Thorstein Veblen, Prescient on Today's Media

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Via Joe Costello, a friend and former colleague: While Keynes is all the rage these days, as the way things actually "work" in our society are laid bare for a short period, Veblen keeps popping up in my head. On Stewart v Cramer, I found this from The Theory of Business of Enterprise written in 1915 and as good a critique of 20th century media written, and for anyone who "stickle for truth", remains a major issue to sort for 21st century democracy.

I will say Veblen was a funny SOB, certainly intentionally rare for any economist -- though if you look at absurdity as humor most modern economists should have their own shows on Comedy Central. While Veblen was there, the University of Chicago actually knew something about economics:

The current periodical press, whether ephemeral or other, is a vehicle for advertisements. This is its raison d'etre as a business proposition and this decides the lines of its management without material qualification. Exceptions to the rule are official and minor propagandist periodicals, and in an uncertain measure, scientific journals. The profits of publication come from the sale of advertising space. The direct returns from sales and subscriptions are now a matter of wholly secondary consequence. Publishers of periodicals, of all grades of transiency, aim to make their product as salable as may be, in order to pass their advertising pages under the eyes of as many readers as may be. The larger the circulation the greater, other things equal, the market value of the advertising space.

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Weekend Reading

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Some books and longer articles I've recently been reading or re-reading:

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick's masterpiece (IMO). Chilling alternate history, set in an America that lost World War II to Germany and Japan.

The Snowball, by Alice Schroeder, a warts-and-all biography of investor Warren Buffett. His Nebraska-kid schtick hasn't fooled anybody for a long time, but he's even more complicated than we suspected.

What Would Google Do, Jeff Jarvis' thought-provoking look at our changing world from a "life is beta" perspective. I don't agree with all of his arguments, some of which strike me as throwing out the proverbial babies with the bathwater, but this book is well worth a read.

Severance Package, a noir-squared novel by Duane Swierczynski, about a memorable last day at work. Violent, mordant and an absolutely compulsive read.

"The Gatekeeper," a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza about Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emannuel. Hugely detailed, but has a more suck-up-to-power story ever been published in a magazine that prides itself on serious journalism? Yuck. Read the rest

Basket Case Insurer Gets $170 Billion from Taxpayers, Still Pays Huge Bonuses

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

In the get-out-the-torches-and-pitchforks category comes this news:

Despite receiving $170 billion in federal aid and recording a staggering loss for the last quarter, insurance giant American International Group is doling out tens of million of dollars in bonuses this week to senior employees.

While AIG agreed to pay the bonuses months before the government's rescue of the company began, the matter still is a source of anger for government officials. In a phone call on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told AIG Chairman and chief executive Edward M. Liddy that the payments were unacceptable and needed to be renegotiated, according to an administration source.

The company has since agreed to change the terms of some of these payments. But in a letter to Geithner, Liddy wrote that the bonuses could not be cancelled altogether because the firm would risk a lawsuit for breaching employment contracts. Liddy also expressed concerns about whether changing the bonuses would lead to an exodus of talented employees who are needed to turn the company around.

"We cannot attract and retain the best and brightest talent to lead and staff the AIG businesses -- which are now being operated principally on behalf of the American taxpayers -- if employees believe that their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. treasury," Liddy wrote.

That would be the "best and brightest" sleazeballs who created this train wreck of a company, who were principal culprits in the tanking of the global economy? Read the rest

Bad Times Spur Entrepreneurship, But There's a Catch

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

The recession is leading lots of out-of-work folks to try new things, reports the Times:

Economists say that when the economy takes a dive, it is common for people to turn to their inner entrepreneur to try to make their own work. But they say that it takes months for that mentality to sink in, and that this is about the time in the economic cycle when it really starts to happen – when the formerly employed realize that traditional job searches are not working, and that they are running out of time and money.

Mark V. Cannice, executive director of the entrepreneurship program at the University of San Francisco, calls the phenomenon “forced entrepreneurship.”

