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Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007

Thanks to an obedient media that works so well for Steve Jobs, the hottest item this summer (and no doubt for Xmas) will be the iPhone.  The flood of glowing reports are only matched by the stories about the frenzy surrounding the arrival of the phone itself- it’s a perfect self-feeding story.  Make no mistake, this little gadget will indeed change the game for the several devices it’s meant to replace- cell phone, MP3 player, web browser, digital camera- mainly because it offers you all these things in one place.  Of course, just like the original cell phones themselves (not to mention many models today), the I-Phone actually offers you half-assed scaled down versions of each of these items but that’s not the point.  You’re getting them all in one place and adding to your convenience supposedly. 


Even more important, it’s the hottest little electronic toy of ‘07.  So if you have 500 or 600 dollars to blow, go for it.  Just remember that you’re paying to be a guinea pig.  Any sensible consumer never buys the first version of any electronic product- have we learned nothing from Windows?  These always have the bugs in them that still have to get worked out.  As you complain about this to friends and message boards and salesman, you’re providing research and development info for Apple.  Plus, you’re paying for the privilege to do that!


The most sober article I’ve seen about the iPhone is this one from CNN, which lays out the pitfalls plus the marvels of the device.  As they say, let the buyer beware.


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007


SiCKO is sensational. It’s perhaps the best movie Michael Moore has ever made. Granted, there will be those who view his anti-gun screed Bowling for Colombine as his most heartfelt effort (it did earn him an Oscar for Best Documentary) and now that the firestorm has died down, and the winds of change are basically blowing in his direction, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks more and more like a prescient populist prophecy. But those two amazing movies, along with the retro-reactionary Roger and Me and the rest of his confrontational canon really pale in comparison to this detailed dissection of the American Heath Care system. Looking at the problem from both the inside out and the international inward, Moore manages to do what his previous films have failed to accomplish. SiCKO, more than any other movie he’s made, is guaranteed to provide a cinematic catalyst for change.


Don’t think so? Unsure that people will rise up to challenge the substandard status quo of insurance coverage for the US population? Well, just remember this. A film is forever. Mock its methods or question its facts, but once it takes a stance, that statement is set in celluloid stone. From then on, it is up to others to redirect the dialogue, to challenge its veracity and pick apart the particulars. But at the end of the day, after all the agenda-based attacks and website scrutinizing, Moore will have delivered the first AND last word on the subject. And since the enemy he picks is well known and hated by a vast majority of the paying populace, it will survive the government threats, the industry lawsuits, and the brazen backlash from dozens of self-styled experts. In turn, Moore’s version of reality will become the JFK of the HMOs. The essentials may be specious, but the overall message is right on goddamn target.


During the film’s clever opening, we see immediately where Moore is going. He discusses the case of two people sans insurance, and immediately tosses their frightening fate aside. We can’t deal with this issue, you can hear the filmmaker thinking, it’s too much of a common man slam dunk. Instead, the focus of SiCKO is on people who actually have coverage, and how said supposed security blanket is actually a lifestyle (and life) threatening ruse. We get testimonials from individuals who’ve lost loved ones thanks to seemingly random decisions by blank corporate facades, and then Moore turns around and puts a mug onto those crass kill(er)joys. It’s this material that’s the most fascinating in SiCKO. Everyone has a horror story about being denied in a time of crisis, but when do we ever get to see the person behind the decision. Granted, these former insurance company workers are all miserable and overflowing with mea culpas. But no amount of forgiveness can erase the dollar oriented disasters that lay in their wake.


Throughout this initial half of the film, Moore sets up the first of his two main themes – that insurance companies are in it for the money, not the health care management. The resounding ‘D’uh” following said sentiment should argue against his success as a pundit. But Moore knows movies, and he understands that the right story can sidetrack an entire library of statistics and consulting reports. Thus, he presents the Smith family. Amiable, hard working, and dedicated followers of America’s Middle Class dream, we watch as Mom and Pop Smith are devastated by several personal problems (him – heart attacks, her – cancer) and slowly swallowed up by the bureaucratic bankruptcy of the system. The co-pays and deductibles, let alone the financial reality of dealing with six kids of their own, sends them into a downward spiral of money problems. Eventually, they must sell their home and move into a cramped basement computer room (with bunk beds!) in their daughter’s home.


