Monday, December 30, 2013

My top ten predictions for the New Year

My top ten predictions for 2014

1.  The success of Republican obstructionism in prolonging the Great Recession will produce a voter backlash, but one aimed at the Democrats and Obama.

2.  Lack of serious attention to global warming as the world’s central policy crisis will persist.  Carbon emissions will continue their steady, dangerous rise.

3.  Faced with mounting college debts and paltry job prospects after graduation, students will begin to question the value of higher education with fierce intensity. 

4.  Leaks of information about unlimited government powers to monitor people’s phone calls, emails and Internet browsing will continue apace.  Court cases on the issue will proliferate, generating a Supreme Court decision, probably in 2015.

5.   The precipitous decline of American journalism will be recognized as a national embarrassment as serious reporting on factual matters is replaced by incessant chatter of poorly informed opinions.

6.  The growing gap of inequality in wealth and income will widen further, while those with the power to do anything about it relish the fabulous benefits it brings them.  Blaming the poor and unemployed for their own misery will skyrocket as a popular political meme.  

7.   Celebrations of a new fossil fuel boom from widespread fracking will fade as its underling economics and environmental consequences become more widely known.

8.   The future of American football as the national game will fall under a shadow as the facts about long term brain damage to players gain public recognition.  Parents will pull their children out of Pop Warner and high school football programs.

9.   The spread of online shopping and long distance shipping will rapidly erode the vitality of local businesses, causing concerns about a new, hyper version of the Wal-Mart effect, devastating jobs, communities and families across the country. 

10.  The vitality of popular music in its many national and international genres will continue to shine and surprise, even as the quest to make a living in the music business becomes increasingly difficult.

Bonus forecast:   The gnawing question -- What are conservatives conserving? -- will remain embarrassingly unanswered.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

MOOCs meet the Automatic Professor Machine


Here are some excerpts from a new book by Jeffrey R. Young, Beyond the MOOC Hype an excellent, brief discussion of a variety of programs and projects in MOOC development currently underway.  Young takes note of my send up of technology in education from the skit, "Introducing The Automatic Professor Machine," first done in several in-person performances in the late 1990s.  (It now exists in a two part, low production value video on YouTube: here and here. ) When I first presented the talk at a conference at Penn State (with Ivan Illich in the audience) I observed that while people there probably knew me as a long time technology critic, "I've now had a change of heart."  An audible gasp arose from the audience ....

Young also quotes a recent interview with me and my and alter ego, L.C. Winner, CEO of Educational Smart Hardware Alma Matter, Inc. (EDUSHAM).   


In 1998, when an earlier boom in “interactive education” was just getting started, a political theorist and technology critic named Langdon Winner staged a performance-art piece meant to expose what he saw as the true motives of online-education proponents.

Wearing a suit with a red power tie, he held a mock news conference where he unveiled a product called the Automatic Professor Machine, or APM, which looked like a bank ATM but could dispense educational products “from preschool to postdocs.” Students would put cash—about $300 per class—into a slot, get a CD-ROM packed with knowledge and homework assignments, then upload their completed work into the machine for automatic grading. It could eventually print out your college degree.

“Beginning this spring, thousands of these attractive consoles will appears in schools, colleges, fast-food restaurants, shopping malls, prisons, and other places where people gather these days,” Mr. Winner said, posing as CEO of EduSham, the fictional company offering this spoof product (the company name was an acronym for Educational Smart Hardware Alma Mater). “Our lectures and seminars will be given only by the top 10 stars in any given scholarly field. After all, why mess around with the small fry?”

Mr. Winner, a political-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is known for his irreverent style. While he was in graduate school, at the University of California at Berkeley, in the 1960s, he wrote reviews for Rolling Stone, hosted a radio program on an “underground” station, and played in a spoof rock band called the Masked Marauders. In several books over his long academic career, he has critiqued what he sees as the American love affair with technology, which he says blinds people to some of the implications of high-tech inventions.

At the mock press conference, the professor struck the pose of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. In character, he made light of the implications of his invention, arguing that the Automatic Professor Machine would make traditional professors obsolete. “Today’s educators may think that they are crucial to education, that their presence is required. But, my friends, they are simply mistaken,” he deadpanned. “By comparison, think of the elevator operators decades ago, who probably rejoiced when automatic controls came into elevators. They said, ‘Oh, wonderful, now our jobs will be more interesting and more fun. We’ll be able to talk to the people on the elevators. We’ll have less physical to work to, and so forth.’ Well, we know what happened  to the elevator operators. At EduSham, we view the elimination of the old practices, the old structures, and particularly the old personnel as good news!”

Like a good Saturday Night Live skit, the satire dragged on past the easiest parts of the joke, taking the product idea to its extreme. The EduSham president announced plans to use wearable computing technology to somehow transfer knowledge to students through clothing, and he showed a picture of a prototype: a T-shirt with a computer mouse draped over the shoulder. “In a future,” he proclaimed, “the T-shirt will simply be your alma mater.”

“On all sides,” he concluded, “we see a frantic but halfhearted scramble by those at old-fashioned institutions to catch up to the dynamism of this extraordinary historical situation. At EduSham, we look upon all of this with amusement, watching as teachers and administrators scramble to sacrifice their long-held principles and practices in a frantic quest to catch up and survive in the era of digital communications.”

I was still a relatively new reporter at The Chronicle when that ed-tech boom was going, and I covered what seemed like a loud and widespread backlash against online education. Many professors pushed back against the ideas that parts of teaching could be replaced
with computers and that degrees were products that could be digitized like so many other goods and services.

