Thursday, February 28, 2008

Internet Blocking Pervasive & Spreading

So you think the Internet is open and free? Think again. Evidence is mounting that virtually all governments and many ISPs are blocking content, restricting access and generally trying to slow and control the evolution of The Net. A bad thing. A very bad thing for democracy, for citizen oversight and journalism, and for freedom of research and speech.

So just how pervasive is this trend? Well, we all know about the dictatorships around the world that are so frightened by free expression they've clamped down on Net access. China, N. Korea and a variety of conservative Muslim countries all block many sites and significant portions of Net content. Read the Economist article on the subject here. And then there's US Cable provider Comcast, blocking streaming video sites at peak hours in the name of preserving bandwidth. Enhancing profit and annoying supposedly valuable customers is more like it. Read about recent Comcast hearings at this site.

And for really cool, interactive maps highlighting countries that block various kinds of content including social network sites, check out Open Net's fine mapping page. You'll be blown away by the data. And check out the organization's blog here. I'm adding this important site to my blogroll.

The news that Japan is planning to control all non-corporate news sites is particularly unwelcome and distrubing. After all, the rest of the free world just doesn't expect this kind of behavior from a country with such sterling high-tech roots. But then again, Japan also has the most robots on the planet - which some citizens and politicians seem to prefer to resident immigrants according to news reports.

The Wikileaks shutdown and US Air Force block (source) on any sites with the word "blog" in their title brings this trend home, to the " of the free and home of the brave." Well, not free enough to provide open access and not brave enough to embrace blogs it seems. Now that's a disappointment.

Wikileaks, a website that allows whistleblowers to post government and corporate documents anonymously, was shut down recently after a concerned Swiss bank got a dummie federal judge to abandon the constitution. Their principal concern? The site was uncensorable. In other words, out of their control. So much for promoting transparency in our workplace, government and society at large. The ACLU & EFF have come to the rescue with a number of other concerned parties (source). In an even more stupid and insidious move, the US Air Force has determined that blogs represent a threat to the readiness of our servicemen. Uh huh. Like I'm buying that. Read the WIRED report about it here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Would You Buy a Car from This Company?

According to news reports, GM chair Robert Lutz thinks global warming is a "...crock of shit." Yea, uh-huh. So my question is this. Why would anybody buy a car from General Motors? I don't know about you, but The Author would like to rest assured that companies he graces with his currency share his values. Just when the new Saturn Aura was really starting to look good.

But why should we be surprised? It was General Motors, along with their auto industry cohorts, that convinced many US cities (LA comes to mind) to abandon perfectly good, rail-based rapid transit systems in favor of busses and more freeways for cars. Seems counter-intuitive at this point in our history. Just another example of what happens when significant decisions with long-term consequences are based entirely on economic interests and lobbying. One thing the collective, progressive blogosphere can do to send a clear message around this issue is to refrain from spending with companies who hold stubbornly to old, discredited models and beliefs. So forget about that Saturn. I'm looking for some of those new European diesels with 60+ MPG and a new generation of hybrids to do the job until a real fuel-cell hits the market.

Is Wikipedia Down?

I can't load Wikipedia. I just get 404 error (page not found) after error. I sure hope this is a very temporary situation, or perhaps a local ISP routing problem. There is no doubt The Author depends on the fine, bottom-up encyclopedia for many links on this blog - and on Wiki Commons (logo pictured) for a large percentage of the public domain images used here. Which reminds me, the Wiki Foundation can always use another few bucks to help their geeks get by. The Author donated modestly last year - to ensure this valuable resource stays available and continues to grow. I'm hoping that some of the big foundations, or maybe George Soros, can add some serious scratch to the pot to take this organization to the next level. But I'm not counting on it, so we'll all need to ante-up soon.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Just Say No to Nader

The once celebrated consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, has made it official. He's running for president again. Someone has to say it: The man is mad, consumed by ego and beset with cluelessness. He won't even acknowledge his undeniable role in putting George Bush in office. A quick reminder, without Nader in the race Gore would have won Florida and his margins of victory in other key states would have been larger - giving him a clear majority of the popular vote. So thanks to Ralph (still makes me want to grab the air sickness bag), we've had the worst 8 years in our country's history under the leadership of the most ignorant and disruptive chief executive ever. So Ralph, go away. Get lost.