“If there is a silver lining, the large-scale downsizing from major companies will release a lot of new entrepreneurial talent and ideas – scientists, engineers, business folks now looking to do other things,” Mr. Cannice said. “It’s a Darwinian unleashing of talent into the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

That's great. Except for one thing, which the article completely misses: You won't find too many people in their middle ages or older in this category. Why? Because they can't get health insurance. America's health-care system makes it all but impossible for an older worker to try something new.

Even younger startup owners who are relatively healthy and have insurance are just a half-step from disaster. The insurance industry is in the business of not paying claims whenever possible, after all, and health insurers are working hardest to find ways not to cover people who might get sick even as they deny as many claims as possible from people who've been paying premiums. Read the rest

When Do We Start Calling Years 'Twenty-Somethings'?

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

On an NPR newscast the other day, a reporter pronounced the year 2012 as "two-thousand-twelve" while someone he interviewed called it "twenty-twelve." I'd have gone for the latter, but the different choices made me wonder when we're going to give up what we've been doing this entire decade, clumsily calling everything "two thousand something," and move to the style we used during most if not all of the last century.

I'm going with the twenties starting next year: twenty-ten, twenty-eleven and so on. YMMV.

There hasn't been much consistency in this area, as far as I can tell. Did anyone pronounce 1907 as anything but nineteen-oh-seven? Did anyone actually say nineteen-hundred-seven? (I'd wager a (UPDATE) week's day's pay -- the money goes to charity if I lose -- that nobody used one-thousand-nine-hundred-seven.)

Wait, it gets more complicated. We have to think about the names we use for centuries, too. The 20th Century was also the nineteen-hundreds. But in the 21st Century, are we in the two-thousands? That sounds off, but the twenty-hundreds sounds totally wrong.

Am I spelling these years wrong, too? Should there be hyphens between the numbers? Calling the grammar police.

No big deal. Still, it's pleasant to contemplate a benign problem for once.

(Flickr poto by hyperspace328) Read the rest

Space Junk's Threat

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

We're heading into scary territory with space garbage. The AP reports on Space station's close call with junk: More to come:

The near-hit of space junk Thursday was a warning shot fired across the bow of the international space station, experts said.

There's likely more to come in the future. With less than an hour's notice, the three astronauts were told they'd have to seek shelter in a Russian capsule parked at the space station in case a speeding piece of space junk hit Thursday.

If it hit and they were in the main part of the station, they'd have only 10 minutes of safety, Mission Control told them. A hole in the space station could mean loss of air, loss of pressure and eventual loss of life.

What freaks out people who believe we need to get off this planet -- for exploration and ultimately survival of our species --is this possibility: If enough of these things collide with each other and then create more junk, the planet could be eventually surrounded by a ring of debris that makes any space travel impossible.

The big Space Cleanup needs to start, pronto. But how? Read the rest

Tabloid TV Goes After Bailout Babies

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Tabloid journalism is often worse than none at all. But now, the NY Times reports, the media business' bottom feeders are going after the corporate sleazeballs who blew up the economy.

The tabloid media, of course, have always peered into the excesses of the rich and famous with a mix of puritan disapproval and voyeurism. But these outlets and other news organizations are now recording troubling uses of taxpayer money at country clubs, private airports and glamorous retreats and, in so doing, explicitly tapping into a fierce populist anger at corporate America, and even pressuring Congress to hold companies accountable.

TMZ, a Web site better known for unflattering paparazzi shots of Britney Spears and Rihanna, drove mainstream coverage and Congressional outrage with a blog post late last month that exclaimed, “Bailout Bank Blows Millions Partying in L.A.” The site reported that Northern Trust, a bank that received $1.6 billion in taxpayer money, had hosted hundreds of clients and employees at a golf tournament and a series of parties in Southern California. “Your tax dollars, hard at work,” the site wrote.

Northern Trust never sought the bailout funds, but agreed to take them last fall at the behest of the government. Regardless, the photos of Tiffany gift bags and the grainy video clips of Chicago and Sheryl Crow performing for the group angered readers –as well as Congressional Democrats, who demanded in a letter that Northern Trust repay what the company “frittered away on these lavish events.”

