Friday, May 28, 2010

Apple Overtakes Microsoft: 'O, What A Fall Was There, My Countrymen!'

That's what Shakespeare might have written about the news that Apple has overtaken Microsoft as the largest tech company by market capitalization.

I will note up front that there are things not to like about Apple. CEO Steve Jobs can be thuggish and his product line is engineered and retailed to force buyers to return time and again to Apple when it comes to most add-ons and apps.

Having gotten that out of the way, there are things to love about Apple that explain why it is eating Microsoft for lunch.

First of all, its customer service and tech support is without peer.

When the Dear Friend & Conscience considered buying a pricey MacBook Pro last year, the folks at the Apple Store spent 90 minutes with her explaining the ins and outs, as well as possible shortcomings, of the laptop. Sale made, she signed up for a year of tutorials, which are great for a semi-Luddite like herself, and re-upped after the year was over.

When I decided to move on from 16 years of PC laptop hell this spring and buy a not-quite-so pricey Mac Book, I had an on-line chat with an Apple dude who explained how it could be configured to my specs, told me I was eligible for an academic discount and then offered to do all the heavy lifting himself.

When a friend's brand new MacBook Pro began seizing up one evening in Manhattan as he was racing to finish some design work for an exhibition that was opening the next day, he took a taxi to a 24-hour Apple Store where a techie apologized about not being able to fix it immediately. He got a call at 4 a.m. the next morning. His computer was good to go.

While I cannot speak for the iPhone (don't want one) or the iPad (why would anyone want one?) Apple laptops are works of art.

Bill Gates engineered the Windows OS to be, at almost every turn, unnecessarily complicated. What I can do on a Mac with one or two key strokes would reliably take two, four or six with Windows.

Then there is iTunes. I webstream most of the music that I listen to and it was long an ordeal with Windows Media. No sweat with iTunes, which loads my favorite radio stations in a fraction of a second.

Then there are the brilliant screens and graphics capabilities. The graphics and web design folks with whom I have worked over the years moved over to Macs in the early 1990s and have never looked back. I work with a fair number of art, art history and material culture students in my cloistered academic setting. All use Macs.

There is a certain element of schadenfreude in the news that Apple has overtaken Microsoft, and it should not be forgotten that Apple survived a tough patch in the late 1990s because of Gates' largess.

But shed no tears for Microsoft, which to name but one egregious example of what passes for "progress": has taken its Word software through several generations of "improvements" that make it more difficult to use while stripping away virtually all of the intuitive features that made it so easy to use back in the day.

Then there was the smoking turd known as Vista and the web browser war that Microsoft for all intents and purposes has now lost after crushing Netscape with its Internet Explorer in the early 1990s. I know of no one -- including tech support where I work -- that uses IE anymore. Mozilla's Firefox is now the coin of the realm.

So while Apple boldly goes where no one has gone before, Microsoft has gone from a Death Star to a rudderless ship whose only goals seem to be to react to what Apple (and Google) do.

Oh what a fall indeed!

'Did You Plug The Hole Yet, Daddy?'

The president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. But there are things that even he cannot control, and at the top of the list is oil.

The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a sobering reminder of this.

Cartoon by Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate

Sarah Palin's Kisses Of Death

'But Trust Me On The Sunscreen'

Tis the season for college commencement speeches, most of them ineffably predictable and profoundly boring.

A conspicuous exception was the speech that the late great novelist Kurt Vonnegut was said to have delivered to the graduating class of MIT in 1997. It was a howler and sparked a hit novelty song. The only trouble was, it was an (early) Internet hoax and Kofi Annan was the actual speaker.

No matter, here it is in all of its loony glory.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On Civil Rights, Courage & Cowardice: What A Difference A Generation Makes

Thanks in large part to the outsized (and well deserved) influence of blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates, a police mugshot of civil rights worker Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and a link to the fascinating website for the book Breach of Peace is making the blogospheric rounds.