 . . . .

[Mr. Young goes on to summarize some of the key controversies and criticisms of MOOCs and eventually moves on to a telephone interview done early last fall.]

If a big advantage of MOOCs is the large data sets of student behavior, who will get to see that information to learn from it? And will the privacy of students be protected? Curtis J. Bonk, a professor of education at Indiana University at Bloomington, said he worried that MOOC providers could end up selling student data to companies that are “soliciting things you didn’t mean to be getting.”

As all of these issues have begun to get attention, satire has inevitably made its way into discussions of MOOCs.

Laurie Essig, an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College, put forth her own proposal for the future of high-tech education on The Chronicle blog The Conversation. Her vision: massive open online administrations, or MOOAs.
“Think about it: MOOAs are the perfect solution to the rising cost of higher education,” she wrote. “We take superstar administrators and let them administer tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands of faculty at a time. The Ivy League and Nescac colleges could pool their upper management as could, say, Midwestern state colleges that start with “I” or “O.”

And so I called Mr. Winner, the technology critic who had staged the Automatic Professor Machine skit more than a decade ago, and I asked him what he thought of MOOCs.

He consulted his alter ego, the president of EduSham, which had made the APM. “His model now is that of hydrofracturing, or fracking, education,” Mr. Winner said. “What you do is you pump in course materials and lots of volatile rhetoric, and once you’ve broken up the substrata of the educational institutions, then you pump out whatever value you can.” EduSham apparently offers MOOCs but calls them massive obnoxious online commodities.

Why hasn’t Mr. Winner been more vocal in his concern? “I really see MOOCs as just the latest version of a very old story,” he said. “It’s very interesting that there’s no museum of the history of technology in education. I think the reason is that nobody wants to remember what happened five years ago or 15 years ago, because these things have always been failures.”

“We package this stuff as if you go through a set of courses and that’s what matters,” he said of traditional colleges. “But I always tell my students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I say if you leave this place without a network of friends and colleagues, people your age with interest in the fields of knowledge and practice that you have mastered, and you leave this place without three or four faculty who would respond to a letter-of-recommendation request saying whether this person is any good, then you’ve wasted your money. Because education is not just about what you have in your head, but some precious things that are not very well understood.”

Those not-very-well understood qualities can’t be translated to a MOOC, he argued. “They create this one-size-fits all model—the idea that education is basically a matter of information transfer from point A to point B. That fundamentally misunderstands what education is about, which is human relationships.”

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Containing the social cancer of inequality

                    Proponents of Swiss guaranteed income initiative dump a truck load of money
                    in front of the parliament in Bern to symbolize their cause.

At a conference at the Zurich University of the Arts recently I gave a talk on technological change and the widening gap of inequality in the USA during the past four decades.  In contrast, Max Rheiner, a faculty person there, told me about two referendums coming up for a vote in Switzerland soon.  One of them, the 1:12 initiative, would limit the top salary in any firm to 12 times the lowest worker's salary. (In the USA the prevailing ratio is that CEOs earn about 206 times the average worker's salary.)  Another Swiss ballot issue would install a guaranteed monthly income 2500 Swiss francs per month for "a decent life and to participate in public life."  Max did not know how likely it was that these measures would pass.  

Here's a link to a video on the money dumping prank shown in the photo above. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The era of digital distraction

Where are we?  Who are we with?  And what are we doing?  What's that over there?  Who knows?  Who cares?

Gray Brechin sent me the outrageous photo above with the message: "Need I say more?"

On a day when the world yet again celebrates the victory of commodity fetishism -- the release of the iPhone 5S -- it's worth taking a moment to ponder the powerful hold of digital narcissism within our culture.  Recently, I've banned all laptops, tablets, smart phones, other electronic devices in my classroom, except for showing films and videos relevant to the topic at hand.  "We're going to look each other in the eye, talk about the readings and listen carefully to what others have to say.  If you have a problem with that, I invite you to take another class."  While there was initially some resistance to this rule -- "What?  You're depriving us of our Internet and social networking!" -- I find that more and more students get the point and even enjoy visiting a space where the digital umbilical cord has been unplugged.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Community Supported Agriculture & the vitality of localism

                                         Harvesting garlic at Roxbury Farm, Kinderhook, NY

 In the region of New York where I live, there is strong support for ways of blending traditional communities with new varieties of social, economic and political practice.  It's always good to see outside recognition for the success my neighbors are having in their endeavors.  Here's a brief notice I posted recently on a fine website -- [In My BackYard].  

Roxbury Farm finds "sweet spot" in CSA size

There’s an interesting story on the NPR site, “Community Supported Agriculture: How Big Is Too Big?”  Columbia County’s Roxbury Farm seems to have found “the sweet spot.” As a Roxbury member for many years, I’ve seen the combination of idealism and good business sense that Jean-Paul, Jody and crew bring to their work.

I understand that the farm will start (or has already started?) posting its well-written, practical, always inspiring weekly newsletters on

– Langdon Winner 

The the latest Roxbury Farm newsletter is out, the one for July 22, 2013.  It worries about the weather and other matters, but is hopeful as always.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How will evangelicals respond to DOMA and Prop 8 decisions?

[With this post I'll begin a series of shorter comments about recent events, longer than the truncated observations I offer on Twitter or Facebook.]

