Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Private eyes are watching you: The year in tech

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Nicholas Schroeder

This year saw some tech wins (public information), some losses (privacy), and many more questions for the future of an increasingly wired world. (Example: Is anything secret anymore?) And there was the appearance of yet another grassroots David, and, as if a warning to future Davids, the epic collapse of a bloated Goliath.

Rise of Kickstarter
The arts just don't pay like they used to. What to do, then, when the ideas keep coming? In 2010, the people turned to Kickstarter, a user-friendly, low-risk database of not-for-profit projects seeking financial backing. The trick is simple: grant-hungry innovators provide a clear mission statement, project outline, and timeline for their projects. Like a virtual gallery of ideas, Kickstarter organizes projects and tallies pledges, freeing the project organizer to promote the fundraising effort.
Locally, it's been a minor revelation. In 2010, private pledgers funded Didn't Die Young Yet, a book of fiction by Jacob Cholak (who wrote one short story for each $1-and-up pledge received), the mastering of Theodore Treehouse's much-lauded debut album, and a $1500 steamroller rental for public printmaking demonstration by local art collective Pickwick Independent Press during September's Block Party.

Death of MySpace
Where Kickstarter represented the virtual vox populi, the web still produced its share of audible groans. Once a teeming online metropolis, Rupert Murdoch's MySpace is now a truly disgusting city, reduced to a collection of flashy billboards pasted onto blocks of empty housing units. 2010 witnessed a public resignation (some say firing) of Owen Van Natta, the company's CEO, and by July, operating losses for the year had passed $575 million. MySpace is still most convenient way to sample low-quality selections of fledgling rock bands, but individual accounts — the lungs of a social network — are inert.
Say what you will about Facebook, but they did get one thing right. Like the majority of humans (and most primates), it can differentiate between a person and a thing. According to Facebook's logic, both have presence, but only people have agency. Things — and this includes Malaysian sexbots — do not.

WikiLeaks
A free press, and the associated power of the Internet, to disrupt governments and expose secrets is trumpeted by the US in its policy toward China. Not so in its ongoing investigation — and threatened prosecution — of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. In addition to its April release of classified video footage of a US Army helicopter crew shooting and killing a group of men (including two journalists) in Baghdad in 2007, WikiLeaks struck fear into the hearts of American policymakers when it began releasing as many as 250,000 State Department documents in November. The real significance, however, was the populist rise of the computer-hacking community to defend Assange by attacking sites that caved to government pressure and ended business dealings with WikiLeaks (Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal). This response showed that there are many more people willing to defy the US government than officials would like — and that the feds can't catch them.

Privacy kickback
While studies show that younger people are less worried about loss of online privacy (in part because they're better at self-editing and using privacy tools that are available), Facebook and Google both spent big chunks of time under government microscopes this year. Facebook drew negative press and congressional concern for its ever-changing privacy policy and continued tweaks to both refine self-protection ability and encourage people to release just — a — little — more to those advertisers who keep FB in the black. Google faces increasing inquiries worldwide, particularly for its Google Street View service, which often ends up showing private citizens going about their daily lives — it shows a baby being born on a German street, for example — and has also been found to have collected data on private wi-fi networks in the areas its cars have mapped, leading to concerns about not just one-time privacy violation, but ongoing e-surveillance.

E-readers
The Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader — books really began to go mobile in 2010. The biggest boost, though, was from Apple's iPad, the small tablet computer that is effectively a large, powerful iPhone, without the ability to make calls or send texts. While many of the commercial e-book readers can access data in several e-book formats, only the iPad's system allows a private company complete control over software and the content that software delivers. If the iPad proves as dominant in its niche as the iPhone in its, this could give Apple a serious stranglehold on the marketplace of ideas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Press Releases: Pay what?

Published in the Portland Phoenix


How much would you pay to watch TV programs you can already get for free?

This month, WMTW (the Hearst-owned ABC affiliate on Channel 8) and WGME (the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate on Channel 13) are asking you, their viewers, to call your pay-TV provider and declare your willingness to do just that.

Both stations pay big bucks to the federal government for permission to broadcast over the public airwaves, using the new digital-TV signals that can be detected by up-to-date televisions and antennas. The stations are also carried on several pay-TV networks, including TimeWarner Cable and DirecTV. Most TVs these days can handle doing both — it's really easy to switch between your cable box, your DVD player, and your video-game console.

But the bulk carriers don't want you to do that — they want to keep you locked in to their systems. So they pay the local stations (or their corporate parents, at least) for the privilege of providing local shows to viewers in the station's geographic coverage area. The bulk carriers, naturally, pass on those costs to their audiences — charging viewers for the privilege of watching TV they could have at no cost, if only they were willing to press a button on their remotes.

WMTW's deal with DirecTV and WGME's with TimeWarner both expire December 31, and both stations have issued notices to viewers saying their bulk-carrier channels may go dark if the behemoths don't pony up, often to the tune of millions of dollars.

For example, executives at WGME parent Sinclair minimize their rate increase by describing it as "less than a penny a day per subscriber." But do the math: both WGME and TimeWarner estimate that 250,000 to 300,000 TimeWarner subscribers could be affected in Maine alone — that's right around a million dollars of increase (neither party will disclose the present payment amount). Of course, this is really one behemoth pushing another to get money from you: the Sinclair deal covers 32 other TV stations around the country, and whatever TimeWarner ends up paying will ultimately be covered by TimeWarner customers in their monthly cable bills.

And let's put that extra "penny a day per subscriber" into individual terms. Sinclair is asking TimeWarner to approve charging you an extra $3.65 a year to get access to TV signals Sinclair already distributes at no charge over the airwaves.

Is that a big boost to Sinclair? Yep. Does TimeWarner skim off a percentage for its own coffers? Bet on it. And what do you get? Nothing more or less than what is already being broadcast to your home. (Satellite, cable, and over-the-air providers bicker about relative "reliability" during thunderstorms and the like, but you're generally more likely to lose TV access because of a power outage than anything specifically related to how video gets to your home.)

Of course the other thing it gets for the local TV station is a whole pile of additional prospective viewers, which boosts advertising prices. WMTW president and general manager David Abel says 20 percent of his station's audience watch using DirecTV. Losing access to those viewers would require him to slash his advertising rates, which are higher for stations reaching more people.

Throwing that into the mix makes this financial equation even more fascinating: WMTW and WGME want you to pay DirecTV and TimeWarner more, to allow those carriers to pay the stations more, to give the stations more viewers, for which they can then charge advertisers more, a cost covered by the advertisers raising their own prices. You're paying for the privilege of watching television ads that make everything in your life more expensive. How does that feel?

Fighting censorship: SPACE to screen video banned from Smithsonian

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A video banned from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery last week in the wake of threats from conservative politicians will be on view in the front window of SPACE Gallery (538 Congress St., Portland) this week and next, as part of a nationwide show of solidarity between art galleries and the organizers of the Smithsonian's show.

The show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," includes works by a large number of renowned American artists, including photographers Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Annie Leibovitz; and painters Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley (a Mainer of whom a photographic portrait by George Platt Lynes is also included).

On November 28, nearly a month after the exhibit's October 30 opening date, the conservative Web site CNSNews.com reported that it had asked incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (an Ohio Republican) and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (a Virginia Republican) to comment on one element of the show, an excerpt from David Wojnarowicz's A Fire In My Belly (A Work In Progress), which includes a scene of ants crawling on a crucifix.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith told CNSNews.com, "While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money at a time when one in every 10 Americans is out of work and our children's future is being threatened by debt."

Cantor, who is Jewish, denounced the exhibit as "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season," according to CNSnews.com. "When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time," he said.

Both politicians seem unclear on how federal funds are used by the Smithsonian. The organization reports that public funds do not pay for specific exhibits, which are instead funded by private donations. Federal funds cover the costs of building maintenance, care of the artworks in the museums' custody, and staff, including exhibit curators.

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian removed the video from its exhibit, without consulting the show's curator, Jonathan Katz. (Katz registered a powerful objection, decrying the decision as a capitulation to bullying: "appeasing tyranny has never worked and can never work, for tyranny wants only obedience, and blind obedience is antithetical to what this nation stands for; we were, as a people, born in protest to tyranny," he wrote in a formal statement.)

