Harry Potter and the Racist Subtext

african mask“We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing.” – Leo Quetawke, Head Councilman in charge of law and order for the Zuni people

Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to understand for those of us who belong to the majority culture. We see the world as one unified whole. We measure the sun by Greenwich Mean Time, the seasons by the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. For us, an African mask in a shop is a decoration, divorced of cultural significance. We congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment and modernity because we can recognize its beauty.

This state of affairs does not make us bad people. It does not make us responsible for colonialism or slavery, any more than African American or Indigenous American genes make their owners victims or losers. On the contrary, it presents us with an opportunity to rise above our past, to forge a new global fellowship built on trust and open communication. As with any educational pursuit, this requires hard work. Continue reading

Being There…or we knew the bride when she used to marry rockers….

Pattie Boyd’s autobiography is a fascinating and messy piece of memoir that offers sometimes illuminating, sometimes banal insights into the private lives of two of the rock era’s iconic figures – George Harrison and Eric Clapton...and raises a slew of bigger questions…

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me by Pattie Boyd (image courtesy Goodreads)

When Tom Snyder asked John Lennon in the famous Tomorrow Show interview why he became a musician and formed a band, Lennon replied slyly, “For the birds, Tom. That’s why every guy does it. To get girls….”

Pattie Boyd was one of the most famous of “the birds….”

A few years ago Boyd published her autobiography which I just re-read as part of my 2014 reading list. It should be a riveting read for anyone interested in rock music, rock history, or rock stars in our popular culture.

But it isn’t.

Before we go into why, exactly, Boyd’s autobiography causes arguments, it might be useful to talk a little bit about reasons why people are famous. Continue reading

Denver Chalk Art Festival 2012: color, perspective, history, and coolness as far as the eye can see

I’m a sucker for chalk art, so I always look forward to the Denver Chalk Art Festival. I’m apparently not the only one, either, as the crowd shot below suggests. The crowds seem to be getting larger each year, too, and I suppose it’s easy to understand why. June in Denver, Larimer Square, fantastic artists – what’s not to love, right?

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Stuart O'Steen is not a crook

But he is Richard Nixon.

Stuart, longtime friend to S&R, is a veteran stage actor who portrays the former president in the Longmont (Colorado) Theatre Company‘s ambitious take on Frost/Nixon.

I had the great pleasure of recently seeing the production. As a politics junkie and student of American political history, particularly of the Watergate debacle, I couldn’t pass it up. And I anticipated from having seen Stuart’s remarkable performance as Robert Scott in 2009’s Terra Nova that he would surely immerse himself in this unique role as well.

My high expectations were Continue reading

Banished from the English language: "flip-flopper"

Every once in awhile a new term/catchphrase/buzzword/meme catches fire here in the US. Sometimes it’s a function of the fact that our incredibly plastic language, with its myriad dynamic influences (everything from media to subcultural to ethnic to technological) sort of inherently generates new words. Other times the term is a result of political or PR craftiness, as was the case with “Japan-bashing” (and subsequently, any more generalized iteration of “______-bashing”). The lobbyist who made the phrase up later famously said “Those people who use (the term) have the distinction of being my intellectual dupes.” Continue reading

Kindles, books and libraries

OK, so I got a Kindle. This is a major step, for someone who is as much of a book junkie as I am. Actually, more like a book magnet. And after decades of buying books, they add up. Especially since I’m a packrat, as Mrs W never tires of pointing out, and living in a flat with limited space, it leads to books three deep in the bookshelves, that sort of thing. Of course, there’s the occasional cull, but that just clears out space for a while that fills up again. Then there’s the feeling that while I’m not likely to read any Dan Brown ever again—once was enough—there’s still no reason to believe that a single tree should ever be sacrificed for a Dan Brown book, as Mrs W once commented. Elitist, I know, but there it is.

