Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Big Bird Vote

A few months ago I did something that in retrospect seems almost unthinkable -- I responded to a MoveOn.org email campaign.

MoveOn was originally an anti-Bush upstart in the 2004 campaign, and they became the poster-child of the ABB movement. After the Democratic defeat, MoveOn was forced to reinvent itself with a broader political agenda (although the rabid, near-hysterical anti-Republican rhetoric is completely unchanged). I think the best indicator of their mainstreaming has been the fact that on three occasions they have actually managed to get my attention: twice with the threats of Congressional budget cuts to public broadcasting, and once with the issue of net neutrality.

Why in the world would a bunch of Republican Congressmen, running scared for their seats in an election year, decide to pick a fight a Big Bird? Can you think of a better way to alienate people across all political lines than to steamroll their beloved childhood characters? And if you think that the Big Bird vote isn't important enough, what about NPR? Maybe I just live inside a bubble, but it seems to me that large numbers of well-educated, wealthy, conservative voters listen to NPR.

What are they thinking?


Thursday, June 15, 2006

My hero, Bill Gates

Bill Gates announced that he will be transitioning out of his job as chief architect at Microsoft so he can spend more time with his philanthropic work. Wow.

Bill Gates has always impressed me. He had all the traits of the super-successful CEO -- he works like a maniac, is passionate about his field, and is ruthlessly competitive. But what suprised me more was what is lacking in him. Even though he is the more powerful man in software, and off and on the richest man alive, he lacks the blatant ego and arrogence that one finds in Larry Ellison or Scott McNealy. It doesn't surprise me that he hangs out with Warren Buffett -- the other just-folks billionaire genius. Bill Gates is not the necessarily the nicest guy in the world -- did I mention he was ruthlessly competitive? -- but he has always been comfortable in his own skin and not particularly worried about what people thought about him. He also seemed to have a firm grasp of impermanence -- as much as his competitors pillory him for holding a monopoly, he always insists that Microsoft is only a few years away from being undone by the next smart, ambitious company.

It was that un-selfconsciousness that allowed him to let go of the reins of his company when the time was right. It's not often that someone as successful as he is able to bow out while at the top of his game. The fact that he ceded primary control of the business so he could work more with the technology was also heartening -- it showed that he cared more about what his company did (make great software) than how much money it made. What geek can't respect that?

And now Bill is doing it again. This time he is recognizing something even more startling -- that his charitable work has the potential to have a greater impact on mankind than even his business work. If Larry Ellison said he was stepping down to devote more time to charity, I would think that he was slacking off. But Bill? No. He doesn't have a slack bone in his body. He is really, truly making plans to Save the World. Rather than devoting his money to chi-chi high-tech science and rich-people's diseases (like Ellison . . . can you tell I don't like that guy?), Gates has focused on wiping out the Third World diseases that can actually be wiped out.

What a guy.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Net Neutrality Revisited

I wrote earlier about "net neutrality," and how important it was for network providers to not have complete control over which communications can go over their wires. But I'm starting to hear another side to the story, and I think it's only fair to say that I may need to modulate my position.

I still think it's dangerous to provide a legal position for a network provider to be able to arbitrarily censure content -- like AOL blocking certain emails from their competitors from being delivered to their subscribers, or Time Warner suppressing certain web sites that take political positions they don't like.

The problem is that future services that are provided over the internet may be radically different from the things we currently get over the internet. Sending 10 kilobytes of data in an email is not really comparable to a 10 MB/sec high-def video feed. If the network companies are investing huge sums into building high-speed architecture that will ultimately provide us with really cool services, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot by not giving them a viable economic model for profiting from those investments. An online video provider is going to need more bandwidth than an Amazon.com, and I don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to pay more to get it.

I don't think this is necessarily an either/or proposition, though. It seems like there ought to be some middle position, where networks can provide tiers of bandwidth for different prices, but still provide some protections against selective censorship. All I care about is that the network providers are content-neutral: that they can't provide a different level of service to two different websites purely based on the content rather than the pricing structure.


Monday, June 12, 2006

Kill the right way, ok?

Two news items piled on one another today, that seemed oddly related:
  • The U.S. reaffirms that it did indeed kill Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and has an autopsy to demonstrate that he was killed by two 500-pound bombs dropped on his house, and not anything as pedestrian as ordinary gunfire or as brutal as being roughed up by the Haditha Boys.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the death penalty, but also upholds the right to challenge lethal injection as "cruel and unusual punishment" on the basis that it may be too painful.

I'm not sure if it's a sign of our humanity and societal evolution that we are painfully conflicted about our methods of killing people. On the one hand, there is a constant-but-not-complete consensus in the society that certain people deserve to die. We just can't bring ourselves to face the messy details of how we do it. So, the President of the United States can congratulate the Armed Forces for "completing their mission" of rubbing out the #1 terrorist in Iraq, but then we have to insist that we killed him "fair and square" with a military airstrike, and that we even tried to give him medical attention before he expired. We want to eliminate our most violent criminals from society, but we're so weirded out about a state-sanctioned killing that we haven't updated our lethal injection drug cocktail in thirty years.

I think it's probably a good thing. I don't realistically think we are going to come to a day when we stop killing people, though we can certainly hope to minimize it. (After all, we've managed to keep the casulties from our most recent wars down to thousands of people instead of millions. Smart bombs, indeed.) But it would be a sad day indeed if we could ever be comfortable with the need to kill.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Walk the Line

We watched Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash / June Carter movie. Some thoughts:
  • The movie was bookended well. At the beginning of the movie, "the good son" Jack tells him he's studying the Bible because, "How can I help anyone, if I don't know the right stories to tell them?" And then, in the very last scene, Johnny's once-estranged father tells him, "I don't know what stories to tell 'em [the grandkids]-- you're the one with all the stories." That really was the point of the movie, after all: Johnny Cash learning "the right stories to tell," through his music.
  • The simplest test for a movie like this is, "Does it make me feel like going out and buying some Johnny Cash music?" And the answer is, Yes, it does.
  • Towards the end of the movie, Johnny Cash is lobbying with his lable to do a live record at Fulsom Prison, and his producer says, "Your fans are Christians, Johnny. They don't want to hear you playing for murderers and rapists trying to make them feel better." Now, anyone who knows their scripture must be busting at the seams at this point, because they know that Jesus explicitly said he was sent to hang out with the sinners. But (thank God) the movie shows admirable restraint. Johnny just says, "Well, they ain't Christians, then."
  • My favorite scene in the whole movie is the grilling he gets from Sam Phillips at his first audition. I couldn't do his spiel justice here, but it had the ring of hard authenticity. "Sing me something real, because that's the song people want to hear." It is always telling that the things that are most real and genuine are the things people are trying to hide . . . and that the very best comes out when people tell the truth.