Thursday, November 20, 2008

Avast, ye swabs!

Piracy is a terrific little business. Not the stealing music kind of piracy, but the hijacking of ships on the high seas kind. According to an AP article today:

"Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women - even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages."

The pirates even use money-counting machines to verify their ransoms. Just like they do in the casinos -- another bastion of piracy.

The article goes on to report how this business has benefited the local economy. Lots of fans of piracy in little impoverished villages such as Harardhere.

Makes you think about joining up, eh? Maybe hanging around in Mogadishu and hoping to get shanghaied. Or is that "Mogadishu-hied?"

Elsewhere in the world there are pirates who are a lot less refined than those from Somalia; they tend to kill people as a standard operating procedure. It's in their business plans and employee handbooks.

So I guess the Somali pirates are "nicer" than others, even if they're not as cute as Johnny Depp. Still, they present a problem. Actually, they REpresent a problem: poverty, desperation, non-existent government. At minimum, Somalia ought to regulate these guys -- or tax their profits. But neither of those is going to happen.

This situation is rather like a war, it seems to me. And there ought to be some organization (the United Nations?) mounting protective measures and going on the offense against the pirates.

The British Parliament passed "The Piracy Act 1698" in, well, 1698 -- declaring that piracy was a crime against their nation and punishable by death. The Brits changed the law several times, eventually deciding that death was too harsh unless the crime involved violence.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), defines piracy. All nations are required to prosecute piracy according to their internal laws. The Royal Navy, though was notified by the Foreign Office not to capture pirates from Somalia because to do so would "breach their human rights." That's because the penalty for piracy under sharia law in Somalia is beheading and whacking off of arms and legs and such. And if the pirates are captured and brought to Old Bailey they would be able to apply for asylum in Britain. And then you'd have even more pirates in Canary Wharf than work there now for various financial institutions. Not good.

I think it's kind of chicken of the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy not to go after these guys and put them in jail. But that would require some revisions to the civil rights and asylum laws of those nations. So first, let's get that done. Then let's get some war ships to patrol those waters. Then let's send a couple cruise missiles or those fancy drones they use in Iraq to take out the fancy new houses of the pirates there in Harardhere; they should be easy to identify among the mud huts.

Or we could do something about the roots of the problem: extreme poverty and no functioning government in Somalia.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beam Me Up, Wolf

November 4th, 2008. On a night that sizzled with genuine dramatic imagery, from scenes of hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Chicago's Grant Park to feeds of election-watch parties around the world, CNN premiered one of the silliest and most gratuitous uses of artificial computer generated graphics ever to spring from the minds of geek-dom.

Wolf Blitzer is a remarkably talented journalist. He has a B.A. in history, received an M.A. in international relations from Johns Hopkins, worked for Reuters and the Jerusalem Post, has written two books, and looks good on TV. He's been with CNN since 1990 and won an Emmy Award for his coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. These days, though, he hosts a pathetic show with the authoritative name "The Situation Room," which views like an "Entertainment Tonight" for pop-news/celebrity-scandal/breaking-tragedy junkies. For three hours every weeknight, Blitzer delivers the news with a bit too much energy and a lot too much volume as he stands before a huge video wall that's covered with graphics and bigger-than-life talking heads and live or taped "You Are There" scenes of the disasters and human interest stories that the network offers up for its viewers' titillation.

CNN is not content to deliver news unadorned, to let the story speak with its own inherent drama and energy. Everything is goosed up, scored with dramatic music, wrapped in slick 3D graphics, set in busy screens filled with scrolling text bars and titles with moving decorations. Talking heads and continuously looping B-Roll are framed in PhotoShop-ped virtual borders that are animated with dizzying movement -- as though the images themselves are inadequate to engage a viewer's brain.

Little wonder then that on election night Wolf roamed the stage at CNN's studio in the Time Warner Center in New York and used its outsized billboard video wall and slick graphics to dramatize what was, already, a pretty dramatic story. And then it went from gratuitous to excessive, from silly to preposterous.

Following some scenes of the enormous crowd that was gathering strength at Grant Park, including an appearance by reporter Jessica Yellin on location, Blitzer spoke to the television audience. "I want you to watch what we're about to do," he said, "because you've never seen anything like this on television."

Then CNN "beamed" Ms. Yellin into Election Center as a snatch of pretentious martial music played in the background. It was the global premiere of what CNN dubbed, erroneously, its "hologram" technology. And it was pretty lame.

The reporter appeared to be standing in a spotlight a dozen feet or so away from Blitzer, looking as though she'd just been teleported by the "matter-energy transport" that always beamed Captain Kirk back to the Starship Enterprise just in time to avoid some alien menace. CNN's engineers are not as adept as Star Trek's Scotty, though, for Ms. Yellin was outlined in the purple fringe that's typical of a bad chromakey effect. Still, as the studio cameras moved--ever so slightly--on the stage (apparently CNN does not believe in stationary cameras), Ms. Blitzer's "hologram" remained in proper position and perspective.