Along with much of the nation, I celebrate news of The Supreme Court decisions striking down the benighted Defense of Marriage Act and California Proposition 8.  At the same time this turning point brings to mind surprising moments during two occasions in recent years in which I set foot in a church.  One was a memorial service for a family member held in a suburban Portland, Oregon maga-church.  The other was a wedding of a young couple in Washington, D.C.  Both events were deeply moving and personally meaningful.  But oddly enough, both included brash, tasteless, completely out-of-place interventions of homophobic preaching from the middle-aged male pastors who were conducting the services.  

At the memorial service recalling the life and contributions to family and community of a wonderful women, the clergyman departed from the flow of comment to deliver a vehement condemnation of homosexuality and a warning to younger members of the congregation about its lures.  "Good grief," I thought to myself.  "What's that all about?" 

At the wedding of the young man and woman -- a service enlivened by lots of gospel singing and hand clapping -- the religious master of ceremonies proclaimed the love and personal virtues of the couple, but seized the moment to argue that their bond deserved praise as a notable victory over Satan's treachery of gay sex that had swept up so many defenseless souls in this sinful era.  While the comment did nothing to change the good spirit in the chapel, it did add a distinctly sour note to the proceedings.  I began to wonder if comments like these had become a necessary part of evangelical church services, regardless of time and context.

In this light, it seems to me that this weekend an excellent source of entertainment would be to visit your local, "conservative" mega-church and listen closely to the sermon and the discussions afterwards.  What are the pastors and members of the congregation saying now? 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Big Hug for Paco

A Big Hug for Paco

By:  Langdon Winner

"It's a very fine essay," he said, "and I agree with most of it.  But that's not how we think about the situation now."  

It was the summer of 2010 in Madrid. I was enjoying a Fulbright scholarship and had been given an office in the philosophy division of CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, the Spanish equivalent of our NSF. As a way to introduce myself to the research fellows there, I'd shown them some of my writings, including a copy of an essay, "Is There a Right to Shape Technology?", one that describes the movement of people with disabilities as an example of possibilities for the democratic shaping of architectures and technologies. I thought the piece did a pretty good job making clear how a political theory of "rights" could be realized in situations where concerns for technical utility, efficiency and profit usually prevail and how steps of that kind could expand people's experience of citizenship.  

The first of the CSIC group to respond was Francisco "Paco" Guzm├ín, a man in his middle thirties, a brilliant physicist turned philosopher and sociologist.  "Your arguments about rights and democracy are quite good," he observed, "but all the language about 'disability' and 'people with disabilities' isn't helpful.  In fact, those terms pose a barrier to the kinds of freedom and social justice you obviously want to promote."  

Although Paco offered his comments in a sympathetic way, I was unsettled by them. I'd spent some time studying the history of American and international movements of "people with disabilities" from the 1960s to the present and had pondered the theoretical and conceptual issues widely debated the scholarly literature.  I thought I had approached the matter in an intelligent, respectful manner, including scrupulous avoidance of  "able-ism" and the kinds of prejudice and discrimination that outmoded perspective entails.  Yet here was a friendly person telling me that my thinking was badly flawed.  

"The problem is," Paco continued, "that putting people into the categories of 'abled' and 'disabled' is extremely limiting.  It leads us to suppose that you're essentially either one kind of person or the other kind when that is simply not true."

"I suppose you're right," I replied, "but I don't know how to get beyond that way of describing the basic situation here.  It's possible to take the trouble to describe specifically what kind of disability or impairment a person has in hearing, eye sight, paralysis in the limbs, and so forth.  But the  condition boils down to a stark either/or.  Some people exist within biological and cultural definitions of "able" or "normal" while others -- through no fault of their own -- are 'disabled.'  Are you saying we can move beyond that?"

"Most definitely!" he exclaimed. "For the past decade or so, scholars and activists in Spain have been using the concept of 'diversidad functional,' or 'functional diversity' in English, to describe the wide range of features that people's bodies can have.  There are a great many ways that human beings can 'function' given various physical or intellectual traits whether inherited or acquired.  Rather than lump these into two basic, essential categories, it's better to recognize the variety of these features and their functions.  When you take that step, the philosophical and practical questions become ones about diversity -- how to understand the important, sometimes problematic conditions and how to manage them in intelligent, fair-minded ways."  

The basic truth and implications of what Paco was saying struck me immediately and have grown in my worldview ever since.  The basic insight is that of thinking about the world, its creatures and their possibilities is vastly aided by recognizing plurality and diversity.  We know, for example, that what people used to talk about within the broad, essential category of "sex" has gradually been redefined as a range of phenomena better described in terms of gender and sexuality.  Growing recognition of people in LGBT communities, along with new ways of understanding matters of ethnicity and race, have profoundly changed the ways we think about what it means to be human.  We live in a diverse and multiply blended world, a world that has enormously positive possibilities, but also one whose dazzling complexity many people find distressing, even threatening.  

A growing awareness of plurality and diversity within humanity takes a new turn when one raises the question that Paco posed for me that afternoon: Upon which spectrum or, more to be more accurate, upon which set of spectra can the the features of one's body and its capacities be placed?  In that light, the ways in which any of us are more or less "functional" in the world are vastly multiple and open to improvement or decline given one's situation, the wages of time (e.g, aging), the effects of social policies, and a host of other factors.

