Look, Ma (.com)

I have sometimes talked about the way NPR uses what I consider to be over-gentle, linguistically pre-chewed forms of expression in its writing along with a story-time vocal style that combine to subconsciously infantilize the listener. I do not believe they are trying to infantilize us on purpose, it’s just the unintentional result of a lot of smaller style choices. In any case it’s one of the things that makes NPR so much more pleasant to listen to than the TV-news-standard stentorian delivery of someone like Andrea Mitchell. The closest NPR comes to this is Mara Liasson, who happens to moonlight on FOX TV News. (Or is NPR her moonlight job?  Hard to tell.)

But advertisers are another story. Baby-talk modern company names are generated from pure cynicism. And I mean “baby talk” literally. Words like “mama” are common across cultures as the first sounds made by an infant, and in many languages they are used as parental names.

Listen more carefully next time you hear the national underwriting messages pronounced in Jessica Hansen’s lovely voice. You’ll hear “ooma.com“, “myemma.com“, and “moo.com“. They are practically baby-talk anagrams for one another. I’m waiting for “goo-goo-gaa-gaa.com.”

So, is it a coincidence that at least three “baby talk” companies advertise heavily on NPR? Or maybe there are just so many nonsense-word baby-talk companies now that you should expect a normal distribution to be clotted with them.

Google Inc. took its name from the number “googol,” a one followed by one hundred zeroes, which a mathematician allowed his young nephew to name. Google it!

To Infinity…And Beyond!!! (and beyond that, too!)

The meaning of the word “infinity” is impossible to comprehend. It contains multitudes, literally. In fact, it contains everything and keeps coming for more. It is the the most famished concept in math and cosmology, devouring all sums and spaces, gleeful as it swallows exponents and parsecs alike. It is sinister, for everything that lives will eventually disappear into it without so much as a ripple or blemish on its mirror surface. No human mind can grasp it. The vertiginous vastness of its nature is beyond communication. It’s one of the first ideas children encounter that truly blows their minds. I’m still not over it.

Mathematicians have tried to tame it; infinity is useful and necessary in that abstract realm. They selected a symbol for it, as if it could be captured in a mere rune. But in practice infinity is a Hell’s Angel badass singularity that is fatal to applied logic and reasoning. All you have to do is ask a computer to divide any number by zero, the result of which is axiomatically infinity, and the computer will promptly behave like a a person injected with an LSD-PCP-Bath Salt speedball. The poor computer will immediately generate a deeply felt and wounded message reading simply “Divide by zero error”. The computer is saying “OMG did you just seriously ask me to try to calculate infinity? I just cannot even. I don’t even know where to go from here.”

My point here is that infinity is really, REALLY beyond humungous, akin to an ineffable deity. We can name it, try to talk about it, but never truly know it or grok it. And, like an angry god, its name should not be invoked for cheap effect.

And so a few days ago when I was listening to a Laura Sydell story on All Things Considered, as one does, I was suddenly struck by this comment, made by a worthy named John Seely Brown.

“The ability to imagine is the key challenge, because we have infinitely powerful tools to build whatever we imagine. As a result we’re limited by our imagination.”

Do you see the problem there? If not, read it again. There it is: Infinitely powerful tools.

Yeah, as they say, no. “We have infinitely powerful tools” is something only comic book super-villains should say with a straight face, usually followed by a prolonged, evil cackle and some kind of intimidating knife-switch being closed.

John Seely Brown doesn’t have infinitely powerful tools. No one has infinitely powerful tools. No human will ever have infinitely powerful tools. Theologians even debate whether or not the omnipotence-claiming god of Abraham truly has infinitely powerful tools. Can God throw a curveball so sneaky even Jesus can’t hit it? Is God constrained to moral actions? (The answer to the latter seems like a big old “No!” of course. #theodicy)

But John Seely Brown is thought-leading us to believe he is not constrained by the mere finite, but only by the interdisciplinary artist-in-residence-curable constraint of imagination.

After hearing this howler of a hyperbolic claim I unwittingly began a Twitter conversation in which I was quickly accused by an NPR reporter of being hubristic and having neither a life nor an imagination. No, really. Here it is:

Can you believe this shit?
Figure 1. Laura Sydell rips public radio’s infinitely awesome blogger a new one. Rhetorical summary: “I know you are, but what is John Seely Brown!?”

Ouch, right? Plus I was obviously applying the hubris tag to claims of infinite power, not to Sydell as she seems to have misinterpreted. Of course one might be justified in accusing her of something like hubris-by-proxy…

The proper response was, if anything, “allow John Seely Brown a moment of exaggeration in his exuberance at the cool stuff he’s doing”, not a spit-take inducing doubling down on “infinitely powerful.” If Sydell had accused me of being over-literal in my reaction to the word “infinitely” she might have a fair point, but her mama-bear ad hominem broadside is over the top. How am I the hubris-befuddled party here?

Were Airbag Moments a blog about language peeves I would have cause to opine about the overuse and cheapening of the word “infinite” simply on the basis of style, like the overuse and cheapening of the word “literally”, but there are actually much more serious reasons, especially for journalists and industry spokespeople, to eschew tech triumphalism and to treat it with skepticism when it appears. This idea that “the only limit is our imagination” is the obnoxiously perfumed Disney-film epitome of tech triumphalism. The same exaggeration can equally inappropriately describe a pencil, or Play-Doh ™.

Tech triumphalism flourished, as one would expect, in the mid twentieth century, when the development curve of fundamental invention was arguably at its steepest. Magazines like Popular Mechanics boasted unintentionally hilarious (even then) covers featuring flying cars and plans for working robots you could build with free boxes from your neighborhood grocer.

flying car
Figure 2. “Your flying car for 1967, Hiller’s Aerial Sedan” PM said in 1957.

Wired magazine periodically takes up the mantle of Popular Mechanics for contemporary techno-gushing, and has proven to be almost as hilarious in some of its predictions over the years.

