defrog: (mooseburgers)
Undoubtedly you know by now that Presidente Trump has proposed his first budget – and the NEA, the NEH and CPB ain’t on it.

The usual freakout has ensued, which I will now pointlessly attempt to calm with numbered comments.

1. Nothing has been defunded yet. It’s just a budget proposal (and a “skinny” one at that, which means it’s vague on details), and Congress still has to approve it.

2. The GOP has issues with this budget. The actual budget is expected to look much different by the time Congress gets through with it, and Trump won’t have the option of vetoing the budget they do pass. So even with the current balance of power, I wouldn’t say it’s a fait accompli just yet.

3. One key thing missing from all the ZOMG meme rhetoric is actual consideration and evaluation of the argument in favor of defunding the NEA, NEH and CPB that conservatives have usually advanced over the last 20+ years.

This piece in the NYT runs through them, and interestingly, it’s not ALL about Alleged Liberal Bias. There are also questions about why the federal govt should be funding arts, humanities and public broadcasting in the first place; the potential politicization of art funded with govt money; the quality of the art produced (political biases notwithstanding); and whether or not Middle America is getting as much bang for their buck as the art hubs in New York and California, say.

4. That said, let's not pretend that liberal bias isn’t the main motivation for conservatives. The NEA, NEH and CPB are easy low-hanging fruit for conservatives who whine about how unfair it is that artists use tax dollars to pick on them exclusively. If PBS and NPR were churning out stuff that Fox News churns out now, I seriously doubt funding them would be an issue for conservatives (though it almost certainly would be for liberals). Sure, they also claim it’s about wasteful govt spending, Small Govt® and budget deficits, but come on, even conservatives know that as a percentage of the budget, it’s chump change. 

5. The big question, of course, is what would happen to art and public broadcasting if Trump gets his wish? Can the free market preserve the status quo as effectively?

My own take: it’s probably worse news for public broadcasting than art.

Art is something artists are generally compelled to do, regardless of whether they can quit their day job or not. And there will always be people willing to fund art, whether it’s via Bill Gates or a Kickstarter-type model. Not everyone could find a patron, but that’s true now.

Public broadcasting could also turn to a Kickstarter model, perhaps – the problem is that running a TV station is a lot more expensive than the average art project. Without the CPB, a lot of smaller PBS affiliates will likely have to shut down. Or join The CW or something.

I suppose an argument could be made that in an age where the internet makes both funding and distribution easier than ever, YouTube and Vimeo are just as likely to create the next Sesame Street as PBS – so maybe CPB mattered more when there were just three TV networks on the air. Then again, most of the good programming is behind a paywall.

6. All of this raises the even bigger question framing the issue: is there a compelling government interest in subsidizing art and non-commercial broadcasting?

It’s an old debate, but I tend to side with the argument that culture, society and even the economy benefits from a thriving art community that isn’t purely driven solely by popular taste, the mass market, and what sells. I think that’s even more true for public broadcasting. It’s worth having television and radio programming that doesn’t have to concern itself with ratings or offending potential sponsors. When you listen to the homogenized formatted commercial radio landscape in America these days, the need for a non-commercial option seems pretty obvious to me.

And I don’t have a problem with tax money contributing to that effort, even if it results in art or TV shows I may not care for (or may never even see). It’s silly to defund the NEA just because artists are producing stuff you don't like or can’t use, just like it’s silly for me to demand that the government defund the entire military because I think Iraq War 2 was stupid, useless and counterproductive.

7. Which brings me to this article from FiveThirtyEight about the Trump budget, which points out that the proposal isn’t a solid blueprint of what the government will spend money on in the coming years – it’s more like a wish-list at this stage. Consequently, it’s a useful indicator of Trump’s priorities as POTUS.

Put simply, his priorities are hard power, a big-ass military and The Wall.

So if the budget is a reflection of what a given govt considers to be important foundational elements and values for the country, then in Trump’s America, the values that truly matter are bigoted xenophobic immigration policies and the ability to kick the ass of every single other country in the world combined with minimum conversation or negotiation. And not much else.

Artful dodger,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)
Not to harp on the Brexit, but I’m now being reminded why it’s usually a good idea to wait a few days before commenting on Big Stories like this. It takes awhile for everything to filter through and sink in – especially for scheduled stories that have an outcome you didn’t expect.

Anyway, here’s a few interesting updates to the previous post:

1. Evidently the “Leave” camp got a major assist from people who (1) had no idea what they were actually voting for, or what was at stake, and didn’t think to check until after they voted, and/or (2) thought it was a symbolic vote and never seriously believed that “Leave” would actually win.

But that’s what happens when you leave decisions on complex, nuanced issues to “ordinary decent people”.

In any case, it’s quite a spectacle seeing “Leave” voters now going on TV and saying, “Gee, maybe we were a bit hasty.”

2. Oddly, even Boris Johnson seems to be having a “Wait, we won?” moment. He hasn’t expressed actual regret, but his “victory” speech was a subdued “Well, look, there’s no hurry, I mean, we still like Europe, we just, you know, er …”

3. Between that and Nigel Farange backpedaling on campaign promises – and the fact that the referendum isn’t actually binding – I’m starting to wonder if maybe there’s a way out if this.