Mullholland is the Freedom Rider in the center of the photo above with a canister
of sugar being emptied over her head during a May 1963 Woolworth lunch counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi. The hostile all-white police police force let several hundred people taunt Mullholland and her fellow protesters before hauling them off the jail.

Memories of the wrenching civil rights struggle of the 1960s should never be far from the public
consciousness. But the timing is exquisite coming as it does in the wake of two disparate events:

* Republican senatorial candidate Ron Paul's tone-deaf denunciation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which of course was a consequence of the actions of people like Mulholland, some of whom gave their lives in the struggle for equality.

Paul's put-down follows an orgy of recriminations over the fact that many Southern politicians still feel compelled to celebrate Confederate History Month while ignoring the ignoble institution of slavery.

* What is effectively the collapse of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC had an outsized role in the civil rights movement under the leadership of its longtime president, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While I grieve for the SCLC's demise, it is not the first civil-rights group to devolve into parsimony when times pass it by. I also grieve for Ron Paul and his ilk, because unlike Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and hers, they are charting a cowardly course.

Hank Thomas (below, right) is one of the Freedom Riders profiled in Breach of Peace. He tells author Eric Etheridge about his return to Anniston, Alabama, where he was beaten during a protest march, and his return to Vietnam, where he had served during the war:

"I talked about the irony that none of those whites [in Anniston]would meet with me. . . . However, when I went back to Vietnam in '94, the North Vietnamese veterans embraced me.

"We were enemies one time but now friends. They invited me to their homes. And I told 'em, contrast that with the folks in Anniston. One reporter made what I thought was a very important comparison. He said, 'Well, Hank, the Vietnamese wanted to kill you because of the color of the uniform you were wearing. The people in Anniston wanted to kill you because of the color you are, and that never changes.' "

On The Forkability Of Elena & Joan

As double standards go, it's tough to top the way people judge each other on the basis of their skin color or ethnicity. But the way people judge a woman on the basis of how she looks definitely can give the skin color-ethnicity thing a good run for its money.

I am reminded of that because of the way Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is being judged by far too many people in the punditocracy because she isn't a babe, including a ridiculous (and false) WaPo story stating that unlike most women she doesn't cross her legs
when she sits. As others have asked, would Kagan be getting the same treatment if she looked like Kim Cattrall? Of course not.
Somewhat more amazingly, if possible, are some of the reactions to Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (see the post above) to the effect that she was and is being spotlighted because of her beauty. Or as I put it because of the shock value, her forkability and not her courageousness.

Cartoon du Jour

Eric Rall/Universal Press Syndicate

Notice The Bottle On The Ground

A serious Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo Uniform Papa.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gusher In The Gulf & Impotent Rage

Impotent rage is the flavor of the moment: Rage that so many of America's problems seem beyond solution and rage that the fat cats who triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression are still on top with nary a scratch while Main Street continues to suffer high unemployment and an endless epidemic of foreclosures.

Then there is the rage directed at BP for the monumental and as yet unstoppable disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and at President Obama and a federal bureaucracy that is paying the reaper for its historic aversion to petroleum industry oversight, including levying hefty fines on BP for previous disasters at its U.S. refineries but then repeatedly failing to follow up on the stuff that mattered.

Indeed, Washington knows that it is powerless, that only the petrochemical giant and not even an act of God can cap a wellhead that has been gushing tens of millions of gallons crude oil for an extraordinary 36 days.

But will one less gallon of oil spew from the graveyard of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig if Obama steps up the rhetoric and pounds the East Room podium just a little harder? Will one less oyster bed be contaminated? Will one less brown pelican be covered with gunk? Will BP suddenly become more responsive?

The answer to all of the above is "Of Course Not." And if you're a Rand Paul-style Tea Partier, then government needs to get out of the way, anyway, eh? because the rights of corporations trump those of individuals, be they Gulf state residents or coastal wildlife.

Beyond the rage is a willful ignorance over the fact that while the spill is another Katrina, it is Dick Cheney's Katrina, not Obama's. There also is a suffocating apathy. While BP will be paying out billions and billions of dollars for the clean-up and to settle lawsuits, its share price will rebound as it sets about rebranding itself.

