Friday, July 29, 2005

Rebranding the "war on terror"

I've always despised the term "war on terror" that the Bush administration has used to justify their overseas military actions. Actually, it didn't start out as the war on terror, it started out as the war on terrorism, which was even worse. Terrorism isn't a thing, it's a method or an approach. Fighting terrorism is akin to fighting apathy or sarcasm; it's not something or someone you can actually fight. Can you imagine a global war on sarcasm? "We'll track down those sarcastic bastards, wherever they are." Really stupid. If you want to fight someone, identify an actual group or cause.

The concept of fighting "the terrorists" is equally inane. It makes one think that "the terrorists" are some kind of group or gang. Maybe a team wearing sweatshirts that say "Terrorists" on the back. Yessir, it's the big game, with your hometown team "The Patriots" versus the visiting "Terrorists." We'll whip them Terrorists, you bet we will.

The whole idea of fighting terrorists or terrorism is dangerously misleading (which is no doubt why the Bushies like it) because the term "terrorist" doesn't describe any single group. The IRA in Ireland contains terrorists; the Palestinians are viewed as terrorists by the Israelis; abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph is a terrorist; and the folks who blow up lumber mills are eco-terrorists. (And let's not forget the fact that terrorism is in the eye of the beholder; one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.) Are we going after all these groups? Of course not. It's not terrorism that the Bushies are against, it's a particular ideology. Bush could care less about the IRA; he wants to stop Islamist fundamentalists.

Which is why, perhaps, the administration has quietly rebranded what it used to call the "global war on terror" to the less-catchy "struggle against violent extremism." While I'm a bit jaded as to why the Bushies changed the nomenclature, I would agree that it's slightly more descriptive than their previous language. Violent extremism is something you can actually get your hands around, more so than the vague concept of terror or terrorism.

Of course, the Bushies still need to take care about people taking them at their word. If the administration is sincere about fighting violent extremism, they're going to have to go after Dr. James Dobson and the whole Christian fundamentalist bunch, who are definitely extreme and close to becoming violent about it. Religious extremism isn't limited to Islam; fundamentalist whackos are present in virtually every religion, and equally dangerous to a free and just society.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

DualDisc: In God's name, why?

I just bought my first CD/DVD DualDisc yesterday. (Carly Simon's new Moonlight Serenade album -- her fourth collection of standards, not the best of the four, but still highly listenable.) My reaction, as it was before I ever bought a DualDisc is: Why?

Oh, I know why. The music labels are so worried about sinking CD sales that they'll leap at anything. They think the sales drop is because of Internet downloading, but it's not -- it's because CD prices are too high, and because too much of today's music sucks. Get a good artist with a good album and sales are just fine.

The bigger problem, of course, is pricing. It says something when the average full-length movie on DVD costs less than the average new CD. If anything, the two-hour movie (plus lots of extras) should cost more than the 60-minute CD, but nooooo, CD prices remain at $17.99 or so. It's not like when I was a kid, when $3.99 bought just about any single-disc album you wanted. Kids can afford albums for four bucks, and lots of them; when CDs are fifteen bucks or more, even at a discount, kids are going to buy fewer of them -- or download them instead. It's high prices that are killing the business.

Instead of simply lowering prices, however (which would be the logical and market-responsive thing to do), the labels instead searched for a way to justify their high prices. Which leads us to the DualDisc, which is a two-sided disc with the normal audio CD on one side and a DVD of some sort on the other. The DVD typically features music videos, "making of" documentaries, computer extras (whatever that means), web links, and the entire album in surround sound format. Big fucking deal. I buy a CD because I want to listen to the music, not because I want to watch some lame "behind the scenes" video. I'll listen to my new Carly Simon CD, a lot, but I'll never turn it over to watch what's on the DVD side. Never. It's a waste of... well, of something, and it doesn't justify paying a single penny more. A really stupid idea.

