The Counterlife

I’ve recently decided to read more fiction of the Great Books genre. To try to make some of their Greatness last, I decided to write a diary entry after each book I finished. Not much one for privacy, I figured I’d post these (disjointed and amateurish) thoughts on StoneSoup. Hopefully they’ll  either be of passing interest or easily escaped.

I just finished reading Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, a book I liked but didn’t love, appreciating it more with my writerly head than my readerly heart. I say writerly head because the book is largely about the idea of narrative and story. In it Philip Roth’s counter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman goes through a series of linked stories which each somehow call attention to the artificiality of the previous chapter. Like Roth’s later novel, Operation Shylock, it s a novel about writerly selves (Israel also figures big in both novels) and can best be described with the phrase “Super Meta.”

Some bulleted thoughts after the jump Continue reading

iPhone Work Conditions

Today I read this article detailing poor work conditions at Apple suppliers. Since I own an iPhone myself, I share some sliver of responsibility for the pretty horrible conditions experienced by (at least) hundreds of thousands of workers. Rather than stewing in the self-satisfaction of my moral judgment, I decided to try something new and actually do something (very very very small) to live the change I wish to see in the world.

As a good capitalist, I believe that corporations don’t change their practices (good or bad) without economic incentive to do so. Thus, I sent Apple a comment indicating that as a customer, I was disturbed by this behavior and would not be purchasing a new iPhone if the conditions were not ameliorated. The form this comment took was an entry under the iPhone feedback form, which I doubt Tim Cook reads personally and might very well be simply discarded by whatever customer service representative happens upon it: As social protest goes, it’s not exactly chaining myself to a tree. On the other hand, it might not be thrown out, it might live on as an entry in a spreadsheet ticking off how many Apple users have complained about factory conditions. Maybe if that number’s high enough it will provide an incentive to change. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I figured it was better than my usual judgmental silence.

If you also own Apple products and are interested in registering your disapproval in an unobtrusive, low-energy, and low-effort way, here’re the feedback forms for the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook (depending on which products you own). Below is what I wrote in case you’re interested in using the basic structure and changing the details as appropriate (or in just chuckling at my self-righteous delusionality):

I am a loyal Apple customer who has purchased two iPhones, including the 4S this past August. I’ve greatly enjoyed these using these products and appreciate the perfectionism, excellent craftsmanship, and attention to detail that clearly has gone into them.
I recently read this article –http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?hp=&pagewanted=all — which details labor conditions along the supply chain used to create the iPhone that are both shockingly brutal and easily solvable. When I am next in the market for a smartphone, iPad, or laptop, I will not be buying from Apple unless these conditions have been ameliorated. Thank you for your time.

A Disgruntled Democrat’s State of the Union III

Prologue:

Once again, and for the last time before the 2012 election gives me a heart attack, I return to offer my thoughts on President Obama’s State of the Union address.

These days, I spend most of my spare time reading about the ragtag gang of misfits in the GOP nominating contest. I also nervously refresh Nate Silver’s 538 Election Models, and watch the ferris wheel of idiocy that is the RCP polling index.

Because I am a self-hating glasses-wearer who avoids MSNBC, I don’t even know the latest Democratic talking points.  Of course, the bar has been set so low by GOP election rhetoric that just hearing the word “regulation” without the prefix “job-killing” will be bliss.  I also look forward to an audience that won’t boo the very existence of minorities or Mexico.  I even have my sunglasses ready to protect my eyes from John Boehner’s day-glo skin.

Christ, it’s been so long that I barely remember our country’s actual issues.  Education? Infrastructure? Unemployment? Environment?  Either way, time to see if President Obama can remind the 54% of Americans who disapprove of his performance why we elected him in the first place.

* * * *

The Speech:

Can you tell it’s election year?  In a sweeping, occasionally feisty speech that (unofficially) kicks off the 2012 campaign, President Obama dove headfirst into the populist waters of job creation and tax reform.  Overall, I thought the speech was effective, if a bit long.  But let’s dive into the substance.

Foreign Policy:  Obama kicked off with what is (in my opinion) his single greatest accomplishment: ending the war in Iraq.  Yes, the war was unpopular from nearly the beginning.  But people scream bloody murder when any sort of defense cuts are on the table, and you know opposition must have been tough when candidates like (oops… I forgot his name) even advocated going back in.  President Obama also touted the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in his opening, to raucous applause.  Obama is clearly trying to remind the  extra 5% of people who approved of him for a month following the assassination and then resumed hating his guts that he shares their thirst for terrorist blood.  Still, it is one feat the GOP can’t possibly diminish, so it makes for good stumping.

