Friday, December 05, 2003

The New York Post somehow got their hands on a work print of Mel Gibson's "The Passion", the film about the crucifixion which promises complete fidelity to both historical and biblical accounts, though the Roman officials are speaking the wrong language (their dialog is in Latin, although Pontius Pilate almost certainly spoke Greek), and the film draws heavily on the anti-Semitic mystic visions of a German nun, which have no support in actual scripture.

But never mind all that. They showed it to a priest, a rabbi, a professor, their film critic, and a randomly selected reader of the New York Post. Which sounds like it could be the setup for a great "... walked into a bar" joke, but it's utterly wasted in this case, since the upshot is simply that most of them didn't like the film very much, citing the portrayal of the Jews as a particularly troubling point -- though the randomly selected reader of the New York Post disagreed on both counts, which is a little worrisome.

But there is still a joke. You just haven't heard it yet. The joke is that with all the other things the FBI has to do, they are nevertheless investigating how the Post got a copy of the film. But I'm sure they'd be doing the exact same thing if they'd all liked the movie. Aren't you?

Do you think we might want to know what engineers in potentially terrorist sponsoring countries like Iran and Sudan are up to? Do you think it might be in our interest to give them a forum so they could tell us? Well, try telling that to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which has effectively told major professional societies including the IEEE and American Chemical Society that they can't publish articles submitted by people in those countries. Why? Because that would involve providing them with editing services which have a clear economic value. As they explain:

In his letter to IEEE, OFAC director R. Richard Newcomb stated that "U.S. persons may not provide the Iranian author substantive or artistic alterations or enhancement of the manuscript, and IEEE may not facilitate the provision of such alterations or enhancements." Such enhancements include "reordering of paragraphs or sentences, correction of syntax or grammar, and replacement of inappropriate words."

But some of us may be able to see the bright side here. I'll bet the Nielsen Haydens had no idea their services were valuable enough to be a matter of national security...

One of the upshots of the homogenization of radio over the past few years is that I've more or less stopped listening to music on the radio. I'm going to club shows more. It costs more, but I can usually stand the music -- and it gets away from the programming decisions of the corporate monoliths.

Or so I'd like to think. But Jeff Sharlet has an article in this month's Harper's (which I don't see on line -- they kinda want you to buy it) on Clear Channel, which describes, among other things, their attempt to bring the same benefits to the live music arena that they have to broadcast music on the airwaves:

Musicians say touring has become a cross-country hopscotch from one Clear Channel venue to another, each more sterile than the last; their agents and managers say that if artists don't play when and where Clear Channel says, they will suffer less airplay or none. ...

Sharlet shows how the strategy works by exploring the life of a guy named Bryan Dilworth, who works booking live gigs for Clear Channel in Atrios's stomping grounds in Philly -- and some independent clubs on the side -- but the company doesn't own him. Or at least so he wants to think:

At various times, Dilworth told me he worked for Clear Channel, or didn't work for Clear Channel, or Clear Channel simply didn't matter. Sometimes he called Clear Channel "the evil empire"...

But in the end, it may not matter what the guy thinks he's doing:

Dilworth develops "baby bands" in [tiny, independent] clubs like the Khyber on his own time and filters the most marketable of them to the more lucrative venues he books as his alter ego, a Clear Channel talent buyer. Such a double role appears to be part of the Clear Channel business plan, in which the independents who should be an alternative to Clear Channel instead become the company's farm team. As a result, live music is following the route taken by radio. Songs that sound the same are performed in venues that look the same and even have the same name: identically branded venues, all controlled by Clear Channel...

It's hard for me to know what to think of this. The clubs I wind up going to most often -- the Middle East, T.T. the Bear's, and so forth, at least claim to have independent ownership. Then again, we have a radio station around here, WFNX, which is very proudly independent, and years and years ago programmed itself like an overgrown college station -- but the last time I tried to listen to it, admittedly quite some time ago, their programming was in the grip of a consultant whose brilliant idea was to shovel the exact same, well, stuff onto the airwaves as the corporate giants. So even independent ownership is no guarantee. And the band I saw in TT's last night, who played good solid rock that sounds, well... about as good as anything you can hear on the radio, proudly posts on their web site that they are "cocked and loaded in Lava/Atlantic president Jason Flom's star-making cannon"...

By the way, unlike a lot of lefty bloggers, Sharlet does not perceive the company as following any particular political agenda. In his article, he points out that many evangelics are appalled at the antics of Clear Channel shock jocks, and that Clear Channel's post-September-11 list of songs for its programmers to avoid included not only anti-war songs, but also "Some Heads are Gonna Roll" by Judas Priest. In private email, he adds a list of Clear Channel folks who are doing progressively slanted broadcasts of various kinds on the local level.