Ms. Yellin spoke: "Hi, Wolf."

And Blitzer, beside himself with awe at the magic wrought by CNN's engineers, continued. "All right, a big round of applause. We did it. There she is, Jessica Yellin. I know you're in Chicago, but we've done something, a hologram. We beamed you in. We beamed you in here into the CNN Election Center. I want to talk to you as I would normally be talking to you if you were really face to face with me. I know you're a few -- at least a thousand miles away, but it looks like you're right here."

What most thrilled Wolf, it seems, was that the television audience could now see Jessica without distracting stuff behind her on the screen; stuff like the enthusiastic crowd in Chicago; stuff like the story she was covering; stuff like real life.

"You know," he said, "what I like about this hologram and you're a hologram now, Jessica. Instead of having thousands of people behind you screaming and shouting, you know what, we can have a little bit more of an intimate conversation and our viewers can enjoy that as well. How excited are you, Jessica, that this is -- you're the first one that we've beamed into the CNN Election Center?"

Yellin could not resist the comparison to Star Wars. "I know," she remarked, "It's like I follow in the tradition of Princess Leah. It's something else. It's the first time it's been live on television and it's a remarkable setup, if I could tell you about it for a moment. I'm inside a tent in Chicago that's been built -- engineers spent about three weeks doing it."

THREE WEEKS! they spent, setting up 35 high definition cameras in a circle in the bluescreen tent, getting them to communicate with the cameras in New York, and testing and tweaking. All so Jessica Yellin could spend a minute or so "in the studio" with Wolf Blitzer. It is interesting that they did not set up a matching rig in Arizona, where the supporters of John McCain had gathered. Seems like fairness would have called for that. But I digress.

Blitzer closed out the virtual reality segment saying, "All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram. Thanks very much. Jessica Yellin is in Chicago. She's not here in New York with us at the CNN Election Center, but you know what. It looked like she was right here. It's pretty amazing technology."

Later, introducing contributor Roland Martin, Blitzer noted, "OK, the real Roland is here, not a hologram." And then he issued what seemed a threat, "All right, but maybe one of these days, Roland, we'll bring you in. We'll beam you in to the CNN Election Center."

Oh, please. Let's hope not.

The amazing television first did not go unnoticed by the press. Here is what a few people had to say about it:

"That is the creepiest thing I have ever seen," wrote Brooke Cain on The Raleigh News & Observer's blog.

"Not only does this technology seem completely creepy, but it's without a doubt one of the most useless and unnecessary pieces of phantasmagoric TV ever enacted," said blogger Joshua Topolsky.

"I thought the whole thing was a bit silly and sort of annoying," CNet's Marguerite Reardon observed.

Anna Pickard reported on the "gimmick" for The Guardian: "Why? Because we can. We COULD have a correspondent that could say what she says perfectly well in 2D on a normal screen. But why should we, when we can have a hologram?"

On his Washington Post blog, Style columnist Tom Shales wrote: "It was a cute trick, but how did it substantially contribute to the coverage? No one seemed to know."

CNN was not the only network to embellish the story with over-the-top graphics. MSNBC made a 3D virtual U.S. Capitol Building appear atop a table on its set, surmounted by an equally 3D rainbow representation of the Senate seating chart. This was to illustrate the Democrat's progress in picking up seats in the real institution up there in Washington DC, and it, too, was introduced with a bit of verbal fanfare and oohs and ahhs from the network's reporters. But at least the MSNBC graphic served a purpose.

To my mind the real story of this momentous evening was told in the telephoto close-ups of a teary Oprah Winfrey standing in the crowd at Grant's Park and the likewise teary face of Jesse Jackson, also there, whose generation of angry confrontational politics may finally be at an end, and in the chorus of boos that followed Senator McCain's heartfelt congratulations to his opponent, and in the respectful silence of the awestruck crowd in Chicago as the President-Elect put the election and the challenges ahead in an historical perspective.

Perhaps the XBox generation has a new and different visual aesthetic--some kind of post-modern reality-is-manufactured sensibility--and television producers are smart to cater to it. Or maybe those producers underestimate the powerful effect that genuine raw images can have, even on young people raised on video games. But I'm with The Guardian's Anna Pickard on this one; CNN did it because they could. It's the same misguided enthusiasm for technology that's brought us cell phones with features we can't figure out how to use and never will and never wanted in the first place.

Seems like "Yes we can" is the mantra of the day -- in more ways than one.


You can see the CNN hologram incident on their website.

(You might have to watch a soap commercial before you see the video.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mark Twain Doesn't Live Here

Well now it's curious so many folks have come to this humble blog in search of information about the saying, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble..."

The website statistics tell me that just yesterday Google sent ten people here (darned near a single-day record), who had typed one variation of that saying or another into the search field. (Yahoo sent a total of none, which may indicate why that company is on the skids.)

