The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies and in time may go.
The movies sure, the radio sure, but the …telephone? Andrea Peterson of the Washington Post notes with some surprise that president Obama’s favorite comms platform, the Blackberry, was literally dying. The parent company laid off nearly half its workforce only last week. “That’s bad news for the platform’s most prominent user, Barack Obama.” Not so long ago it was the symbol of wired power.
Obama’s BlackBerry dependency was touted as a sign of modernity before his 2009 inauguration, to the point where it was a news story that he was allowed to keep the device post-inauguration. But technology that seemed cutting-edge in 2008 now seems painfully anachronistic. Obama was reportedly “befuddled” during an attempt to call a volunteer from an iPhone during the 2012 campaign.
But the phone call has been dying too. Most people now communicate by text or other types of messaging. In fact less than half of all Britons surveyed made a single call a day. By comparison young Americans send 88 text messages a day, a trend that if anything, is growing with each passing day.
Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer based in Atlanta, says the issue of phone aversion frequently comes up in her project management training sessions. One of her clients, a manager at a large utility company, recently had to teach his young employee what a dial tone was and explain that desktop phones don’t require you to press “Send.”
But if the practice of “ringing people up” is falling prey to the changing habits of the young, it is withering among the politically powerful for a different reason. It is declining because of the increasing difficulty of sealing a deal by achieving agreement within a small circle. The conference call — the successor of the smoke filled room of the 19th century — can’t cut it any more. The accusation that Ted Cruz has killed the dialog between the political parties with his incendiary attack on Obamacare obscures the fact that the telephone deal has been declining for a long time in this age of diminished consensus.
In a simpler time not long ago a President simply needed to make calls to the right people to make things happen. He’d call the Prime Minister of Great Britain or the President of Egypt. The very ancient will even remember something called a Hot Line with which the White House could call the leader of the Soviet Union in case the boys got out of hand. That’s how things got fixed.
I related an anecdote many posts ago about flying into Jolo in late 1980s to attend a meeting on recent attacks by the MNLF on civilians. In the seat beside me on the plane was a European man, who introduced himself to me as a member of a well known humanitarian NGO. He announced his intention to travel to Patikul, or some such town. I told him, “that’s Indian country. If you try that you’ll be kidnapped before sundown.”
His answer was “nonsense. I have humanitarian status. They won’t hinder me.” He mentioned an affiliation with some other International agency as proof of his immunity. “Do you think they care about humanitarian organizations?” I retorted. “The bottom line is you’re a white man in Jolo and if you go ahead with your intentions … please reconsider your plans.” We parted ways at the airport and I continued on to my meeting. Sometime in the mid-afternoon the discussions were interrupted by someone with urgent news at the door. “A European has been kidnapped,” he breathlessly related, “and the marines are looking into now”. I checked the hour on my watch. He didn’t even make it to sundown.
More or less the same thing just happened to Greenpeace. AFP reports:
Moscow — Russian investigators said Thursday they had charged all 30 crew members of Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship with piracy over a protest against Arctic oil exploration, an offence that carries the risk of a lengthy prison term….
“All 30 participants in the criminal case have been charged over the attack on the Prirazlomnaya platform,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement.
“They are all charged with… piracy committed by an organised group.”
Piracy by an organised group carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years in Russia.
Investigators accused the activists of trying to seize property with threats of violence.
I guess Greenpeace got lulled into complacency by the fearful water cannons of the Japanese and the mild penalties which were formerly the price their protests. They didn’t count on the Russians who don’t seem to care too much about their NGO and environmental activist credentials. It’s interesting to read the comments on some sites by outraged Belgians or New Zealanders proclaiming their indignation against “outlaw Russia”.
But they miss the point. Who’s going to stop Russia from doing what it wants? Will it be the Belgian Navy? Or the New Zealand Navy? Or the United Nations?
The great thing about the late Tom Clancy, who recently died at the age of 66, was that he reminded a cynical liberal American and European audience just what exactly stood between the world and countries like Russia.
Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to cross-post together these four PJ articles about the NSA PRISM surveillance program. My colleagues J. Christian Adams, Bryan Preston, Ron Radosh, and Richard Fernandez each deliver compelling analyses and I agree with their conclusions. I’ve been disappointed as many conservatives and Republicans have sought to minimize the severity of what PRISM is, even siding with Democrats to support the program while encouraging focus on the IRS and other Obama scandals. They’re wrong.
At this point the Ron Paul radical anarchist Edward Snowden who initiated this story in the most irresponsible means possible has overextended his 15 minutes of fame. He has ceded any scrap of moral authority he may have once had. Everything about him is a distraction from what really matters. In the coming weeks let’s hope the sad tabloid story about him and his personality can pass and we can get to the serious discussion about the necessity of limiting the powers of government surveillance. - David Swindle
I was originally going to write a post that started like this: The Los Angeles Times says the administration is considering accepting refugees from Syria:
Two years into a civil war that shows no signs of ending, the Obama administration is considering resettling refugees who have fled Syria, part of an international effort that could bring thousands of Syrians to American cities and towns.