Sydell is not the only public radio personality to overestimate just how awesome our present and near future are. Remember when that guy from 99% Invisible said we now have everything from the Star Trek tv show except the teleporter? Good times! When I thoroughly corrected him on the inanity of that claim he also refused to back down. I guess nobody likes corrections. Or reality.

The idea that there is eventually going to be a technological fix for all of our problems is a deadly one. It inculcates lassitude and inattention towards very real, very, very hard to fix dynamics in the world. If Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity gadget then I guess anthropogenic climate change is nothing to worry about. In fact if it’s even close to true that the only limit to his power is imagination I hope the United Nations will quickly dispatch John Seely Brown to start fixing some things real quick, like the anthropogenic hellscape living nightmare that Fukushima Daiichi has turned into.

There’s actually a benighted school of thought in Economics comically named “Cornucopianism” that is accepted as dogma by some noted economists. It essentially teaches that we humans are such clever little buggers that we will always invent ourselves out of every hole we are capable of digging ourselves into, including problems like disease, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. (Sounds like hubris to me.) The effect of this is to encourage us to dig ourselves into ever deeper holes. Jabbering about infinity devices, or flying cars for that matter, encourages that delusion. Who needs to recycle or buy a fuel-efficient car or practice safe-sex when Doctor John Seely Brown has an infinity machine?

Of course I could be wrong. Maybe John Seely “Thanos” Brown actually owns and operates an infinity machine. But the examples from Sydell’s story of what our nation’s infinity labs are doing certainly don’t inspire the expected awe. For example I’m sure the 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is attractive and interesting, but it isn’t exactly a cure for Malaria, much less a fix for the continents of plastic debris laying waste to our oceanic biosphere. In fact I’m guessing odds are good that the plastic 3D-printed model of San Francisco’s antique cistern system is fated to choke a Sea Lion in the not too distant future, shortly after the forgotten gewgaw is discovered in an attic and junked by a mystified tenant.

oceans_impacts_seas_degradation_garbage_plastic_pollution_galapagos_q_16148
Sea life greet 3D-printed tchotchkes with less enthusiasm than Laura Sydell and Ira Flatow.

Now, in spite of her vituperations against yours truly and her not-very-imaginative or infinite dreams of a smart fridge, I do generally respect Sydell. So I went ahead and looked up this Doctor John Seely Brown as she so icily demanded.

Instead of finding a list of Tony Stark-like world-changing inventions, I discovered that Doctor John Seely Brown has a lot in common with none other than my frequent target, professional religion-adorer Krista Tippett. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown won admission to Brown University. Like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is the eponym for his own website. And like Krista Tippett, John Seely Brown is clearly a very talented, intelligent person, an accomplished self-marketer, and sometimes talks in ways that, while verbose and grandiloquent, fail to convey specific meaning to the average listener.

Here are a few TED-talk-ready Seelyisms (Holy Cow does he give a lot of lectures!) from his website:

“Today, I’m Chief of Confusion, helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work”

“Learners craft their own pathways, through a rich ecology of learning experiences” (I guess they craft their pathway through the ecology with some sort of imagination machete?)

“Welcome to the Imagination Age where the arts, humanities & sciences fuse creating a new kind of alloy.” (applause, presumably)

“For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature.” (who can argue with that?)

“His personal research interests include digital youth culture, digital media, and the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries – in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world.” (emphasis mine)

Do those mean anything tangible to you? It’s all a bit vague for my apparently raisined, lifeless, and pride-distorted imagination. I assume he has nurtured vivid imagishperical ecologies that have enabled deep utility for the world, such as the copier his team developed at Xerox PARC that could actually predict when it was about to break and call for repair – which is very cool, except, you know, Malaria and all – but he sure has produced a lot of triumphalist techno-evangelical jargon as a by product. A lot of research outfits manage to produce incredible breakthroughs without that sort of hype. Hell, Apple Computer is a shrinking violet compared to this stuff.

But Sydell clearly drinks the rhetorical Kool-Aid and so do a lot of very smart and successful people in business and the academy, so I’ll check to see if Google Translate has a “Thought-Leader Lecture –> Unimaginative Egotistical Zombie Grunts” translation mode.

If not I’m just going to have to sharpen my imagi-machete and get to work crafting a new path through my personal learning ecology.

Obit or Eulogy?

Journalism has been called, aptly (and possibly tautologically) in my opinion, the “first draft of history.” This expression is beneficial because it implies both the limitations of journalism and its obligations. It also implies that journalism, like first drafts, is basically disposable.

Journalists on deadline have two disadvantages that historians don’t: they can’t know what crucial information will be revealed after their story has gone to print, and they don’t have time to do deep research on the context of a story.

Obituaries of celebrities are less difficult than breaking news stories in both of these regards. News organizations have the ghoulish good sense to write obits of famous people well in advance of their deaths. Because the deceased are famous the context is already established, and new revelations about the dead that will dramatically alter an obit are unlikely. The death of a person is the ultimate not-ongoing event, and editors can make considered choices about what parts of a person’s life to include.

In this context we can consider the All Things Considered obit of televangelist Robert Schuller broadcast yesterday that could have easily been mistaken for a press release. It was the epitome of the kind of kid-glove treatment religious figures are granted by NPR. The obit writer, Nathan Rott, was happy to highlight Schuller’s rhyming and alliterative projects, including the “Hour of Power” and the “Crystal Cathedral”.

If you only had Rott’s obit to go by you’d assume that Schuller was simply a feel-good godly genius whose life was one big success after another.

The true picture is rather different. The “Hour of Power” was one of those shows that begged for money in the name of religion from the poor and lower-middle-class folks who watched it. In spite of the millions raised from Meemaw and Peepaw’s social security checks the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt and the Schullers eventually sold it to the Catholic Church. In the process there were dramatic family squabbles. Schuller himself died seemingly in poverty and, perhaps, senility.

So how is it that none of that appeared in the obit? NPR is practically obsessed with old age and mental illness after all!

All we need to do is look back at NPR’s coverage of the death of Jerry Falwell to see another example of the spineless coverage of religious figures, especially Christian evangelical figures.