"When a work of art is censored because of a minority opinion about the work, it's cause for alarm," says Nat May, executive director of SPACE Gallery. The ants, according to the artist's own statement of purpose, are his metaphor for society, particularly during the AIDS crisis, which claimed Wojnarowicz's own life in 1992.

May's own opinion of the video is that "it's pretty harmless. I think we see more challenging and much more disturbing work every day on TV."

When he learned that other galleries around the country were showing the video as a sign of support for the censored artwork, May called the gallery representing Wojnarowicz's estate to ask if SPACE could show the film as well. "They got back to me immediately — within minutes" asking for his address and saying they would send the DVD.

The video will show in the front window of SPACE, along with printouts of various opinions about the work, including several objecting to it.

"I'd really like this to be an opportunity to discuss censorship," May says. "The biggest concern is that you have a couple of loud voices critical of something and before a conversation happens, the piece is removed. That's not how the rest of the world works. Because it's art and because it's in a public place" the standards should not change, he says, though apparently they do.

The SPACE exhibit will include the full statement by Katz, which ends with a quote from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself:" "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!/Whoever degrades another degrades me,/And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. . . . Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Maker's Mark: Portland nerdcrafters turn old ideas into new items

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Galen Richmond may work in the best tradition of Maine craft artisans, forging functional creations out of everyday materials most might consider junk, but there the comparison stops. Richmond is very much a craftsman for the 21st century, perhaps something of a refugee from one of those far, far away galaxies that populate the Star Wars saga.
He creates new musical instruments out of old electronics, such as a Casio SK-1 synthesizer keyboard that looks quite normal until your gaze expands to encompass the matrix of toggle switches attached to its right end and the Atari joystick (complete with button) on the left. The switches and joystick are so seamlessly integrated, so tightly put together, that for a moment it becomes hard to envision the keyboard without those add-ons, all wired into the keyboard's internal circuitry, allowing the instrument to produce music far beyond what its manufacturers intended. Sure, the keys and pre-recorded drum rhythms are still there, but flipping switches and playing with the joystick morph the sound into new realms, warping standard keyboard tones into warbles, groans, creaks, and screeches. (If you still haven't gotten the picture, go check out the setup — and its music — at one of Richmond's numerous local club gigs; he performs as Computer At Sea.)

The term "nerd-crafting" has emerged in the popular culture to apply to work like Richmond's, which goes beyond traditional crafting (think the knit hats and handmade jewelry that are also so popular in Portland) into something related to geek- or nerd-dom, like electronics, comics, or video games. Richmond says his work is part of "the increasingly visible maker culture." It's more than traditional crafting (think knit hats and handmade jewelry), also popular in Portland.

Another of his devices is an OmniChord, an '80s-era electronic instrument with a touch-sensitive strip of metal a player can use to "strum" it. Not satisfied with that capability in a machine made a couple decades ago, Richmond pierced the case with several dozen furniture tacks and then opened it up and wired each tack to a different area of the internal sound-creation or -modification electronics. Now, pretty much wherever you touch the device, the sound it is making changes. (Richmond does wire those and other instruments into an un-modified MPC 2000 drum-machine/sampler/sequencer, in an effort to create music from these sounds, rather than simply making different noises.)

He started this sort of work, called circuit-bending, in 2007, modifying existing — often obsolete — electronic devices to create new sounds. Inspired by a circuit-bent Speak & Spell he spotted on eBay but could not afford (it was selling for hundreds of dollars), he decided to figure out how to make his own and discover what he calls "unheard sounds in the universe."

 
"The idea is that there's these other sounds just lurking in the hardware that weren't designed by anyone and weren't made to be heard," he says. As recently as a few years ago, it was possible to discover entirely new sounds. As more people have gotten involved — and as an online community has gathered to share techniques and recordings — it's rarer to make a new discovery totally outside an existing "family" of sounds (made from similar modifications to particular devices).
But it's still tantalizing, Richmond says: "There's always the chance that you could uncover a totally never-before-heard sound."

The craft comes not only in the workmanship of his customized devices (which also include an oversized circuit-board on display at the Children's Museum of Maine, and old books hollowed out and reconfigured with knobs and audio jacks to modify whatever sound signals are sent through it), but in the artistic repurposing of concepts, characters, items — saving them from the literal and figurative dustbin. Richmond puts it more humbly: "Salvaging this sort of useless-to-everyone-else technology and making something compelling out of it."

Finding niches
There's definitely an element of play in this kind of pursuit. Christian Matzke of Brunswick likes the idea of "taking something extremely adult in material and making a child's toy out of it." It helps him — and others — to hang on (or perhaps rediscover) the childlike wonder and fantastical ideas of youth, which adults so easily lose as they grow up.

For example, he has built a "NosferatView," a vampire-spotting device that is based on established techniques for spotting vampires (perhaps it's not such a toy: "you have it on the shelf in case someone comes to your house who is pal and has sharp teeth," Matzke says). And he created a life-size time machine, complete with valves, dials, tubes, gauges, and everything else you might imagine such equipment requires.

But while those appeal to the growing number of vampire/steampunk aficionados, he has also begun developing another small niche based, perhaps, more on nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood: making Lego scenes for bands. It started with a model he made of Laibach, a Slovenian band, of the band on stage (he customized the Lego figures' faces based on famous incidents, like the time the band's singer was hit in the face by a bottle thrown onstage, and bled while singing the rest of the show). "The band is buying it from me," Matzke says with surprise and pride.
Now he's at work on Lego dioramas of other bands, including Romanian electronic group NSK. While he prefers to create his own work and not derive it from others, Matzke admits that having a "built-in audience" can be an advantage when it comes to finding people who appreciate the effort.

It helps, too, when trying to make some money. Tristan Gallagher runs Fun Box Monster Emporium on Congress Street, selling action figures, games, accessories, and all sorts of nerdish ephemera, selling to those who share these types of interests. "It's about referencing stuff that you love," Gallagher says. He also makes T-shirts based on the Star Wars series, Nintendo videogames, and the occasional comic-book character (though he is careful to stay away from DC Comics characters, for fear of incurring the wrath of the phalanx of lawyers employed by DC parent Warner Bros.).

"Lucasfilm is very cool about making T-shirts, making artwork," he says. In fact, they almost use fans like Gallagher as product research. "If they like it, they'll take it," Gallagher laughs, describing how Lucasfilm will find a design and, rather than sending an attorney's nastygram, the company's staff do the design themselves and start selling it directly.

For fun or profit?Uniqueness, it turns out, is crucial to this kind of work. Ben Bishop, a local creator of custom action figures, bases his decision on whether to make a custom toy in part on whether he thinks the companies that actually own the characters he builds would issue their own versions. If something is already on the market, or is about to be, Bishop will skip it. For him, it's not just the creative process — "I guess I just wanted toys that didn't exist," he says with a grin.

He bought lots of toys, mixed and matched the parts, sculpted headgear and accessories, and meticulously repainted each part to create, for example, Lion-O from Thundercats out of a Skeletor figure from He-Man.
He even goes so far as to make box labels and design the packaging — reusing other action figures' plastic boxes — "to make them look like they're from the store."

Now, after roughly a year, he has finally settled on a kind of paint that both looks right and sticks to the plastic figures, and is getting requests for specific characters from fans around the world.

Bishop sells some of his custom-made figures to help fund his hobby; he recently took an order for 100 Sgt. Slaughter figures, combining the GI Joe figure with aspects of the '80s-era professional wrestler by the same name. (A tip for others who might be interested in starting this kind of work: "People are dying for Thundercats," Bishop says.)

Often Bishop comes up with ideas of what figures to make and then sorts out how to do it, with what parts from what original figures. But sometimes new techniques or even new toys open other opportunities, as recently happened with a Jack Knight Modern Starman figure, which has pants on and makes it much easier to create other figures that have pants (as opposed to shorts or bare legs).

Bishop has a love-hate relationship of sorts with this hobby. It takes a lot of time and creative energy from other work, like comics (yes, he made an action figure of Nathan the Caveman, the star of his graphic novel). But then again, "this is really fun."