And I'm not the only who thinks so. I asked my two nephews, age 14 and 16, what they thought about DualDiscs. First, neither had heard of them, which says something. Second, after I explained it to them, they both said it sounded stupid. "I don't buy CDs to watch videos," one of them said. So it's not just a generational thing. Once again, the music industry has their collective heads up their collective bungholes.

If the music industry really wants to fix what ails them, they'll lower CD prices. Price all new CDs at $9.99 and sales will go through the roof. You don't need fancy research to prove this one out. It's all about the price, and what consumers can afford -- or are comfortable paying. A ten-buck CD is a lot more attractive than a fifteen-buck one, that's blatantly obvious.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Wasteful Amazon shipping

I may be Amazon's best customer (I'm currently in the process of filling in lots of gaps in my CD collection), but I'm not sure they're making money on me. It's not because of what I'm buying, or how much they're charging; it's because of how they're shipping it.

First off, you should know that I availed myself of the Amazon Prime program, where I get free two-day shipping on anything I order -- even onesies and twosies. I paid $79 for this benefit, but I quickly earned back that investment. Heck, I'd probably have paid that much in shipping charges in a single month, before the program.

But it's not Amazon Prime that's costing them money. (Oh, maybe it is, a little, but that's not the point of this rant.) It's how they ship their items -- specifically, how they ship single CDs and DVDs.

You see, Amazon ships a single CD in box big enough to hold a dozen or more CDs, or a couple of good-sized hardcover books. In goes the lonely little CD, surrounded by lots of air. It's not very efficient, it wastes a lot of cardboard, and it's sure to cost more to ship than would a properly-sized envelope or box. I'm sure they could save at least a few pennies per shipment if they used a less-wasteful package.

And they use a lot of these wasteful boxes. I might place two or three separate orders a day, and each CD I order comes in its own oversized box. The UPS guy leaves three big boxes on my doorstep, where a single smaller box would have done the trick. Costly for Amazon, and just plain wasteful for everyone. I end up throwing away a stack of cardboard boxes every week (they don't have recycling where I live), and feeling just a tad guilty for all those trees that had to die to ensure my listening pleasure. (Okay, not very guilty, but you get the point.)

So Amazon's not very efficient, which isn't necessarily new news, but it's still something they need to work on. This is one area where increasing their packing and shipping efficiency would not only be good for the environment, it would also save them money. But until they get their act together, I'll go on ordering my CDs and DVDs one item at a time, and letting Amazon pay for it.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Lies, lies, and more lies

I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- the Valerie Plame affair will be the Bush administration's downfall. Yeah, they've done much worse stuff (like invading Iraq on false pretenses), but it's always the little things that trip you up. Like arresting Al Capone for tax fraud (instead of murder or racketeering or whatever), or going after Nixon because of a bungled third-rate burglary. Karl Rove leaking the name of a covert CIA agent, and then lying about it, is just the kind of loose thread that can unravel the whole administration.

Hypocrisy and politics go hand in hand, but I find it particularly hypocritical how the Bushies are twisting the truth in their attempted defense of Rove's actions. Call it spin, call it misdirection, call it whatever you want, it's lying, plain and simple. The hypocrisy arises when you consider that the same folks who were appalled at Bill Clinton's playing fast and loose with the truth are doing the exact same thing in their defense of Karl Rove. Those rabid right-wingers who took great delight in grilling Clinton over "it depends on what the definition of is is" are employing similar grammatical parsing to try to explain what Rove did or didn't leak to the press about Ms. Plame. Hypocrisy in action, indeed.

First off, I particularly like the claim that Rove didn't actually leak her name. In a conversation with Time reporter Michael Cooper, Rove talked about "Wilson's wife," who worked for the CIA. Since Rove didn't actually refer to Wilson's wife as "Valerie Plame" (or "Valerie Wilson"), it's technically correct that he didn't leak her name. But that's the kind of "what is is" technical distinction that doesn't wash; he leaked her identity, which is what matters.