A petition for a second referendum – which would require Parliament to pass a rule saying that any Brexit referendum must achieve 75% voter turnout and a winning percentage of at least 60% – has already garnered 10x the signatures needed for Parliament to bring it up for discussion.

I have no idea if that would work. But as The Intercept has pointed out, the Brexit doesn’t actually start until the govt invokes Article 50 – and Johnson may actually have a chance to negotiate a deal with the EU to stay, but under different conditions. Indeed, Johnson only really supported Brexit partly to get rid of David Cameron but also to force the EU to renegotiate their membership deal. He could still do that.

The only sticking point is that it would require the political will to ignore a majority result (albeit a slim majority, and with a considerable amount of remorse on the winning side, though whether there’s enough to tip the scale the other way is anyone’s guess). It’s not clear if Johnson has that will. And it seems the Labour Party would rather ensure Britain’s post-EU business environment is as progressive as possible than try to hold a second referendum.

But it could happen. And given what happened to the pound’s exchange rate, it’s possible everyone is sufficiently spooked to reconsider.

EDITED TO ADD: See also this post from Charles Stross about the pending constitutional crisis that could arise from Scotland and Northern Ireland – both of which voted “Remain” by solid majorities – having the power to veto an attempted Brexit (and not just because Scotland is threatening independence again).

4. Then again, the damage has been done in terms of race relations. As I said before, not everyone who supported Brexit is a racist xenophobe, but the ones who are have been expressing themselves to local immigrants in more or less the way you’d expect. The UK has to live with this no matter what happens next. And that’s on Nigel Farange and Boris Johnson.

5. For people afraid that this is a sign that Donald Trump can leverage the same sentiments in the US to win the election, you can take heart in this article, which says that America’s racial voting demographics will make it much harder for Trump to win on angry white racist xenophobia alone. That doesn’t mean Trump can’t possibly win. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. He just isn’t likely to do it by getting enough white people angry and non-white foreigners.

6. Speaking of Trump, it’s worth passing on this collection of amazing words used to describe him when he traveled to Scotland and congratulated them on the Brexit (despite the fact that Scotland actually voted “remain”).

DISCLAIMER: I don’t approve of name-calling – I’m linking to these mainly for their spirited creativity.

NOTE: A lot of them could arguably apply to Farange and Johnson.

Developing …

London’s burning,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)


It’s official: the UK has decided to leave the EU. (Or, as Fox News calls it, “The UN”.)

I haven’t had much to say about the Brexit, mainly because – like a lot of people – I’d assumed it wouldn't actually happen. Well it has. So here’s my official blog post on it as required by the One World Bloggery Association:

1. One illustrative point: according to Google, around the time that the polls closed, its search engine saw a +250% spike in searches for “what happens if we leave the EU”.

NOW they ask.

2. And since they’re asking, Vox has a good summary here.

The Economist also has some worthwhile commentary on this.

The upshot is that the actual Brexit will take a couple of years, but the short-term impact of uncertainty will hurt the country’s economy, and the long-term impact could be even worse, depending on how the negotiations go and who’s in charge of them on the UK side.

Also, while I think the UK – or at least England – might survive the Brexit, ultimately there is no real upside – unless you believe what Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage say about how Britain’s economy will be awesome. Which the fact-checkers say you shouldn’t. But fact-checkers, what do THEY know, eh?

3. But then it was never really about the economy anyway. It’s pretty clear that for UKIP, it was mainly about immigrants. Basically, a lot of Brits are freaked out by the surge in migrants, and Boris and Nigel have exploited that xenophobia and convinced them that the answer to their problems is to leave the EU, kick out the foreigners and make Britain “Great” again.

4. Which may sound familiar to those of you living in America. Or Texas.

5. To be fair, not everyone who voted “Leave” is a xenophobic racist. Some people said they supported the Brexit because they felt the EU is undemocratic. I suspect at least some of them said that because it sounds better than “I hate foreigners”. But like most of the other claims the “Leave” campaign made, it’s not really true – not to the extent that it justifies leaving. The EU has many many problems, but it’s not the dictatorship Nigel Farange makes it out to be.

6. Meanwhile, it turns out at least some of the people who voted “Leave” only did it as some kind of half-assed protest and didn’t seriously think their side would win. Oops!

7. But for the most part, UKIP won the referendum by (1) exploiting prejudiced and ignorant attitudes towards foreigners, and (2) citing economic justifications that were based on blatantly false and easily debunked pretenses. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this – just about all of the Leave camp’s claims about the EU were outright wrong, and it didn’t take a lot of effort to prove they were wrong, and people voted for them anyway.

This to me is more important than whether the worst-case Brexit scenarios actually happen. They may be overblown. We’ll find out eventually. What’s not overblown is that a blatant appeal to racist xenophobia paid off for the instigators. That speaks volumes about the current state of the UK. Even if the “Remain” side had been on the winning side of that thin margin, UKIP has already succeeded in letting every immigrant in the UK know how roughly half of the population feels about them.

The fact that D. Trump got himself the presidential nomination more or less the same way speaks volumes about the current state of America. Whether he wins or not, there are consequences, because a Hillary victory won’t change those attitudes towards foreigners.