Which is why he and Ben Asselin, a friend and fellow character-builder (who does more sculpting than repurposing existing toy parts), are considering partnering with a couple of other friends to form a concept-art business capable of designing and prototyping characters and figures, laying out storyboards, handling Web comics, cartoons, and even packaging materials. "We're all sort of doing all the stuff that would be required," Bishop says.

But then the conversation shifts back to fun. Bishop and Asselin are planning on making a fa├žade of Castle Grayskull scaled to fit the 3.75-inch-high action figures. And Asselin, a huge GI Joe fan, is busy creating all the characters from a specific scene in the 1987 animated film GI Joe: The Movie — which means getting or making the more generic figures of each character and then adding clothing and accessories to match the movie.

Bishop says a lot of the appeal for him is "having something that you've created — and something that no one else has." He laughs: "I want to be able to stop doing it, but it's too fun."

Where can I find it?
COMPUTER AT SEA will be releasing an album in early 2011, downloadable online (myspace.com/computeratseamusic) or you can buy the 12-inch white-vinyl record.
BEN BISHOP's work can be seen at bishart.net. BEN ASSELIN's work can be seen at benasselin.blogspot.com. They will have a joint display at Fun Box Monster Emporium (656 Congress Street, Portland) during a First Friday Art Walk in early 2011.
CHRISTIAN MATZKE's work is harder to find, but is sometimes featured in short films shown around the area.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Press releases: Brave the new world

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Maine is in crisis — big budget shortfalls, lots of people unemployed, a cold winter approaching. And there's this new governor, talking about making life easy for business.

But since that often means making things hard on people and the environment, we need a press who will stand up and look out for Mainers.

This of course means making sure that promises from politicians end up being delivered — with the effects promised. John Baldacci touted Maine's job growth during his first term when he was seeking reelection. But as his second term ends, Maine has lost all of those jobs, and possibly more. Anybody (except us at the Phoenix) asking him if he's responsible now? No.

But it also means remembering the lessons of history. Some of those pesky environmental regulations businesses hate came about, in part, because paper companies — in the absence of regulation and enforcement — dumped dioxin into Maine's major rivers, killing everything downstream. We're smarter than that now — and better protected as a result.

Much of that protection is thanks to journalists, like those at the defunct Maine Times, who acted as true watchdogs, badgering the public and its elected and appointed representatives into action to clean up the environment and restrict future pollution.

But today's journalists and media outlets are out of practice at doing that sort of work. With rare and infrequent exception, many — most egregiously, the local television news, but let's not spare the newspapers — appear to believe that news is what officials say it is, rather than what is actually happening in the world. These outfits are more likely to be lapdogs for authorities, to wait for "official" comment before doing a story, to let coverage be driven by that scourge of citizens seeking real information (though savior of many a lazy or overworked journalist): the manufactured press conference.

Any Maine journalist who finally steps up to do a good job now risks being labeled partisan. "You slacked for eight years with a Democratic governor," that argument might well go, "so your renewed vigor now must be because you dislike Republicans."

Fortunately, there's an easy answer reporters can give: "We shouldn't have slacked — and we recognize that it helped get us into this mess we're in. We have realized the error of our ways, and, like everyone else in Maine, want to be part of the solution. So we're jumping into the game with new energy, and we'll be watching you the way we should have watched the Dems."

Early indicators are mixed. Even before the Republican sweep of Augusta, media outlets like the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal were restoring lost staffers to the State House beat. That's a welcome sign indeed, and if sustained (dare we dream that the regrowing corps could be expanded by other media outlets?) bodes well for informing the public.

But there are also serious problems. Press Herald business reporter Jonathan Hemmerdinger gives us a recent example in his 800-word story on November 7, in which numerous businesspeople and politicos, including Paul LePage, lamented the strict state of business regulation in Maine.

The only example of problematic regulation given in the article, though, was a requirement that "developers planning projects larger than 75,000 square feet must conduct a nine-point project review that examines factors including community impact and traffic patterns." Would we really prefer to remain ignorant of how a massive big-box store would change traffic use, and affect other businesses in the community?

No other specific regulations came under any fire at all. That shows the journalist didn't ask for examples — if he had and gotten answers (or no-comments), the responses would have been in the piece. We can do better — and we'll need to.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Election prep: County races could use competition

Published in the Portland Phoenix


All five Cumberland County posts up for election this year have unopposed candidates — and four have incumbents seeking reelection. That's a verdict of sorts, though a surprising one, given that at budget time municipal officials regularly complain about the burden of county taxes and lament their inability to reduce the cost of county government.

But if the only person who could be called a newcomer for a county post is Kevin Joyce, who is running for sheriff after serving as a deputy here for a quarter-century, then citizens, at least, must be moderately happy about the job being done. Otherwise, someone would have run for something.
Still, it's not too late to run a write-in campaign if you want to challenge Joyce, judge of probate Joseph Mazziotti, treasurer Diane Gurney, register of deeds Pamela Lovley, or district attorney Stephanie Anderson.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Press Releases: Surrender Monkeys

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Most journalism professionals agree that it is appropriate that media organizations should ban reporters from attending certain types of events in the name of objectivity and limiting perceived bias. For example, events supporting specific political candidates are typically considered out-of-bounds, unless a reporter is actually on the job, putting together a story about the event or the candidate for broadcast or publication.

But of late, media outlets are falling all over themselves to declare even non-partisan events off-limits to off-duty journos. The most recent example is the recently renamed Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," which made its biggest splash in the mainstream media when National Public Radio issued a memo saying employees attending the admittedly left-leaning rally would violate the organization's code of ethics. Many other mainstream outlets are doing the same, saying the event is political in nature, so attendance by journalists — other than those covering the event for their news organizations — could raise questions about bias on the part of the journalists or their employers. (No similar edict became public in advance of Glenn Beck's August 28 rally in DC, suggesting the news execs couldn't fathom their minions wanting to attend that event.)

I understand that news organizations don't want their journalists holding signs promoting a particular candidate or referendum question. But are these news outlets truly so confused that they object to their employees potentially holding up signs supporting sanity and reasonableness? Apart from being badly needed in all aspects of American life today — including newsrooms — sanity and reasonableness are things that real journalists endeavor to support, rather than shilling to the shrill extremes.

But let's move beyond the fact that this kind of ban is tantamount to banning journalists from attending shows at which stand-up comics make jokes about politics or current events. That alone makes it completely ludicrous.

This ban is far more damaging to the media outlets that promulgate it, because it prevents journalists from going to see shining examples of real journalism. Both Stewart and Colbert have won Peabody Awards for their television reporting — Stewart twice for coverage of elections, something the mainstream media should be trying to be better at.

Stewart and Colbert are people who despite their claims to be comedians, and despite the fact that they are on Comedy Central, are actively engaged in seeking truth, context, and insight about modern American and global affairs.

They and their staffs are well-informed, talented writers, brilliant at making their information not just palatable but actually enjoyable to consume. They are doing what the mainstream media is failing at, and has been failing at for a long time — getting people interested in public affairs.

Little wonder, then, that both men are significant threats to existing media. A Rasmussen Reports poll in 2009 found that nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 believe their shows are replacing "traditional" news outlets.

So how to mainstream media outlets respond to an opportunity to observe some of the most important journalistic figures of the early 21st century? By issuing edicts that ensure their newsgathering employees are uninformed, non-participating scribes forbidden from involvement in a world that increasingly demands the engagement of professional skeptics. This is very clearly a surrender to irrelevance, a declaration of retreat from the field of journalistic inquiry, albeit under the cover of a professed adherence to unachievable ethical standards.

If reporters are not allowed to attend gatherings of groups of people who care about an issue (or a set of issues), how are they to find out what's going on in the world?

Must they, like the public at large, be held hostage to mainstream-media reporters' skewed views of the world? Must they, like the general public, hear and read primarily whatever is contained in statements read by officials at podiums, or, for some sense of "balance," wildly inaccurate statements by people so detached from reality that they can look at a blue sky and call it red? Journalists and their corporate masters have a lot to learn from Stewart and Colbert.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tall tales: Maine storyteller heads away for audiences

Published in the Portland Phoenix


We here at the Phoenix don't pull this kind of thing often, but this weekend you're missing out. Lewiston native (and Munjoy Hill dweller) Michael Parent has headed 1000 miles southwest from Portland to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, this weekend.