(Note: I’m not a journalist. It’s not my job to provide footnotes about Schuller, but just Google “Robert Schuller controversy” if you want the details. NPR apparently didn’t.)

What’s Annoying on Public Radio Now

On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.

I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)

What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity – so they can stop.

Let’s do the numbers!

1. The Daily Grind

Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since he took to his fainting couch and blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless day-of-the-week intro ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering pseudo-ominous inanities like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight is worthy of succor and sympathy.

I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.

2. Yay us!

NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s apparently everything they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?

This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym David Isay’s 2-legged Golden Retriever, but I don’t need to know about it.

Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.

Which brings me to…

3. Throwing a block

I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.

Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical pokes I take at public radio must marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly asking tough questions in interviews. If Twitter actually notified users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.

Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.

I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.

To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.

4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes

I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.

Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!

Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.

I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!

Mara Liason: naive, or just bored?

The following exchange took place yesterday in one of the infinite “two-way” reports spending one last night in bed with the still-warm body of Rick Santorum’s stillborn campaign:

SIEGEL: Speaking of his future, of course much depends on whether the Republicans win or lose the White House, but what is his future?

LIASSON: Well, he could be in a Romney Cabinet. He certainly will be a conservative social issue leader in the Republican Party. 2016, he could run again. He’ll have a heck of a lot of competition if [he] does that, though.

It’s really not hard to know what Santorum’s future is.  It’s going to look a lot like his immediate pre-primary past.  As Joshua Green put it in Bloomberg:

He did some lobbying, hooked up with a think tank, and sat on a few boards

Sound familiar?  Basically being handed a bunch of money for his extraordinary ability to be Rick Santorum.

So what’s up, Mara?  Do you not know this?  Either you are extremely naive about what out of work politicians do or you think it isn’t interesting enough to just say it.  Too true to be good.

But I find it extremely interesting that out of work politicians make a bunch of money simply for being out of work politicians.  It’s a sickness at the heart of our politics, and I find it very, very worth discussing.

In fact I find it much more worth discussing than the questionable poll results you and your kind perseverate over daily.

But you, Mara, seem to be wed to the old school reportage.  Make it exciting!  Gin up a real fight!  Make it about the contest.  2016!!  You actually said it!  I think you might be the first!  Yay!

And today on Morning Edition you even fired the starter pistol on the race between Romney and Obama, characterizing it as completely evenly matched.  How conveniently exciting for you and all your horse-race monger compatriots.

War is Peace!  Ignorance is Strength!  Everything is Equivalent!

Iowait, Wait Don’t Tell Us

The 2012 Republican Cadidates:

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why responsible news orgs like NPR and NYT are so itchy for the Iowa caucus (and straw poll before those) results.  They’ve created endless coverage of the various Republican primary candidates, who increasingly resemble the nutty villains from the campy old Batman TV show with Adam West, as they wend their smarmy ways through every barn, outhouse, and corndog-extrusion facility in the state.  The press does this in spite of the fact that responsible people, including Jon Stewart, keep pointing out that the results are meaningless in almost every way that matters.

So why do they do it?  I think I figured it out the two reasons,

First things first.  Iowa is first.  The press loves “breaking” news, and there’s no breaking election news like the “first” primary-ish event.

Second, and this is more important, by making such a big deal about the Iowa caucuses the press actually causes the Iowa results to matter.  Think about it.  Who would care about the Iowa pseudo-primaries if the press didn’t give them wall-to-wall coverage?  Conversely you might care about the Daytona Beach Seniors-Only Bridge Club’s choice of candidate if the press jabbered about it 10 hours a day.

Choosing something silly and making it important gives the press a kind of agency.  They become the story.  The story is not the results themselves, the story is the amount of attention the press focuses on the results.

And we’re all pretty tired of it, except of course for some members of the tiny and pointless demographic that actually takes part in the caucuses.  Oh well, just another clownish, predictable aspect of our increasingly cartoonish and alienating electoral process.

Gotta Have A Gimmick

Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!

As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick.  It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion.  You know the carriers:  Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.

We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:

Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history.  Susan Stamberg autobiographies.  Scott Simon family tear jerkers.  They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.

But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played.  They become proxies for our curiosity.  They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.

Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan.  I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it.  And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.

Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.  In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica  (so we don’t have to.)  From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition.  That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)

Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.”  Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?”  You wouldn’t.  It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one.  Gimmicks sell books.  And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.

As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs.  That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.

Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours.  As listeners we should expect them to use that time well.  As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well.  In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import.  Yet this almost never happens.  The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons.  Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.

Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches.  Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers.  I call these “advertorials”.  They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph.  There are a couple of give-aways.  They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant  to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.

To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell.  Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell.  This is what happens when notions are productized.  It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.

Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.

At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner.  I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him.  As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute.  Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.

As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.”  Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief.  He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.

The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates.  Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life.  As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself.  So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter?  Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful.  But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.

While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to.  When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.

But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.

It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat.  Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.

I did not like it.

I am very much not the only one who didn’t like it, but I am the only public radio blog that did not like it so keep reading.

What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style?  He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his).  And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry.  But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name.  In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!”  Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal.  The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion.  It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning.  Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose.  “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.

And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest than in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless?  (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)

You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention.  But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character.  People are happy to call themselves “true believers”.  Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”

This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups.  The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night.  He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)

“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists.  (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains.  That’s just science.)

Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:

  • “Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
  • “Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
  • “Nones may not believe in God.”
So this whole “Nones” thing is a bit of a muddle.  Like the idea of religion Nones supposedly enjoy it’s something like whatever you want it to be.  Nones don’t care if a religion is “true” as long as it makes their mental trains run on time.  The “Nones” thing is such a Thomas Friedman-like assignment of a catchy name to a superficially constructed model of something going on in this crazy modern world of ours that you can at least see why it was accepted by the New York Times.
Brief aside: atheism rarely posits things like “There is no god.”  Such a statement often means nothing because of the difficulty of defining deities.  Atheism usually takes the form of questions, such as “What do you mean when you say god(s)? Can you explain why anyone should believe he/she/they exist(s)?”  So far, to my knowledge, there’s been no satisfying answer to this sort of question. (see the postscript)
But then the whole advertorial takes an unexpected and yet still entirely Thomas Friedmaniacal twist.
Are you sitting down?  Okay, read on:

The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.