BONUS TRACK: By the way, here’s some photos from 1975, the last time the UK had a referendum about leaving the EU. Notice how Margaret Thatcher is in favor of staying.

Anarchy in the UK,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
ITEM: More than a hundred media outlets around the world, coordinated by the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, released stories on the Panama Papers, a massive collection of leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca exposing a widespread system of global tax evasion.

Or, if not tax evasion, then at least tax avoidance. Which I mention because legally there’s a big difference between the two, as Vox helpfully explains:

… there's a big difference between tax evasion — illegally refusing to pay taxes you owe, and then taking advantage of secret accounts to try to hide the money and get away with it — and tax avoidance, which is hiring clever people to help you find and exploit legal loopholes to minimize your tax bill.

Incorporating your hedge fund in a country with no corporate income tax even though all your fund's employees and investors live in the United States is perfectly legal. So is, in most cases, setting up a Panamanian shell company to own and manage most of your family's fortune.

So while a lot of the activity covered in the Panama Papers may not be technically illegal, the real takeaway (apart from the actual illegal stuff) is how widespread tax avoidance is, how much it is growing, and how willfully complicit many powerful politicians in powerful countries have been in allowing it to happen.

Which is probably an important thing to consider in places like the US where we regularly argue over deficits, the growing wealth gap, and how much we should be taxing the wealthy – especially if yr argument for lower taxes is so the wealthy can reinvest the profits back into the economy instead of, say, stashing the wealth offshore tax-free and in some cases hiding it.

The story is still developing – and not unexpectedly, the denials are flying – so we’ll see what else comes out as a result of the leak, but for now, I’d recommend:

1. This overview from Vox

2. This BBC report

3. This article from Wired that looks at the monumental effort that led to the story’s release:

… beyond those revelations—and there will likely be more as the reporting around the Panama Papers continues—the leak represents an unprecedented story in itself: How an anonymous whistleblower was able to spirit out and surreptitiously send journalists a gargantuan collection of files, which were then analyzed by more than 400 reporters in secret over more than a year before a coordinated effort to go public.

Model citizen, zero discipline

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
So this happened in 2002.



Two words: running mate.

Burger time,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
Remember when the Cleveland grand jury decided that a police officer did the right thing by gunning down 12-year-old unarmed Tamir Rice after giving him one whole second to surrender? Then when the Rice family filed a wrongful death suit, the city govt responded that the shooting was Tamir’s fault for behaving in a way that got him lawfully shot and killed?

The city followed up on that this week by sending Rice’s family a bill for $500 to cover "ambulance advance life support" and other medical expenses, including mileage, related to Rice's ride to the hospital the day he was shot.

So to summarize:

“Hi Mr and Mrs Rice, our cops shot yr boy dead. We’ve decided they did nothing wrong in doing so, and in fact the whole thing was yr boy’s fault. That’ll be $500, please. When can we expect payment?”

The good news – such as it is – is that the mayor has apologized and said payment won’t be necessary. He also said the city was just following procedure, and that sending it was a bureaucratic goof. The fact that the bill went seriously viral may or may not be a factor in his decision.

The Rice family aren't having it. I probably wouldn’t, either, in their position.

Insult to injury,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
ITEM: Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Inc, gave $1 million to Donald Trump’s alt.debate fundraiser for veterans groups, and Marvel fans everywhere have vowed to boycott all Marvel comics and films until …

Ha ha. No. Just kidding. Not about Perlmutter – about fan boycotts.

This is one of those stories that highlights the problem of using boycotts to punish CEOs for supporting candidates and causes you find offensive – what happens when it's a company whose products you actually love to the point of fandom? It’s easy to boycott Chick Fil-A and Hobby Lobby when you don’t really go there anyway. Even if you do, it’s not like you can’t get chicken sandwiches and home décor/craft supplies somewhere else.

But that doesn’t really apply to Marvel, obviously. Yes, there’s always DC or Image or indie comics, but they don’t publish Spiderman, X-Men, Avengers or those other Marvel characters you like. And DC’s films suck (supposedly).

Therein lies the dilemma for people who base their economic consumption choices on political ideology (or at least the ones who are big comics fans) – how do I square a Chick Fil-A boycott with the fact that I still read Spiderman comics? And can my social conscience handle the dissonance?

It’s been pointed out that Perlmutter technically gave the money to a charity fundraiser, not Trump’s campaign. Then again, if Perlmutter wanted to support the vets, he could have done that easily without Trump’s involvement. So it’s fair to say Perlmutter doesn’t mind being publicly associated with Trump, which may or may not say a lot about his character.

At the same time, though, while Perlmutter’s personal politics may swing pretty far to the right, that doesn't seem to be filtering down to the editorial level, otherwise – for example – Ms Marvel wouldn’t be a Pakistani-American written by G. Willow Wilson (a Muslim woman), probably.

Speaking of whom, I recommend this blog post from Wilson, who is naturally dismayed that her boss is directly or indirectly supporting a candidate who would just as soon keep people like her out of the country.

As she points out, the problem with boycotting Marvel (and this is true of just about any boycott of a big corporation) is that it wouldn’t really punish Perlmutter financially, but it would punish everyone else who works at Marvel.