 
He'll be telling up to eight hours of stories over the course of the weekend — not all at once, but in chunks ranging from 15-20 minutes up to a full hour. Sadly, Parent, a 64-year-old of French-Canadian descent, doesn't do a lot of performing around here. He's been in a few theatrical productions and has done some one-man storytelling shows around town — and is hoping to line up some appearances this fall — but most of his work he does elsewhere. "The further away you go, the more they pay you," he laughs wryly.
In Jonesborough, the International Storytelling Center hosts one of the country's largest annual festivals for storytellers; attendees number between 12,000 and 15,000, spread among several tents. Parent will regale his audiences with selections from his extensive repertoire.

He has one story retelling the fable of "Beauty and the Beast" from the Beast's point of view; another is a series of vignettes called "Heroes and Sheroes, Working Class and Otherwise," which includes one tale about a sanitation worker "who puts pizzazz in the collection of garbage," he says.

He tells folk and fairy tales, but many of his pieces are based in fact, though embellished for the telling. "I take events that actually happened and try to capture the spirit of the event, whether or not I have all the facts straight," Parent says.

A favorite of his is "The Beautiful Game," a story centered around the fire that destroyed Lewiston's St. Dominic's Arena in 1956, crushing the spirits of hockey players and fans alike in that economically troubled town. It's based on the facts of the event — including research into newspaper archives on microfiche — but his descriptions of residents' reactions are based on his own experience growing up in Lewiston as a player on one of Maine's five high-school hockey teams at the time.

Parent begins his stories by writing them, but before they are ready for delivery, he tries them out on friends, preferring to hone his work in the telling. "You'll come up with things on your feet that you'll never come up with sitting on your butt," he says.

And when honed, they're ready. "You have 1000 people in a tent, and as soon as a story starts, it's just dead silence," he marvels. "I think people are longing for that kind of connection with the spoken word." (He mixes guitar music in with his stories, and seeks audience participation from time to time — whether singing along or performing on stage with him: "I seem to have a gift for getting people to be a bit silly," he says.)

Parent has been performing as a storyteller since 1977. "I feel I'm really getting the hang of it, after 30-plus years," he says, only half-joking. His first Jonesborough performance was in 1981; "it isn't quite the career catapult that it once was," because there are so many more storytellers and so many more festivals. In fact, after Parent leaves Tennessee, he's heading to another storytelling festival in Washington. He swears he'll come back at some point soon — keep an eye out for him in our listings pages and around town in Portland or Brunswick.

Hear some of Michael Parent's work at michaelparentstorytelling.com.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Press releases: Could it happen here?

Published in the Portland Phoenix


The news a few years back that the Bush administration had convinced the big telecom companies to allow the authorities to spy on customers without warrants, in the name of fighting terrorism, caused a ruckus. Americans tend to worry about protecting our privacy from the government or big Internet-based businesses. But what if it was newspapers doing the snooping, hacking into phone and e-mail records of celebrities and politicians, and then publishing what they discover?

In the United Kingdom, just this question has come up in light of revelations that a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, News of the World, had journalists hack into cell-phone voicemail messages of Prince William and Prince Harry and report on personal details revealed in them.

Two men went to jail in 2007 in connection with the scandal, but recent concerns have arisen that the hacking may have been much more widespread, targeting leading politicians, sports stars, and celebrities — as the New York Times put it in a recent story on the scandal, “anyone whose personal secrets could be tabloid fodder.”

(A Parliamentary investigation found that the News editor at the time, Andy Coulson, had not known the phone hacking was taking place, and definitely did not approve it. Coulson is now the chief spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, giving the new attention to this scandal a strong political bent.)

Britain’s culture of celebrity-crazed tabloids looks a lot like American pop-culture lunacy, and as US media outlets continue to compete for ever-shrinking shares of an ever-shrinking financial pie, desperation for audience attention is certain to increase.

Still, this level of invasiveness is one we can hope will not darken our shores. Mainstream news organizations tend to see themselves as above that sort of stunt. Even Murdoch’s empire in the US, primarily the Fox network, has so far been content with ambushing public figures on the street and asking them unpleasant questions. (The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, it must be said, seems particularly unlikely to stoop to UK-tabloid style activities.)

Celeb-focused publications and blogs haven’t debased themselves this much yet either, but they might, given the brazenness — and phenomenal popularity — of outlets like TMZ and PerezHilton.com.

The question there, and here, boils down to free-press guarantees. Some people want to outlaw this type of behavior by journalists. But that gets into a slippery slope of the government exerting control over journalists. In the UK, which has a free-press tradition but no written constitution, that is easier than here, with our First Amendment enshrining media liberty.

Some have worried that such a law would have unintended consequences, though that is being debated too: Would new restrictions prevent true public-interest disclosures of very private information, as happened in 2009, when reporters investigating lawmakers’ expense accounts revealed that some members of Parliament watched pornographic pay-per-view movies on the public’s dime?

Under existing laws, UK celebs have, with the help of a cooperative judge (who was replaced last week amid this debate), been increasingly able to get injunctions preventing publication of private information, even if what they’re trying to protect is accurate. (Which brings up other concerns about press freedom.)

In the US, judges have traditionally been much more leery of granting those kinds of “prior restraint” injunctions, preferring to let story subjects seek redress in court after publication. In a shift that shook the American legal landscape, though, a federal appeals-court ruling last year held that a person can be libeled if private information, even if true, is published with “actual malice.”

When that case was reheard in a lower court, a jury reversed the ruling. But injunctions are decided by judges, not juries. It may be just a matter of time here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cybersecurity: Maine breaches

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When many Mainers think of "cybersecurity," they probably remember the 2008 HANNAFORD SECURITY BREACH, when 4.2 million credit- and debit-card numbers were stolen from shoppers at the grocery chain's stores.

What received little coverage amid the hype about the vastly overstated threat of identity theft (only 1800 accounts were actually used to make fraudulent charges — 0.04 percent of the stolen numbers) was that the breach was the first documented case of a new way of stealing this kind of information.

Previously, most security breaches resulting in theft of credit-card, bank-account, or even Social Security numbers had come from a single incident — either a physical theft of a computer or drive containing that information, or by connecting to a computer via the Internet and breaking through whatever security it might have in place. (This happened, for example, to THE UNIVERSITY OF MAINE HEALTHCARE CENTER'S COMPUTERS in June, when an unauthorized person accessed data on about 4600 students who had sought mental-health help at the university.)

But Hannaford's data was stolen over the course of several months, during transmission of the data from store cash registers to the system that the company used to verify card transactions. This process takes only seconds, as shoppers know, and became a target for thieves because protection had been beefed up on physical computers and their electronic defenses.

The fact that some credit-card information is not encrypted when traveling over private corporate networks remains an issue for retailers, banks, and credit-card companies to resolve. (When traveling over public networks, the data must be encrypted.) Also, the Hannaford hack was claimed by some to be an inside job — and there's little defense against data theft by a person who is allowed into a data center.

Most Mainers likely do not know that THE MAINE LEGISLATURE'S WEB SITE WAS HACKED just three months ago, resulting in some mild confusion about the lawmaking process. Specifically, the site's ability to designate the status of bills moving through the Legislature — including keeping users up-to-date on amendments and voting — was modified so that a user who clicked on various links would be taken to a Web site that would attempt to download viruses or other harmful software onto a user's computer.

State computer-support staff took the site offline entirely for several days while they fixed the security hole and reloaded correct information into the database. This went largely unnoticed because the Legislature was not in session at the time.

Dueling ideas: Maine's senators on cybersecurity

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Both of Maine's senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, have backed cybersecurity legislation in hopes of avoiding or averting the catastrophes described in David Scharfenberg's main piece. But their approaches have been different, leading to conflicting bills in the US Senate.

Collins's effort, also backed by senators Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Tom Carper (D-Delaware), is most controversial because it would give the federal government significant authority to monitor, or even shut down, the Internet or portions of it, if the president declared a cybersecurity emergency. (The fact that the Department of Homeland Security would be in charge of actually doing this doesn't exactly make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, either.)