Wow.  I did not see that coming.  But now that it’s here…still wow.  We’re beyond Krista Tippett, folks.  In fact this statement may allow us to finally create a complete scale of profundity of statements about religion:
  • The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  • The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..”  – Carl Sagan
  • The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm”  – I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
  • The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We need a Steve Jobs of religion?!?  To the extent that sentiment means anything it’s a very bad idea.  Steve Jobs was long considered a cult leader.  Apple was maybe the earliest company to actually call its marketing people “evangelists.”
Weiner goes on, in the name of buzzwords, to further technocratize religion by calling for “a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”  It’s just very creepy and so willfully ignorant of history.  Do I really need to mention that every popular religious reformer in history has been their own “Steve Jobs of religion?”  They’ve all come up with new ways of being religious.  But as fun as it is to explore this, many others have already sharpened this particular point so I’ll move on to the next horror from this piece.
In evangelizing for his church of “Nones” Weiner puts this yucky chestnut out there:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
Terrence said “you believe that easily which you hope for earnestly” but I guess he was wrong.
Where, aside from obvious parental/cultural guilt, does this desire to believe in God come from?  And why not gods since polytheism is usually a lot more fun?  Weiner claims to be an Enlightenment-loving rationalist, but he fails to understand that his statement sounds to the freethinking ear like “I’m not a drug addict but I hope to be one day.”
He seems to have taken the propaganda that you can’t be good without God so deeply to heart that he will be forever torn between his desire for belief (goodness) and his respect for his own powers of cognition which tell him clearly that a religion may do good but is, at its very core, a lie.
Mr. Weiner, if you read this, I would suggest you spend less time browser-window-shopping at the ebay of world religions and more time analyzing the origins of your personal need to believe.

To everyone else, Merry Christmas, and if you are interested in the topic of the varieties of religious experience, try Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet, the writer who outed the shenanigans at the C Street house.  Then read his other books too.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’d like to quote Louis CK from his quite recent live online reddit.com crowd-sourced interview.

Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.

Reddit person “Brenner14”: This will come as a surprise to many.

Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].

Really, what else is there to say?  If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.

Got Milk?

Have no fear, dairy fans, Laura Sydell is still on the job!  Indeed, she’s all over the whole milk-detecting “smart refrigerator” thing like Judy Miller on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Her bio on Twitter says she’s interested in “looking at the intersection of culture and technology.”  Who knew she meant “milk culture”?

The only problem is that her Vitamin-D fortified monomania may be blinding her to the larger world of technology.  Have you ever heard the old saw that “if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?”  Evidently every technological advance is, to Sydell, just another inevitable step on the many-streamered path to our glorious smart-fridge future.

The opportunity arising from the opening up of new wireless spectrum for digital devices?  Milk-detecting smart fridge!

Coolest thing she might find at the 2011 consumer electronics show?  Duh!  Milk-detecting smart fridge, obviously!

She is giving this gallons of coverage. She tweets “Getting ready 2 talk about CES on ATC. So far what interests me most is internet connected appliances:refrigerator, washing machine.”  In that  two-way on ATC she brings up the whole milk thing right at the beginning to make sure it isn’t edited out for time.  Additionally she writes in the synopsis/blog-post that accompanies the audio for this on the ATC website yesterday that “I want my fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk, but,” she adds moovingly, “I don’t know if we are there just yet…”

Courage, Laura!  Don’t be a milquetoast!

Listen, I’m as interested in the status of my domestic milk supply as the next blogger, maybe even more than some (looking at you, veganlife.blogspot.com…), but if you think about it for a couple of seconds you’ll realize that this 2% solution to our admittedly nightmarish collective ignorance of our own milk quantities is probably not all it’s cracked up to be, even in theory.  What if the smart fridge knows we have gallons of milk but doesn’t know it’s all gone horribly off?  What if we have to constantly monitor and recalibrate the accuracy of the M.I.L.K.?  (Milk Indicator Level from Kitchenaid)  What if the fridge is ignorant of some sort of catastrophically unanticipated increase in our milk requirements, like providing enough nog for the NPR Arts Information Unit staff holiday party?  And this is not to mention the privacy issues.  What if the Department of Social Services learns about our failure to keep our child’s bones strong through maintenance of an adequate dairy supply?

As fascinating as the topic is, one has to wonder why Sydell keeps milking it.  Is there a sour note here?  Does she have some udder motivation to constantly call our attention to the national tragedy of our milk ignorance?  Your humble blogger has discovered there exists not only a “Sydell” brand goat-milking stand, but also a “Sydell Spa” brand milk-based facial cleanser.  Coincidences?  You, dear reader, or better yet the NPR ombudsperson, can make that call.  (Memo to FOX News: get Juan Williams on this, please!  What else does he have to do?  Oh wait, I forgot, FOX News doesn’t do actual journalism.)

I suppose it could be personal.  Does Laura live several hours from the nearest milk provisioner?  Is she exhausted from wasting entire days when she returns home for a nice virgin White Russian only to find that the fiendishly opaque milk carton, when hurriedly opened with that funny little cap they all have now, reveals nothing but her hopes and dreams?  Everyone knows you can’t drink those, unless you are newly-appointed house speaker John Boehner.

Or perhaps this is the consumer technology equivalent of what Reagan termed the “soft-serve bigotry” of lowfat expectations.  How can any careful observer not be disappointed by the state of consumer technology?  I, too, am cowed by the fact that here we are in 2011 and we still have no warp drives, no teleportation, no clean and infinite fusion power, pretty much nothing we were promised by the imagineers of the greatest generation 50 years ago.  (Except, of course, that stupid Facebook game that Isaac Asimov predicted in his speculative novel “I, Time-Wasting Fake Farmer” in 1947.)