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Amazon Misusing DMCA to Block Non-Amazon Book Buying for Kindle?

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

In the this-sucks-if-true category, we hear from mobileread:

As some of you may already know, this week we received a DMCA take-down notice from Amazon requesting the removal of the tool kindlepid.py and instructions associated with it. Although we never hosted this tool (contrary to their claim), nor believe that this tool is used to remove technological measures (contrary to their claim), we decided, due to the vagueness of the DMCA law and our intention to remain in good relation with Amazon, to voluntarily follow their request and remove links and detailed instructions related to it.

I'm a (small) shareholder in Amazon. I own a Kindle. I question my decisions when I hear about stuff like this.

Oh, and by the way: Click here for lots of search links to the file that has Amazon in such a frenzy.

via Slashdot) Read the rest

Newspapers' Depressing Internal Lingo

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

BoingBoing reader Marissa Frayer writes:

Perhaps print journalism foreshadowed its fledgling future long ago with its morbid jargon. Morgue. Gutter. Beat. Deadline. Dummy. Kill. Widow. Orphan. Are journalists all being strung along like dummies, beaten and downtrodden by deadlines, desperately clutching our clips and killed ideas, en route to a future in the gutter, as we abandon our readers? Or are we just headed for the morgue where the only organization left standing will be widowed Gray Lady?

I'm not entirely serious--just thought it was curious that our profession employs some awfully depressing jargon. I once spent the better part of the day in my company's morgue. It was the only place I could find silence and space to spread out and concentrate on the demands of a 280-page dummy. Needless the say the irony was not lost on me.

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Madoff to Jail; Hope He's First of Many

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

So Bernard Madoff is heading to prison, most likely for the rest of his life. Will it be hard time or a low-security lockup for rich felons? (Photo thumbnail via the Times of London)

Whatever. A bad guy, but only of the many we should hope will end up in jail in the next several years -- especially members of the Wall Street gang that stole billions and tanked the global economy. How much real investigating will be done of their crimes? How much justice will we see?

Madoff confessed his frauds. The bankers said, "We demand hundreds of billions more, some of which we'll keep as bonuses, or we'll guarantee a global depression."

Who's worse? Read the rest

Legalizing Drugs: The Least Bad Answer

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

The Obama administration has named the latest of America's "drug czars" -- the person who heads the War on (Some) Drugs, a futile, expensive and supremely hypocritical campaign that has caused vastly more damage, in America and around the globe, than the problems it aims to fix. No one denies that drug misuse and addiction are often horrific to individuals and their families; what almost no one wants to ask, however, is whether legalization (or at least decriminalization) would have cumulatively less-bad effects. Perhaps the Warriors against (some) drugs -- almost all of whom, no doubt, are users of other drugs -- know that the weight of the evidence would not support their side.

Journalists, who are supposed to critically examine orthodoxy, have been especially cowardly. They won't go near the issue except at the edges, notably when voters in state after state approve "medical marijuana" in the clear realization that the drug-banning forces are cruelly indifferent to some kinds of human suffering that often can be alleviated with a well-filled water pipe.

One traditional journalism organization has been consistently asking the right questions, for several decades now. And the current issue of the Economist again treads confidently and logically where its peers won't begin to venture in this editorial, which begins:

A hundred years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International Opium Commission–just a few decades after Britain had fought a war with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff.

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Searching for an Honest Bank

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Late last year, just before Bank of America closed a deal to buy a failing Merrill Lynch, the BoA's executives signed off on $4 billion in bonus payments to Merrill Lynch executives and senior employees. This, after we taxpayers had poured more than $45 billion into saving these incompetent and/or corrupt people from their financial follies.

Merrill and BoA have done their best to stonewall the public from learning any details about this sleaze, including some very suspicious timing. And these bonuses were only a relatively small portion of the overall shower of cash that rained on people in an industry that did more to ruin our economy than any crew since the 1920s.

One of my projects keeps its money at Bank of America. I want to move the money to a bank that behaves more honorably. This isn't just a moral issue, but also a financial one. An institution that behaves the way BoA has done in this situation, among many others, can't be trusted.