Next, there's the claim that Rove wasn't trying to out Plame's status as a CIA agent, he was merely trying to warn Cooper against writing a false story. There are two problems with this bit of misdirection. One, it doesn't matter what his intent was; he leaked her identity anyway. Second, it turns out that Wilson's story (about there being no Iraqi purchase of uranium rods from Niger) was true, not false. So this one doesn't wash, either.

Then we have the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has the balls to frame the whole affair as Rove "exposing a case of CIA nepotism involving Joe Wilson and his wife." ("Thank you, Mr. Rove," the Journal says.) This misdirection or mischaracterization or whatever you want to call it is so brazen it makes you either want to laugh or puke, depending on what you had for lunch. So now Rove's the brave whistle-blower? These guys are too much, really.

It has been suggested that whatever the legal ramifications, President Bush should fire Rove for his actions in this affair. (This is partly because Bush himself once said he'd fire whoever leaked the information -- a stance conveniently ignored now.) That's not going to happen, of course. As one commentator quipped, this would be like Charlie McCarthy firing Edgar Bergen; the puppet doesn't fire the puppetmaster. So Bush, due to his legendary loyalty and the fact that Rove actually runs the joint, will stick with Turd Blossom until the bitter end.

And the bitter end might involve more Bushies than just Rove. It's not out of the question to imagine others in the administration knowing about Plame, and suggesting using that connection as a way to smear the hated Joe Wilson. Who else might have known, who else might have been involved in a conspiracy? All fingers point to the Dark Lord himself, VP Dick Cheney, as a possible co-conspirator. Hang onto your hats folks; this is going to be a bumpy ride.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Supreme Court predictions

It looks like President Bush won't make his nomination to replace Justice O'Connor for a week or so, which leaves plenty of time for prognostication. Here's mine.

I actually have two guesses, based on two different aspects of Bush's behavior. Depending on how he actually chooses, a week from know I'll look like either a genius or an idiot, which is par for the course.

The first behavior to note is that of incredible fortitude -- that is, the unwavering belief in his own actions. The man never backs down. It doesn't matter what others think, he barrels ahead, taking no prisoners. This is not an administration that compromises. It's amazing, actually; where Clinton and previous Democratic administrations tended to back off in the face of criticism and seek some sort of compromise position, when the Bushies are criticized they just take a harder line. I've not seen anything like it in my lifetime. I don't know whether this reflects some sense of core belief or whether they're just stubborn, but there it is.

The second behavior to note is that of loyalty and tendency to operate within a fairly tight group of colleagues. Bush rewards loyalty above all else, which explains why Rumsfeld still has a job. He also doesn't have a large circle of advisors; he's operated with a small group of insiders for practically his entire political life. It's part of that loyalty thing, no doubt.

So, on to my predictions. If Bush follows his first behavior (ballsiness), he'll choose an extreme conservative, somebody like Michael Luttig or Janice Rogers Brown, someone that will appease the social conservatives and evangelicals who think he owes them one. If Bush follows his second behavior (loyalty to insiders), we're looking at Alberto Gonzales. Them's my picks.

Of course, if Bush goes for an extreme right-winger, all hell will break loose; the Senate will face political Armageddon, because the liberals and moderates won't stand for it. Then again, if Bush chooses Gonzales, the right-wingers will scream bloody murder (as they already are, in a pre-emptive campaign) because he isn't reliably conservative enough. (On a side note, this says something about how extreme these wackos are if they're complaining about Gonzales being too liberal...)

In any case, Bush would have a hard time finding a nominee that would please everyone. Not that he'd try to, of course; again, Bush just goes his own way, not seeming to care who he tramples over (right or left) to get to where he's going. It will be interesting to see which side of his personality he goes with for this important nomination.

Oh, and one last prediction -- which I actually first predicted a year or so ago. I continue to predict that the Valerie Plame affair will be this administration's Watergate, the one provable criminal activity, however minor, that will bring them down. The recent claims that the leaker was none other than Karl Rove, if true, could be the straw that breaks the back of this administration. Keep watching to see how things develop.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.