I should point out that Paco, the one who taught me this valuable lesson three years ago, held somewhat different positions on the spectra of functional diversity than some of the characteristic features in my own body.  As our conversation unfolded, he spoke through a little electronic amplification box that always accompanied him, one that enabled his barely audible voice to be heard across the table.  Born with little or no use of his hands, arms and legs, he moved about the world in a wheel chair pushed by his wonderful mother, Pacquita, or by one of the assistants he employed. In the familiar, conventional sense, his much of his own functional capacity was highly limited.  At the same time he had a brilliantly creative mind, wonderful sense of humor, talent for friendship, profound grasp of a wide range of philosophical and political issues, and (as he demonstrated on that first day and all our conversations since) an extraordinary talent for exploring questions in a graceful, generous, fruitful manner.  

During the years following my summer in Spain, Paco and I stayed in touch online and in person.  Whether by prior arrangement or just showing up by surprise, he would attend the talks I gave in Spain now and again.  On one occasion he delivered a paper for a graduate course I'd helped organize in Copenhagen.  His co-author, Mario Toboso, also from CISC, was present in person while Paco spoke to us on the screen via Skype.  Because he wanted very much to travel to the USA we briefly explored the possibility that he might spend time at the new Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley.  I had known Ed Roberts in classes during my student days at Berkeley, celebrating his rise in the late 1960s a leader in campaign for the rights of people with disabilities in the USA.  Although Paco's  contributions to the movement came later and had a different character, I would not hesitate to place him on the same level as Roberts.  Both of them helped us think about the world in astonishing and beneficial new ways.

While Paco's ideas on "functional diversity" were the subject of a book and several papers he was writing, he was a truly public intellectual, active in political campaigns that emphasize the need for social change that could improve the lives who diverse functioning places them out of the conventional mainstream.  When the streets of Spain erupted with massive political demonstrations during the Spring of 2011, Paco appeared at one of the rallies to read from his wheel chair a declaration of principles for people whose condition of functional diversity required special attention by the social service agencies of the city and Spanish governments.  In fact, he was proud of social reforms in his country that enabled him to live as independently as possible rather than warehoused in a home for people with special needs.  The last time we talked was one evening last October in coffee shop in downtown Madrid. After a leisurely conversation he and Pacquita proudly showed me the new car they had bought for their mobility with family funds and some financial assistance from the government.  The vehicle featured a special built-in ramp that enabled him in his wheelchair to roll into rear of the vehicle and be quickly secured for the ride. I later told some mutual friends that I'd seen a wonderful new invention, "The PacoMobile."  

Although his positions on key policy questions were firm and strongly reasoned, he always presented them in fair, considerate manner.  During one conversation, I asked Paco about his position on abortion, a matter fiercely debated among people with particular kinds functional diversity.  He took the time to explain his views in detail.  The short version is that he favored on principle a woman's right to determine whether a pregnancy should be brought to term.  At the same time he strongly opposed a stipulation in Spanish law that extends the time period for ending a pregnancy if there is evidence that a child might be born with a significant disability.  "That part of the law is discriminatory," he explained.  "It says that certain kind of babies can be aborted beyond the time limit legally established in other cases.  While I strongly support a woman's right to choose, there should be no extraordinary extensions.  Such exceptions simply cannot be justified." 

I regret to say that Paco's days of thinking, writing, conversation, and living life to the full with his family and friends came to an end recently.  Early this year he suffered a series of illnesses that slowed him down.  Shortly after a stay in the hospital in March he contracted pneumonia and passed away.  He left behind a poetic, visionary, reassuring statement of farewell, "Panegirico."  At memorial services in his honor, friends and colleagues recalled their joy in his companionship.  Recently a columnist for El Pais, Rosa Montero (who had never met him in person) paid tribute to his accomplishments and enduring spirit.    

As a personal matter, I miss him terribly.  I will continue reading his works, teaching his ideas in my classes, especially ones that ponder philosophies of design for a better world.  He embodied that rare gift --  a joyful wisdom.

It is the custom in Spain to give friends a hug when you meet them and again when one leaves a social gathering.  With the group of scholars at CSIC I would join the practice of "abrazos" (hugs) all around.  But for a while I could not figure out what to do with little Paco resting there in his wheel chair.  So I would simply raise my hand and wave hello or goodbye.  One day, however, I thought to myself, "Hey, this isn't right!"  I told Paco of my discomfort and asked, "What should I do?" 

He smiled and said softly, "I accept hugs."  After that, when meeting or leaving, I would always bend down and hug him around the shoulders.

So it was.  And so it remains.  Abrazos, Paco.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Tribute to Michael Black

Remembering Michael Black
By: Langdon Winner

On my way to a conference in San Francisco last month I learned that Michael Black, a dear friend of many years, had been killed by a hit and run driver while walking along a country road in northern California.  I was devastated by the news.  Michael and I had talked by phone about getting together sometime over the weekend to catch up on recent developments in our lives.  But was not to be.  As the Dalai Lama once observed, "No one knows what comes first -- tomorrow or eternity."

Michael Black was truly a free spirit -- scholar, raconteur, singer, environmental activist, spiritual healer, ebullient visionary -- a person overflowing with joyful wisdom.  Long before the term became fashionable, he was a pioneer in studies of “sustainability.”  His PhD dissertation explored the collapse of ancient empires caused by ecological mismanagement, a fate that he believed was likely in store for our own civilization unless drastic measures were taken. His continuing efforts to find ways to heal the planet and its people carried him into wide ranging inquiries in political theory, American politics, social movements, natural history, forestry, the life cycle of West Coast salmon, and eastern philosophy.