Maybe, just maybe, if we can do this one stupid thing, if we can just have a refrigerator that can put a cussing update on our cussing Facebook wall to tell us how much cuss-damned milk we have, maybe we can, as President Kennedy promised in his stirring oration announcing the Apollo program, “do the other things” too.  Was it Browning who said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Alright, dammit,  I’m on board!  I’ve talked myself into it!  From this day forward I hereby dare to believe that one day, in some shining Sydellian Utopia, we’ll even have a fridge that can tell us when it’s time to buy more Half and Half.

Good luck in Vegas, Laura!  Those of us who dive for dreams are counting on you!

I’m a Beale-eiver

Okay, now I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  (more after the image)

Beale
Crazy Like a Fox...Network

Evidently Republicans turn off the movie Network when they get to the part, only a few minutes in, where everyone is encouraged to run to their window, throw it open and yell the famous phrase.  Maybe Republicans become hypnotized and actually obey these instructions, so they miss the rest of the movie in favor of waking their neighbors.

But it seems that political commentators never make it all the way to the end either, though they seem to have a slightly longer attention span.  Take today’s well stated but still missing-the-point commentary by Mike Pesca.  He does better than most. He makes an important connection that Republicans seem to miss: the fact that the character Howard Beale, accidental savior, is stark raving mad.  Beale’s not held up as a noble hero by the the screenwriter, Paddy Chayevsky (yet another Greatest Generation casual genius).

But Pesca, like every other Network-mentioner I’ve heard since Glenn Beck created his Howard Beale tribute-band persona, fails to mention the most important and relevant aspect of the film.  You see Howard Beale is crazy in Network, but he nevertheless spouts quite a lot of truth in his highly-rated Jeremiads.  Many of these truths have to do with the failure of television to actually inform.  But the truths that really get him into trouble are those which inveigh against his corporate masters, the mega-company that owns his network.

As a result the company subjects him to an artificial epiphany in the form of the god-like presence of (believe it or not) Ned Beatty, one of the exalted executives from the parent company.  He converts Beale to the sort of Ayn Randianism favored by major multi-nationals. You can watch this scene here.

God Inc.
God Inc.

Beale becomes a Eunuch, singing the corporate message beautifully, all the sound and fury drained of significance.

And thus we have Glenn Beck, whose religion is apparently that which helps the bottom line of Rupert effing Murdoch.

Postscript: The 90s version of Network is The Matrix.  While the dialog is far less artful, the message is even more subversive.  Plus there’s awesome Kung Fu.

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

Fish Tale

I have to take a brief minute to give props to the fake story about whale farming aired on April 1st.  The story, though pretty obviously fake, apparently fooled many listeners appealing as it does to their environmentalist achilles heels.

The following day the ATC hosts mentioned that they had tricked some folks within public radio but wouldn’t name names.  Luckily I will.

One listener who bought it hook, line, and sinker was, hilariousy, no other than the becoming questioner herself, Diane Rehm.  In her show with Jack Horner the next day she was getting a bit upset over the ethics of tampering with bird genes to ressurect dinosaurs, and she actually brought up whale farming as an example of just how far people were willing to take things like this.  Perfect.

Missing the War

NPR has done a really wonderful job of reporting on the trees, but they just don’t get the forest.

Mandelit Del Barco has heroically chronicled the struggles of L.A. gangland. Sylvia Poggioli, just today, has bravely told us of the struggles of Italy against the Neapolitan mafia. Countless reports about the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon are delivered by myriad reporters. Tales of Columbian and Mexican drug cartels are easy to find. Then there are the reports about the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And yet, somehow, the connection is never made.

” I’m missing the war
Till beads of sunlight hit me in the morning
So much time so little to say ”

Don’t let Ben Folds’ lyrics be our cultural epitaph.

Read your William Lind.

These are all the same thing, and have been since World War I. But nobody talks about it.

The crisis of the legitimacy of the state.

Storygore

Dear reader(s) and NPR,

I do have a software company to run, so sometimes typing pointless, obsessive, and grandiose opinions about public radio into the great silence of the interwebs has to take second fiddle. Go figure. (I blame blogosphere sexism.)

But close students of Airbag Moments will have noticed that a number of the trends I’ve previously identified, named, and railed against have continued unabated on public radio throughout the summer. If anything, public radio ombudsmen seem to have spitefully incorporated my most strident peeves into their style guide rules.

Take for example the news of Estelle Getty’s death. NPR, in its brief piece on this “Golden Girls” comedienne, found the time to report about the severe dementia that made her final years a tragedy and eventually killed her.

Happily, although I may be the only reader of this blog, I found out I am not the only person to be annoyed by this bizarre compulsion to ghoulishness. They actually read a listener letter complaining about the gratuitous privacy-ignoring and dignity-destroying aspect of her obit.

But here’s the problem: They read the letter, but did nothing to address its contents. That sort of complaint absolutely requires a response either defending this grim editorial bias or promising to do better in the future. Just reading the letter on the air does nothing but beg the question, sort of like a passive aggressive non apology, a middle school mean girl forced to say something like “I’m sorry what I said about your not being pretty hurt your feelings.” Brooke? Bob? Where are you guys on this media absurdity? Do you approve of this practice? If so, you must be really looking forward to hearing all the disturbing details of the final struggles of Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan in the coming years.

Meanwhile “storycorps” today continues its almost unbroken streak of tearful deathbed diaries.

What is it, NPR?

The war and economy aren’t depressing enough for you?

Sincerely,

A.M.

Wall Street Journal Standards Falling Already

Language evolves. I understand that.

In fact, I predict that more and more dictionaries will come to include one or all of our our commander in chief’s pronunciations of “nuclear” (noo-kyoo-ler, or sometimes nuclar, or even new-kee-ler) until they are fully accepted as correct.

But I and other right-thinking people can certainly try our damnedest to fight it every step of the way.