Besides which, there is no grassroots campaign to boycott the company and there were just as many cars and trucks lined up at a BP station near my place last night as there were at the ExxonMobil, Sunoco and Shell.

Lest it seem like I'm letting Obama off the hook, I'm not.

While only BP can cap the well, the president has reacted more than led over the past month. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to force through the kind of reforms, as well as a moratorium on new offshore permits, that Americans who value snow egrets as well as cheap gas would get behind. And while he's at it, declare a state of emergency in the Gulf and threaten to seize BP's assets.

Photograph by Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

'Who The Cap Fit Let Them Wear It'

The late great Bob Marley understood that while white colonial "downpressers," as he called them, had been a predominant force in the history of Jamaica, his own people bore responsibility for the never ending cycle of internecine violence that characterizes the Caribbean nation to this day.

In fact, when Marley died 29 years ago this month he went to his grave with shell fragments in his chest and arm from a politically-motivated assassination attempt at his Kingston compound.

This makes the latest convulsion of violence -- much of it ironically in the Tivoli Gardens ghetto of Kingston where Marley scrabbled as a young man -- so tragic.

Photograph by Andrew Smith/Reuters

Donald E. Lukens (1931-2010)

He was a Washington trendsetter. More here.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

René Pedersen

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Riding The NAFTA Superhighway: How Many Ameros For Your Wife, Mr. Paul?

You know that Rand Paul is having trouble getting the cow poop off of his tassel loafers when about the only endorsements he is getting these days are from Tea Partiers who note that he is the only high-profile candidate who has the guts to take on the NAFTA Superhighway.

Paul has been campaigning against the superhighway, which would connect Mexico, the U.S., and Canada and deal a fatal blow to American sovereignty, since at least 2008.

According to a 2007 article in The Nation, opponents fear that the superhighway "would slice through the heartland like a dagger sunk into a heifer at the loins and pulled clean to the throat. It will be four football fields wide, an expansive gully of concrete, noise and exhaust, swelled with cars, trucks, trains and pipelines carrying water, wires and God knows what else. Through towns large and small it will run, plowing under family farms, subdevelopments, acres of wilderness. Equipped with high-tech electronic customs monitors, freight from China, offloaded into nonunionized Mexican ports, will travel north, crossing the border with nary a speed bump, bound for Kansas City, where the cheap goods manufactured in booming Far East factories will embark on the final leg of their journey into the nation's Wal-Marts."


But this would just be the start, because the superhighway is merely the first stage of a silent coup that would supplant the sovereign U.S. with a multinational North American Union and a single currency -- the Amero, which is another of Paul's black-helicopter bugaboos.

It's hard to say whether the superhighway or the Amero is more frightening, but not to worry. Neither exists or is being planned except as a fig newton of the imaginations of the paranoid burgers of Greater Wingnuttia, where Paul would win any and all elections by a landslide even if he was running against Jesus H. Christ.

It is tempting to dismiss these loonies out of hand, and at this point Paul seems more like the Kentucky Fried Candidate, as some wags are calling him, than someone to be taken seriously. But to not take him seriously is shortsighted. And dangerous.

Paul may not be the most astute politician, but beyond a small handful of pundits no one will care that he has now joined
Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar as the only people to renege on appearances on Meet the Press, a show that I would watch with my mother to humor her because the panelists and guests spoke to her political ethos. Well, they sure don't speak to Tea Partiers and I myself am none the worse for wear for not having watched MTP since my mother's death a decade ago.

The lesson here is that a whole lot of perfectly sane people are extraordinarily pissed off at Washington and government in general and just because Paul leavens his libertarian loaf with paranoid delusions is no reason for them to not throw in their lot with him.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

The Ultimate Ship In A Bottle


Photograph by David Levene for the Guardian

Not Good News For Yer Dangle Angle

Ever heard of phthalates? Regrettably, they are not an ancient Mediterranean civilization but rather esters that help plasticize things like rain coats and shower curtains. They also make body lotions smell nice. Oh, and they also may be causing young men to develop in . . . um, less masculine ways.