I first met Michael, characteristically,  one afternoon in 1973.  As I banged away on my typewriter in an old Berkeley house, there was an unexpected knock at the door.   On the front porch stood a stranger smiling at me. "Hello!  I'm Michael Black.  I've heard about you and your work on the politics of technology.  We've got to talk."  We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking coffee and sharing thoughts about ecology and politics, the beginning of more than four decades of conversations.

 In variety of temporary and part time positions, Michael taught at several colleges and universities over the years.  Much beloved by his students and colleagues, his way of pursuing questions combined the intensity of Socratic method with an Aristotelian preference for philosophizing while walking around the campus.  Although he wrote continually and published steadily, academic administrators frowned at the relatively low rate of publication in the approved scholarly venues and, thus, he never received tenure.  I recall using the phrase "refereed journals" in a conversation with him one day, at which point he laughingly made the “tweet-tweeet” sound of whistles blown by referees at a football game.  That was his comment on the ways in an over-emphasis upon thinking by “peer review” had enforced a dull conformity in American higher education to the exclusion of other, more lively ways of knowing.  Nonetheless, as the years rolled on, Michael persisted, piecing together one class here, another class there twenty miles down the freeway, a vocation that he liked to call “Roads Scholar.” 

A colorful talker with an inborn love of word play, he used language in ways that delighted his friends and horrified university bureaucrats.  Within the grimly “serious” discussions about “curriculum reform” and “strategic planning” and similar matters (that waste far too much of the time of the nation’s best minds), Michael would often launch in to free association riffs that revealed the underlying absurdity of the conversation while angering the stuffed shirts who’d convened the meeting.  His everyday observations about the world were sprinkled with a range of signature phrases, delivered with a distinctive chuckle, ones that his friends will long cherish:

“Oh, oh.  I think reality’s breaking out today!” 

“Yes, it looks like we’re having too much fun!” 

My favorite story about Michael’s antics comes from the birth of my twin boys.   Following a 1:00 a.m delivery by Cesarian section, Gail was neatly stitched up by her doctors.  Around noon that day it was finally possible for family and friends to visit her and newborn Brooks and Casey in the hospital room.  The first person other than close family to arrive was Michael, who happened to be in town.    When he appeared at the door Gail raised her hand firmly as if to block his entrance,  “Michael, whatever you do, don’t get me laughing!” she exclaimed.  He came in accompanied by a group friends and within 30 seconds was telling jokes and had the whole room literally in stitches.  Of course, Gail eventually forgave him.

What Michael enjoyed most were days spent walking in nature.  On several occasions he took me high up on the west-facing slope of Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco Bay where we’d begin a long hike down to the sea.  As we strolled along the trail Michael would point out how gracefully the micro-eco-systems changed from place to place: from oak grove, to redwood glen, to grassy field, to sage brush chaparral, and eventually to the shores of a Pacific Ocean beach.  He enjoyed pointing out the details, sharing his sense of the world’s divine interconnections.  As Walker Black, his teenage son, commented at Michael’s memorial service, it was on those mountain strolls that "he felt most happy, most at completely at home."

Open on his desk at the end was a manuscript for first of three books Michael was writing about the spiritual explorations that occupied much of his life during the past decade.  In truth, he left behind a great deal more -- ideas, pieces of wisdom, joyful moments inscribed directly on the hearts and souls of his friends.  For those who knew and loved him, his presence in memory will continue to be: “Too much fun!”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Amazing new invention -- The Minimum Wage Machine

This wonderful new machine, shown in prototype here, comes from the web page of Cesarea Treehugger of Duluth, Minnesota.  It provides an answer to the question that many young people, including ones with excellent credentials and experience, are asking these days: "Where can I find a decent, well-paying job?"  Here's the product description from April 10, 2013.

 "This machine allows anyone to work for minimum wage for as long as they like. Turning the crank on the side releases one penny every 4.97 seconds, for a total of $7.25 per hour. This corresponds to minimum wage for a person in New York. This piece is brilliant on multiple levels, particularly as social commentary. Without a doubt, most people who started operating the machine for fun would quickly grow disheartened and stop when realizing just how little they’re earning by turning this mindless crank. A person would then conceivably realize that this is what nearly two million people in the United States do every day…at much harder [] than turning a crank. This turns the piece into a simple, yet effective argument for raising the minimum wage."

The likely demand for this much needed device is indicated by a story in today's New York Times:

City Report Shows a Growing Number Are Near Poverty

" The rise in New York City’s poverty rate as a result of the recession has apparently eased, but not before pushing nearly half of the city’s population into the ranks of the poor or near-poor in 2011, according to an analysis by the ...[mayor's] administration."

Many of my colleagues tell me that the cure for joblessness and poverty is a talisman called "technological innovation."  The minimum wage machine seems to be yet another example of the kinds of "breakthroughs" that have done so much to boost the fortunes of American working people since the late 1970s. 

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Masked Marauders on Rock Center

                                   Brian Williams, Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner (at the piano)
                                                  Rock Center interview, New York 3/4/14

The Masked Marauders joke/hoax was hatched in the fall of 1969 while I was doubling as a political science grad student and writer for Rolling Stone Magazine.  It began as a fake review written by Greil Marcus (under the pseudonym "T.M. Christian") as a send up of the trashy "super session" rock albums that were flooding the market at the time.  According to the review, the "The Masked Marauders" included the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and some other well known musicians playing together for the first time at a secret location in Hudson Bay, Canada.  While the idea was obviously absurd on its face, the piece was written in a manner that made the project sound almost plausible.  Soon the possibility that a "Masked Marauders" album might actually exist somewhere became the talk of the music industry.