But beyond that — and despite creating two more federal agencies (the Office of Cyberspace Policy and the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications) — the bill does make some sense, because it also addresses education and training of future cybersecurity professionals, even introducing some concepts as early as elementary school.

Snowe's plan, proposed jointly with Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), would not go quite so far. It would create a new office in the White House (the Office of the National Cybersecurity Advisor) and set new federal standards for cybersecurity, with which private companies and government agencies would have to comply. It would also provide for licensing and certification of cybersecurity professionals.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is reportedly working to combine the two bills and bring the merged proposal to a vote in the Senate sometime in September.

Corporate Albatross Dept.: FairPoint's struggles continue

Published in the Portland Phoenix


It has been a very long time since our last FairPoint update, but you can rest assured that the North Carolina-based landline provider's downward slide has continued, as the company attempts to restructure its way out of crushing debt through bankruptcy-court protection. Here are a few gems from the past few months.


First up, and most recently, on August 5, MAINE TAXPAYERS GAVE FAIRPOINT A $1.1 MILLION GIFT, when Maine Revenue Services agreed to accept just shy of $400,000 as payment "in full" of a $1.5 million tax bill the company owed the state.

But new math appears to be the way, as the COMPANY'S ACTUAL VALUE IS IN SERIOUS DOUBT. In its October 2009 bankruptcy filing, the company claimed its assets, as of June 2009, were $3.236 billion, with debts of $3.234 billion. An independent valuation of the company, however, set its total worth at between $1.8 billion and $2.1 billion. In another filing, FairPoint says its northern New England assets are worth $1.2 billion — far less than the $2.3 billion the company paid (including $1.7 billion in actual cash), to Verizon to take over landline service in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, a takeover that was delayed several times before finally becoming effective at the end of 2008.

Also, ITS BUSINESS MODEL IS FAILING. The bankruptcy filing is clear: "FairPoint has been unable to attain the performance levels it projected at the time of the acquisition" of Verizon's northern New England business. In 2008, 8.5 percent of customers who had been with FairPoint before the merger cut their landlines. That's pretty bad, but customers who joined FairPoint in the Verizon switch left even more quickly: 12.3 percent of them bailed in 2008 alone, according to court documents. That's a big increase from the 7.3 percent subscriber loss Verizon experienced in 2007, which FairPoint's plan had projected it would beat (meaning lower losses, not higher).

The COMPANY HAS TROUBLE FORESEEING THE FUTURE in other ways, too. Beyond FairPoint's bizarre pre-merger projections, Vermont's Public Service Board (its equivalent of Maine's Public Utilities Commission) ruled in late June that "FairPoint has provided virtually no explanation" for its service-quality promises, saying that "based upon the record before us, we cannot find that FairPoint has demonstrated the financial capability to meet its obligations under Vermont law and its (state license) as a telecommunications carrier."

For that matter, FAIRPOINT HAS PROBLEMS VIEWING THE PAST ACCURATELY. In February, the company announced that it had overstated 2009 revenue by 3 percent, or $26 million.

The COMPANY HAS LEVERAGED ITS BANKRUPTCY TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF STATE REGULATORS in Maine and New Hampshire, getting permission to delay paying millions in poor-service-quality penalties, and even the potential for them to be waived altogether, if service improves. FairPoint also was given extra time in those two states to roll out its outdated version of broadband Internet access to rural customers. Vermont regulators have so far held firm, but FairPoint is asking them to reconsider, and if that fails the company is expected to ask a federal judge to overrule the state officials.

This is particularly ironic in Maine, because FAIRPOINT HAS SPENT MONEY TO LOBBY AGAINST A HIGH-CAPACITY BROADBAND NETWORK to be built with state, federal, and private funds. The company has argued that such an effort would unfairly compete with the slower-speed and later-arriving service FairPoint promises it will one day get around to providing. But federal funds aren't the real issue: having failed to receive any of the $38 million in economic stimulus money it applied for a year ago, the company has nevertheless applied again, this time seeking $20 million in federal funds to build out its network.

In the past five months, two TOP EXECUTIVES HAVE LEFT, AND ARE BEING REPLACED WITH EXECUTIVES WITH PRIOR CORPORATE BANKRUPTCIES ON THEIR RESUMES. Alfred Giammarino, who became FairPoint's chief financial officer in September 2008, resigned March 31 for what were called "personal reasons." He was replaced July 18 with Ajay Sabherwal, who was CFO for Choice One Communications leading up to, during, and after that company's 2004 bankruptcy restructuring. And David Hauser, appointed CEO in June 2009, was asked to resign by the company's major creditors and did so in mid-August. He has been replaced with Paul Sunu, who was CFO of Hawaiian Telecom when that company, another former Verizon landline property, entered bankruptcy protection in 2008.

And then, if all that wasn't enough, FAIRPOINT HAS ARGUED THAT IT SHOULD FACELESS SCRUTINY FROM STATE AND FEDERAL REGULATORS after it emerges from bankruptcy. Specifically, the company told Vermont regulators that their oversight puts the company at a competitive disadvantage when offering Internet and television services that are not regulated by the state, in combined packages with landline service, which is regulated.

In making this argument, FAIRPOINT HAS FORGOTTEN THAT IT PROMISED THE PUBLIC MORE AND FASTER INTERNET ACCESS as a key element in its argument that its takeover of Verizon would benefit the public. Now that it has sought — and received — permission from state regulators to delay and renege on those promises, the public benefit is reduced. No wonder FairPoint wants less regulation.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Press Releases: Maine's broken e-mail system

Published in the Portland Phoenix


When Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting asked for electronic copies of e-mails between the chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission and representatives of companies the PUC dealt with, she did not expect to receive a cost estimate of $10,000 from the state — nor to be required to pay $80 for the privilege of receiving that estimate.

And when she wrote back asking for that exorbitant fee to be waived, as allowed in state law, because she is a reporter for a non-profit organization publishing its material in more than 20 newspapers around the state, she did not expect to get a revised estimate of $36,239.52. (Happily, she was not charged to receive that new figure, though in a passing encounter with the PUC's chief lawyer, she did have to hear complaints about "all the work you're making us do.")

The cost is clearly outrageous, and a barrier to public access to information that belongs to the public. But here's the really surprising thing the Portland Phoenix has learned from just a little research into the matter: the estimate reflects the state's actual cost to extract the information from its e-mail archive, which is so cumbersome that it's next to impossible to actually use.

Greg McNeal, Maine's chief information officer, says he and his staff have calculated that responding to a similar request (from an attorney involved in a lawsuit relating to state government) would take one of his two e-mail technicians an entire year of full-time work.

Hence the sky-high dollar amount: Even with a statutory limit of $10 per hour of state-employee time responding to freedom-of-information requests, the process of e-mail recovery is so lengthy that expenses easily rise into tens of thousands of dollars.

This clearly is not just delaying — and inflating the cost of — Schalit's request, but court proceedings, and even internal state investigations performed at taxpayer expense (McNeal confirms that his agency bills other state agencies similar amounts for similar services.)

McNeal calls the backup mechanism "archaic," and says he has been lobbying to improve it for some time now, but the state lacks both funding and a working example to adapt to Maine's needs.

State archivist David Cheever uses the word "nightmare" to describe this situation, and goes on to say the e-mail backup system is "entirely unworkable."

But Cheever and McNeal both say this is not a problem unique to Maine, which has roughly 12,000 state e-mail accounts, with thousands upon thousands of actual messages, which must all be backed up in a way that must somehow or other be accessible to the public and yet secure from destruction (and, in e-mail messages with criminal-justice information, secured from prying eyes according to strict federal rules).

Neither of them is aware of a state government that has a timely, inexpensive storage-and-retrieval method for state officials' e-mail messages. (For that matter, Cheever says he just got back from a trip to the National Archives, which has also not yet devised a functioning system for billions of federal e-mails.)

The state can't afford to experiment to find something that might work: "We don't have the money to be wrong," Cheever says. But every state is in that boat, and so all of them are sitting around waiting for someone else to experiment long enough to make something work.

Schalit's reaction to this information was partially relief (that she apparently isn't being singled out for obstructionism by state officials wary of her reporting), but also outrage. Calling the existence of a system like this "mind-boggling for anybody who has an interest in history," she says, "If this is the kind of system they have installed for government business, there's something wrong with the system."

