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“Undercover Boss” and the misfortune of labor

March 1st, 2010  |  Published in Uncategorized

Cross-posted from The Activist

"To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune." --Marx, Capital "Are you a good team player/remember the boss is your best friend/kill your head." --Born Against

CBS chose to premiere their new reality show, "Undercover Boss", after the Super Bowl, indicating that they expect big things from it. And the premise is undeniably appealing: sending CEOs out to work entry-level jobs at the companies they control. In the first episode, we follow Larry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management, as he picks up litter, rides a garbage truck, and cleans toilets. As cheap populist theater, it's hard to resist.

Predictably, the show is really an affirmation of the class hierarchy it pretends to challenge. Its core lesson is that, should the benevolent corporate ruler deign to walk among the peasants, he will surely recognize the injustice of their plight and leap to action to remedy the situation. We get copious evidence of the CEO's empathy, his heartfelt desire to improve his employee's lives and help them enjoy their jobs. The episode ends with O'Donnell giving a speech acknowledging the struggles of the workers he has toiled alongside, as he promises to be a different and better leader from this day forward. As the credits roll, we are given brief "happily ever after" messages about the fate of the five rank-and-file employees we have met.

Of course, it's trite and obvious to point out that television tends to portray structural inequalities in terms of personal morality and individual solutions. If that was all there was to "Undercover Boss", it wouldn't rate a post. But what really struck me about the episode was something that relates to my recent post on guaranteed income. This show inadvertently makes the point that there is nothing noble or honorable about being working class under capitalism, despite what capitalist propagandists and even some traditional leftists would have you believe. On the contrary, being forced to work at an unpleasant job in return for wages leads to a degradation of the soul and a deformation of one's character.

This is made painfully evident by the heroes and villains in "Undercover Boss". The heroes--other than the CEO himself--are the everyday workers. And they seem like basically good people dealing with difficult circumstances. But their attitude toward their jobs is, at best, a resigned cynicism, like that of the woman who shrugs her shoulders at being followed by corporate spies and forced to urinate in a can in order to make her quota of trash pickups. And at worst, they show that they've internalized a work ethic that causes them to become complicit in exploiting their fellow workers. One man, who holds his job despite suffering from kidney failure, rides O'Donnell relentlessly for being too slow to pick up trash on a windy hillside, and then fires him after ridiculing him for being a worse worker than a dialysis patient. Even more horrifying is the man who brings a cheerful, can-do disposition to his job of sucking unspeakable waste out of the depths of a carnival porta-potty. O'Donnell commends him for his talent at motivating him to do this dirty job, even making it seem "fun". And one can see why as a CEO, he would this employee so valuable. But watching the two of them interact, one is struck by the gulf that separates a man forced to clean toilets, who adopts a positive attitude in order to make the work bearable, from the CEO who patronizingly approves of his attitude.

The villains in this drama are, in their own way, just as poignant. They are, for the most part, middle managers--pasty white guys who sit a bit higher on the corporate ladder than the spotlighted workers, but many rungs below CEO O'Donnell. In several scenes of "Undercover Boss", O'Donnell puts these characters on the spot and calls them out for various overbearing and callous managerial demands. These scenes fall into a long tradition of vilifying middle management in post-industrial American culture: it's the impulse that animates Dilbert, Office Space, and the Office. Middle managers make easy targets because they're the face of the boss that workers actually see--unlike the top managers who will never meet workers face-to-face outside of the fantasy world of reality TV.

At best, people focus their resentment on middle mangers for the same reason that radicals and oppressed people feel a visceral animosity toward cops, even though they are only foot soldiers for a much larger power structure. But watching the interviews on "Undercover Boss", I was reminded of the stories of Soviet peasants and workers, faced with the brutality of, in turn, the Cossacks and the Communist bureaucracy. They would cling to the notion that the big leader--first the Czar, later Stalin--would be outraged if he only knew what his agents were up to, and would surely make things right.

But as the liberal economist Brad DeLong likes to say, "the Cossacks work for the Czar". The squirmiest parts of "Undercover Boss" are the interludes where O'Donnell expresses his shock and dismay at the brutal policies implemented by underlings as they attempt to implement the productivity targets that he himself has imposed. He behaves as though all of these nasty outcomes are the fault of small-minded managers, who simply misunderstood his benevolent motives.

In the end, then, no-one on this show comes off looking good. The boss looks like a smarmy and self-satisfied hypocrite; the managers look petty and cruel; and the rank-and-file look either beaten-down, brutalized, or brainwashed. The secret lesson of the show is that the powerlessness of workers has horrible spiritual consequences both for them and for their bosses. I think a lot of people are reluctant to make this argument--I'm reluctant to make it too--because it seems disrespectful of people who are generally less privileged than those of us with the time to write rambling blog posts about TV shows. But that's a risk I'm willing to take, if the alternative is to patronize people by romanticizing their work even though, in all honesty, I wouldn't for one second consider trading places with them.