Like the scene in Roger and Me where a kind-hearted sheriff’s deputy dispossess a distraught family, watching real people suffer in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ manner is the most effective way of getting your point across. This is not an issue of mismanaged funds or individual liability. The Smiths bought into a system (paid into it, actually) that never intended to indemnify them come crunch time. Imagine – your car insurance suddenly stops taking effect right in the middle of a post-accident repair job. Your life insurance annuity ceases paying at the discretion of the company, not the contract. You sign up for disaster insurance before boarding a plane, and as the engines start to fail and the stewardesses shout out final instructions, the head rest phone rings. It’s your company, suddenly cutting off your coverage as a ‘potential risk’. Along with the other examples he provides in this section, Moore’s makes SiCKO a strong case for massive corporate reforms.


But what’s the model we should use? Which countries have the best universal coverage – or at least, in Moore’s opinion, put the American system to shame. The answer to this question composes the second half of SiCKO, and will probably be the sequence viewed with the most cynicism. Providing us a USA-ridiculing walking tour of the Canadian, French and British health care arrangement, Moore plays dupe to a bunch of everyday citizens who can’t imagine living in a country that doesn’t provide some manner of socialized medicine. Our intrepid reporter asks the same question over and over again – “what did it cost you?” – and the look of disconnect and confusion on these foreigners’ faces is classic. Time and time again, the answer is “nothing”, and Moore mimics their disbelief by wondering “what’s the catch”. Well, exploring said specifics and restrictions is not what SiCKO is on about. Again, the big picture is important here. No matter what it says in the fine print, almost every industrialized Western country has some form of universal health coverage – except the US.


Of course, the devil is always in the details, and there will be those who harp on minor misconceptions and abject realities as a means of trying to deflate SiCKO’s strategies. Unfortunately, said potshots won’t make the movie any less entertaining. The reason people will pile on this film has nothing to do with its ideas and everything to do with its effectiveness. If Moore was a moviemaking incompetent, unable to maintain a level of interest in what is an inherently intriguing idea, then his efforts would tour a few underground film festivals and that’s it. But people will be lining up to learn the lessons this director wants to discuss, and it’s the intrinsic draw of film that has opponents flummoxed.


If Moore was inherently wrong with what he puts out in SiCKO, that would be one thing. He’s not using one or two rare instances to make a gross overgeneralization about the US Health Care system. Instead, he is avoiding the 10 or 20% of satisfied citizens to focus on the far more prevalent problems. It’s not a question of balance – if 10 people out of 100 get good, trouble free service, representing their viewpoint does not provide equilibrium to the situation with the other 90. Neither does pointing out the number of areas where America beats the rest of the world in medical technology. Saving lives is one thing. Having access to the science that does such rescuing is the issue at hand. It is conceivable that the citizens of the countries Moore champions would have varying versions of their socialized medicines success. But complaining that problems exist in an arguably imperfect system is like saying an inexact science is wrong now and again. Besides, what’s more important – the fact that everyone is covered, or that when such universal coverage is in place, flaws are inevitably found? 


There will be those who cannot forgive his histrionics, who see him standing on Cuban soil, chronically ill volunteers from 9/11 in tow, calling over to Guantanamo Bay and asking for the same health care that we are giving to the terrorists, and complain about the obvious exploitation. Others will attack the man and consider it a criticism of the movie. But in a nation of apathetic arrogance, that has begun to believe much of its own hyped hubris, SiCKO needs to be seen. It does the two most potent things any successful screed can – it enlightens while it entertains. In addition, it sets the tone for the rest of the debate, providing proof against all the industry apologists while offering potential solutions, no matter how suspect. It’s what any good discussion should encompass. It’s also the foundation for any masterful film…and SiCKO definitely falls into that category.


 


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007

Two of Americans’ least favorite subjects remain race and class.  They’re not pleasant subjects, not easy to resolve or always get a grip on and inflame strong passions in many people.  All the more reason why these subjects fascinate me and make me want to learn and read more about them.  As I gradually wrap my brain around a Frantz Fanon book (Black Skin White Masks from Grove Press) that my girlfriend got me for my b-day, I also note Dr. Edward Rhymes’ Caucasian Please (Black Agenda Report) which explores the deep and long-running roots of misogyny, crime-glorification and other vices or as Rhymes puts it “Never do we ask, ‘What has been society’s role in shaping and influencing hip-hop?’”  He gets some rock facts fudged but his general point is well-taken.  Then there’s Danah Boyd’s Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.  Boyd lays out an interesting class divide between MySpace and Facebook that points out divisions reflected online and offline, though some of his research methodology is a questionable (i.e. the age information and other vital info given on MySpace definitely ain’t always on the up and up).