I don’t really mind so much when some benighted southern yokel pronounces it incorrectly. After all, they may never have actually heard anyone pronounce it properly.

But I start to twitch when the people who can’t say the word have some intimate or expert connection to it. I’ve heard nuclear weapons experts screw it up. And Bush himself really should try harder given that he (A) attended Yale and (B) has his finger on the trigger of the largest nookyewwlur weapons arsenal in the known universe.

Imagine how annoyed you would be if his petulant voice suddenly drawled over the Emergency Broadcast System saying “I regret to inform you folks that I have, uhh, authorized a full scale newwkyoulair attack on the former Soviet Union”? The only thing worse than anthropogenic apocalypse would be having Bush cause it while not being able to pronounce it.

Which brings me to Jay Solomon, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal who did a two-way today with Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. He was discussing last year’s refreshingly non-apocalypse-causing attack by Israeli jets on a mysterious Syrian target.

Mr. Solomon’s position at the Journal implies an impressive pedigree, though a hasty google was unable to turn it up. Additionally, in the way that reporters must become quick experts on the subjects they cover, he can be considered something of an expert on nuclear politics.

Yet there he was, nucucumberylering it every time he said the word during the report. Shouldn’t we expect the system that selects from the cream of the ivy league cream to work at papers like the NY Times and the WS Journal to produce people who can pronounce nuclear?

And why didn’t Siegel correct him? Too shy? If Siegel and Solomon’s mother haven’t done it by now then I guess it’s up to me. After all, proper pronunciation of the word is quite simple.

Feel free to anonymously email a link to this post to anyone who needs to know:

How to Pronounce “Nuclear” Almost Like an Educated English Speaker

( Soon to be a popular YouTube video, I feel sure )

Step 1. Say “New”, as in “New York Times”.

Step 2. Say “Clear” , as in “the journal strives for clear writing!”

Step 3. Now say them quickly as in “After my dermabrasion I’m enjoying my new clear skin!”

Step 4. Now every time you have to say “nuclear” say “new clear” instead. It really works!!

There, isn’t that so much easier than getting a job at the Wall Street Journal was? Since you could do that I just knew you could say “new clear”.

Bush, however, I’m not sure about. One school of thought posits that his folksy spoonerisms, malaprops, and anencephalies are intentional. But I don’t believe that theory. I don’t think the unholy stem-cell love clone made from combined mouth swabs of Tom Hanks and Billy-Bob Thornton would be that good at playing brain-injured.

So, Jay, fight the lobotomy Rupert Murdoch is in the process of performing on your famous paper!

Help us hold the line on the proper pronunciation of what is probably the scariest word in the entire English language!

Or else stick to typing it and stay off the radio.

Sense of Omission

Since I just wrote about PRI’s The World’s routinely excellent global coverage I think it’s appropriate to point out where this kind of reporting isn’t adequate. Luckily I have former foreign policy adviser to the Edwards campaign Michael Signer to do it for me. (With a name like “Signer”, shouldn’t he be the presidential candidate? Or maybe he has a brother named “Bill”…)

His recent Washington Post commentary “It’s a Scary World, Don’t Campaign Reporters Care?” spanks the media for ignoring or only superficially covering the foreign policy positions of the candidates, even though such policy statements have (shocker!) proven historically to be accurate predictors of policy.

Interestingly, from a Public Radio point of view, he states the following:

In November, I got a call from a major national radio program saying that they’d be doing a substantive piece on the candidates’ foreign policies — how they were developed and what the process revealed about the candidates’ thinking.

Perfect! I thought. At last. I was in Iowa City and drove 45 minutes through blinding snow to a small studio for an hour-long interview. When the segment aired, my heart sank. It had changed into a quick-and-dirty recitation of a few policy proposals from all the candidates, Republican and Democrat — not the substantive compare-and-contrast that had been promised.

I can’t say for sure whether or not this was National Public Radio, but a little Googling strongly indicts a report by Martha Wexler on All Things Considered of December 9, 2007. Signer doesn’t even merit a sound-bite from his hour long interview.

Whatever the purpose of this NPR report, and however appropriate or not Signer’s interview was for that purpose, his point is very, very important. We live in extremely dangerous times. The entire news media, and Public Radio in particular, need to make international coverage a huge priority.

Take just one foreign policy example. I was sentient during the cold war and woke up sweating from my share of Terminator-style atom bomb nightmares, but I feel the US is at more risk of Nuclear attack then at any time in our history.

Sure, my opinion doesn’t matter, I’m just a grumpy blogger.

But what about this fact? Both Bush and Kerry, men who agree on little, were asked during a 2004 debate what the greatest threat facing our nation was, and both immediately responded “nuclear proliferation,” specifically nukes in the hands of terrorists. (Ok, Bush started to answer “Jesus” out of debate habit but then caught himself. And what he really said was “nukuler perlimifiration,” but the point remains.)

Am I the only one who remembers that? Am I the only one who actually believes it?

What has the Bush administration done about it since? Precisely nothing, as far as I can tell, but I can’t really be sure because the media barely covers it!

Note to the the media: stop waiting to cover problems only after they explode and try to do some predicting. I know it’s no fun to be Cassandra, but it is your chosen profession.

Case in point: Daniel Zwerdling on ATC did an unbelievably good job warning us about a Hurricane flooding catastrophe in New Orleans in a lengthy 2-part report aired in 2003!. For people who love New Orleans listening to that story wasn’t a Driveway Moment it was an entire Driveway Afternoon. (Did he get a Pulitzer for that? He should have.)

Maybe the media can try that kind of coverage with a few scarily important international conundrums?

Theme Music Omnibus, part 1

Ahh, the theme music of public radio. I’m not talking about actual songs with lyrics like the exhausted one that opens Prairie Home Companion, I’m talking about the music that begins each show and plays behind the front end teasers.

Through repetition they become quite ingrained.

Can you identify which theme this is?

(slowly)

Da da, da da

Da da, da da

Da da, da da

Dum dum DUM!!