It's not just a business account that I want to put in an institution that I have more reason to trust. I'm also looking for such a place to put my own personal accounts, which are currently at Citibank, an institution with less-than-zero credibility at this point.

I'm looking for ideas on a) what constitutes an honest bank; and b, if such an entity exists, what specific services (such as electronic transfers and bill payments) are bottom-line requirements. Read the rest

Media Cloud: Watching Media Flow

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

The Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society's new Media Cloud

is a system that lets you see the flow of the media. The Internet is fundamentally altering the way that news is produced and distributed, but there are few comprehensive approaches to understanding the nature of these changes. Media Cloud automatically builds an archive of news stories and blog posts from the web, applies language processing, and gives you ways to analyze and visualize the data. The system is still in early development, but we invite you to explore our current data and suggest research ideas. This is an open-source project, and we will be releasing all of the code soon. You can read more background on the project or just get started below.

(Note: I'm a Berkman Fellow, but I'd highlight this even if I wasn't. This is an important project for helping us understand what's going on in media.) Read the rest

NBC Stars Whimper About Jon Stewart's Skewering of CNBC

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

The poor widdle babies at NBC are soooo unhappy with Jon Stewart's skewering of CNBC's stock-market boosterism and stupid behavior. If you haven't seen it watch this first and then come back:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c CNBC Gives Financial Advice Daily Show Full EpisodesImportant Things With Demetri Martin Political HumorEconomic Crisis

Josh Marshall's team at Talking Points Memo, calling NBC's Jim Cramer and Joe Scarborough "the two whiniest grown men on television," pulled together the NBC stars' on-air complaints today. A few fair points peek out from the forest of rants, but the TV personalities' thin skins are remarkable given how much crap they dish out to others all the time.

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New Primer to Help Businesses Build in Customer Privacy Protection

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

The ACLU of Northern California has put out a primer, Privacy and Free Speech: It’s Good for Business, (1.5 MB pdf) to "help companies avoid privacy and free speech mistakes that can lead to negative press, government investigations and fines, costly lawsuits, and loss of customers and business partners."

Among other sections, this primer will help businesses:   * Keep users informed about privacy policies and new services so customer surprise doesn’t lead to front-page horror stories.

   * Secure customer information by creating forward-thinking policies about data collection, retention, and disclosure.

   * Stand up for free speech rights so customers don’t let their mouse clicks to a competitor do the talking.

By making privacy and free speech a priority as new ventures and products are being developed, companies can save time and money by protecting customer rights while bolstering the bottom line.

An HTML version is in the works, I'm told. Read the rest

NY Times and 'Serious' Journalism

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

I pick on the New York Times a lot for its flubs, not because I hate the paper or because I own some nearly worthless shares in the company. I do it because the journalism done there still matters.

Over the weekend and yesterday we saw examples of the organization's better and lesser sides. Let's start with the good stuff: Read the rest

When It All Falls Apart

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Like lots of folks these days I find myself speculating about whether we're heading into something worse than a bad recession, such as the kind of calamity that tests civilization. I've suspected this before.

Back in my younger days I played music for a living. We were based in Vermont, a collection of folks who mostly saw the world as a place where music and the good life surrounding it were an end in themselves. While I subscribed to this philosophy for the most part, I was also the band member who read newspapers, and the one who had to handle details like bookings and getting paid. 

The real world intruded enough, therefore, to occasionally be as worrisome as fun; and I had a pessimistic side in any case. At one point, gloomier than usual about humanity's future, I wrote a song about how people like us would (or wouldn't) get along when the apocalypse happened, something I feared might be imminent. It wasn't, then, but I'm wondering again.

The song was called "When It All Falls Apart," and the lyrics went like this:

What will you do when it all falls apart? Have you made your plans? What will you be when it all falls apart?

There won't be any plumbers.  There'll be no politicians. Be no civil engineers. Be no musicians. There'll just be the farmers and the thieves. And what do you know about the land?

What will you do when it all falls apart?

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