But it's Cheever who has the best summary of the way things are right now for anyone interested in how state government is actually functioning: "There's your haystack. Good luck with the needle."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Music Seen: Street musicians at First Friday Art Walk, Portland, August 6


Published in  the Portland Phoenix

With the Tower/Building of Song on hiatus while its creators move apartments (again), the street-music scene on First Friday was quieter than in recent months. But that left more aural room for buskers along Congress Street.

In a two-hour gallery-browsing stroll from Monument Square to Longfellow Square and back, we heard nine musical performances (two other people looked like they might be about to start playing, but didn't in the time we lingered in anticipation).

A traditional Americana fiddler outside the Maine College of Art got us going with a toe-tapping rhythm and a little shuffle of his feet. But something echoing down the street caught our ear, and it turned out to be a man smoothly playing soulful jazz on his saxophone very nearby — just outside SPACE Gallery.

Two guitar players were next, a female singer-songwriter with some original tunes outside Two Point Gallery and a man strumming Spanish-tinged airs on a classical guitar outside the Empire.

Outside the Green Hand Bookshop were three women merrily fingering their accordions, giving our turn to head back toward the Monument a little extra jaunt. At least until we encountered a young man with a synthesizer outside Strange Maine. He was working the electronica-plus-drum-machine end of his small keyboard, extracting haunting, ethereal sounds that in some cases seemed to surprise even their creator. (His abstraction meshed startlingly well with the classical guitar across the street. Perhaps there's a collaboration option there?)

Down by LL Bean, a man was playing two different-sized recorders simultaneously, fairly capably handling a pair of two-handed instruments without help. And then he switched to saxophone, with a big-band sound.

Next on our way was a woman strumming on a banjo and doing vocals that are best described as shouting. She was outside MECA (the fiddler had moved on), and her friends were whooping it up around her, possibly having too much fun than could be reliably ascribed to their muse of the moment.

Finally, as we left the Art Walk to go in search of sustenance, a lonely Cranky the Clown School Dropout was mournfully tending to his saxophone, sitting beneath the gaze of Portland, To Her Sons Who Died For The Union.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Press releases: Crimes and hoaxes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portlanders collectively sucked in their breath with fear when the story broke last Tuesday morning on Facebook and the local news media: a 20-something woman had reported to police that she had been attacked and sexually assaulted by a group of men while she was walking on Baxter Boulevard at 9:30 pm the night before.

The story, as told by the police to the press, was scary: the woman was followed by five men, who forced her to the ground, held her down, and assaulted her until a passing motorist yelled and scared the assailants off. After the bizarre one-punch killing of Eric Benson in Monument Square in May, it seemed like random horrific violence might really have come to Portland after all.

Tuesday afternoon, Portland Police Chief James Craig held a press conference near the suspected site of the attack, asking anyone who had seen or heard anything to come forward to help with the investigation. But less than an hour later, Craig was telling the media that the woman had made up the whole story and was herself being charged with the crime of filing a false report.

The city's mood went from terrified to bewildered. Why would someone make up a report like that? (The best, though still decidedly murky, answer on offer so far is that the woman had some kind of fight with her partner.) And then, how could someone have snookered the police and the media so thoroughly? The media and police have long had to deal with hoaxers and their ilk — but those isolated incidents are magnified with the power and speed of online social networking. So while both parties rushed to judgement — and will probably do so again — the audience was a lot bigger for the entire debacle than might have otherwise been the case.

It is sad but true that most assaults, even rapes and murders, in Portland and elsewhere are not random violence involving a victim and aggressor who have never met, but rather between people who know or are even related to each other. An attack may be horrific and tragic, but it rarely means there is a serial assailant on the loose. The incident is newsworthy, but less urgent, giving the police and the media a little bit of time to assemble facts and issue a more complete report.

But when information comes in that suggests that a group of unknown marauders is out attacking unknown victims, the police and the press rightfully get alarmed, and want to warn the public as quickly as possible — in hopes of preventing anyone else getting hurt for lack of timely warnings.

That urgency, though, means fact-checking time is limited. Even more than usual, the media are stenographers for officialdom — whatever the police say is broadcast, published, and posted online. And even more than usual, the police give an incomplete version of events — what they say is utterly dependent on a single person's anguished report.

This scramble happens a second time when the story is found to be a hoax. Police and the media rush to retract their earlier warnings, eager to reassure people that no, in fact, there is not a mob out attacking women, but rather a disturbed woman telling stories for unexplained reasons.

And then the rest of the information comes out — the police had known the woman was reluctant to go to the hospital to allow medical staff to collect DNA samples as potential evidence. And wait — isn't that specific stretch of the boulevard, between Hannaford and the road to North Deering, fairly well-traveled even after dark?

Those red flags might have caused a cop — or a reporter — to pause and ask more questions, but not in that rushed situation. Those inquiries came later, in the follow-up investigation and reporting. But just as Craig says he'll respond the same way to similar reports in the future, it's just as likely that the media will too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Music Seen: Chris Teret + Man Forever + Guitar Cloud at SPACE Gallery, July 17

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When Kid Millions (Oneida) brought his new project, Man Forever, to SPACE Gallery, it was more than an opportunity to see a friend I have long known as a drummer with unusual intensity and stamina. It was a chance to see four more drummers like him — one even a local standout — at the same time, pouring sound and sweat in equal volumes into the cavernous SPACE.

Opener Chris Teret knew Kid from the past too — Kid had produced Old Baby, the 2008 Brah Records release by the band Company, of which Teret is part. He began with a few songs in his haunting voice, standing stock still, moving so economically it was almost as if the guitar itself birthed the notes and the vocals came from out of thin air.

But then, starting suddenly with a unanimous thunderous roll on snares, toms, kickdrums, and cymbals, Kid, Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Shahin Motia (Ex Models, Oneida), Andrew Barker (Gold Sparkle Band), and local Andrew Barron (Cult Maze, Domino Harvey) put out a physically solid, powerful roar that Just. Kept. Going.

It was a nonstop half-hour of continuous pounding, a whirlwind of arms, legs, heads, and the occasional flying drumstick. The coordinated improvisation produced rumbles and resonance that shifted from subway-train-approaching to calving-iceberg (due not only to the performers' physical prowess, but also to Chase's pre-show efforts, tuning the drums precisely to B or F-sharp). One particularly furious collective flurry looked like a group seizure but sounded like the Earth was coming apart around us.

Bassist Richard Hoffman (Sightings) joined in after a time, and later gave the drum corps a break with a screeching, wailing solo that blistered whatever eardrums were left in the spare but rapt audience.

After the Man Forever inundation came Guitar Cloud, another planned-improv endeavor, with more than a dozen guitarists jamming together in a collective drone that broke apart into themes, anthems, and solos — sometimes soft, other times overwhelmingly loud, and always dancing on the edge between control and madness.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Judging By Their Covers Dept.: Guides for 'Complete Idiots'

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you want more proof of the degeneracy of modern American society, look no farther than the series of books labeled The Complete Idiot's Guide To. Published by Alpha Books, they appear to be aimed at those people whose intellects are one step below the customers of Wiley Publishing's ... For Dummies series.

And what do these books help the average "Complete Idiot" do? All sorts of things — raise goats, understand Facebook, and even learn Latin (perhaps targeting those who, like former vice-president Dan Quayle, think people still speak that language).

There are several volumes, though, that are disturbing in nature, and might cross the line into realms we prefer not be trod by someone who carries around a book identifying them in large orange type as a "Complete Idiot."

Some of these books could make mini-series of their own. Start, for example, with the eye-opening Sex for Dummies book, and then move on to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. That should fill the gap before you need to buy the CI's Guides to Raising Boys or Raising Girls. A few years later, pick up the latest edition of Open Nesting, which has, according to its cover line, "all you need to know about re-opening your home to your adult children." But when they move in, give your boomerang kids the CI's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living. Maybe they'll take the hint.

And then there are the books that we really wish they hadn't published. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Government Jobs, for example. Perhaps we could suggest a companion volume: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Preventing Idiots from Getting Government Jobs.