60 Minutes reports that tests on pregnant women with high levels of phthalates reveal that this common household plastic does bad things to the plumbing of baby boys, including undescended testicles.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Buenos Aires, Argentina -- 2001)
By Alessandra Sanguinetti/Magnum Photos

Monday, May 24, 2010

A National Addiction: More People Die From Text Messaging Than Smoking Pot

It was an all too typical bicycle ride home from my job at a university library, which is to say kind of scary. Assailants hiding amidst the ivy? Drunk drivers on the streets? Rabid raccoons ready to nip at my ankles?


I hadn't even left campus the other afternoon when a coed walked toward me on a fairly narrow sidewalk. She was madly text messaging and oblivious to my approach and I had to swerve off the walk to avoid hitting her. Two blocks later, a woman text messaging while making a turn in her Toyota Prius nearly hit me. A block further along, two students who were text messaging in tandem -- to each other for all I know. They blocked the walk and I had to stop until they got well ahead of me.
CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. -- Text messages were sent and received on a 17-year-old driver’s cell phone moments before her sport utility vehicle slammed head-on into a truck, killing her and four other recent high school graduates, police said.
While a goodly number of text messages are typed out and read from the relatively safety of offices desks and living room sofas, a majority are sent on the go, and texting now outpages voice transmissions on cell phones. It should come as no surprise that teenagers -- and girls in particular -- are the most prolific texters, and reliably ignore bans on using cell phones while driving.
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Two motorists died after an 18-year-old Glendale woman apparently became distracted by text-messaging on her cell-phone while driving, police said.
Texting while driving has become even deadlier than drunk driving, according to Liberty Mutual Insurance Group.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Luckily, no one beside the person suspected of drinking and texting was injured in a car accident today. According to KSL News, a woman who witnesses believed was texting, was weaving in and out of traffic and driving erratically for many blocks until she hit a parked car.
While firm statistics are hard to come by, one study estimates that the tab for cell phone usage, which of course includes texting, is 342,000 auto accidents and $43 billion in property damage each year. Meanwhile, an article in the magazine of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society published in 2005 suggested that there are 2,600 cell phone distraction-related deaths a year, and that number surely has grown.
CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- Truck driver Jeffrey R. Knight was distracted by a text message he was reading when he drove his tractor-trailer into 10 cars backed up on Interstate 64, killing three people and injuring 15 more.
Yes, Americans are notorious multi-taskers. Yes, many states have laws prohibiting cell phone yes while driver, but that has not stanched the epidemic of accidents. It's time to get tough with texters up to and including revoking their licenses.

Cartoon du Jour

Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily

Look At Me! Look At Me!

Moe Tkacik nails the sorry state of journalism.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Stephen Edds

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Science Sunday: Eden Without Humans

The mist-shrouded Foja mountains of Indonesian New Guinea have long fascinated scientists because of the stunning diversity of flora and fauna and absence of people, and the region is a Garden of Eden that keeps on giving. A recent expedition found an amazing array of new species, including a tree frog with a nose like Pinocchio, a huge woolly rat that is tame, a gargoyle-like gecko and a tiny wallaby that is the smallest documented member of the kangaroo family.

"While animals and plants are being wiped out across the globe at a pace never seen in millions of years, the discovery of these absolutely incredible forms of life is much needed positive news," said Bruce Beehler, a senior research scientist with Conservation International who took part in an expedition jointly sponsored with National Geographic. "Places like these represent a healthy future for all of us and show that it is not too late to stop the current species extinction crisis."

* * * * *

The Foja mountains, located in the Indonesian province of Papua on the island of New Guinea, cover an area of more than 40,000 acres of unroaded, undeveloped and undisturbed rainforest. The region is a productive species generator because of its relative isolation, elevation and tropical environment.