Later in the speech, Obama turned to the issue of Iran just long enough to say that he was keeping “all options on the table” but that a peaceful resolution was still possible.  And whereas I’m sure this did not satisfy the hardcore republicans tripping over themselves to bomb Iran into the Atone Age, I have to think that at least some Americans recognize that we can’t possibly afford another war.  Obama even took the time to laud our iron clad — iron clad  — relationship with Israel.  I am sure repeating the adjective twice will earn him points tomorrow at his daily meeting with Netanyahu.

Manufacturing: The President waxed poetic on his hopes for the rebirth of American manufacturing.  I have my doubts that the United States will return to being a manufacturing powerhouse with our relatively high labor and environmental costs.  However, this is election season and nothing sells better than the idea that, with a few tweaks, companies will gladly pay a thousand times more for fat Ohioans who get weekends and holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favor of restructuring our tax code to encourage job creation — it’s just a process that will prove far more arduous than either party cares to admit.

Obama’s tax proposals, most involving cuts for manufacturers who hire domestically (and penalties for those who hire abroad) are ripped right from the GOP playbook.  Indeed, much of the address played out as a paean to the American worker, and, for long stretches, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from a Romney stump speech.  That is, until he showed his hand by hinting that the government might help play a part in recovery by “turning our unemployment system into a reemployment system.”

Education: The President’s education remarks were pretty uninspired, but it did make me reflect on how little I’ve heard of the issue lately.  Lost in the GOP war drums of tearing down the government, we have a systemic crisis of education ranging from achievement gaps in distressed communities to higher education that is bankrupting the middle class.  Obama addressed both in sweeping fashion, making the usual points about teacher accountability and school funding.  He also threatened to withhold federal funding to universities that didn’t slow tuition growth.  Perhaps most importantly, he urged Congress to keep money in federal aid programs.  It will be important moving forward to remind the American people that, in many cases, government spending can do a lot of good — and students about to see rate increases because of Tea Party intransigence will learn that lesson the hard way.

Energy: Obama walked carefully here, pledging explicitly to open up oil reserves before calling for an “all of the above” energy strategy that, I suppose, implicitly contains all of the energy resources we should be focusing on.  I am mildly annoyed that solar and wind were mentioned once each, while natural gas and oil were discussed extensively.  Such is the nature of election year pandering.  Of course, the first words from this idiot‘s mouth following the speech (yes, I watched it on Fox News) criticized the lack of Keystone Pipeline in the speech.  Does anyone else remember a time when we cared about the noble caribou instead of maximizing our domestic drilling?  At least Obama had the courtesy to drop the understatement of the century so far: “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.”

Deficit:  “Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”  Amen. If I had to sum up my policy prescription for America in one sentence, this would be it.

Milk Spill Joke: Not Bad

Congress: Remember these?

  • “Send me a bill that bans insider trading by Members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow.”
  • “Send me these tax reforms, and I’ll sign them right away.”
  • “Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”
  • “Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”
  • “So put them in a bill, and get it on my desk this year.”

On one level, these requests smack of naivete; after all, we know that the Republican House would never contemplate useful legislation.  Even if they agreed with it, they couldn’t risk letting Obama reap any benefit. However, I think the strategy is more subtle; it reminds the American people that the biggest obstacle to significant political progress are the clowns in Congress. Not that they need much reminding, as Congress is less popular than Communism.

Moreover, it’s important for LIBERALS to remember that Obama’s supposed ineffectiveness comes largely from the recalcitrance of Congress rather than his philosophical shortcomings.  There are few things Obama has exclusive control over, and reminding Americans of that will only help him.  Of course, all of this may be wishful thinking; perhaps people in the White House are just too lazy to draft up bills.

Shameless Lincoln Plug: I’ll take it over another goddamn Reagan reference.

The Big Finish: To close out, Obama again returned to the Osama story, using it as a metaphor for the importance of sticking together as a country.  As Obama opined,  “Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes.”  Although lines like that will always make a liberal elitist cringe, it is a vastly better campaign strategy than telling it like it is.  If the 2012 election must be won by winning over the generally-apathetic flag-waving masses, then so be it.

* * * *

The State of the Union is always an exercise in platitude. Indeed, you can simply cobble together old ones and make a serviceable speech.  But now is not the time to overly scrutinize its contents.  It is election year.  Any liberal with a pulse should be trying to figure out how to prevent Republicans from dismantling the moderate progress President Obama has made in health care, banking regulation, foreign policy, and the rest.  My own frustrations with President Obama have ebbed and flowed, but I am frightened daily by the alternative.

Some day, the progressive movement will again gain political traction in America.  Until that day, however, it is far better to stand against the irrational rightwing than to submit to apathy.  The speech tonight was a worthy opening salvo in our upcoming electoral struggle, and that is all that matters.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have poll numbers to cringe at.