Her advice: do what yr conscience tells you, but if you really want to make a difference, you can start by helping out vets organizations that have refused Trump’s money, like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

That’s good advice. Consumer boycotts rarely hit their intended target or make much of a difference, especially these days. Why not do something positive?

Do the right thing,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
You all know by now about Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who acquired the rights to Daraprim (a drug that treats toxoplasmosis, a parasitic affliction that affects people with compromised immune systems – i.e. AIDS sufferers), jacked up the price 5,000%, then had the nerve to be surprised at all the outrage.

Shkreli eventually caved (sort of) and agreed to lower the price of Daraprim, although by how much we don’t know yet. Still, the whole episode is worth a half-assed blog post, so here are a few comments from me:

1. Shkreli/Turing isn't the only company buying old, neglected drugs and turning them into costly “specialty” drugs.

2. Before Shkreli backed off, he basically doubled down and defended the price increase (even saying it was too low by his standards), saying the profits would go to R&D to improve the drug. But as The Atlantic has pointed out, it’s not that straightforward:

Medical research is extremely expensive. Except that most of the key innovation is still coming from academic medical centers, funded by taxpayers. Pharmaceutical companies then take that innovation and turn it into a marketable product. That costs money, but not billions of dollars. How anything could justify a drug costing hundreds or thousands of dollars—in the case of the hepatitis C medication Sovaldi, which costs $84,000 for a 12-week course of treatment—while still clearing a 30-percent industry-wide profit margin is difficult to conceive. It might be easier to conceive if budgets were transparent. But, as Gregg Gonsalves, co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale Law School emphasized to me, no major pharmaceutical company has ever been willing to disclose how much it actually spends on research and development.

3. Check out this chart showing how US drug prices are way higher than in other countries, then spend some time pondering as to just why this is. (SPOILER: No, the answer is not Obamacare.)

4. Even if you have a really good and sound business reason to do something like this, you might want to convey that to the public in a way that doesn’t make you sound like an unapologetic greedy Wall Street dick – especially in an age where social media backlash can be harsh.

5. Put another way: you know you’ve probably overstepped the limits of acceptable unfettered capitalist greed when even Donald Trump calls yr sweet business deal and subsequent public response to critics a jackhole thing to do.

6. On the plus side, Shkreli has probably done more to revive the debate over the insane level of healthcare costs in America – as well as the questionable ethics of Wall Street – than anything Bernie Sanders could (and has) come up with. And with probably five times the media coverage.

Progress!

I guess.

It’s just business,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)


1. No it’s not a Kenyan word. Kenyan is not a language. Yr thinking of Swahili. And it’s a not a Swahili word either.

2. The mountain was named after William McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector who supported McKinley’s presidential campaign. It didn’t become official until 1917 – 16 years after McKinley was assassinated.

3. The locals still called it Denali, and in 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain back to Denali. The same year, the Alaska state legislature asked the United States Board on Geographic Names to do the same at the federal level, but the request was blocked by Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district included McKinley's hometown of Canton.

4. No one cares about this except McKinley’s relatives, politicians from Ohio and Republicans who will take anything Obama does and turn it into additional proof that he’s an evil Socialist Kenyan imam dictator who hates America. (See also: latte salute, teleprompters, terrorist fist jabs, spicy mustard, etc ad nauseum)

5. President McKinley was on the $500 bill until the Treasury stopped printing them in 1945 and discontinued the bill entirely in 1969. Which is also Obama’s fault.



Queen of Denali,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)
ITEM: Sesame Workshop has struck a five-year deal with HBO that will bring first-run episodes of Sesame Street exclusively to HBO and its streaming outlets starting in the fall.

The interwub is duly freaking out and making jokes about Sesame Street having tons more sex, violence and naughty words.



One chief criticism of the deal is that it allows HBO to have exclusive first run of the new episodes for nine months, after which PBS can run them for free, which means only "privileged" kids who can afford cable will be able to watch the new episodes when they first come out.

Personally, I’m not convinced this in itself is a big deal. I get that Sesame Street is supposed to be for everyone, but the deal doesn’t mean you have to be able to afford premium cable to watch it. PBS still gets to run it, and it’s not like kids who have to wait for the PBS version will be at an educational disadvantage over the rich kids. (Also, a good chunk of the average “new” Sesame Street episode is already repeated material.)

Cory Doctorow can go on all he wants about “trickle-down kids TV”, but it’s a bad analogy. Trickle-down economics is a promise (not a guarantee) that concentrated wealth will eventually find its way to your wallet. Sesame Street is not leaving PBS, and poor kids will definitely see the new material eventually. As for his assertion that it will affect poor kids’ self-esteem by teaching them that rich kids get privileges they don’t – well, maybe, if yr mission as a parent is to teach yr pre-schooler about social class divisions, the evils of socioeconomic injustice and how awful rich people are and why we should hate them. (Personally I think kindergarten is a little early to be teaching them about the 1% and “Corporations Are People”, but I’m not a parent, so I don’t claim to be an expert here.)

So yeah, I think people are making a bigger deal out of that nine-month exclusivity window than it probably is.