I'm putting my friends and family on notice, don't even mention the jerk's name in my presence. I wrote Ralph personally to express my bitterness at his decision, and to lay The Authors' curse on him. That's right, I cursed his life in the most direct, formal and serious manner I could muster - as he is continuing to damage the causes he purports to honor and support. Damn him. May he have a heart attack and die of natural causes. Tomorrow.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Persepolis & Iranian Film Favs

The story of Marjane Satrapi and her Oscar-nominated animated film Persepolis is now well known. The edgy graphic artist (pictured) first produced a celebrated, French-language comic novela about her life as a girl in post-revolution Iran. Now, she has Hollywood's undivided attention. I've posted before about the power and attraction of novelas in an article about Ugly Betty & the Love and Rockets series, here.

Satrapi's novela was made into an animated film by Sony, based on the hand-drawn images provided by the author. I am extremely impressed that Satrapi declined to produce the film using the vast array of technology offered, opting instead to hand-draw all of the images herself. Now that is dedication to creative art. And evidence of a strong and creative woman. You can see trailers of the film, favored by The Author to win the coveted statue tomorrow night, here. With Ratatouille in the running, competition in this category will be fierce.

It is instructive and rewarding to take a look at the entire Iranian film industry, with its long and storied history in the region and worldwide. I encourage readers of this blog to dedicate a weekend evening to learning more about this country that is so often vilified by the world press and major superpowers. I have found that it is impossible to demonize people whose lives I've witnessed personally and whose art has touched my soul. But more important than that, Iran produces some great films. I have several to recommend.

I collect Persian carpets, so I really enjoyed Gabbeh - a delightful and colorful film that is based on a romantic folktale of nomad life. The story is sweet and engaging, with a twist at the end.

Academy Award nominee, Children of Heaven is also a touching story. It's about the closeness and struggles of children in Iranian society. The White Balloon follows a young girl as she searches for lost money that was trusted to her. It examines fringe members of Iranian society and the detail of their everyday lives. The Color of Paradise is a harder film, involving a blind boy and his unappreciative and scheming father. All are worthy.

Border Cafe (Cafe Transit) is an uplifiting movie about a widow who has the audacity to take over her deceased husband's border cafe, a cultural taboo in rural Iran. The film deals with issues of sexism and personal struggle. This is a jewel of a film. You can see it now on Link TV.

Baran, on the other hand, is a bleak and gray film about the plight of an illegal Afghan refugee worker, who has a secret, on a harsh and unforgiving Iranian construction site. A real eye-opener. Again, with a neat twist of plot.

Friends of John McCain

Friends and advisors can tell us a lot about presidential candidates. If you thought the FOB (Friends of Bill) list was unbecoming, then take a look at some of Republican presidential candidate John McCains buddies. No really, it's a few minutes you should spend. This "rogue's gallery" from the man who claims to be a reformer - who will fight back the lobby to represent our interests. Uh-huh. Like I'm buying that. Thanks to Brave New Films (again) for this fine video production.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

IBM Works on DNA Computer

Breaking news: Over the last 24 hours, several news articles have appeared about IBM's newly announced research on DNA computing.

"What we are really making are tiny DNA circuit boards that will be used to assemble other components." Greg Wallraff, an IBM scientist

That's right, we're actually moving forward toward designing and implementing an automated system built on DNA. I'm sure Leonard Adleman, the "A" in RSA for all of you encryption geeks, is very pleased. Adleman had the initial vision of a DNA computer in 1993 (Wired Article) and is now widely credited with being the father of the field.

John McCain - Clueless Oldie

Now that's it is clear to all just who will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States (POTUS), we all have a job to do. DEFEAT John McCain and send him and the Republican party away for a very long time. That's, of course, if you ever want to see an end to war; an improvement in our economy; or, the restoration of our international reptuation. Having doubts? Watch this.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Paki Elections & Kosovar Independence

There are a couple of momentus (at least from a foreign affairs POV) events underway in distant regions of the world. Elections in Pakistan, and independence in the former Serbian province of Kosovo - now governed by majority ethnic Albanians.

Paki elections are important, everybody understands that. The Author covered the recent state of emergency in the country, as well as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. So if you're looking for the latest information on today's polls, with up-to-date results of the voting, you might try the country's largest English language daily, DAWN's blog, or for an insider's perspective. The other, logical choice for coverage is Al Jazeera's website.