The healthiest reaction to the plight of the people featured on "Undercover Boss" is to fight for a society in which people aren't forced to clean out toilets and then pretend they enjoy it. One way to do that is to build strong unions that can stand up for the rights of people who will never be lucky to appear on a CBS reality TV show. But the left needs to think hard about other models, including the one I raised the other day--a minimum income that allows everyone enough to survive on, no matter what. It's hard to imagine that people would be so eager to oppress their fellow workers, or feign enjoyment of their crappy jobs, if they had the same choice given to the star of "Undercover Boss": the choice not to be there.

AJ el Memorioso

March 25th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

Let me step back, for a moment, from the abstract contemplation of concrete phenomena in the world, to consider how it is that we think abstractly at all. I've been fascinated, for a few years now, by the possibility of historicizing epistemology by connecting abstract thinking with processes of abstraction that operate in everyday life in capitalism; the path-breaking work here is that of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and his theory of the "real abstraction".

I was provoked to return to this line of thought by a news story about a remarkable medical case, a woman with perfect memory:

James McGaugh is one of the world's leading experts on how the human memory system works. But these days, he admits he's stumped.

McGaugh's journey through an intellectual purgatory began six years ago when a woman now known only as AJ wrote him a letter detailing her astonishing ability to remember with remarkable clarity even trivial events that happened decades ago.

Give her any date, she said, and she could recall the day of the week, usually what the weather was like on that day, personal details of her life at that time, and major news events that occurred on that date.

. . .

McGaugh has spent decades studying how such things as stress hormones and emotions affect memory, and at first he thought AJ's memories were of such emotional power that she couldn't forget them.

But that hypothesis fell short of the mark when it became obvious that "the woman who can't forget" remembers trivial details as clearly as major events. Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.

This remarkable case, if it is indeed as described, is a real life version of Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of the Jorge Luis Borges story "Funes the Memorious" (or, in the 1998 Hurley translation, "Funes, His Memory"). Here is Borges' narrator describing Funes:

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple--every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. "I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began," he said to me. And also: "My dreams are like other people's waking hours." And again, toward dawn: "My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap." A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus--all these are forms we can fully intuit; Ireneo could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake. I had no idea how many stars he saw in the sky.

But for Funes, perfect memory is not an asset--it is a curse:

I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars--and they were virtually immediate particulars.

One wonders, then, what sort of thinker is AJ, our real life Funes? In the story, Funes is physically crippled; Borges implies that he is also intellectually crippled by his "gift". AJ is not, as one might expect, incapacitated by her prodigious memory--she has lived a fairly normal, functional life. Yet it does seem that she is subject to some of the same limitations as Funes, according to the original press release about her:

There are limits to AJ’s memory. While she has nearly perfect recall of what she was doing on any given date and instantly can identify the date and day of the week when an important historical event in her lifetime occurred, she has difficulty with rote memorization and did not always do well in school. She scored perfectly on a formal neuropsychological test to measure her autobiographical memory, but during the testing had difficulty organizing and categorizing information. She refers to her ongoing remembering of her life’s experiences as “a movie in her mind that never stops”.

So it is true, as Borges supposed, that perfect memory is at odds with the actual process of thinking. This has implications for social theory, for it demonstrates the complex relationship between empirical sense-data and conceptual abstraction--and it supports the type of dialectical thought recommended by Marxists like Bertell Ollman:

Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of "thing" (as something that has a history and has external connections with other things) with notions of "process" (which contains its history and possible futures) and "relation" (which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations). Nothing that didn't already exist has been added here. Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is "abstracts") in which to think about the world. The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our five senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. However great the influence of what the world is on how we draw these boundaries, it is ultimately we who draw the boundaries, and people coming from different cultures and from different philosophical traditions can and do draw them differently.

Ollman's methodology, Borges's narrative, and AJ's example all militate against the misconception that we can arrive at truth through a mere accumulation of information; to Ollman's principle of drawing boundaries between sensory qualities, we can add the importance of excluding some sense-data while retaining others. These examples are therefore a defense of the usefulness of social theory, both for understanding the world and for changing it. But I think the discussion of memory and abstraction also has something to say about a little discussion I had with Geoff recently, about the new types of subjectivity that are encouraged by the Internet. In a way, the Internet is a cyborg appendage which gives us all Funesian memory: a machine which preserves every random bit of information, and every comment on that information, eternally. The argument I have sketched so far suggests that this is as likely to imped e our ability to think, as it is to facilitate it.