I typed the first part of the phrase into Google myself, just now, and this blog came up third on the results page. Kind of gratifying, I guess. Another blogger over at the Humanities Division at Northwest College has put a link to my "It ain't..." post on their website, and that seems to have brought some folks here, too. (To return the favor: it's here.)

I don't know what it is that fascinates so many people about a thing that Mark Twain may have -- or may not have -- said. But people in California, Illinois, British Columbia, our Nation's Capitol, England, Texas and even Vietnam demonstrated on the same day this week some curiosity about my favorite aphorism.

I've written in this space about John McCain and why the McCainines lost the election. Real important and insightful stuff, I thought. But nobody seems curious about that.

I've posted some stories that I've passed off as humor, and few people seem to give a hoot.

Somebody checked in from Durham, North Carolina, didn't see what they were looking for, and bounced away in under a second, while a devoted fan in San Francisco visited three times yesterday, looked at three pages each time, and spent all of eight minutes here -- probably looking for the exit.

One individual dropped by to find out something about Arthur C. Clarke, who I happened to mention in one post, and stuck around for 17 minutes to peruse 6 pages. This is an example of how the Internet can get you off track. Whoever that was got distracted by other things and totally forgot why he or she came into the room. I sometimes do that myself, so I understand the feeling.

If there were some way to make a buck off people's curiosity about "It ain't what you know..." I would sure like to know what it is. More than that, though, I'd like to find out why people in so many places in the world are so darned interested in it. Must be important enough to them that they spend their valuable time on Google tracking down the phrase.

Google Analytics doesn't let me know who you are, but it shows me a little bit about how visitors got here and where they hail from and even what browser they use. I wish it would give me some insight into what the heck they're doing here, what they were thinking.

So, do this for me if you'd be so kind: Leave a comment and let me know why you dropped by. What were you looking for that you did or didn't find? I won't be offended if you got here by mistake; most of my visitors probably did.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How John McCain Lost

I think Senator McCain's biggest mistake--the reason he lost the election--was the way he positioned himself. (And by "he" in the following I refer not only to the man but to his campaign organization.)

Perhaps the biggest no-no in a political campaign is to allow oneself to be defined by the opposition. That didn't happen to McCain; he did it to himself.

Seems to me that many people are more influenced by the persona a candidate projects than by the candidate's stands on specific issues or his professed beliefs and values. Even specific deeds, such as McCain's ill-advised selection of his running mate, are more viewed (at least subconsciously) in the larger context of what they reveal about the general character of the man, his overall essence, and less as insights into his decision-making abilities or other specific attributes.

McCain identified himself, repeatedly and with uninhibited relish, as the underdog. I don't think he could have prevented himself from doing so. It's his nature. (Surely some psychoanalyst is working on a book about McCain's psyche and its roots, so I'll leave the scrutiny of his id and ego to the shrinks. They can speculate about the "victim syndrome" and how it relates to his ancestry, his family's early disappointment with him, his imprisonment, and all that other psychobabble rubbish.)

While "everybody loves an underdog" and we may root for them at times, most of us don't really believe that an underdog is the right choice for the "top dog." I think that view is programmed in our genes. (More cud there, with my compliments, for the shrinks to chew on.)

In what ways did he act the underdog?

-- He viciously and unfairly attacked his opponent when he might have stood proudly on his own achievements. He snarled about irrelevancies and yapped at Obama's heels--while the latter stood firm and resolute, composed and presidential.

-- He emphasized trivial, inconsequential chinks in his opponent's armor.

-- He partnered with an insubstantial running mate of trifling accomplishment and minimal intellect, who likewise yipped about petty matters--another underdog who proudly self-identified as something akin to a "pit bull."

-- He introduced us to his friends and most ardent supporters, Joe the Plumber and a mangy gang of rabid hounds, and together they gave the impression of a pack of growling mongrel misfits more suited to a kennel than the White House.

-- He appealed to the insecurities of factions of the electorate: people who feel like underdogs themselves and thought McCain's mongrels were "just like us."

-- He whined about being treated unfairly--a common tactic of frail children who are incapable of defending themselves.

-- He repeatedly raised the specter of the usual bogeymen: higher taxes, socialism, terrorism--rather like a hound barking at the wind in the trees.

-- He charged his opponent with the crime of celebrity--implying that he himself was the antithesis of a superstar, the runt of the litter.

-- He self-consciously lowered himself to a more humble plane than he deserves by constantly addressing the public as "my friends." I don't know whether he did this because of an irritating rhetorical tic or as a desperate ploy to gain acceptance, but either way the habit made him seem pathetic.

But to appear pathetic ("provoking feelings of pity") and feeble was apparently his goal. For he actually TOLD us--on many occasions and most frequently as the contest came down to the final days--that he WAS an underdog, and proud to be one.

And we listened, and we believed him, and we followed the bigger and better-bred dog.