Donald Sterling:Egomaniac

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Anyone who has lived in LA for the past 15 years knows that Donald Sterling suffers from an acute case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder that perhaps has no equal in the U.S. with the possible exception of Donald Trump. Symptoms include:

  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic

Both Donalds excel at putting their name on tall ugly apartment buildings and then taking out full page advertisements showing off their phallic towers. Sterling was worse in that not a month would go by when he didn’t buy a full page ad in the LA Times noting an award he had purchased from some poor broke charity. That a doddering old racist could be regularly honored as the “Humanitarian of the Year” only demonstrates how corrupt the charity banquet business is. That the local chapter of the NAACP would close its eyes and ears to twenty years of Sterling’s mistreatment of minorities in return for a fat check, is especially sad.

But now that the NBA has banned Sterling for life, we can appreciate some lessons from the last four days. The first is that the players really have the power in the NBA. That they spoke with one voice calling for the maximum penalty closed off any lighter sanctions that the other owners (having tolerated Sterling for years), might have preferred. The second lesson is that there is still a generational divide on race in this country. Crackers like Cliveden Bundy and Donald Sterling grew up in the 1940′s and 1950′s when the easy prejudice of their cohorts was tolerated. Listening to the tape of Sterling, I kept thinking, “Elgin Baylor was right. Sterling sounds like a plantation owner not wanting the slaves to come up on the porch.”

Hopefully. this will all be over soon. Sterling will realize that he is persona non grata in LA, will sell the team and move to Florida, next door to Donald Trump where they will live out their days complaining about the “girlfriends from hell.”

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Who Benefits from Silicon Valley?

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I got into the music business in 1967, at the height of a creative and economic boom. Technology had almost nothing to do with the business, as the LP that had been introduced in 1948 was still in use. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album had been recorded on a 4 track Studer recorder (above) and that was the “state of the art”.But today, the business is dominated by technology companies. Just as much music is consumed as in 1967 (probably more), but most of the value flows to Silicon Valley and not to the musicians. Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.

So if the massive reallocation of value has flowed from musicians to geeks, what exactly have we gained except “convenience”? This thought came to mind as I read Annie Lowery’s story “If A Bubble Bursts in Palo Alto, Does It Make A Sound?” Lowery makes the point that both the gains and the losses in Silicon Valley have relatively little effect on the rest of the economy. Tech firms hire relatively small numbers of people and pay them astronomic sums of money. So even if the bubble burst, not that many people would get hurt.

The truth is that most Americans have little interaction with the big-money, small-jobs technology boom, so they might be sheltered from the worst of the technology bust, at least as it looks today, if not years from now. But that might be cold comfort: It is a sad state of affairs if one of the most vibrant, explosive and creative parts of the economy — and one of the few that is minting millionaires — seems more like a walled garden than a public park.

If you think about the technology boom at the beginning of the 20th Century–electricity, automobiles, airplanes—the benefits were widely dispersed throughout the society. Millions of jobs were created and everyone’s life improved. It seems to me the tech community today has been very good at the “creative destruction” part of the innovation equation, but has been far less creative in imagining how to rebuild the businesses they destroyed. From my own personal experience, neither the music not the journalism business has recovered from tech’s wholesale disruption. When people point out to Google what a huge part they play in this destruction, they hide behind libertarian tropes to excuse the fact that they are constantly linking to pirate sites.

The artists themselves as well as the editors of news sites are pushed into the role of “branded content”, which is a nice way of saying “selling out.” You can make a nice parlor game of counting the amount of product placement in a music video or which piece of news you are reading is “sponsored content”. I assume the guilt of destroying once vital businesses eventually comes home to roost in the guts of the tech billionaires. They buy a newspaper, sponsor a film festival or build a museum to honor Jimi Hendrix. But it’s just guilt money. It’s not helping the average guitar picker or beat reporter trying to make a living.

When you live in a walled garden, everything seems perfect.