If you are a true public radio-head like I am I’m sure you pegged that as the spritely and lovable opening music of All Things Considered, composed originally by Don “even NPR can’t spell my name right” Voegeli. (Apparently they have now corrected his name on that page, surely as a result of this post. You’re welcome, Mr. Voegeli, Planet Earth, and the concept of truth in general!)

That theme has become jazzier and a bit more flatulent over the years, and every time they tinker with it I initially despise the new version, then I get used to it, and finally I begin to enjoy it. I’ve realized something: it’s not that I like the music qua music, it’s that over time I simply develop a positive Pavlovian association between the music and the content of the show.

There, see, I said something nice. Read it again, it’s in there, I promise.

Morning Edition, meanwhile, has an opening tune by the prolific giant of public radio music BJ Leiderman that sails dangerously close to the shoals of elevator music, especially when the guitar takes over the melody, but again it’s saved by sentimental attachment.

My favorite Leiderman work is another slightly muzak-ish one he created for Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the super-human tightness of the final section, heard at the end of each episode. Dah-dahh, dah da-da da-daaaahhhhhhh *bleeng*.

The Diane Rehm show has quite a theme, heavy on astonishingly athletic piano. It’s bombastic as all heck. The left hand does this constant “bing-bong, bing bong” as if a town crier is calling everyone to the square to announce the eminent arrival of the sovereign or the black plague. Listen for it next time you turn on the show. It finishes with a show-off complex run up the entire keyboard. I always picture the musician falling off the bench unconscious after the effort. I once heard Diane say as an aside that she’d never change the theme, and I agree.

Finally, in honor of their recent win of a coveted “baggie” award, I’d like to bring up the creepy and disturbing ditty that begins each edition of On The Media, written by “bassist/composer” Ben Alison.

But first I have a question. Why are they always so careful to say “bassist/composer Ben Allison” at the end of every episode? Which is it? Bassist or Composer? Pick a side, sir, we’re at war!

He must have instructed them to credit him just this way, which implies he’s ashamed of being a composer and just wants to play bass all the time. His parents must love that. “It’s not enough you want to try to make a living in music, son, but you want to be a bassist? Don’t tell your mother!”

Or maybe he just thinks chicks dig instrumentalists. But if he’s going to force the show to list non-composing traits and abilities in his composing credit, why stop with bassist? Why not “our theme was written by bassist/composer/dog lover/morning person Ben Allison.”

Sorry, I’ll now return to the topic at hand, the music itself. What are they trying to say? What atmosphere are they trying to create? I really want to know what they asked for from Ben and how they felt about the results.

Maybe they said “Give us something like All Things Considered, only, you know, for media. A tune that ‘All Media Considered’ would have. Or ‘All Things Media.’ See what I mean?” If they said that then it clearly didn’t work out. In fact, if that’s what they said I hope that Ben’s “bassist/composer” credit is all he got in return.

But maybe it was more like this:

“Okay, Ben, what we want…uhmm, Ben, maybe you could put down the bass for one minute while I’m talking to you…thank you…anyway, what we want, and I think I can safely say “we” – though I haven’t actually spoken to Brooke about this yet – what we want is a kind of slow, melodically disturbing horn section that makes you feel the way you do when you see someone you recognize striding purposefully toward you, but then you realize they aren’t who you thought they were, and in fact they’re kind of scary looking, and they’re coming right over to you and you suddenly realize there’s no one else around and you start to try to come up with some kind of an escape plan, and then they’re right up on you and it’s too late, and you’re feeling light-headed with panic, but then they just walk right by you, and you just stand there wondering what happened and why you got so freaked out. You know that feeling, right? What’s that? Yes, you can play bass in it.”

If they said that then it worked out perfectly, and I hope Ben was remunerated well enough to get his parents off his case and purchase whatever the Bass equivalent of a Stradivarius is.

I am now suspicious of and disoriented by the popular media, and for that I guess I’m grateful to OTM, and, more specifically, grateful to the music of bassist/composer/cavity fighter Ben Allison.

Is your refrigerator metaphor running?

Laura Sydell, correspondent for NPR’s feared “Arts Information Unit,” tried (not very hard) during tonight’s ATC to come up with a way to communicate the futurrific potential of the wireless bandwidth the FCC is about to auction off. The heart of her metaphor, to which she returned throughout the report, was a refrigerator that you could call with your cellphone to find out if it thinks you need milk. As the story progressed, the relevance and utility of this terrifying half-fridge half cellphone chimera became increasingly unclear.

First of all, the ability of a refrigerator to communicate with the outside world is in no way hampered by our current telecommunications infrastructure. (Thank God!) Millions of people have always-on high speed internet access in their homes ideal for such a fabulous ice-box to take advantage of right now! It could text your cellphone with all kinds of news about the milk over your home wifi network or over an ethernet cable even if the FCC fails to increase the wireless spectrum available to crucial consumer products ever again. Hell, it could make blog posts so everyone in your extended social network could know exactly how much you are hurting for moo-juice.

Now that you know this I’ll wait here while you run out and purchase your internet-savvy food cooler immediately, before Laura Sydell and the readers of this blog beat you to it…

What’s that you say? You don’t want a fridge with some kind of special milk-detecting shelf that requires a special milk bottle into which you must transfer all milk so the custom sensor can inform the fridge of the milk level? And the magic thingy can’t tell the difference between a fresh bottle full of delicious, bone-building, grade-A milk and a month-old bottle full of putrid chunky microbial growth medium that used to be milk? So you mean you don’t want it? Luddite! It’s your fault we don’t have flying cars!

So, Laura, I guess that there are just two things wrong with this picture: milk detecting fridges have nothing to do with new bandwidth, and no one wants a milk detecting fridge.

But other than that, strong work!

Weekend low point

Filed under “Too many things considered” is the Sunday All Things Considered story on brothers John and Hank Green. These two snooze-inducers “realized their relationship had become nothing more than a series of text messages and e-mails” so “they began posting video blogs for each other on YouTube.”