At the time I had a radio program on "underground" radio station KMPX.  For a hour each Friday afternoon my friend and music writer John Morthland would gather around the microphone, play records, and talk about them.  Just after the "Masked Marauders" review was published, it occurred to me and to Greil: Why not play some cuts from the fictitious album on the show?  We knew a group of Berkeley folk/rock musicians, The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, headed by our old friend Phil Marsh, and were also familiar with a fellow who had build recording facilities in the garage of his house.  Hence, on a warm September evening with a lot of beer and maybe some other controlled substances we gathered the group of musicians and pranksters and cut three songs: "I Can't Get No Nookie," (sung by fake Mick Jagger, Brian Vorhees), "Cow Pie," (an instrumental in the fashion of Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album), and "Duke of Earl" (sung by fake Bob Dylan, again the multi-talented Brian Vorhees).  The first two songs were written on the spot with the musicians locating some threadbare riffs to play and Greil out in the driveway sketching the flagrantly obscene lyrics for the two originals.

The following Friday, John and I went on the air as usual.  At the end of the program I said, "As you probably know, everyone's been talking about The Masked Marauders album reviewed in Rolling Stone.  Many have said that it doesn't exist at all, that the review was just a fraud.  Well, I'm here to tell you that the album does exist and that we've been lucky enough to obtain three cuts from it.  This is the first time these songs have ever been played anywhere.  So, yes, The Masked Marauders are real.  I'm sure you'll agree that they've never sounded better!"  

After we played the songs, the DJ, Tom Swift, opened the phone lines for listener comments.  Several people called in saying, "Long live the Masked Marauders!" "What hoot!" and the like.  Obviously, they'd gotten the joke.

It's a long story from there.  Soon after the radio program the Berkeley musicians along with some friends and with me on piano, finished an LP that was released by Reprise Records under the special "Deity" label.  It sold at a pretty good clip for a while and then dropped like a stone.  Among those taken in by the joke were none other Brian Williams (then ten years old) and his older brother.  For a while the boys apparently believed the record was a genuine recording of the stars mentioned in the original review.  

Recently, Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News and host of the TV magazine show Rock Center, produced a segment on the history of The Masked Marauders, thoroughly checking various news stories and background documents from the historical period, interviewing Greil Marcus and me in (appropriately) a New York City recording studio where Mick Jagger himself had once done an album.  Williams presents himself, tongue-in-cheek, as an aggrieved victim of the hoax.  The show aired last Friday and is now archived at this link:

Were You a Believer in The Masked Marauders?

For the historical/hysterical record, here are the liner notes I wrote for the album, using the T.M. Christian moniker. 

"Only once in a lifetime does an album like this appear.  Only once in a millennium does it become possible at all.  But like the return of Hegel's Comet every 738 years or the coming of the fresh leaves in the icy breath of spring, it was inevitable.  It had to happen.  In a world shrouded in the pitch darkness of war and political strife, The Masked Marauders stand as a luminescent flashbulb of truth exploding before our eyes.

Super sessions come and super sessions go  Ever since Socrates jammed with Alcibiades and Anthony played with Cleopatra, they have been a mainstay of Western Civilization.  All of them are memorable.  All of them produce music beyond precedent.  For when the gods meet and pool their talents, even if only for a few brief hours, the result is certain to be  a monument to creativity itself.

Sly critics, of course, will continue to scoff.  From their flimsy tin thrones of journalistic cynicism they will continue to exclaim "It's all a shuck" and "What can you expect from prima donnas who've never even rehearsed together?" But truly devout rock listeners will not be swayed by such bitterness.  They know a super session when they hear one.

When I was asked to attend The Masked Marauders' recording session date several months ago, I couldn't believe it was true.  A humble man like myself listening to the spontaneous creations of ... of all those great performers!  It was only as I mushed my dog sled that last two miles from the Hudson Bay Air Terminal to the basement studio of Igloo Productions that I was able to convince myself that a fantastic dream would become a reality.  A meeting of the gods at last!

The sessions went quickly.  After brief troubles with the magnificent 80 track tape machine and some minor adjustments to the microphones, we were off an rolling.  Inspired by the peaceful glow of the aurora borealis overhead, the musicians seem to merge into a single body.  Seldom was more than one take needed to finish a given cut.  Often it required less than that. 

There is an unforgettable story behind each song on this epoch-making album.  "I Can't Get No Nookie," for example, was recorded at 4:00 in the morning after an all night party on the tundra with the local Eskimos.  "Boy, those Eskimo women sure are something," the lead guitarist said to me as he shook the snow from his parka.  He was right.  The title of the song actually refers to one of them -- "Nookie," the lovely girl friend of Nanook of the North who attended the sessions.  Rumors that the title and lyrics contain an obscene reference are nothing more than a vile ethnic slur cooked up by some demented mind.

Looking back on it now, I am certain that the magical element which held it altogether was the incredibly solid rhythm section.  We have all heard the great Memphis sidemen and their compelling beat.  In recent months the Nashville rhythm sections have achieved a long-deserved acclaim.  But compared to the distinctive groove of the Hudson Bay group, all of these seem weak and uninteresting.  These men produce a rhythm which literally jolts the listener with the spirit of that simple, joyous early rock and roll.  It is, unmistakably, the sound of the future -- the Hudson Bay Sound.