The State Department is “ready to consider the idea,” an official from the department said, if the administration receives a formal request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the usual procedure.
Maybe the president is feeling guilty. Or maybe not. Michael Totten writes:
What could have been a bloody but short Libyan-style revolution to oust the tyrant Bashar al-Assad has instead metastasized into a grotesque sectarian war between the Sunni Muslim majority and the ruling Alawite minority. … And what could have been a major blow for the West in its cold war against Iran—Syria is Iran’s only state-sized ally in the Middle East—has instead morphed in part into a protracted red-on-red fight between an anti-American state sponsor of terrorism and the anti-American jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad.
So it’s only right to accept one set of hostiles who are fleeing the other set of hostiles and vice-versa, even if both sets of hostiles hate America, because that’s what the political process is programmed to do. When they designed the refugee paradigm, nobody imagined that the refugees and their pursuers could be interchangeable.
In the meantime, Obama told Charlie Rose that nobody understood how hard it is being president. Lee Smith, watching the president describe his dilemmas, wrote:
In an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, the commander in chief told his host, “I’ve said I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition. I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show. … Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations,” Obama told Rose, “then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation.”
For Obama, everything about Syria is complex — its vaunted air defenses, Iran’s massive investment there in men, money, and arms, Russia’s intractable diplomatic position, and especially the rebels themselves.
But what did that illustrate about Obama’s anxieties? I was stumped. Well, that was before I read Roger Simon’s excellent post on What Snowden Knew:
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a brief for Snowden. He seems to be a new form of narcissistic international creep, similar to Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame. I hope he gets dysentery in Ecuador or wherever he winds up.
But he may have done us a favor, putting an exclamation point on the activities of the NSA so there are no doubts. He also has made obvious the utter contempt with which Russia and China treat the Obama administration. (Evidently this was surprising to Dianne Feinstein on Face the Nation Sunday. Go figure.) … this presents an opportunity for dialogue we haven’t had for many years. Who knows if it will happen?
But if it does, I hope it will be intelligent and substantive. These are not easy questions. Good reasons exist for government surveillance.
Most obvious of them is the threat and reality of Islamic terrorism, which, despite the death of bin Laden, does not seem to be going away. Quite the contrary. It appears to be growing rapidly and dangerously….
But suffice it to say I’m not so keen on dismantling, or even much curtailing, the NSA. The IRS perhaps, but not the NSA.
Still, we have to figure out how to balance this.
Roger asks an intelligent question that nobody in power is likely to answer anytime soon.
What Snowden knew was that a large surveillance apparatus existed. And in his (choose one — naivete, malice, treason, idealism), Snowden found someone to help him lay it all out. But now, let’s think about what he didn’t know, or should’ve known but didn’t seem to know.
Facebook told me two things today. The first is that I am a friend of a friend (FOAF) of Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister. The second and more important tiding is a link to the New York Daily News:
James Gandolfini, the New Jersey-bred actor who delighted audiences as mob boss Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” has died following a massive heart attack in Italy, a source told the Daily News.
Tony Soprano has bought the farm.
Of course, Gandolfini only played Tony Soprano. He was never Soprano himself. And while I never had the opportunity to meet him even in passing, neither have I met Gillard, and possibly neither has my Internet friend who is her “friend.” The question that inevitably posed itself was, who was I closer to between these two people: Gillard or Gandolfini?
In 2007, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the notion of a Giant Global Graph to represent the relationship between human beings, especially over the Internet. The nodes are people and they are tied by properties such as “likes,” “comments,” and shares. “The Giant Global Graph concept seems to have been a significant input in Facebook’s concept and name for their ‘Open Graph’ project and protocol.”
And it may turn out that in terms of that metric, I am probably closer to Tony Soprano than to either James Gandolfini or Julia Gillard. As someone once observed, “celebrities are who we have in common.” And we know more about the characters they play than the celebrities themselves.
The latest scandal story about the State Department coverup of a U.S. ambassador who was allegedly soliciting prostitutes in a public park brought two things to mind. The first, unbidden and unsupported, was that factions in the bureaucracy were at war with each other and the target of the one faction was Obama and the target of the other was She Who Must Not Be Named.
But that was speculation. The more tenable line of thought was a reminder that humans are fallible and often corrupt. This has always been true, so how do we live with ourselves? At first, simply by surviving the worst we could do to ourselves.
For much of history our ability to harm ourselves was fortunately limited by the crude nature of our means. But by the dawn of the 19th century it became obvious that the lack of technology alone could not forever protect us. Men were inventing more and more lethal devices. Dynamite, when it was first introduced, produced almost the same fear in futurists as the atomic bomb. It is widely believed that Alfred Nobel endowed the “Nobel Prize” to assuage a guilty conscience.
In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Alfred was disappointed with what he read and concerned with how he would be remembered.