While at Al Jazeera's site, you can shift gears and read the latest on Kosovar independence. The Turkish Daily News has a worthy report, and Germany's Der Spiegel has two great articles, here and here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Financial Crisis May Bankrupt Cities

The US financial crisis, driven by the sub-prime loan feeding frenzy, is now threatening to bankrupt US cities as mounting losses pressure the three largest bond insurers. Here’s how it works. Greedy banks and investment houses, for the first time in history, bundled vast numbers of sub-prime residential mortgages into investment instruments called mortgage-backed securities or collatoralized debt obglitions (CDOs). These instruments were then marketed to banks and funds worldwide. Thus, the traditional roles and responsibilities of lenders and borrowers changed - as the rush to cash-in on the profit side trumped good judgement. This formula for disaster produced massive mortgage defaults and major insurers got way nervous.

Trouble is, these same insurers also back municipal bonds across the country. Those are the financial instruments used by cities to fund basic infrastructure repair and buildout. So the crisis threatens a long list of projects including schools, bridges, municipal water services, sewer services, ariports and museums. New York governor, Elliot Spitzer, outlined the scope of the potential problem before congress last week. Check out this report on his testimony.

Insuring debt, especially “safe” municipal debt, has always been a major piece of the insurance industry’s profits. Now, with the worst-case scenario actually playing out, trillions of US dollars in debt losses are threatening the very survival of the insurance industry. After all, they are bound to make good on their policies and cover the losses. So according to reports, they’re considering breaking themselves up. Read what an analysis in the London Times had to say about that here. The implication of this action is clear: without some kind of radical solution, the entire bond market including munis is facing risky times. And that does not bode well for our cities.

Last Friday, one of the big three insurers announced (under some pressure) that they were considering breaking up their operations into two business units; one for municipal bonds, the other for mortgage-backed securities. Uh-huh. I’m hearing some desperation in these announcements. Like we needed this.

Pop Impulse called this recession, and identified its causes and culprits, weeks before the story hit the mainstream media. The Author has been reluctant to use the "D-word," it's just so negative and sensational. But not all have shown this kind of reluctance. Take financial giant AIG's senior analyst, Bernard Connelly, for example. He's already talking about a worldwide depression. Read about his comments here. If you want even more detailed background, check-out Doug Noland's lengthy commentary on the issue in the Asia Times. As they say, read it and weep.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Project Budburst Needs Citizen Scientists

Project Budburst 2008 got underway yesterday. Thanks to NPR's "Living on Earth" for showcasing the new project and website in today's radio broadcast. Project Budburst is a bottom-up data collection effort that needs citizen scientists of any age (many current participants are children) to observe the timing of bud blooms in their gardens and communities. Observations are logged, by plant species and geographic location, in a centralized database which can then be used by participating academic partners to chart climate change. The project is part of the National Phenology Network (NPN) field campaign. The now inevitable process of global warming makes the once obscure field of historical climatology very timely and germane.

So if you've got a garden, or take daily walks in your local park you can contribute to this bottom-up, web-driven effort. This is one of the really great benefits of the Internet age. If you've got an interest, there is a job for you to do, and a community of like-minded peers that you can join.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Robben Ford Starts it Up

Robben Ford at Portland's Aladdin Theater. What a show last Tuesday night. The Author's current guitar favorite, Ford did not disappoint. He blazed through a long set with bass and drums providing the low-end and rhythms required to support his stratospheric, highly technical licks. This guy can do it all. That's why Muscian's Magazine named him one of the best guitarists of the 20th century.

Ford got his first professional gig at 18, and since then he's backed up Charlie Musclewhite, Jimmy Witherspoon, George Harrison and Joni Mitchell. He was a founding member of the Yellowjackets, marking his side-trip into jazz fusion. He's played with Miles, and more recently toured with Larry Carlton. I saw that paring at the Britt Festival a couple of seasons ago and was seriously impressed. Read an interview with Robben Ford here.

The Rose City's Aladdin Theatre is an old-fashioned small venue. About 600 seats, no reservations. They serve beer, wine and lots of pizza. The audience often gets good and tight. Altogether perfect for the Robben Ford Blues Band, including Larry Carlton's son Travis on bass. Here's a couple of vids from previous concerts. Enjoy.

Playing Blues standard "Worried Life" as well as anybody can...