That argument also ignores/glosses over the fact that Sesame Workshop has been struggling financially recently, and ultimately needed a more reliable and stable source of funding to keep doing what it does. Fans may treasure Sesame Street as a public-funded resource for poor kids, but it was created at a time when TV was a much different industry than it is now. If Sesame Street is going to survive in an age where more and more people watch TV shows via mobile devices and apps rather than buying DVDs (which is where Sesame Workshop got the majority of its funding in recent years), the old-school public-funded strategy isn't enough to sustain it – not unless Congress quadruples CPB’s budget, which ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

For me, there are two other angles to the deal that could create far bigger problems than rich kids getting first dibs on new material:

1. Getting funding from a media corporation instead of public sources could result in pressure from HBO suits to make Sesame Street and/or its spinoffs more commercial (as opposed to educational).

2. The deal could revive efforts by Republicans to cut funding for CPB now that supporters fans can’t use Sesame Street’s cultural value as a defense to keep it going.

Both are fair points. HBO execs might be smart enough not to mess with a winning formula, but there’s no guarantee that some nitwit won’t try to mess with it in the name of maximum ROI. In theory the wrath of social media may correct any bad ideas, but I think there’s a good chance Sesame Street is going to undergo some changes at HBO – some favorable, perhaps; some otherwise.

As for CPB, supporters could always argue that PBS needs to keep going to ensure Sesame Street can be viewed by millions of households that can’t afford even basic cable TV, let alone premium, but I’m sure at least some GOP congressthings are salivating at the prospect of putting CPB back on the chopping block.

I for one would hate to see CPB go. I think there’s great value in non-commercial radio and TV programs, and that’s been demonstrated not only by PBS and NPR, but also in other countries like the UK and Japan. Let’s admit, the only reason some Republicans want to get rid of CPB is because they think it’s a liberal indoctrination tool (this from the people whose idea of “fair and balanced” is Fox News). That’s as dumb a reason for axing CPB as the idea that cutting it would reduce the deficit (by saving the country a whopping $445 million a year out of a budget of $3.8 trillion).

Developing …

Street cred,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
Like a BOSS.

braiker

[Via Matt Fraction]

Biden my time,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
There is a lot of dithering about the TPP, which Presidente Obama just failed to get fast-track authority for.

And it has to be said, you know something may not be a good idea when Elizabeth Warren and Carly Fiorina both agree it’s a bad idea (albeit for different reasons).

But then, what’s to like?

The TPP isn’t new. It’s been kicked around since the previous presidential admin (bipartisan!), and no one really liked it then – at least, no one not involved with the actual negotiations. Which, BTW, is the main thing that most reasonable people object to – it’s a secret treaty with secret provisions negotiated in secret, and every time a piece of it gets leaked, you start to suspect that it’s secret for a reason: if it wasn’t secret, no one outside of a corporate boardroom would support it.

And that in itself should be a red flag. It’s unreasonable and ridiculous to expect anyone to support a trade deal without knowing what it contains or how it will affect them, much less expect them to take yr word for it that it’s a great deal. The fact that the details will be supposedly made public once it’s up for a vote is small comfort. There might be a great case to support the TPP – but none of its proponents seem capable of making a convincing one, apart from “Trust me, this will be awesome for America, and everyone who says otherwise is just wrong, so let's hurry up and get this done and let me worry about the details!”

Anyway, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has much to say about the TPP, much of it related to copyright issues, which is what first got me interested in TPP back when Presidente Bush was championing this thing. But it’s worth passing on. Most of the focus in the media has been on the specific accusations raised by Warren, but there are plenty of other reasons to suspect the TPP is a bad idea full of unwelcome surprises.

Don’t sign that dotted line,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
Or saving it, depending who you ask.

One interesting statistic in the US and global music industry is that streaming is the fastest growing category of music sales these days, at the apparent expense of not only CD sales, but even digital downloads. The appeal isn’t hard to understand – why pay $9.00 per digital album when you can listen to ALL the albums for a monthly fee (or even for free if you don’t mind yr music collection being peppered with commercials every few songs)?

The idea has been around for awhile, and the pros and cons are pretty simple – the download model means you get to keep those albums forever unless you forget to back them up (or unless the online store you bought them from goes belly up and you lose yr DRM keys – imagine that). The streaming model means yr basically renting yr music collection and paying for it forever, but you do get more value for money in terms of sheer variety.

The other, less talked about angle is what does that mean for the actual music artists whose livelihood depends in large part on selling albums? The answer depends who you ask. Taylor Swift is not impressed, for one. And she’s one of the artists who actually made decent money from Spotify before she pulled all her music from it.

Here’s an article about Spotify, which explains their calculation system, and how it works great for artists like, say, Lorde and The Pixies, but not so much for, say, Marc Ribot and Rosanne Cash.

Here’s an article where Steve Albini says the new system is much better for artists than the old system.

Here’s an article from a guy making a documentary about the same topic saying no, Steve, it’s not.

Here’s an article from East Bay Ray saying YouTube is even worse when it comes to streaming-based business models.