So I thought about this for a while, and a couple of years ago we borrowed one for a long weekend from the son-in-law, and Mrs W really liked it, but that was in the US, and for a while there the availability of titles in the UK was pretty sparse. 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

Aliens and the Imagination

What is an alien? Someone not of my own species? Of my own country (cue political flatulence)? Of my own neighborhood? How about of my own planet? How have governments used UFOs? All of these were subject to lively (but short) series of talks this evening at the British Library, where tonight’s talks focused on Aliens and the Imagination. We had a pretty good line-up—fantastic, in fact: Gwyneth Jones, one of my all time favorite SF writers; David Clarke, who among other things is the UFO consultant to the National Archives here; biologist and mathematician (and science and SF writers) Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart; film director Gareth Edwards, who brought us Monsters; and writer Mark Pilkington, who also helps run the Strange Attractor blog. As usual, I thought the problem was too many people and not enough time—but these are all really interesting people, and I could have sat there all evening. Too bad there was no time at the end for the speakers to ask each other questions, or for questions from the audience.
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Haste, cost erode editing of online and mobile news

In 1976, I was a general-assignment reporter of limited experience and minimal accomplishment. So my editor kindly fired me, then said: “Now get your ass up on the copy desk where you belong.”

I knew little about copy editing. So I asked my newsroom godfather: “Neil, what do copy editors do?”

He looked over the rims of those 1950s spectacles he favored and said, “Defend your reader.”

“Against what?” I asked.

Error,” he said. “Any error possible.”

The memory of, or, perhaps, even the desire to exercise that dictum may remain in today’s newsrooms. But the ability of copy editors today to defend readers against error has inexorably been eroded. That decimation of editing capacity has been fueled by computerization beginning in the late ’70s and continued in this past decade by the sacking of newsroom staffs and the insatiable demand of management to get stories online or winging to mobile devices right now.
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FCC: Move to digital hasn't improved local news reporting

From the “The Feds Are The Last To Know Department”:

The Federal Communications Commission released a study today reporting that an “explosion of online news sources in recent years has not produced a corresponding increase in reporting, particularly quality local reporting …” The study, titled “Information Needs of Communities” takes a broad but somewhat shallow look at the media landscape. It reads as more of a history of how modern media arrived at its current state than as a clear, practical recipe for change.

The study — which looks at the local reporting performance of all media, not just that of newspapers — was undertaken by senior FCC adviser Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. According to his study:

In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.

Well, duh. Continue reading

GBTV? Glenn Beck on the Internet? All Glenn, all the time?

Would you pay between $4.95 and $9.95 a month to watch conservative talker Glenn Beck for two hours a day on the Internet?

Beck will launch, with partner Mercury Radio Arts, GBTV, an online video network, on Sept. 12. Here’s Beck himself in a five-minute pitch describing his “global plans” and how he will be “champion of man’s freedom” for the mere cost of a “cup of coffee in today’s world”:

Whether Beck is certifiably insane is not the issue here: Rather, he and his partner need to insure that revenues exceed costs. Now that he’s leaving the ready mega-megaphone of Fox News on June 30, that’s not a certainty.
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Utopias and other imaginary worlds

What makes a good Utopia? Are there minimum critical success factors that would allow the vagaries of human nature to be overcome? Does it mean a four day work week and personal jetpacks? A permanent rustic rural retreat, with all necessary services being provided by elves? A socialist workers’ paradise—ie, where no one expects to actually have to work? Is one even possible without robots to do all the gruntwork? Is there even a good definition of Utopia? Does it need to accord with John Rawls’ definition of a just society? Do we know what we’re talking about here anyway?

This is all prompted by the highly entertaining and interesting discussion this evening at the British Library, part of their discussion series that goes along with their Science Fiction exhibition. Tonight we had the redoubtable Iain M. Banks (and not, thankfully, Iain Banks, who writes different sorts of books entirely); Gregory Claeys, who has written extensively about the notion of utopias and whose Searching for Utopia has just been published; and Francis Spufford, general racounteur and author of three terrific and totally unrelated Continue reading

If a news story claims knowlege of public opinion, test the claim

When a news story claims certainty in expressing public opinion — or uses sources that claim such — readers should be wary.