Most disturbing, though, is The Complete Idiot's Guide to the ASVAB. This refers to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the standardized test administered to all new members of the military to help determine what job they should do. After Abu Ghraib and General Stanley McChrystal's bizarre behavior in Afghanistan, do we really need this book?

Here are some other real highlights from the latest catalogue, with our suggested tips for each volume:
UNDERSTANDING ETHICS Lie.
GETTING INTO TOP COLLEGES Cheat.
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY Steal.
THE MUSIC BUSINESS If you don't work for the RIAA, please give this book to someone who does.
THE FINANCIAL CRISIS If you don't work for Goldman Sachs or the Federal Reserve, please give this book to someone who does.
CASHING IN ON YOUR INVENTIONS Idiots rarely invent things that actually work. Try it again, just to be sure. But first, check your life-insurance policy!
VENTRILOQUISM Please, try not to speak for others, but rather let others speak for you.
RECOVERING FROM IDENTITY THEFT Now's your chance! Steal someone else's identity and stop being an idiot!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Press Releases: Wrong, Right

Published in the Portland Phoenix


You probably missed the kerfuffle over the rules governing media access to particular areas of this weekend's Nateva Music and Camping Festival, and over what (if any) rights news photographers would have to the images they made during the multi-day event. But it's an important lesson in how lawyers try to control media access, and the reversal — and happy transparency — that can develop when actual company leaders retake the reins from the attorneys.

The furor began with an awkwardly worded e-mail on June 22, from Elevate Communications, a Boston-based public-relations firm handling various tasks relating to the festival, including coordinating attendance by members of the media. The e-mail laid out the conditions under which accredited photographers would be allowed to take and use photos.

The conditions included a few unsurprising items, like banning flash photography during band performances and stating that bands would not pay the photographers for taking photos during the show.

But they went much, much farther, making several demands that litigation-wary lawyers are increasingly placing before photographers: banning photographers from certain areas of the event, banning photos of any illegal behavior (like drug use and nudity — as if participants themselves weren't going to post them on Facebook), claiming total ownership of the images made by professional media photographers (while simultaneously forcing the photographers to accept all liability if anyone objected to the photos' content), and demanding the right to destroy photographers' physical property (digital-camera memory cards) if festival organizers disliked what a photographer was doing.

This type of move is called a "rights grab" in the news business, and is becoming "standard operating procedure" for many organizers, according to Mark Loundy, a professional photographer who tracks the terms in photographers' contracts for the National Press Photographers Association (of which I am a member).

Loundy says that while the spread of rights grabs is "like a bad case of the flu," photographers are taking up opposition. "There seems to be a higher level of awareness that these things aren't in the interest of our profession," he says, though noting that many event organizers limit recourse by presenting rights-grab requirements at the time of the photo shoot, and ensuring that any person who could change the agreement is unreachable at that moment. (Some photographers, he says, leave without shooting; others sign "Mickey Mouse" or some other fake name, while most just sign their own names and carry on.)

And yet Loundy has "never heard of any of these entities ever trying to exercise their rights" under these agreements. So lawyers demand all sorts of rights and indemnification, but never use any of them. Still, it is rare for an event organizer to say "never mind" and get rid of any requirements or limits on photographers.

But that is exactly what happened in the Nateva case. Photographers objected, and when festival creator and organizer Frank Chandler got wind of the move by his PR firm, he acted swiftly. The following morning, he and the PR firm held an "emergency meeting," and that afternoon issued an apology letter from Chandler himself to all media and prospective photographers. That letter's tone was very different from the previous day's legalese-filled e-mail: "Unless you have spent some years as a member of the Cuban or North Korean press corps, I expect that you found these 'rules' nothing short of insulting," Chandler wrote.

Noting that just about everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times these days, he dismissed the idea that any accredited photographers would need to sign any sort of form, opened the festival and its entire grounds to media access, and specified that "You own all the pictures that you take and what you do with them is your business."

Good for Chandler for doing the right thing, and doing it decisively.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Holy war How an unholy alliance of Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals seeks to control our lives

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

And so it came to pass, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical Protestants have banded together to battle, well, the rest of us — the heathens, the godless liberals, the Hitchens-reading progressives.


If you are unmarried and have sex, you're one of us. If you are married and use birth control, you are among the damned. If you are gay, you are especially damned. And if you are straight and favor gay rights, you're just as fucked.

This triple entente of sky-god worshipers — call them the Unholy Alliance — have amassed an almost unlimited treasury with which to wage war on abortion rights, birth control, and legislation that might support women's or gay equality.

The rest of us can run, but none of us can hide from the Unholy Alliance. From California to Maine, the Alliance has done a hell of a job killing same-sex marriage. There is no way to deny the unholy triumph.

The weirdness of all this is that each faith's tradition holds as a central belief that the others are not true believers; Catholics go further, believing that Mormons are not even Christians.

There are similarities among the three, of course — a professed desire to do good in the world, and to help people be part of something larger than themselves. As a result, many interfaith groups work together to fight hunger, poverty, and low-quality health care, bringing to bear their congregations' numbers and wealth to make others' lives better.

Now, though, as religious leaders from these sects — previously suspicious of each other — collectively redirect those resources to gender and sexual politics, they are looking beyond doing good in this world, toward creating what they view as God's world.

To really understand what's happening, we have to look beyond rhetoric and into theology. At the heart of this political work is an unwavering approach toward sin. Most faiths teach that there are certain practices that followers should shun, such as the Jewish and Muslim ban on eating pork. But some teachings in conservative sects go deeper, asking followers not only to refrain from forbidden behaviors themselves, but to work to prevent others from engaging in them.

A good example of this comes from Elmer Towns, the 77-year-old evangelist who in 1971 co-founded Liberty University with Jerry Falwell. "We no longer believe the Bible is the means of authority for how people should live," he laments to the Phoenix over the phone from his home in Virginia. "Sin is sin."

Towns would prefer Americans to live more godly lives — whether they are believers or not. "America has always been, let the minority have their say — let the majority have their way," he says. (He is careful to note Jesus's Biblical urging to "love your neighbor as yourself," but still sees the active purging of society's moral wrongs as "God's work.")

It is an aggressive and prescriptive interpretation of the concept of being one's brother's keeper. While some, like Towns, won't come out and say it directly, their line of argument is clear: not only are we responsible for our own salvation, but we must endeavor to save others, even from themselves. The consequences of failure are severe: true followers of each of these three faiths believe that, if one of their flock is aware of a sin, even one committed by others, and does not act to prevent it and reform the sinner, then the believer is as guilty of the sin as the person who actually committed it. And it is true that there is no better way to impose a set of restrictions across the entire population than by law.

What it looked like
This phenomenon was first seen in modern America during the '70s and '80s with the rise — and then fall — of the Moral Majority. Towns recalls the criticism directed at Falwell then for suggesting that evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics "join together not for salvation purposes but for ethics and for family."
Driven by their shared objections to what they view as the excesses of modern culture, the churches were driven into each others' arms.

Towns cites Falwell as an example of a religious-political leader who "felt he had a mandate from God to bring this nation back" to a remembered glory. (It won't surprise you that Towns is a fan of the Tea Party movement, although he doubts its chances of success.)

The collaboration resurfaced and drew national attention in 2008, with California's gay-marriage debate, though it had begun to come together in 2006, when President George W. Bush nominated conservative judges John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

"They recognize that the Supreme Court plays a very important role in shaping political and cultural dialogue," says Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Public Research Associates, a Boston-area progressive think-tank that watches the political actions of the religious right. The Unholy Alliance solidly backed Roberts and Alito, seeing them as like-minded activists who would continue to shift government toward churchly goals, particularly on gay-rights and abortion issues.

The Alliance opposed Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and are working to block Elena Kagan's appointment, seeing them as too liberal. "If Obama gets to appoint the people he wants to appoint," Berlet says, "it will shift the political scene over the next 30 years" — and not in a way the religious right are hoping for.

When Proposition 8, which set to outlaw same-sex marriage in California, was placed on that state's ballot in 2008, the Unholy Alliance was again at the forefront. Led by the Mormon church, Catholic and evangelical leaders also donated church funds and urged followers to contribute time and money to the campaign.