The articles are worth reading. I don’t have any particular wisdom for you, but I will say I think Albini makes some good points in comparing the old economic model of the music business and the new model. The old model is undeniably corrupt and wasteful and not especially friendly to the artists, and the music industry overall is better off without it. And there’s no doubt the internet has made more and better music more accessible than ever before.

On the other hand, the new model does seem to be a much better deal for the Googles and Spotifys than it does for the artists. The math doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either (disclaimer: I suck at math), and certainly doesn’t seem to take into account the actual cost of recording music. Sure, it’s a lot cheaper and easier to record music in 2014. But there is an expense involved, and Spotify’s economic model isn’t designed to take that into account, as Marc Ribot has pointed out:

“Here’s the simple fact that no one wants to talk about. Spotify says it pays out seventy per cent of its revenues to rights holders. Well, that’s very nice, that’s lovely. But if I’m making a shoe, and it costs me a hundred dollars to make it, and the retailer is selling that shoe for ten dollars, then I don’t care if he gives me seventy per cent, I don’t care if he gives me one hundred per cent—I’m going out of business.”

Now granted, streaming is only one source of revenue. But if streaming flourishes at the expense of CD/digital sales, it’s difficult to see how things will improve for music artists in the longer term.

A lot of artists who dislike Spotify say they’re not against streaming itself, they just want a better compensation model – and they also argue that companies like Google and Spotify can afford to provide one. In that sense, Google and Spotify may have become the 21st Century version of Evil Corporate Record Labels, only not intentionally evil, and with no A&R expenses.

Or something.

Did I mention I have no wisdom here?

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that for all the progress the music business has made, it’s still by definition a business – and it’s one designed to exploit both music artists and their fans for maximum gain. In that respect, all that's changed is who gets to do the exploiting.

Progress!

FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t use Spotify much. And I use streaming mainly to preview music before I buy it. I also use Soundcloud mainly for my own music, but I don't have any expectations of making any money from it.

Stream on,

This is dF


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ITEM: There’s an interesting article on io9 that looks at an upcoming trend – white people moving back into city centers – and the potential impact that has on the affected neighborhood, to include the low-income locals already living there.

Turns out it doesn’t end well for the low-income people:

If the incomes of these locals in the U.S. were rising at the same rate as the incomes of whites, this might not be such a problem. Maybe whites would come to town, move into some abandoned places, and spruce up the joint. The problem is that the income disparity between blacks and whites has been growing immensely over the past few decades. Local black residents can't compete with the white infillers for space.

So when whites flock to a black neighborhood, they are often the harbingers of doom. Rents skyrocket to the point where the original population can no longer afford it — and they move to low-income suburbs like Ferguson outside St. Louis.

It’s an interesting article, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson that have raised the spectre of both class and race disparities that commentators on a certain cable TV news channel like to pretend either don’t exist, don't matter or are overblown by liberals as being bigger problems than they really are and are really just an excuse to be lazy and mooch Obamaphones, steak and birth-control off the govt.

Something like that.

Note that the article isn't saying white people are doing this kind of thing on purpose. They’re not. It’s just that they don’t notice the impact they’re having on everyone else.

Which pretty much sums up the history of America, in a way.

“Oh, there are Indians here? Oh well, let’s just settle here, they’ll never even notice we’re here.”

Moving on up,

This is dF


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One of the more amusing angles of the Tea Party Libertarian OMG narrative has always been the threat of “going Galt” – that Ayn Randian fantasy in Atlas Shrugged where Libertarians are all genius capitalist engineers who form their own govt-free Utopia, leaving socialist America to collapse into a chaotic socialist cesspool of socialist tyranny, which serves them right.

To which the rest of us usually respond, “You want to go Galt, you go right ahead. We’ll be here when you decide you want to come back.”

Of course, most Libertarian Ayn Rand fans don’t want to collapse society – they just want to live someplace where there is no govt to tell them what to do (especially pay taxes) and everything is run by private enterprise.

As it turns out, that “someplace” is in South America, where a few Libertarian groups have actually started Galt’s Gulch-type enterprises. There’s La Estancia de Cafayate in Argentina, for example.

There’s also Galt’s Gulch Chile (GGC).

However, the latter is getting some bad press, as it turns out the place is … well, a disaster.

According to co-founder Jeff Berwick, it didn’t start that way, but the whole enterprise apparently went south (literally and figuratively) after his business partner Ken Johnson took over GGC and basically botched the whole project and fleeced a lot of investors in the process by selling them land he had no legal rights to sell.

You can read Berwick’s TL;DR account of the saga here. And you can also read the experience of Wendy McElroy, one of GGC’s customers, here.

Or you could just read this snotty writeup from Gawker.

Some on the left may be tempted to point and laugh and use this to prove Libertarians are insane morons. I wouldn’t go that far. It’s at least theoretically possible that a Galt’s Gulch could be established somewhere, and it might even be able to function as though the rest of the world doesn't exist. Berwick remains hopeful that GGC can be rebooted under better leadership. Maybe.

But I do think there’s two useful takeaways from all this:

1. True libertarianism is a lot harder than Ayn Rand makes it sound – and that’s just for a gated community, let alone an entire nation.

2. Govt may be corrupt and incompetent, but that doesn’t mean private enterprise is the polar opposite. Which probably means that the problem isn’t govt or corporations, but the people in them.