Such is the case with a Friday NPR story that commingled analysis, reporting, and commentary (without a commentary label) about the impact of “tough economic news” on President Obama’s re-election prospects.

Some phrasing in the 1,081-word story represents guessing or labeling instead of reporting: seems, perhaps, hardly has a pulse, appears, near certainty, dismal harbinger, liberal wing, political environment, seems a distant memory, progressive community, recent experiences, some in his own party (tell us who, please), and a pervasive view.

But it is proclamations of knowledge of public opinion that irritate most.
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Presidential polls: Much ado about nothing 17 months early

Egads! News flash from pollster Gallup Inc.:

PRINCETON, NJ — Mitt Romney (17%) and Sarah Palin (15%) now lead a smaller field of potential Republican presidential candidates in rank-and-file Republicans’ preferences for the party’s 2012 nominee. Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain essentially tie for third, with Cain registering 8% support in his initial inclusion in Gallup “trial heat” polling. Notably, 22% of Republicans do not have a preference at this point. [emphasis added]

Yawn. This poll conducted May 20-24 with a random sample of 971 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents tells me nothing I want to know or need to know. I’m not necessarily picking on pollster Gallup; my objections apply to most of these almost weekly presidential preference polls. They mislead and misrepresent more than enlighten. In sum, they represent manufactured noise with little signal.
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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 win a meme, or how I avoided working this Spring but still managed to get all riled up

By Jennie Ver Steeg

I like Sam, of Dr. Slammy fame. Let me be clear on that, I am more likely to at least entertain the notions Sam floats out here than I would be those same notions from other like types: this to me is a character flaw, but I admit it freely. I’ve been playing along with his Facebook 30 Day Song Challenge Sequel the last few weeks, mostly because I like music and I live by the list: listing may be my only real skill. A friend points out to me that it’s not much of a challenge: he says challenges have winners, and wants to know what the prize is for the best. This challenge does have a winner, and as always, it’s me, motherfucker, or possibly those who get to read my challenge answers each day and feel… Jesus, how do they feel? Appalled, bemused? Continue reading

Albums you should listen to: Are We Dead Yet? by Starlight Drive

Jared Featherstone is developing a long history as a musical artist, first as a member of D.C. indie darlings Washington Social Club, and more recently as leader of Starlight Drive, a project he pursues when he can spare time from his “day job” as writing center coordinator at James Madison University. The Starlight Drive project has yielded two albums: 2005’s Beautiful Accidents and this 2011 release, Are We Dead Yet?

Featherstone’s approach on this album is darker than either his work with Washington Social Circle or on Beautiful Accidents. The material explores the problems of relationships – romantic, social, and professional – from an existential position somewhere slightly bleaker than Sartre’s. Continue reading

Tunesday: the whole world as one small room…

Jeffrey Dean Foster and Friends

Review – Concert Performance: An Evening with Jeffrey Dean Foster and Friends featuring Special Guests Greg Humphreys, Sam Frazier and Snüzz (Britt Harper Uzzell). April 29th, 2011. Hanes Brands Theater, Winston-Salem, NC. Photo Credit: Merch Mike.

As we become a distributed culture, one of the things that, instead of being eviscerated as I’d once hoped, has become perhaps more pronounced is the “siloing” of artists. Writers, visual artists – and especially, musicians – get categorized by some aspect of their artistic vision that more often than not is either idiosyncratic to the categorizer or, worse, convenient for “marketing.” Continue reading

More than marketing: The Blueflowers and the New Wave of Americana

I’ve never much cared for the musical genre broadly known as Americana, and lately I’ve been thinking about why this is. I suppose it’s acceptable to say hey, I’ve listened to a lot of these artists and most of them just kinda bore me, but that seems unsatisfactory for a guy who thinks about music like I do.

After some reflection, I think it comes down to a couple of issues. The first one, I admit right up front, is objectively unfair of me, but there is a part of me that associates Americana with the Baby Boomers, and in particular sees it as a late, faint attempt by the post-Reagan iteration of the cohort to recapture lost authenticity. Continue reading