In 500 Words: SOPA/PIPA and the Great Internet Blackout*

For many, today may be the first that they will have heard of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), the two pieces of substantially similar legislation pending in (respectively) the House and the Senate which prominent sites today are going dark to protest. For my first post on Stone Soup (and hopefully the first in a regular series that will aim to provide context for current events–more on this in the future), I will not only attempt to provide an objective overview of SOPA/PIPA geared at newcomers to this issue but will also try to do so in under 500 words (starting after this sentence). 

The Basics. SOPA and PIPA, which have received broad bipartisan support, represent the latest Congressional efforts to address the perennial problem of foreign piracy Web sites—problematic because they harm American copyright holders, benefit from American-based search engines, advertising, and payment systems, yet tend to escape liability under U.S. law—by granting sweeping new enforcement powers to rights-holders and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Both work by choking off funding and American user access to foreign piracy sites; specifically, SOPA/PIPA would allow the DOJ to require (1) search engines to de-index and remove all links to an infringing site (and, it appears, to continually police against such links); (2) payment processors (like PayPal) and advertisers to stop doing business with the site; and, perhaps most controversially, (3) Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block customer access to the foreign site entirely. These obligations represent a potentially radical change from the current Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) regime, under which intermediary sites merely hosting or linking to infringing material are exempted from liability as long as they make good-faith efforts to take down infringing material when asked to.

The Criticisms. Though sponsors of SOPA/PIPA insist they target only “foreign Web sites that are primarily dedicated to illegal and infringing activity,” the two bills are drafted in broad language, leaving unclear the scope of key terms such as “foreign” or “search engine.” These ambiguities potentially allow the legislation to be interpreted to encompass even domestic sites, including social networking sites, sites such as Reddit made up primarily of user-shared links, and blogs, among others. Critics argue that this uncertain yet potentially significant liability for intermediaries will hurt startups and smaller firms and that permitting entire sites to be blocked via their domain name raises the specter of censorship. Critics also argue that the bills’ reliance on Domain Name Servers (DNS)-blocking as an enforcement tool could alter the very architecture of the Internet, an argument which has recently succeeded in persuading legislators to drop those provisions.

The Politics. The SOPA/PIPA debate pits the historically politically well-connected entertainment industry (which has spent $91M thus far lobbying for SOPA/PIPA) and the similarly formidable U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO (persuaded of online piracy’s harm to American jobs) against the far less politically-established tech and internet industries (among other allies), which are nevertheless in an interestingly unique position to influence citizens directly. Until recently, approval of SOPA by the House Judiciary Committee (which would send the bill to the full House for a vote) seemed all but guaranteed. However, with this most recent January 18 protest and with the White House’s strong hint disapproval of the two bills on January 14, passage of the bills is now far from certain. A Senate debate on PIPA is scheduled for January 24, while SOPA will be debated in the House in early February. However, even if defeated this time, aspects of SOPA/PIPA are likely to return in other forms. Meanwhile, a counter-proposal is now also pending in the form of the OPEN Act.

*This post primarily written without the assistance of Wikipedia.

2011 in Review

The Stone Soup blog was viewed about 22,000 times in 2011. In 2011, there were 24 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 121 posts. The busiest day of the year was January 21st with 1,464 views. The most popular post that day was How The Other Side Thinks.

The most popular referrers were: facebook.com, reddit.comtumblr.com, afternoonsnoozebutton.com, and twitter.com. Some readers found us through search terms. The most popular searches were: “antibiotic[s]” (1,074), “christopher hitchens [smoking]” (584), “vietnam war medals” (65), “leaders” (64), and “importance of export” (48). A few of the more amusing search terms include: “did andy dufresne kill his wife” (9), “farm subsidies are good” (3), and “where does america rank?” (2).

Attractions of 2011:

Here are the posts that got the most views in 2011.

1. How The Other Side Thinks – 6,785 views

2. The Antibiotics Shortage and How to Solve It. – 1,842 views

3. Guest Post: A Deserved Toast To Christopher Hitchens – 935 views

4. Federal Funding Received by State per Dollar Sent. – 773 views

5. Recipe: The Best Braised Short Ribs, with Coffee and Chili – 628 views

 

A few of our favorite posts by author: 

Alex Taubes – Summer Vacation and Teachers

Thomas Miller – A Regruntled Democrat on the State of the Union

David Yin – How The Other Side Thinks

Josh Morrison – the kidney donation series, thus far:

1. My Kidney Donation

2. Pre-Op Testing — Blood Work

3. Vegetarianism and Kidney Donation

4. Hurry Up and Wait

5. False Starts

6. A New Normal

7. Day (after the Day) of Days

8. Not So Easy 

 

Thanks for reading Stone Soup in 2011!