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Culture of Distraction

 

Honey Boo Boo

Honey Boo Boo

The last few days have brought forth a number of studies that would make most conscious citizens of a republic take to the barricades (or, more productively, the ballot box) in anger. We start with a report from professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page at Princeton and Northwestern that concludes that the United States is an Oligarchy.

The report, entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, used extensive policy data collected from between the years of 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the US political system.

After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

This was followed by a report in the New York Times new Upshot column on the shrinking American middle and lower class incomes.

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

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Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

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Most of you know that I am basically optimistic about the future of the media and entertainment business in world of 5 Billion smartphones all serving up media content. But there is one aspect of the future that is potentially troubling which is the lack of competition in the Broadband business.

The proposed merger of the number one and two broadband providers (Comcast and Time Warner Cable) raises the specter of a single provider controlling 40% of all high speed broadband in the U.S. Comcast has made the argument that since each company operates a de facto monopoly in the individual cable markets that they serve, their merger would not change the competitive environment for the individual consumer. While it is true that a broadband duopoly is the standard in most major markets with a single cable provider and a single telco, this should not be cause for celebration. This duopoly provides us slower broadband at higher prices than almost any developed country in the world.

At the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab we have had a chance for the last two years to see what really fast broadband looks like. And no, we didn’t have to travel to Seoul, South Korea to experience the future. We go down to Chattanooga, Tennessee where we can test applications at 1 Gigabit per second over the EPB Fiber Network. EPB’s story points us towards a future where we may no longer have to worry about the Broadband Duopoly. EPB stands for the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, a municipally owned utility. A few years ago the folks at Volkswagen told the Chattanooga city fathers they would like to build a high tech auto plant in their city. There was only one problem: they were in the middle of Tornado Alley and the electricity went out several times a year during the big storms. So EPB promised to build a smart grid so when a tree fell on the wires on Flynn St., only Flynn St would go dark, because the smart grid would route power around the trouble.

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Transcendence

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Transcendence, directed by Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer) is one of the smarter action movies I have seen in a while. As would be expected of the visual artist behind “Dark Knight”, it looks really good with almost “Godfather” like rich blacks and dark interiors contrasting with the vast expanse of the white shimmering underground quantum computing facility that is the center of much of the plot.

Like Her which preceded it by months, it plays on our suspicion that the benefits of ubiquitous 24/7 connectivity are not all they are cracked up to be. Using the Frankenstein myth as it’s jumping off point, the film questions whether Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity will be a blessing or a curse. Johnny Depp plays the Kurzweil stand in and a wonderful Rebecca Hall plays his super smart wife, Evelyn, who fulfills her role in the Adam and Eve myth by getting Johnny to eat the apple and upload his dying brilliance into the Internet.

What follows may not make logical sense after you emerge from the theater, but Pfister keeps everything moving at a quick pace so you never shout WTF? at the screen. Having sat through 20 minutes of trailers for the summer’s blockbuster season, all of which seemed to be some sort of adoption of the Transformers man vs really big machine formula, I can confidently say that at least Transcendence will engage your brain while it is trying to raise your heart rate. Exactly when the Knuckleheads will tire of the big machine destroying the city trope, is an open question. As for me, I will be catching up on my TV series over the summer.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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On the 8th of December in 1982, Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. A cold war raged between superpowers armed with nuclear missiles and all across Latin America, dictators still reigned.

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, “I decline to accept the end of man”. I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Marquez for me embodied the role of the artist in society–the refusal to believe that we couldn’t create a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. We are too cynical to believe in the power of love. We have too much evidence of the power of money to triumph over justice. But Gabo never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination.

The other aspect of Marquez’ work that is crucial is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a McWorld commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll in a mall in Shanghai and forget you were not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. He was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. God knows we need to celebrate more of our differences, but young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” When I realize that 80% of the downloads of music go to 1% of the content, I am not sure that anyone has an appreciation of the cultural history that led to this moment. Amnesia only leads to death.