The same kind of apocalyptic powers were ascribed to the machine gun, poison gas, and the bomber. In 1932, Stanley Baldwin wrote “the time has now come to an end when Great Britain can proceed with unilateral disarmament … the bomber will always get through.” But it remained for J. Robert Oppenheimer to put the thought in its iconic form. Looking on his own creation Oppenheimer described how he was mentally transported back to the ancient battlefields of the Bhagavad Gita to face the inevitable fruit of his inventiveness: “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
That was nearly 70 years ago and the world is still here. What happened to keep it going?
When Stephen Hunter’s fictional hero Bob Lee Swagger came to bookstores with the 1993 novel Point of Impact, most of the critics attributed the character’s success to Hunter’s vivid writing style, especially as applied to the lore of the gun. As much or more than any other writer alive, Hunter understands that firearms and the men who wield them, what he calls the American Gunman — though not in the pejorative sense — constituted a major cultural theme in the history of the United States. He is Shane riding into a frontier town, or John Dillinger wreathed in Thompson submachine gun smoke, or Audie Murphy holding a battalion of Nazi infantry at bay. The American Gunman was a figure of myth at par with Achilles and his nodding plumes and Hunter hit the mother lode in depicting him.
But what set apart Bob Lee Swagger in 1993 was something else. He was more than just another portrayal of that myth. In Bob Lee Swagger, who we first find holed up in a trailer in Arkansas with nothing but his wits, rifle and vague unease, Hunter had created the perfect symbol of a generation betrayed. Swagger in his beginnings was really all those Vietnam vets whose superlative skill, sacrifice and prowess had been wasted by the self-appointed Best and the Brightest, sent to their doom for reasons that were too clever by half and which even the puppeteers had themselves forgotten.
So when Bob Lee Swagger is set up as a patsy for the assassination of a left-wing, Third World clergyman by Ivy League covert operatives pursuing their own doubtful agenda in Point of Impact, the reader feels the betrayal anew. When Swagger takes apart his opponents in the finale ,you can imagine a certain demographic of readers were not only reading a story, but cheering as they took vicarious revenge for the outrage perpetrated upon their idealism and youth.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Swagger’s success came shortly after the popularity of the Rambo movies. It was a time when the public was beginning to realize that mainstream media Vietnam and Cold War narratives were not exactly the real story. And Swagger was the beneficiary of that growing awareness.
Some headlines just grab you.
US student “ate roommate’s brain and heart” — Telegraph.
Canada cannibal says he believed victim was an alien — Telegraph. “A Chinese immigrant who beheaded and cannibalised a Canadian bus passenger in front of horrified travelers four years ago spoke out for the first time Tuesday, saying he believed his victim was an alien.”
Cannibal on run after warning The Sun: I can’t stop killing — The UK Sun. “We showed cops sick film of a live KITTEN fed to a snake and an email warning: ‘Once you kill and taste blood it’s impossible to stop.’ Luka Magnotta, 29, fled after his male partner — a missing Chinese student — was chopped up and eaten in Canada.”
And you thought the problem was going to be the Zombie Apocalypse. One way to think about these accounts is as instances of severe mental illness.
Woman kills husband, tries to cook body parts — AFP. “The police arrested Zainab Bibi, 32, and her nephew Zaheer, 22, in the Shah Faisal colony of Pakistan’s southern megacity Karachi, and recovered the bowl of flesh she planned to cook, said police chief for the area Nadeem Baig.”
“They killed Ahmed Abbas, Zainab’s husband, and chopped his body into pieces and were about to cook the flesh in a bowl,” he told AFP, adding that the knife with which they killed the man had been recovered.
Television networks showed gruesome footage of the human flesh in a bowl ready for the stove.
Or maybe times are just hard. But mental illness is a more likely cause than poverty for lurid headlines like this: “Russian cannibal ate gay date” — Global Post.
A 21-year-old Russian cannibal brutally stabbed his gay date to death and then made him into meatballs and uploaded footage of him cooking onto the internet.
The two are probably related in some way. Reuters reports that mental illness is up in Greece. “Job loss can lead to an accumulation of risks that can tip people into depression and severe mental illness which can be difficult to reverse — especially if people are not getting appropriate care.” A person diagnosed with bipolar disorder writes: “Is there an alternative to being mentally ill?”
I wish there were; I’d probably have an easier time making friends. Living with bipolar disorder allows for only two courses of action, really: acknowledgment and denial. Knowing the risks associated with the latter (such as lapses into self-destructive behavior, which had gotten so bad with me that my parents and friends all but dragged me by the hair to a psychiatrist’s office), I’ll take acknowledgment, thank you, even if it’s not always easy. It means accepting that I sometimes need to hold still for a few hours lest I do anything rash. It means checking in with a shrink at least once a year to make sure I’m getting treated appropriately. (Since I don’t have health insurance, this is a lot harder to do now that Mayor Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s public mental health clinics, but that’s another story.) And it means admitting my vulnerability to family and friends, who do want to help me, I learned, when I feel I can’t get through life on my own.
The observation above may sound funny to a healthy person but it probably isn’t for the guy with the problem. For him it is all deadly serious, in a way that an unafflicted person can scarcely imagine.