Then again, the best he can do with progressive talk show host Randi Rhodes's allegations that the company is keeping her out of national syndication to keep Rush Limbaugh happy, is that it if it's true, then the company is following Limbaugh's agenda -- for purely commercial reasons -- and not its own...

Oh, one last thing about club shows -- it would be nice if they scheduled them for people with ordinary jobs. Unlike some clubs, TT's puts set times on its web site and usually sticks to them, so at last night's show, the headliners went on right on time. At 11:15 PM. As I was leaving, at about half past midnight, I went right by a small group that hadn't checked the web site, and were shocked that the set was already over. "Why so early?", one asked. "Is there another band?"

Thursday, December 04, 2003

While I'm still waiting for the muse, TalkLeft continues to be your one-stop shop for constitutional outrage. Starting with a ten year conviction for a guy who just got a ten year sentence for being guilty of association with terrorists:

Mukhtar al-Bakri went to Afganistan and attended a training camp. He heard Osama bin Laden speak there. Then he got married. The day after his wedding, while in Bahrain, he got arrested. Then charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization.

The Government acknowledged it had no evidence that al-Bakri or his confederates planned a terrorist act. What it had was a theory dependent upon guilt by association and perceived thought.

Jeralyn also dings Dubya and co. for finally allowing Yasser Hamdi to talk to a lawyer, but for no apparent reason other than to forestall Supreme Court review of their prior actions in the case -- and the Supreme Court itself for telling police across America that the difference between an ordinary search warrant and a no-knock warrant is that with the former, they have to wait fiteen seconds before breaking out the battering rams.

And of course, there's plenty of stuff about Guantanamo. Jeralyn was actually the first blogger I saw to note that we've admitted that a lot of the detainees were innocents kidnapped by warlords for no reason other than to collect reward money.

Diana Moon, the only blogger on the web who does catblogging right, is outraged that we may wind up setting up an Islamic Republic. Not that I think that's the best possible outcome (though I've already opined that it was far from the worst the first time that the idea showed up in the New York Times), but we may not be in great shape to give lectures on democracy and due process to the Grand Ayatollahs right at the moment...

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Oh, yes, one more outrage for the morning: the "Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act". It's been settled law for years that you can't have copyright in a mere collection of facts, since there's no original expression involved in the act of setting them all down. The act in question tries to neatly sidestep these rulings by not saying that corporations have can copyright databases, but rather saying just that they can sue anyone who reproduces them. (The distinction is lost on me, but I am not a lawyer). With what consequence?

Peter Veeck felt the brunt of the corporate police. When he posted on his website the municipal building safety codes that all are required to obey, he was sued by a company that claimed to own the building codes.

After long and costly litigation, in 2002 Veeck won the case called Veeck v. SBCCI (PDF file). Judge Edith Jones wrote for the Fifth Circuit en banc: "Citizens may reproduce copies of the law for many purposes, not only to guide their actions but to influence future legislation, educate their neighborhood association, or simply to amuse."

On the last day of the U.S. Supreme Court term in June, the Court let Veeck's victory stand. During the litigation to force Veeck to remove building safety codes from his website, a hundred people perished in the Rhode Island nightclub fire attributed to ignorance about building safety codes.

The anti-capitalist pinko who wrote those words is Phyllis Schlafly...

Well, here's a relatively minor outrage to try to get me back into the swing of this blogging thing... mutual fund management. Not the chiseling and self-dealing that currently have firms like Putnam in hot water, but the mutual fund industry working the way it's supposed to work. Because even that involves taking large amounts of money from investors -- $35.2 billion in management fees annually, or 0.86 percent of the assets in the funds.

Now, that can conceivably be justified -- if you have an adviser who's getting you an extra 5 percent return, then letting the guy take one percent or so isn't necessarily a bad deal. But are they? Quoth Michael Lewis:

In his just-published book, ``A Random Walk Guide to Investing,'' Burton Malkiel shows that over the past two decades index funds have outperformed 88 percent of managed funds. That is, investors paid the vast majority of mutual-fund managers to grow their capital more slowly than if they had simply invested it in market indexes.

More narrowly, in the past five years, while mutual-fund investments were growing to $7 trillion from $5.3 trillion, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index has outperformed 53.4 percent of large-cap equity funds.

There is no need to enter into an argument about market efficiency to win an argument about the idiocy of investing in mutual funds. No matter how you slice the numbers, you wind up with the same conclusion: the mutual-fund industry has been lucrative mainly for the people who work for mutual funds.

So, if you're investing in equity funds at all, buy an index fund. The cheapest you can get...