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A True Artist

We lost Jesse Winchester last week. I’m sad because he was the real deal and not enough people knew that. Robbie Robertson “discovered” Jesse in 1969 when I was working as The Band’s tour manager and as I recall Jesse couldn’t come into the U.S. because he had fled to Canada to escape the draft. He made a great record that Robbie produced, but he never reached the James Taylor level of stardom. Listen to this song he sang on an Elvis Costello TV program and look how it affected Elvis and Neko Case.

 

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Guy Time Running Out

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Ben Ratliff’s rumination on the Coachella Music Festival raises an important cultural issue and then just drops it. Ratliff wonders if the audience has become more important than the performers–and who is that audience?

One is a young man who bangs his body around to show you that he has been to the gym, or that he has a basically competitive attitude. He has grown simpler over the history of the festival. He wears black sunglasses, sleeveless shirt or none at all, backward baseball cap or headband, a water-pack on his back. He is a flat, hardy example of power and privilege. He seems to have no history. If style is something specific to a time or place that pleases the eye and the mind, he has no style. His time is running out. (Don’t blame him. Blame globalism, the major banks, professional sports.)

By contrast, Ratliff notes that the woman in the audience “looks more flexible, curious and specific to the region” and that the music pitched at them has more nuance than the EDM the guys flock to. But by going on to describe the wonderful women performers at the festival, Ratliff does not pursue the truly existential question he raises. Is a culture aimed at buffed out knuckleheads with their caps on backwards devolving into meaninglessness?

I don’t just mean EDM or the blatant sexism of a good deal of hip hop. I mean a movie business that seems trapped in a Spiderman 4, Fast and Furious 7 trope aimed at the young men with no history. I mean a video game industry unable to escape the first person shooter adreniline rush and a web culture built around sites like Reddit that celebrate the obnoxious know it all geek life that “has no style”. I don’t know how we get out of this trap thinking that young guys are the only audience for entertainment, but I know we have to do it.

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Silence, Exile, Cunning

I’m going to take a long summer break from blogging. I have a book to write and that will take all of my creative energies. You can always friend me on Facebook where I post links to things I’m reading.

 

JT

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The War is Over

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We may look back at President Obama’s speech yesterday declaring a shift in counter-terrorism strategy, as one of the most important addresses of the last 20 years.

For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home. Our service members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf.

Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

It has been the contention of this writer that American renewal cannot begin until “The Long War” ends. Part of the problem is the President’s realization how right Madison really was.

Meanwhile, we strengthened our defenses, hardening targets, tightening transportation security, giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror. Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values — by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

So a good start in restoring Democracy will be to change the Administration’s policy on Press Freedom.

President Obama ordered a review on Thursday of the Justice Department’s procedures for legal investigations involving reporters, acknowledging that he was “troubled” that multiple inquiries into national security leaks could chill investigative reporting.

But the much bigger task will be to rethink the whole National Security State that has grown exponentially since 9/11. So while I agree with Obama that, “we must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America”, that does not mean we need the massive  domestic counter-terrorism industrial complex that has gorged itself on the public treasury with little to show for it as the Washington Post pointed out in their breakthrough “Top Secret America”.

We have a long way to go before we can really begin America 3.0–the renewal project I have been talking about since the eve of the 2008 market crash. Obama’s speech yesterday was a start down that road. Let us not underestimate the forces that profit from being in a perpetual state of war. Senator Saxby Chamblis spoke for them yesterday.

Some Republicans expressed alarm about Mr. Obama’s shift, saying it was a mistake to go back to the days when terrorism was seen as a manageable law enforcement problem rather than a dire threat.

“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.”

I have been feeling that Washington is just some sort of reality show, in which everyone–politicians, press and lobbyists are playing their role according to a script. But this fight over the end of the Global War on Terror is actually important to those of us who believe power and taxes must be handed over to the states and cities. Ultimately the whole Federal establishment will get smaller. Congressional Staffs, Federal Bureaucracies and most importantly the Pentagon and Homeland Security will shrink. The DC property bubble will burst and Lobbyists will be less important. How long Saxby Chambliss and his forces can fight a rear guard effort against the inevitable is probably the most important story of the next 12 months.

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