Or, as Gawker put it:

In other words, Galt's Gulch Chile sounds exactly like the sort of plan you would expect from a bunch of fans of a crotchety old millionairess who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness.

Freedom isn’t free,

This is dF


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You probably know by now that U2 has a new album out. And odds are you already knew that because it suddenly appeared in your iTunes. Or, if you don’t have an iCloud account, you knew about it because of all the iCloud users going insane on Twitter about finding some f***ing new U2 album on their f***ing iTunes and how the f*** do I f****ing delete it and BTW what the f***ing f***, Apple?

I think the outrage is a little overdone, but I can see why people are annoyed. I admit I didn’t, at first – my first thought was, “It’s in the cloud – it’s only on yr device if you download it. Don’t want it? Just delete it. What’s the big deal?”

This is because my own iTunes account isn’t set for automatic downloads of purchased items. Many people do set their iDevices for auto download, which means an album they didn’t ask for just ate up some of their data plan and is now taking up valuable storage space on their iDevice. So I can see why that would bug people.

Many users are also bugged that Apple is sticking things in their iCloud account without at least asking first, which is also understandable – especially given recent revelations about iCloud’s security issues. It’s sort of like U2 sneaking into yr house and slipping their new album into yr record collection – or, for the auto download people, sticking it in the CD changer of yr stereo.

Of course, it seems a lot of the complaints are based on the premise that U2 fucking sucks and I don't want their fucking albums even for free, fuck you U2. Which suggests that they might object to it less if Apple had given them a free album by a band they actually like.

Anyway, the whole episode is a bit strange, as new album promotions go. Reportedly Apple, U2 and Universal were negotiating this for about a year. U2’s motivations are pretty obvious – Apple’s are less clear. According to Forbes, it’s probably a tactic to beef up iTunes (which saw music sales drop last year, due to more popular streaming services like Spotify and Pandora) and a way to promote Beats Music (the streaming music service Apple bought a few months ago).

Whatever Apple in mind, they clearly didn't really think it through in terms of how users would react to it. I guess you can look at it as an interesting consumer experiment in music distribution. Lesson learned: if you want to give away music online, ask first. I mean, the deal with U2 included a $100 million marketing campaign. Surely some of that money could have covered the cost of sending every iTunes user an email with a link to the album if they wanted to download it. The reaction probably would have been more favorable.

Of course, if they did it that way, then Tim Cook wouldn’t be able to say that Songs Of Innocence is the “largest album release in history” (on the grounds that Apple’s 500 million iTunes users “purchased” it). But Billboard has said it isn't playing along with that tactic.

And so much for that.

As for the actual album … is it any good?

I’ll let you know when I listen to it. I will say two things in advance:

1. I do like U2, but not all of their albums are great. That’s particularly true of their previous album No Line On The Horizon, IMO.

2. The preview tracks I heard on iTunes before I downloaded it weren’t very inspiring. But you can’t always tell with previews. And hey, free album.

Well, we’ll see. Stay tuned.

All that you can't leave behind, 

This is dF


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Comics fans may have heard by now that Marvel Comics is diversifying its character line-up further away from usual White Male Superhero demographic by making Thor a woman and Captain America an African-American.

More specifically, Thor will be replaced by a female character who will wield the Mjölnir (that big hammer that gives Thor his power), and Sam Wilson will replace Steve Rogers as CapAm.

There is much freaking out, both from diehard comics fans and those people who tend to view political correctness as oppression of straight white guys. (O the poor straight white guys!)

At least I assume so. I haven’t really looked. But there usually is. Maybe there’s not as much freaking out over CapAm, if only because Wilson has been CapAm before. In fact, so have around 19 other people at one point or another (around half of them official, the rest imposters).

Come to think of it, there have also been alternate Thors, some of them women. Even Steve Rogers was Thor for a bit. So really, the current changes are a case of history repeating.

However, as Wired has pointed out, that will probably also include a return to the status quo. Marvel can talk all it wants about the importance of diversity – and this is true – but the fact of the matter is that the Marvel Universe™ (and the DC Universe® for that matter) is designed so that editors can make changes like this, and change them back if it results in dropped sales. And both publishers have a history of doing just that, whether its costume changes or killing off characters.

Which really makes the CapAm/Thor changes another gimmick, rather than any concerted effort to diversify the roster.

As someone who isn’t really a fan of either character, I admit I don’t have a horse in this race. I will say I don’t object to the changes. I’d just think if Marvel really wants more diversity in its line-up, I'd rather it create new characters who can build their own identities.

On the other hand, I’m fully aware how hard it is to do that from a purely business perspective. Marvel is first and foremost a business, and if new titles/characters don’t sell as well as the marquee names, they get dropped (albeit sometimes with good reason). So realistically, I suppose, the most expedient way is to repurpose old intellectual property characters. Except then the fans complain. Unless you start an alternate universe

That said, even with those limitations, Marvel does seem to be somewhat better at it than DC, or at least more willing to take risks just to see how fans react.

Either way, it’s really indicative of the problems inherent in the comics empires that Marvel and DC have built for themselves. Their ability to innovate is limited to the point that they can’t diversify easily, even though their demographics have diversified considerably.