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007

Via Brad Plumer, a link to a recent NY Times article about dumpster diving. (Oh wait, according to Webster’s 11th that should be Dumpster diving—wouldn’t want to infringe on that copyright! Yeah, right.)


On a Friday evening last month, the day after New York University’s class of 2007 graduated, about 15 men and women assembled in front of Third Avenue North, an N.Y.U. dormitory on Third Avenue and 12th Street. They had come to take advantage of the university’s end-of-the-year move-out, when students’ discarded items are loaded into big green trash bins by the curb.
New York has several colleges and universities, of course, but according to Janet Kalish, a Queens resident who was there that night, N.Y.U.’s affluent student body makes for unusually profitable Dumpster diving. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the gathering at the Third Avenue North trash bin quickly took on a giddy shopping-spree air, as members of the group came up with one first-class find after another.


Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated with other people’s trash, not the only person who conceives a potential ethical mission upon discovering usable things piled on the street. I’ve sort of vaguely intuited that this sort of thing was happening, but never really thought through the implications as the people profiled here obviously have.


Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.
They dress in castoff clothes and furnish their homes with items found on the street; at freecycle.org, where users post unwanted items; and at so-called freemeets, flea markets where no money is exchanged. Some claim to hold themselves to rigorous standards. “If a person chooses to live an ethical lifestyle it’s not enough to be vegan, they need to absent themselves from capitalism,” said Adam Weissman, 29, who started freegan.info four years ago and is the movement’s de facto spokesman.



I seemed to remember a similar movement from the late 1960s led by this man



that believed in freeloading off of society’s garbage. He even wrote some catchy tunes about it, namely “Garbage Dump”, which featured these lyrics:


Oh garbage dump oh garbage dump
Why are you called a garbage dump
You could feed the world with my garbage dump…
Here’s a market basket and a A&P
I don’t care if the box boys are starin’ at me
I don’t even care who wins the war
I’ll be in them cans behind my favorite store


(Of course, he had some other, more radical ideas about racial conflict and what his group needed to do to foment the inevitable black-white struggle.)


Anyway, I’m skeptical that shopping in someone else’s trash exempts you from participation in consumer society, and “absents” one from capitalism, as the “freegans” seem to believe. I’m sure the logic is that by reusing something, they are circumventing the need for new objects to produced. They are not adding to the problem by contenting themselves with stuff that already would have existed anyway.


But parasites need their host to survive, and in fact they will in some cases do what they can to perpetuate the lifespan of the creature they feed from. It’s no good to castigate a culture while living on its leavings. Obviously if everyone decided to live on the refuse of others, we’d quickly run out of refuse—somebody (people who would no doubt be derided as wasteful and evil) would need to be throwing stuff away for this system to work.


And if freegans are merely fulfilling the same consumer desires with secondhand goods, how are they opting out? Opting out would seem to imply conceiving an alternative set of values, desires, ways of fulfilling one’s human potential, etc. The means don’t justify the ends; getting a cool thing out of the trash doesn’t make the acquisitive lifestyle righteous.


Sadly, this sort of article tends to discredit leftist politics, as it is populated with people like this:


Many freegans are predictably young and far to the left politically, like Ms. Elia, the 17-year-old, who lives with her father in Manhattan. She said she became a freegan both for environmental reasons and because “I’m not down with capitalism.”


Leftism becomes associated with an interim period of youth when you are not yet firmly entrenched in the system, not yet making the most of your earning potential, and are disgruntled with the effort it takes to become assimilated into in society as it is. You consider dropping out and rebeling against mainstream society by rejecting its rules, like “Don’t eat what other people throw away.” So when you are not busy watching Fletch you have time to complain and conceive of schemes to freeload off the capitalist society you blithely put down. Then one day you grow up, and you give up picking up trash items from the sidewalk, and you stop crying about the environment, and you set your worn-out, second-hand ideology by the curb.


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007
by Russ Britt [MarketWatch (MCT)]

LOS ANGELES - Dow Jones & Co.‘s board of directors and News Corp. reached an agreement in principle Tuesday on the makeup of an editorial board that would oversee Dow Jones’ flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, people familiar with the matter said.


The major elements of the deal were set in place, but some smaller issues were still being finalized, according to two people familiar with the discussions. It was not clear how soon the negotiations would be concluded.


Details of the pact’s structure were not immediately available, but the removal of this sticking point in the slow-motion negotiations regarding a takeover of Dow Jones by News Corp. could pave the way for a merger of the two in relatively short order.


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