Unfortunately, the musicians on this record must remain anonymous.  The web of entangling legal commitments in which they have become enmeshed over the last few years prevent them from revealing their true identities.  But here they are, nonetheless.  The haunting thump-thump-thump of the drums.  The rippling chords of the piano.  The moaning of the harp and dobro.  The familiar voices which shook the foundations of two continents.  Yes, they are all here.

None of them is dead.

Leading experts now estimate that the music business is currently 90% hype and 10% bullshit.  The Masked Marauders, bless their hearts, have gone far beyond that.  Their music needs no hype.  It transcends the very essence of the bullshit for which the public pays millions each year.  Do not be fooled by gossip and idle rumors.  In a world of sham, The Masked Marauders are truly the genuine article.

-- T.M. Christian


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Great U.S. Military Victories of the Past Half Century

I'm proposing a series of historical lectures to be delivered at West Point on the theme: Great U.S. Military Victories of the Past Half Century.  Below is the complete list.

1.  "The Strategy and Conflict in Granada: Defeating Communism in the Caribbean," by retired General V.A. Ganar  


Monday, February 11, 2013

In Defense of Heckling

In Defense of Heckling
by:  Langdon Winner 

The noisy appearance of several activists from CODEPINK at last week's Senate hearings on the confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the C.I.A. was welcome for calling attention to the immoral, extra-judicial use of pilot-less drones by the U.S. Government to murder people -- citizens and foreign nationals, adults and children -- that "high government officials" suspect of being associated with al-Qaeda.  But as the protesters were being physically ejected from the room, it occurred to me that they'd also called mind a crucial but widely scorned feature of democratic freedom -- skillfully targeted heckling.

Those who disrupt public hearings, lectures, and other gatherings with shouts and posters critical of dignitaries at the front of room are often derided as enemies of free speech, ones who seek to destroy open discussion of crucial political issues.  Objections of this kind arose during incidents of heckling directed at Mitt Romney and Barack Obama during the 2012 presidential election campaign.  

Thus, at a political rally in Richmond Virginia shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, Romney encouraged the crowd to help by donating to the Red Cross.  But, as one news story reported:  "Amid the applause, ...[a] heckler shouted, “What about climate? What about climate? That’s what caused this monster storm. Climate change.” The man, who was holding sign that read “END CLIMATE SILENCE” was immediately booed and drowned out by “USA” chants. He was escorted out of the event." 

Press coverage of incident lamented the breakdown of respectful civility the speech, but seemed little concerned that, as the heckler pointed out, Mr. Romney had nothing to say about what is probably the greatest crisis facing humanity at present. 

In a similar incident, Barack Obama was heckled during a speech in March 2012 at Ohio State, first by a man shouting and waving a book and later by protesters chanting "block the pipeline,” referring to the Keystone XL project.  Obama's cool, calm response was typical of well coached responses by those who are targets of heckling, namely to stress the crucial need for decorum as well respect for the speaker and listeners in the audience.  "Sir, I'm here to speak to these folks." Obama said. "You can hold your own rally. You're being rude. ... I'm trying to talk to these people."

At one level such criticisms of heckling seem perfectly reasonable.  Indeed, it's clear that open debate and reasoned discourse would suffer if incessant verbal interruptions permanently interrupted or frequently shut down public gatherings.  Yes, there are numerous cases in modern history in which political thugs have busted up the meetings of their opponents through shouting, physical intimidation and worse.  By no means would I endorse malicious behavior of that kind.  But outrages of that sort are not what happens in most instances of heckling in public meetings and speeches.  What commonly occurs is that persons in the crowd speak  out, loudly but briefly, offering relevant, sometimes irreverent, contributions to the discussion, ones at odds with themes the speaker or event organizers hoped to publicize.

But, you may ask, isn’t this unwelcome and destructive?  Doesn't the presence of hecklers in the room threaten the right of free speech?  Isn't that a right we need to defend from any and all kinds of interference? 

My answer is that the right of free speech also includes the rights of listeners to respond vocally to statements and positions they find morally or politically offensive and to do that right on the spot.  Is there an obligation to sit quietly at attention as a speaker offers flagrant misrepresentations of the truth or advocates contemptible positions?  Is there something sacred about the location or vocation of the speaker that imposes respectful, appreciative silence?  Where in the Bill of Rights is a compliant attitude of that sort specified?  Indeed, the first amendment seems to authorize free speech on any and all occasions citizens may choose, perhaps (oh, horror!) on occasions in which others are speaking as well.  Perhaps we should regard appropriate, limited injections of heckling not as a threat or unwelcome annoyance, but as colorful invitations to democratic dialogue.

Three roughly associated events from many years ago helped focus my understanding of these matters.

One was a visit to the Free Speech Corner in London's Hyde Park during on a summer backpack tour of England while I was in college.  As someone in love with politics and political philosophy, I eagerly sought out the fabled place on a cloudy July afternoon and was astonished by what I saw and heard.  There in the plaza were several amateur orators, standing some distance apart, often on flimsy wooden boxes, declaring their views on a variety of social, political, moral, and cultural topics – ban the bomb, animal rights, the best path socialism, post-colonial African movements, and other topics.  As a well-domesticated middle class American, I was shocked to see that the speakers at the front were not the only ones   shouting.   Some of the people in the crowd were vigorously and loudly yelling back.  "Nonsense!" "Not true!" "Aw, you're full of it!"  It was all part of a customary, evidently well choreographed ritual in which the hierarchy that separates speaker and audience simply dissolves.  It's worth noting  that during the afternoon everyone said whatever they wanted.  Everyone was heard, nobody was silenced, for what it was worth.  True, little in the content of the exchanges was particularly profound.  But I came away thinking, "Yes, this is part of what free speech involves."