Of course, there’s always comic books published by companies other than Marvel or DC. But c’mon, no one reads those.

Changes aren't permanent but change is,

This is dF

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If you watch cable TV news or have a Facebook account, you’ve probably heard about the latest Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance laws. And if you heard about it from either of those two sources, you’ve probably heard some politically charged and ludicrously simplistic summaries about the ruling and its potential impact.

On the other hand, when you read more sober accounts of McCutcheon v. FEC, the dithering isn’t all that far off the mark.

In case yr behind on current events, the decision basically does away with aggregate limits on campaign donations in a given election cycle. Before the decision, the limit was $48,600 to all candidates combined and $74,600 to political parties and PACs. Under McCutcheon, that limit is now “as much as you want", provided that you stick to the limits for each individual candidate, national/local party committee or PAC.

Which sounds reasonable, until you remember how money actually flows between campaigns, parties and PACs, which is why the aggregate limits were imposed in the first place. Now that they're gone, you can pretty much expect politicians, party machines and Big Money players to get very creative in getting around what few limits remain (which they do already).

As you might imagine, I have mixed feelings about the ruling. On the one hand, I get that rich people have the same free speech rights as anyone else, and I gather that Chief Roberts figures that the 1A only protects you from govt censorship, so it’s not his problem if the poor can’t compete for the ear of candidates.

On the other hand, I really feel that he doesn’t have a full understanding of the implications of money and influence on democracy at the expense of people who don’t have either. I think Justice Breyer got it right in his dissent – money talks, and Big Money talks loud enough to drown out Small/No Money. Free speech rights shouldn’t be based on who has the biggest megaphone. If Chief Roberts really believes Big Money influence is balanced out by the internet (“Hey, if you have a Facebook page, you have a voice”) and the FEC (which currently isn’t interested in stepping up enforcing its own rules) or that Congress can always fix any loopholes parties might exploit (this Congress?), he’s kidding himself.

Anyway, I highly recommend this post and this post (both from SCOTUSblog) to get a full understanding of the nature of the decision and the likely impact therein.

And for fun, you can also read this piece from Jonathan Rauch at The Daily Beast which argues that the problem isn’t that there’s too much Big Money in politics, it’s that there’s not nearly enough of it.

Essentially he proposes a tradeoff: let people donate insane amounts of money direct to politicians, on the condition of full transparency. Every penny has to be publicly accounted for, but at least you know who’s buying influence, and you can base yr vote on that. And it will (hopefully) lessen the influence of super PACs who currently get tons of unregulated secret money and are arguably more of a corrupting influence on politicians than Big Money players who donate directly.

It’s an interesting idea. However, I doubt it would spell the end of super PACs. We’ll probably end up with a system where politicians listen to the 1% AND their super PACs. Which is more or less what we have now.

However, that’s also kind of the point – campaign finance laws weren’t really limiting the influence of Big Money in elections anyway, and that’s never going to go away because campaigns just cost too much money, so we might as well push for a deal to make the process as transparent as possible.

Then again, the current SCOTUS would probably strike that down too.

Mo’ money,

This is dF


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ITEM: New Jersey has banned electric car-maker Tesla from selling its cars in the state.

That now makes five (5) states that have explicitly banned Tesla from selling cars. The other four are Arizona, Texas, Virginia and Maryland. Other states have restricted Tesla’s sales in other creative ways, and others yet are trying to either ban or restrict Tesla sales.

Here’s a scorecard map from Forbes:



I recommend reading the article that goes with it.

The problem, technically, is Tesla’s direct-sales model. Many states require manufacturers to sell cars via a dealer. Tesla, as you may know, sells direct to buyers online. The showrooms that it opens are for display/test-drive purposes only.

This isn’t new, per se – Tesla has had to deal with regulatory obstacles for awhile now. But it’s probably no coincidence that auto dealerships nationwide have complained loudly about Tesla’s business practices and many have lobbied state governments hard to keep Tesla out of their respective markets, or at least limit its activities.

Even Tesla’s service policy is a slap in the face of tradition. Tesla charges a flat yearly rate for service, as opposed to dealerships who charge you per visit. According to Wired, car dealerships rely on service maintenance to stay profitable. And they don’t want Tesla succeeding to the point that they’re forced to adopt the same policy to compete.

As widespread as opposition to Tesla is, it would be a mistake to pin this on a specific political party. It’s more of a “money talks” issue, and Big Money has always been bipartisan.

But it’s remarkably hypocritical for Republicans like Chris Christie and Rick Perry to openly back protectionist measures like this – the GOP being the champion of Small Govt and Free Markets and all.

For what it’s worth, Newt Gingrich agrees with me. And it’s not often you’re going to see me type that.

As for Tesla’s viability as a company … who knows? That's kind of the point here. Tesla could easily fail as a company. Consumers could decide that dealerships are more localized and reliable, and Tesla could either go through dealerships or fold. And its cars might suck. So might its customer service.

But hey, why let the market decide, Jim? Car dealers and their politician friends have a far better idea of what’s good for consumers than you do. Obviously.

Not in my state,

This is dF


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