Ack! Re-boot

Apologies to Pop Impulse readers for my lengthy absence. I've been battling Trojans and tending to system clean-up chores. Is it just me, or is there an avalanche of Malware descending on us all? In the last two weeks, I've had to wipe a laptop and start over from scratch; and, now I'm wrestling with trojan jakposh on my desktop. Like I needed this. Don't you just love it when Symantec/Norton's homepage recommends "manual repair?" Uh huh. Running in Safe Mode, hand-editing the Registry, constantly re-scanning and re-booting is not my idea of fun. Good thing it's a low-risk virus, because I'm still chasing it around my system.

While ranting about security, I should note the increasing number of "phishing" emails arriving in my in-box. Not just the usual stuff from Nigeria. And now, phishing robo-calls are interrupting dinner. A lot of these emails and calls are referencing "rebates." I'd say greedy scammers are getting worried about the upcoming elections and making the most out of the last few months of their 8-year free-ride, but you'd call me cynical.

In any case, The Author is going to re-boot. And that means less about politics, and more music, economics, web 2.0 & travel posts. So stay tuned. A special shout-out and thank-you to my new subscribers.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Classism & Corporate Greed Devalue People Power

A number of recent news stories have highlighted the fact that people power is a thing of the past. In fact, it is becoming clear that corporate greed, consumerism and classist polarization of the world (developed vs. non-developed nations) have resulted in the largest, wholesale devaluation of individuals and families in recent history. That is a strong statement, but consider the evidence.

A recent news article reports that indigents in India are being kidnapped, sedated and surgically relieved of one of their kidneys - destined for the black market in live human organs for transplant. Another article documents the worldwide threat this trend represents. In the US, patients are being denied life-saving surgeries, procedures and treatments due to lack of adequate insurance coverage and exclusion from dwindling public health programs. This, while large Pharma companies like Roche, Wyeth & Bristol reap record profits.

Profits over people, a theme that appears in every market in every country on the planet. The current financial crisis, initiated by the sub-prime mortgage loan meltdown in the US, is evidence of what happens in an age of corporate excess and regulatory permissiveness. The real outrage is that we're bailing out business, and leaving the very real people and families involved drowning in a financial whirlpool.

Now comes the news of a worldwide uptick in poverty, just as food prices are on the rise. In the US, according to the Census Bureau, 36.5 million people live below the poverty line. Worldwide, 2.8 billion people live on under $2US per day, and 25,000 die each day of hunger or hunger-related causes. In the poorest of poor countries, Haiti, the locals have been reduced to preparing and eating dirt cookies. That's right. Check out the video below.

I've posted here about the work of Partners in Health and Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti. My family offers modest financial support to this Herculean effort on a regular, quarterly basis. You can do the same by following the link above.

Human life is being devalued across the globe, in a variety of ways. Certainly corporate greed is driving some of this phenomena.

"...citizens' anxiety, however, centers on the transition of society to corporate rule, where the concentration of economic power rests in the hands of a select economic elite... In short, citizens are realizing they no longer control their local areas or life choices, but are disposable economic units or serfs of the corporate empire." (source)
Another example of the stunning devaluation of humans is the explosion in worker exploitation across the developed and rapidly developing world. In China, vast armies of migrants are preparing Beijing for the Olympics though they enjoy no protections, no benefits and no health care. Dubai, a Middle-Eastern oasis that is often called the world's largest construction project, relies on over half-a-million migrant workers who are paid about $6US per day and housed in crowded camps far away from the gleaming high-rises that are evidence of their labor. Closer to home, the US labor force is being transformed by globalization in a variety of negative ways. What were once high paying professional jobs are being outsourced. Plants and jobs are going overseas, where worker and environmental protections are often non-existent, at an alarming rate. In their place, low-end jobs with restricted benefits are now offered.

There is, however, no greater devaluation of human life than pointless war. We are reminded, with the news yesterday that the American military accidently killed 9 Iraqi citizens including a child, of the human costs of war on a daily basis. International agencies agree that legions of Iraqi citizens have been killed since the US invasion. And there are many American families, especially in rural America, that have experienced the loss of a young son or daughter in this conflict as well. In Afghanistan, whole villages have been mistakenly targeted and bombed. It is no wonder the Taliban are back in even greater numbers than before. In Africa, tribal and post-colonial animosities are driving holocaust after holocaust. I feel quite comfortable using that term, as millions of lives and families are involved.