The second event -- a rather lengthy and complicated one -- was the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at U.C. Berkeley during the fall semester of 1964 an upheaval that happened shortly after my visit to Hyde Park.  The short version of the story is that, responding to complaints about political advocacy on campus, the foppish university administration decided to ban all political speech and was met by stiff student and faculty resistance.  After weeks of demonstrations, protests and the arrest of some 800 students at a sit-in in the administration building, free speech on campus was finally restored.  As I’ve written elsewhere, those events brought profound, lasting effects to my own life and worldview and to thousands of other students as well. 

The third event took place during the next year or so following the victory of the FSM and the rise of increasingly intense, widespread student concerns about the U.S. war in Vietnam.  One evening in the university's Wheeler Hall auditorium, a speaker from a federal government agency, William G. Bundy (brother of McGeorge Bundy, key advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time), came to explain the Johnson administration's views on the threat posed by what he described as North Vietnamese Communist infiltrators to the government of South Vietnam.  Some months earlier, a State Department document, "Aggresion from the North, a State Department White Paper on Vietnam,” had been released and became the focus of a heated nationwide debate.  That evening, Mr. Bundy defended the report’s findings and offered justifications for an increasing U.S. presence in the war.  For most of the time, the audience in the packed house listened quietly, even pensively to his remarks.  But on several occasions, there were spontaneous shouts from the crowd: "That's a lie!" "Bullsh*t" and the like.  Bundy, a career D.C. insider, one obviously used to polite beltway policy briefings, seemed shaken by these outbursts.

As the heckling continued off and on during Bundy's presentation, his host for the evening, Robert Scalapino, Chair of the Department of Political Science, stepped to the podium and angrily addressed crowd.  Drawing attention to the victory of the FSM, he excoriated those who'd raised their voices, dismissing them as contrary to the renewal of free speech at the university.  The audience seem chastened by his warning and jibes from the audience gradually died down.

Thinking back on its now, it seems to me that what was wrong that night, what was truly unforgivable during the build-up to the War in Vietnam, was not too much heckling, but far too little.  We were too easy on the stuffy, self-assured Mr. Bundy and those like him in Washington as the calamities in Southeast Asia became known.  Students and other citizens should have been tirelessly “in your face” as these policies and military campaigns took shape.  Reading recent histories of the war, Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves most notably, has further convinced me that it was a blunder to heed the advice of those who urged us to be "polite and respectful" in our opposition.  

Much the same can be said about political controversies in our own time.  Was a polite, respectful approach at public gatherings the best way to respond to the Tea Party candidates of 2011-2012 or their eventual standard bearer, Willard “Mitt” Romney?  Obviously not.  Think of the treasure trove of unwitting self-revelations in Mr. Romney’s quest for the presidency that were prompted by hecklers in the audience.  

For example, at the Iowa State Fair in August 2011, Romney tried to explain that, hypothetically, one way to protect “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare would be to “raise taxes on people,” an idea he was trying to refute.  But before he got any further, several voices in the crowd yelled, “Corporations!”  

 “Corporations are people, my friends,” Romney replied, at which point there was raucous laughter, jeering and a loud retort, “No they’re not!” 

“Of course they are,” an obviously flustered Romney replied.  “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”  (More uproarious laughter from the crowd.)

An interesting question arises here.  Was the American electorate better informed about its real choices in the 2012 election by (1) the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the candidates’ beautifully tailored television advertisements, or (2) the memorable images and statements generated in response to well targeted heckling?  In my view, the answer is perfectly clear.  It's likely that history will record that several of Romney's "off message" comments were the ones ultimately decisive in his defeat, including his baffled retorts to ordinary citizen hecklers, phrases that came to symbolize his irrepressible contempt for the "47%" and more of the nation's populace.

While arguments against the practice of lively, limited, thoughtful heckling are usually offered as a sober, reasoned defense of democracy, upon closer inspection they are often thinly veiled justifications for authoritarianism.  The underlying, unspoken advice by very serious people is this:  Be quiet.  Be compliant.  Don’t speak out.  Don’t question authority.  Put your little minds at ease.  Just follow your designated leaders.  Let them do the talking.  If you must make noise, just applaud or cheer at the designated moment.

My mind swims as I remember the astonishing array of fools, miscreants, looters, and, yes, war criminals for whom my generation has been asked to accord deference and esteem.  Perhaps it was always thus.  On the lecture circuit for has-been dignitaries these days, a reliable rule of thumb is: the greater the crimes, the higher the honoraria, the more piteous the vapors of apology if anyone embarrasses the institution by daring to speak out.

So, I say, thank God for CODEPINK and for all those over the years who’ve relentlessly tried to heckle us back to our senses.  While it's a mode of political expression sometimes prone to excess, abuse and sheer irrationality, on balance the practice of heckling stuffed shirt power holders can be counted among strongest, most colorful, most effective traditions of direct democracy.  We need more of it, not less.

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

[In a second segment of these musings, I’ll explore some possible objections to my position, some unfortunate aspects of heckling (especially episodes of backlash), and even some suggestions  for “An Ethic for Hecklers.”  I have no idea when that part will be ready to post.]