as well as locals) lining the Mall and the other routes the wedding couple will take, separately or together, and they’re from some of the obvious places—Canada in particular, but lots of other places.
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On Richard Pryor: It was something he said

Richard PryorThe great medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer created timeless characters in his Canterbury Tales; archetypal personalities such as the Wife of Bath and the Miller endure to this day. Through them Chaucer could readily celebrate, criticize and satirize different aspects of the society of his time. Additionally, Chaucer, as a public servant and man of the people, preserved a vernacular that may otherwise have been lost.

The late Richard Pryor, often hailed as the greatest comic to ever take the stage, is the American Chaucer. A master storyteller in the grand tradition of West African griots, fired by passion and pain, possessed of keen insight, he was also a brilliant impersonator with amazing range, an intuitive actor who never got his due, a social critic, a writer, a folklorist, a philosopher, and, most importantly, one funny motherfucker… Continue reading

The Geek Manifesto

This hit my email a few minutes ago, and as a proud geek myself, I just had to share.

The Geek Manifesto

We are geeks, and we are proud to be.

We are rational; we understand cause and effect; we understand consequences; we understand loosely-coupled distributed self-organizing systems with multiple redundant communication channels. Continue reading

Hard times for the pure of heart: is it possible to live ethically in modern society?

I think we’d all love to live every phase of our lives in happy accord with high moral and ethical principles. We’d love it if we were never confronted by logical contradictions and cognitive dissonance, by cases where our walk was at odds with our talk. But the truth is that we live in a society that’s complex, at best, and a cesspool of corruption at worst. It’s just about impossible to get through a day without compromise, and every time we compromise it’s difficult not to feel as though we’ve failed a little.

Some people are better at dealing with the conflict than others, whether through denial or a well-developed, pragmatic knack for keeping things in perspective. Unfortunately, I don’t do denial at all and while I like to think of myself as having a strong pragmatic streak, in practice my principled side tends to dominate my decision-making in ways that occasionally deprive me of convenience and pleasure. Continue reading

In Defense of "Jesus Glasses"

Jesus Glassesby James Corbett

The facts of my case are fairly simple. Chad Farnan, a 15-year-old self-described Christian fundamentalist student in my Advanced Placement European History class, sued me for a “pattern” of statements unconstitutionally hostile to religion. His claim was based on hours of illegal and surreptitious recordings.

In my attorney’s opinion, the law was on our side, so he advised me to seek a summary judgment. I now believe that was a critical error because when a defendant requests a summary judgment rather than a jury trial, the law requires that all the facts presented by the plaintiff be accepted as truthful. No fact may be disputed, only the law. My attorney believed a fair application of the Lemon test would turn in my favor, but the test fails in a case such as mine both as a matter of law and of logic. Had I gone to court, I could easily have demonstrated that Chad and his mother are Continue reading

The painted kipper (pt 2): John Reith, the melancholic optimist

Part 2 in a series.

The original thought in writing this piece was to “resurrect” Reith, better to point to the problems that beset the BBC today – problems that are not just about politics but more importantly about philosophical purpose and the walking away from some fundamental ideas laid down by Reith and his BBC which went far beyond the traditional concept of educating, informing and entertaining, important though these remain. In a sense, though, Reith needs no resurrection since given the lingering presence and dominance of his great creation, the BBC, he never went away. He also remains present through his own writings, the biographies, Andrew Boyles’ Only The Wind Will Listen, (9) Ian McIntyre’s The Expense of Glory (10) and Roger Milner’s curious but amusing and insightful Reith: the BBC Years. (11) Continue reading

The painted kipper: Reith, the BBC, facing Modernity (pt 1)

Editor’s Note: S&R is broadening its reach and mission so as to present our readers with more in the way of thoughtful cultural fare. Today we launch part one in a series by University of Colorado Media and Cultural Studies scholar Dr. Michael Tracey. This essay presents a critical reconsideration of the BBC’s John Reith, one of the most important figures in the history of broadcasting. While much of the story Dr. Tracey addresses is uniquely British, it nonetheless raises issues about the proper and productive role of media and capitalism in a society, issues that can’t help being uncomfortably familiar to contemporary Americans. As it turns out, the kinds of conversations that intelligent people have daily about our media gone to hell have been taking place for quite some time.

Preface

It is not difficult to find arguments about the problems facing public service broadcasting in the digital age, of how, over the past two decades, an institution which had previously been relatively stable has been buffeted by new technologies, new politics and new economics which taken together present an existential threat. Continue reading

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter with Twain's Huck Finn

Mark Twain is rolling over in his grave. I should know: he’s buried not too far from where I live.

NewSouth books has announced that it will publish a censored version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, paired with Tom Sawyer, that eliminates “the N-word.”

That’s “nigger,” in case anyone doesn’t get it.

I find the word offensive. Nearly everyone I know finds it offensive. But what I find more offensive is the notion that it’s okay to censor art. I find it offensive to revise history. I find it offensive that the Thought Police can bully people over free speech. Continue reading

Writing for ‘new media’? The old still serves the new

As profs consider changing the names of their schools of journalism and (mass, strategic, public, etc.) communication, they are hurriedly reshaping writing curricula to reflect changes in the media of information delivery and, more importantly, prospective students’ attitudes that journalism is a dying profession.

The instruction of writing in the Age of New Media is under the microscope. But some (not all, but enough) journalism educators, methinks, approach teaching writing for “new media” as if it requires a brand-new skill set taught in courses with names that suggest the same. We must ask: Are educators entranced by “new media” overlooking the core learning goals of students in a journalism and communication program — to observe faithfully and completely, to record accurately, to analyze thoughtfully, to organize sensibly and to present compellingly?

No matter the medium of distribution, those traits of a good communicator have not changed. Nor has an old, reliable maxim all good writers must learn and that profs can use to distinguish writing for a newspaper vs. tweeting at Twitter.

Anyone’s who worked as a journalist – or in any writing-intensive profession – has heard these words: Write to fit.
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Students should travel while still young

by Zack Witzel

Go somewhere.

Drive a car. Take a bus. Board a plane.

Pinpoint a spot on a map, and find a way to get there.

Yes, students have loans to worry about and résumés to build, but the luxury of being young is a time-sensitive gift. Don’t waste it.

Studying abroad strikes many students and their parents as a great opportunity to experience the world while still furthering an education. And it is. But basing a trip around required courses can stifle what excitement a destination can hold. Continue reading

Welcome Christmas

November rained into December. Hardly Christmas weather, if you ask me.

After all, the Christmas season had officially been in full swing since Thursday’s leftover turkey went into the refrigerator. Yet somehow, I had pretty much managed to avoid the holiday all together.

The weather around here had been doing little to persuade me otherwise.

Yes, the ubiquitous holiday music had been piping into stores for days, but even then, I’d somehow avoided all the displays and fake Santas and forced commercial cheer.

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Yo, GOP: Slash regulation? Or spend up to $27 million to save a life?

Many of the seats the Democrats lost in Congress can be attributed to a tea-party and GOP-influenced desire to shrink the size of the federal government. Presumed goals of conservative and GOP winners: Reduce federal spending. Shrink the deficit. Lessen government’s intrusion into people’s lives.

Well, let’s see what these make-government-smaller politicians do with a cost-benefit analysis of this proposal to further intrude into the lives of people who drive.

By 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants every passenger vehicle sold in the United States to have a rear-view camera. That’s available now as an option for many vehicles. The camera displays what’s behind the vehicle on the navigation screen in the dashboard.

Reason: The agency says back-up accidents kill 228 people a year and injure 17,000. More significant reason: About 100 of those killed are children.
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