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

The US was founded by patriots who envisioned a government "...of the people," using authority " the people" and "...for the people." We've come a long way from that idealistic notion, as now it seems we exist only to consume and enrich corporate oligarchs. Our own government has become "by the lobbyists," "for the corporations," and "...of the very rich." As my friend Jeff Golden says, " is time to take America back." It is my hope that individuals everywhere can take back their rights, their respect and their financial dignity from those who would oppress the masses for personal gain.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Carnaval - World's Greatest Party

The world's greatest party started today. Carnaval in Brazil. In Rio, Recife and throughout the country locals are seriously strutting their stuff. Cruise by's site for more. Then check out Rachel's account of day one in Rio on her blog, Gringa in Rio. In Brazil, Samba is king. Samba clubs form the core of Carnival processions and parties. An Afro-Latin dance that celebrates rhythm, energy and the human body, Samba rules in Rio. Check out this fine video and see the magic of Carnaval for yourself.

Mircosoft's Bid for Yahoo

Yesterday, the ruffians from Redmond made an unsolicited offer to purchase the outstanding shares of Yahoo for $44 billion and some change. That's a substantial transaction that begs some questions. Why Yahoo? Why now? And: What does this mean?

As any keen observer of the technology sector knows, Yahoo has fallen on hard times. There've been plenty of stories about the layoffs and declining profits. Apologetic CEO Jerry Yang has already acknowledged the situation, expressed his contrition and promised change. The management team has a plan, we've been assured, and they're working it. I really don't think they saw this coming.

Predators strike at any sign of weakness. That's a fundamental rule of business. And Yahoo is in a weakened state, staggering to stay in the race. The company does, however, have substantial assets including brand awarness, a sizeable and loyal user base, all the web 2.0 bits-and-pieces ready to roll, an advertising delivery platform and a working infrastructure. That's why they are properly viewed as an acquisition target. But the bottom line is Microsoft needs Yahoo in the worst way. We're talking long-term survival needs. More on that later.

Why now? Steven Davidoff, the "Deal Professor" at the NY Times business section really put it best in this article. Suffice it to say that the nuance of corporate governance combined with Yahoo's own calendar to dictate the timing of the offer. If you're interested in that sort of thing, Davidoff has really done his research and parses it very well. Worth the read.

Now for the really fun question. What does this mean? From my point of view, and I have history in this area, this is a desperate move on Microsoft's part. Think about it. They may not be betting the farm, but they're sure as hell commiting a substantial sum to this effort. The offer, by the way, was not very gracefully presented. More like: "I'd like to make you an offer you can't refuse." But I digress. Pundits have been opining about the battle shaping up between Microsoft (the company that has crashed more computers than any other in history) and Google. Well, it has now become abundantly clear that in Steve Balmer's opinion Microsoft requires Yahoo to remain competitive. Let that sink in. It is quite a reveal.

Those of us who have competed with Microsoft in previous lives always called Balmer "The Hammer." He had that nickname when Tom Delay was still a pest control operator. Gates was always the visionary, I remember him rocking as he held-forth at Spencer Katt parties, Steve was always the heavy.

Balmer is a big guy, and he walks really fast - often making his companions scurry to keep up. I must confess that after being in the trenches opposite the ruffians from Redmond for almost a decade in the competitive market of the 80's and 90's, I find the prospect of Steve and Microsoft running to keep up with Goolge absolutely delicious. It's a race I believe the software behemoth will ultimately lose. Ironically, breaking Microsoft up into separate, competing companies - what the market demanded and did not get early on - would have yielded several standalone firms much better able to compete in today's technology space. So Microsoft's belligerance and organizational resistance to disruptive change have turned out to be catastrophic business decisions.

Now, Microsoft finds itself behind the curve. Producing shrink-wrapped and bundled proprietary software for an increasingly web-based, open-source world. Something had to change. And quickly at that, or the company risked being assigned to the junk heap of irrelevant has-beens. That can happen fast in the technology sector. IDG News Service's Elizabeth Montalbano correctly asks if Yahoo is viewed by Balmer as a "...mere front-end for Microsoft hosted apps?" in this article. Her analysis is point-on. A comment on her article notes that if this is the reason for the acquisition, it won't work - as Google is already miles ahead in online technologies. From The Author's point of view, that sums it up well. Game over.