What’s wrong with this story? Where do I begin:

The entire premise makes an enormous but common category error. NPR unthinkingly buys the dumb idea that exchanging recorded, non-interactive video clips is new and that its newness makes it uniquely qualified to help these text-message-addled brothers re-connect. Well, I have another technology they should learn about that’s even more amazing. It’s called the telemaphone machine, or something newfangled like that, and I hear tell that you can actually say something into it and have a person on the other end respond immediately! Then you talk again and then they do! Imagine the revolution we’ll now be able to have! No more of those awful, stilted, waaaaay too much information one-way YouTube video clips. Soon you’ll be able to actually ask the person you are talking to about the things you are interested in in the order you want to hear about them instead of having them describe their trip to the grocery store! And, no tedious, painstaking editing and uploading of video clips! You just talk! What a future!

[editor’s note: I was way too harsh on the content of these guys’ videos and their viewers based on my understanding of them from the story. After actually watching some of them I took out that paragraph.]

As a blogger I often get this creepy feeling that one day everyone will have a blog. They won’t have time to read anyone else’s, just narcissistically manage their own little garden of superficia and knit rhetorical cozies in which to store their quotidia.

This will make the blogosphere about as useful as a map of the United States that is EXACTLY THE SAME SIZE AS THE ACTUAL UNITED STATES.

1:1 Scale adds nothing and is really hard to fit in the glove compartment.

NPR Gets Me Hot!

I never thought I might have to create a “sexy npr” category, but if we get more reports like today’s final story on Weekend ATC by Petra Mayer it will be necessary.

They were skirting the edges of a “maybe too many things considered” category post by covering a Japanese Beatles tribute band (they didn’t even make the obvious Japanese Beatle pun) when suddenly an interviewee came out with:

  • “This is the most fun I’ve had all week! Well, actually I had sex about an hour ago…that was pretty fun.”

Normally NPR sexiness is entirely unintentional, for example when Danny Zwerdling warned an interviewee he was about to give them the high hard one a few years ago.

Congratulations Petra!

(Anyone know if this made it to the west coast feed?)

All too common sense (Episode I)

The most constant irritant that assaults my delicate sensibilities is, by many light years, the minute-to-minute over employment of the word “sense” by virtually all Public Radio hosts when they ask questions.

Next time you turn on the radio keep your ear out for it. It will astonish you just how often hosts undermine their questions by starting them with some variation of “sense.”

Some all-too-common examples of this rotten preamble:

  • Give us a sense of…
  • Is there a sense there that…
  • What’s the sense of …

It’s even more unintentionally bizarre when they couch it in one of the many variations of “Can you give us a sense of…” the correct answer to which can only be “yes” or “no”.

The host of “Here and Now” once asked a guest “Give us a sense of your mother’s sense of…”

A couple of weeks ago on “Day to Day” a host asked an interviewee if she could “see a sense” of something.

Those last two aren’t even really parseable, but I guess they sound like they have some meaning since people actually answer them. What’s the proper response to the question “do you see a sense?” And by the time you are asking for a mere sense of a sense what do you really have? Something so vague that it seems hardly worth the electricity required to broadcast it across this great country of ours.

Which brings me to the sort of 7th grade English teacher point: almost any question is weakened by asking it using the “sense” form. Using “sense” implies that you expect a nonspecific answer. I’ve never heard a host ask “Can you give a blurry, poorly thought out, partly inaccurate report about…” But that is, in essence, what they are asking. It insults both the interviewee and the listener. If the interviewee is only capable of giving a sense then maybe the show needs to find someone with better information.

The sense questions have a helpless, groping quality to them. Can’t you just hear the proverbial blind men trying to figure out the elephant asking each other what their senses of it are?

Fixing it

Just stop using it. Almost any question you can ask weakly with sense you can ask more clearly by just dropping it. “Give us a sense of the anxiety there about the housing slump?” can easily be converted to “Describe the anxiety about the housing slump there.” Plus, with just a little more work, they could choose to select from the host of more specific words available to the journeyman interrogator. A modest list: hypothesis, feeling, assessment, reaction, impression, appraisal, estimation, evaluation, judgment.

Where does this come from?

This meme infests every show on Public Radio with the possible exception of “On the Media”, but I’m not totally sure why.

I do have a few theories.

1. Perhaps it’s only a virally transmitted bad habit. Teenagers sprinkle their speech with enough “you know”s and “like”s to drive the average grandparent to drink. They clearly get it from each other. Probably some prominent NPR host started the habit and the rest just unconsciously adopted it. Maybe they need to have a “sense” jar where they must deposit a quarter every time they use the word. A penny would make more “cents” but I don’t think it’s enough punishment. (OMG, I really apologize for what I just wrote – but not enough to delete it. Yet.)

2. Maybe all these sense questions are post-modern capitulation to the elusiveness of fact. The problem is that a basic mistrust of certainty, a very good trait in anyone, especially a journalist, when taken too far leads to susceptibility to spin, which is fatal to good reporting. If someone expresses an idea with enough confidence a reporter might just believe the tone rather than the substance, due to their own bare cupboard of trusted knowledge. That’s how we ended up at war with Iraq. The neocons seemed so all-fired confident with their “we make reality” stuff that the reporters and a lot of Americans just went with it.

3. Maybe it’s simply too much time in the studio. Recently I got to thinking about radio recording studios. They are a bit like sensory deprivation tanks – usually no windows to the outside world, dark, silent except for what comes in through the earphones. Maybe the isolation someone in such a room feels inspires them to reach out for more senses from those outside somewhere.

That last thought makes me a little sad for them.

I’d really love it if a genuine Public Radio broadcaster would give me an answer about whether or not this use of sense is automatic or volitional. Maybe they could even give me a sense of why they think they do it.

I will make note of especially clumsy or compulsively repetitious uses of sense on various shows as this blog progresses.

Fun Update: I asked Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway and a frequent sense-requester, whether this style of query was intentional or just a habit and her response was to retweet my question with the addition of an upside-down face emoji. So that happened.