The expedition, which took place in November 2008, is the third of its kind since 2005.

"The Foja mountains are a virtual island where species have evolved for millennia," said John Francis, NG's vice president for research, conservation and exploration.

The conservationists are highlighting the new discoveries to encourage the government of Indonesia to bolster long-term protection of the area, which is a national wildlife sanctuary.

The Guardian describes the discoveries thusly:

"The tree frog, found sitting on a bag of rice in the campsite, has a Pinocchio-like protuberance on its nose that points upwards when the male calls, but deflates and points downwards when he is less active.

"Other discoveries recorded during the survey included a new blossom bat, which feeds on rainforest nectar, a small new tree-mouse, a new black and white butterfly related to the common monarch, and a new flowering shrub.

"In addition to the new kangaroo-related dwarf wallaby, scientists obtained the first photographs of a free-ranging individual of the extremely rare golden-mantled tree-kangaroo, which is critically threatened by hunting in other parts of New Guinea. They also spotted a pair of new imperial pigeons with rusty, whitish, and grey-coloured feathers.

"The biologists on the expedition, including scientists from Indonesia, endured torrential rainstorms and life-threatening flash floods, which saw rivers swell by more than two metres [over 5 feet] in less than 30 minutes, as they tracked species from the low foothills to the top of the range, at an altitude of 2,200 metres [7,200 feet]. Poor weather made helicopter journeys haphazard, which left the scientists short of food and forced to journey by foot."

There is a sobering backdrop to the discoveries: Reports show that world governments have failed to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity.

To help stem the losses, Conservation International said it intended to double or triple the number of species discovered over the next few years through collaborations to allow scientists to visit more unexplored places.

Many new species may help benefit human health or help protect food and fresh-water security, CI said, and could prove important for conservation.

Photographs by Tim Laman/National Geographic (Top to bottom): Long-nosed tree frog, giant woolly rat, butterfly, blossom bat, gecko, tree mouse.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Week In GOP Wankery: Clowns To The Left Of Us & Jokers To The Right

Well, another week has gone by and still no concrete signs of the long-promised Republican resurgence that was going to wash the Democratic effluvia from the Capitol Hill stables. In fact, the week past was arguably a disaster for the aluminum foil hat-wearing Tea Partiers who are supposedly leading the GOP charge out of the electoral wilderness and back to . . . uh, relevancy.

First, the party's right wing took a drubbing in several primary-day elections, and when the sun came up on Wednesday morning what passes for the Republican core these days had not only not turned a big corner but was looking even more like the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

There is no question that Republicans are riding the tide of anti-incumbency and may do even better than the minority party typically does in off-year elections.

But it also is obvious that they remain deaf to the issues that concern voters most and continue to believe their path back to power rests on shoving the party's national agenda down voters' throats. It would not be too rash to predict that a 40 House seat pickup that would again give the GOP a majority is a mirage.

Tip O'Neill's famous maxim that "All political are local" was proven once again in the special election to replace longtime and now deceased Democratic Congressman John Murtha in PA-12, a district in Pennsylvania's Coal Belt region that went for John McCain in 2008.

Tim Burns, the Republican, had an excellent shot at defeating Mark Critz, a former aide to Murtha. But Burns, who campaigned with over $1 million in Republican National Campaign Committee moolah, got creamed by Critz, who focused on local issues and ignored Burns' RNCC-orchestrated attacks on Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama, who no matter how hard voters looked could not find on the ballot.

The brightest spot for Tea Partiers was the victory of Rand Paul, who is one of their own and then some, over the Republican establishment candidate in Kentucky to run against a semi-obscure Democrat in the fall for the seat of retiring nut (as opposed to wingnut) Jim Bunning.

No sooner had Paul declared victory from a ballroom at the very kind of exclusive "members only" country club that anti-elitist Tea Partiers decry than he was furiously wiping pee pee off of his tassel loafers over the storm raised because of his put down of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (He then tried to divert attention by declaring that Obama is "un-American" by being tough on BP for the monumental Gulf of Mexico oil spill.)