In Maine last year, the same thing happened, led this time by the Roman Catholic bishop of Portland, Maine, Richard Malone, who personally testified before lawmakers in opposition to a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. When it passed, Malone spearheaded the repeal effort, issuing letters to be read from pulpits statewide, and ordering special collections during services to send their proceeds to "defend marriage." Evangelicals were prominent in the campaign, and the Mormon-linked National Organization for Marriage provided two-thirds of the funding. (Nationwide outcry against this overt political action by churches led to a backlash; see sidebar, "Paying Taxes?")


In the national health-care debate, the Alliance — often in the form of the Family, an evangelical group with ties to many members of Congress (and Maine governor John Baldacci, a former congressman), — stepped in to protect the godly from the godless. Berlet sums it up neatly, saying their argument was that big government is really a form of collectivism, which leads to totalitarianism, which leads to authoritarianism, in which a person is substituted for (or alternately believed to actually be) a god. And so, in their eyes, Obama's desire to expand government's role in health-care is evidence that he is both Stalin and Hitler.

The underpinning 
Scholars of the intersection of religion and politics agree that this development is both new and startling. But they also see a rationale: "Religion fundamentally has moral values and principles," says Roger Keller, Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. "When those get tweaked by social issues . . . that's what normally draws people into the political arena."

"It's the emotional appeal based on references that are largely Biblical and widely recognized in an evangelical culture in which every political action has to be linked to a Biblical background," says Berlet.

Rhys Williams, director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at the Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago, says there is a core belief that "politics has to be moral and we want to get our religious views in there." He characterizes the political aspirations of religious movements as "a way of protecting the public sphere as part of their image of what a moral society looks like."

Williams says, in an aside, that many of these individuals may not have problems with homosexuals as people, but rather object to any form of public approval, such as having those relationships recognized by the government as in any way similar to heterosexual marriage.

And while the focus of moralist social reformers has shrunk over the past century (giving up on Prohibition; reining in zealotry around the content of television shows and musical recordings), the conflict between the godly and the rest of us is likely to continue for some time.

Keller says part of this battle is theological: "Some of them are trying to save their neighbors." A converted Mormon who is a former Presbyterian and Methodist minister, he has a more detached view than some of his co-religionists; he argues that his beliefs don't give him the right to say what the government should impose on others. "I shouldn't ask the government to do the job of defining for everybody my moral standards."

But Keller admits, "often, religious organizations don't make that kind of distinction."

That may be dangerous, warns Traci West, a professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Codifying in law a specific prohibition, she says, demonstrates lack of the humility most religions preach. "Christians ultimately never know who is right based on who is saved," she says. "It is only God who separates the wheat from the chaff."

As a result, she suggests an alternative faith-based approach to morals: urging the government to protect "some common values of supporting each other to be caring and respectful across our differences, which of course we're going to have."

Looking forward 
And so we come down to the crux of the matter: those who believe the United States should be "a Christian nation," and those who want it to remain the open, pluralistic society it has always been. "We shall be as a city upon a hill," John Winthrop wrote of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "The eyes of all people are upon us." But America as a whole was created as bigger than that, with tolerance and mutual understanding of our differences underpinning the communal ability to be a far greater whole than the sum of our parts. (That's also, by the way, the origin of Ben Franklin's "Join, or Die" cartoon, which is one basis for the Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag so widely waved by Tea Partiers today.)

Perhaps the best news, if it can be called that, is this: Williams predicts that the positions that are aggressively defended by religious organizations, and their mutual alliances, are likely fairly solid now, having retreated to the most basic fundamental human ideas of family, marriage, and sex.

The energy with which those positions will be held, however, worries Keller, who likens churches "imposing" their doctrines on government to the religious-political connections in Iran's government, which is largely run by clerics acting behind the elected lay politicians.

West, as might be expected of a scholar of African-American culture in northern New Jersey, sees America as a "very pluralistic society" in which all types of people must learn to coexist. Opposing same-sex marriage is, to her, supporting "destruction of family life"; she says she wants to ask church leaders who oppose it, "Why that sense of urgency?" — especially when the Catholic Church, in particular, is facing significant obstacles both financial and scandalous in places as far-reaching as Germany, Ireland, and Wisconsin.

But she acknowledges that faith and religious teachings will always be in the political discussion. The question is whether dogma and belief spread themselves into the secular realm of backroom deals. "It's a fine line between standing up for what I believe is true about how we should live as a society because I am inspired by my faith" and prescribing "things in law should be aligned with my faith," says West. "Spending money to shape public policy to fit your religious tradition crosses the line."

sidebar: The Future of the Unholy Alliance

Stem-cell research arose as a controversy not long ago, because researchers were experimenting with embryonic stem cells, which required destroying embryos (which were usually surplus eggs fertilized through artificial insemination, and later donated by their parents). That furor has largely quieted down, mainly it turns out stem cells donated by consenting adults have a lot more promise than previously thought — nearly as much, in many cases, as embryonic ones. Now scientists are focusing on understanding and expanding the capabilities of adult stem cells; at some point they may seek to return to embryonic work, but that may be decades in the future.

Or will there even be an Unholy Alliance to take on issues like this?

Fred Karger, a leader in the movement to expose the exact size of religious contributions to political campaigns, says he thinks the alliance "will unravel without any outside help," observing the Mormons' public retreat in the face of public outrage after the Prop 8 campaign. "The Catholic Church will be right behind them," Karger predicts, saying that even though their efforts succeeded in repealing same-sex marriage in Maine, the backlash did "tremendous damage to their reputation."

We should be so lucky.

sidebar: Pulling Political Churches' Nonprofit Exemptions
We might think we're safe from this religious injection into politics, because of the Constitution's separation of church and state. But there's a loophole: while the government cannot favor one religious tradition over another, there is no legal structure that prevents religious groups from wielding political might. (Some Republicans have, at various times in the past decade, introduced federal legislation that would actually protect the ability of churches to spend on political matters. Fortunately, it hasn't gotten anywhere — yet.)

Religious organizations, at present, get automatic certification from the IRS as nonprofit groups. There are some rules limiting how much political activity nonprofits can have, but churches — most notably the Catholic Church — don't pay those rules much mind, preferring instead to wield significant political muscle both in person and with money.

Particularly in response to the religious war waged on same-sex marriage, there have been a number of public campaigns to revoke nonprofit status for churches that break the rules.

Some — including the Phoenixin a 2009 editorial — have argued that religious groups should have to apply for tax-exempt status (rather than automatically receiving it), and that their lobbying efforts and related spending should be made public.

But perhaps the best measure is with a relatively simple, possibly administrative change. At present, IRS rules limit only religious groups' efforts in support or opposition to "any candidate for elective public office." But same-sex marriage is not a candidate; it is a referendum question. If the IRS prohibition were expanded to ban church efforts regarding, say "any question put to the voting public on a ballot," the stakes would be raised, and the enforcement much clearer.

sidebar: The Keys to Heaven Can Make For Good Fundraising
How much money can the Unholy Alliance bring to bear on campaigns? In California, reports have estimated that as much as half of the $42 million spent to support Prop 8 came from organized religion, or from individuals inspired by appeals from conservative church leaders.
In Maine, the Unholy Alliance and its members gave $2.7 million of the total $3.1 million in cash and in-kind donations generated by Stand for Marriage Maine, according to official campaign-spending reports on file with the state. (As far as organizations go, the National Organization for Marriage, which has been linked to the Mormon Church, gave $2 million; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland gave another $570,000, including more than $250,000 from dioceses elsewhere in the country. The national Knights of Columbus Catholic service organization gave $50,000. And the evangelical-supported Focus on the Family gave another $120,000.)

But that's not even close to their fundraising capacity. "It's unlimited. It's as big as they want it to be," says Fred Karger, an activist seeking to expose the exact amounts religiously motivated donors have contributed to banning gay marriage. Donations can often be channeled through churches to make them tax-deductible, Karger observes.

And some donors have effectively unlimited resources. Naming vastly wealthy evangelicals Howard Ahmanson Jr. and John Templeton Jr., Karger says they would write checks for any amount, as long as their names were not connected to the funds.

For them — and for everyone — Karger jokes, " 'Give us all your worldly goods or eternity is in jeopardy' is a very effective fundraising tool."