Now the Civil Rights Act is what is called a settled thing. It has been on the books for nearly a half century, is a well established part of the social fabric that no one has sought to amend or abolish, and protects all sorts of minorities and not merely blacks. These include people with disabilities, and it should be noted that Paul also opposes the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I happen to think Paul is a bona fide nut, but he is less vulnerable to Democratic attack for his craziness than his inadvertent articulation of how Republicans have used "white fear" instead of minority outreach for so many years. As a blogger colleague notes, now it's time to shove that down their throats.

The final indignity came on Thursday when Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the once and future Tea party darling, crossed the aisle along with four other Republicans to vote for a financial reform bill that begins (but does not go nearly far enough) to correct the Wall Street excesses that the Bush administration and Republican congressional majority encouraged, plunging Main Street into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Perhaps I am naive, but I continue to believe that most Americans, as battered and beleaguered as they may be, do not want to fight the Civil War all over again and see the Republican comeback for what it is -- a bunch of extremist asshats driving clown cars.

Cartoon du Jour

Bruce Beattie/Daytona Beach News Journal

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Children exercise in a schoolyard in Beijing.
Photograph by The Associated Press

Friday, May 21, 2010

Beyond Strange Bedfellows: In Which Sarah Palin Channels Susan B. Anthony

Legendary civil rights activist and suffragette Susan B. Anthony is currently enjoying a posthumous 15 minutes of fame because of her appropriation by the anti-abortion movement as a feminist who was pro-life.

There are a at least a couple of problems with this, one less obvious and the other glaringly so.

Less obvious is that even when you consider Anthony's words and deeds in the context of the second half of the 19th century, it is clear that she was not pro-life. Glaringly obvious is the rank hypocrisy of anti-feminists like Sarah Palin in buddying up to Anthony for the purposes of advancing their own agendas.

The peripatetic Palin, addressing the Susan B. Anthony Society last week, declared in a speech promoting conservative woman political candidates that Anthony's
opposition to abortion rights was rooted in our "feminist foremothers." No one asked for sources, of course, and had they done so they would have found none to bolster Palin's contention, let alone the views of the society, which calls itself "the nerve center of the pro-life movement."

Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr are Anthony scholars and between them have read every word of every thing Anthony said and wrote over a career that included 75 to 100 speeches a year over a 45-year period.

conclusion: Anthony did not speak to abortion as an issue or otherwise and spent no time on the politics of abortion. It simply was of no interest to her despite living in a society -- coming from a family, as well -- where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.

Palin, of course, has never let the facts get in the way of a chance to make $50,000 a prattle, but after tip-toeing around the "F-Word" for a couple of years finally has embraced feminism. Not feminism as you and I know it, but a feminism bent so far out of shape that it makes a pretzel look rectangular.

The quitter from Wasilla fell back on one of her Alaska-ready analogies in arguing that women don't have to oppose unfettered access to assault rifles nor approve eco-friendly initiatives to be feminists. In other words, you can be a prototypical Red State mom who knows her place (a few paces behind her husband) and still be a feminist.

"The mama grizzlies, they rise up," Palin speechified, explaining that such women "can give their child life, in addition to pursuing career and education and avocations. Society wants to tell these young women otherwise. These feminist groups want to tell these women that, 'No, you're not capable of doing both.' "

The sound that you hear is Susan B. spinning in her grave

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Paul Distances Himself From Paul

What is so remarkable about Rand Paul's put down of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is that he can't or hasn't bothered to understand that civil rights apply to and are a concern of more than just people with dark skin. But then his namesake, Ayn Rand, didn't get it either.

The opposition of Paul, the Republican nominee to replace retiring Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, has now gone viral, as well it should. Paul inevitably has walked back from his campaign trail natterings and swears he does not want to repeal the act, but still doesn't seem to get what the shit storm he unleashed is about.

Physicists Stub The Toe Of God


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Martin Parr

Hat tip to Woods' Lot