So perhaps the question facing us is: in an environment where every memory is preserved, how do we devise new principles for forgetting?

Left Forum Notes

March 12th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

This weekend was the 2006 Left Forum, the conference of anti-capitalist academics and activists from around the world, held in NYC. The Left Forum is a successor to the Socialist Scholars Conference, which ended two years ago under acrimonious circumstances that are utterly not worth going into. The Left Forum is almost identical in structure to the SSC, although somewhat different in its political scope: it encompasses a wider array of anarchist and autonomist currents of the non-parliamentary left, while leaving out some of the social democratic and liberal currents on the "right" of the old SSC.

I was surprised to find myself somewhat dissatisfied with this political shift. While I have no particular use for the political positions of people like Michael Walzer and Ian Williams, they do represent a real segment of the left, and having them around led to some real sparks flying at past conferences. In contrast, the anarchoid left tends to uphold individualistic and disorganized kinds of activism; rather than criticizing the approach of more state-oriented leftists, their general attitude is something like: "hey man, do your own thing!" This tends to cut off debate rather than sharpen it, which can lead to an efflorescence of empty platitudes.

Still, there were good things happening at the forum. What follows is a recap of the panels I attended.

Imperialism and its Future
Chair: Jomo K.S.
Panelists: Eric Reinert, Anwar Shaikh, Vivek Chibber
I don't really know much about Jomo K.S., and I've never read his work--but his name is just amazing, and it always makes me want to go to his panels. How does one get a surname that is only initials? Can I have one? In any event, the panel was pretty good, if a bit unfocused--one of the problems with the Left Forum format is that you often get panels of people who know nothing except the title of the panel, and have to make their own guesses about what will be a relevant contribution. In this case, Professor Reinert (who teaches in Estonia) decided to use his time to criticize the left and right for basing their economic thought on David Ricardo. Huh? Fortunately, things improved rapidly, as Anwar Shaikh and Vivek Chibber gave solid takes on the meaning of imperialism. Shaikh's big take-away point was that international inequalities are not the result of monopoly or some other deformation of perfect competition--a view associated with both neoliberalism and with much Leninist anti-imperialism--but in fact a predictable result of even the most perfectly free market. Chibber, meanwhile, made many great points, but the big one was the claim that capitals are still regional in nature--almost all of the Fortune 500 companies make most of their sales within their own geographical region. Thus, the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry based on the rivalry of different regional capitals is still very much operative. (But for a contrary view, see below.)

Crisis in Auto or Crisis in Health? Crisis in Capital or Crisis in Labor?
Chair: Leo Panitch
Panel: Doug Henwood, Thomas Sablowski, Frances Fox Piven, Sam Gindin, Marsha Niemeijer
Sometimes, panels at this conference will just have too many people on them for a space of two hours. Other times, the panel will be made up of people who all seem to be friends, cronies, and co-thinkers. This panel managed to unite both tendencies, but was nevertheless pretty good. With the recent struggles over job, wage and benefit cuts at the major U.S. automakers as a starting point, the panelists debated the future of the auto industry, its role in the capitalist economy, and the strategic choices facing auto workers unions. Sablowski, a German researcher, and Gindin, a former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers, were probably the most interesting of the bunch. Gindin argued that auto unions had to get beyond fighting concessions and talk about three big issues: instituting national health care in the U.S., managing over-capacity by regulating investment in new auto plants, and reducing working hours in order to preserve jobs. Sablowski drew attention to the political difficulties inherent in reconciling the particular intersts of auto workers with the general needs of the working class and the environment. The other panelists all had something to contribute to these general themes, although Niemeijer, a writer for Labor Notes, mostly just gave that publication's typical answer to every problem in the labor movement: more militancy and more union democracy. She didn't really grapple with the arguments of the rest of the panel, which showed pretty effectively why that's not enough.

Marxist Views of China 's Contemporary Development
Chair/Panelist: David Kotz
Panelists: Cheng En Fu, Minqi Li, Richard Smith
I like to go to panels on China at the Left Forum, because they offer something you don't get many other places: analysis of China's political economy from a Marxist viewpoint, which is not sectarian or dogmatic in either a pro- or anti-China way. This panel had the added attraction of Mr. Cheng, from the "Marxism Research Institute" of the University of Shanghai. It so happened that the New York Times had just run a story that morning about Marxist factions in the Chinese Communist Party, which probably boosted turnout for the panel. Mainstream Chinese "Marxism", it turns out, amounts to introducing some tepid social democratic reforms to ameliorate the worst effects of marketizing and privatizing the Chinese "socialist market economy". Mr. Cheng did not criticize either markets or capital accumulation as a growth strategy. But the other panelists pointed out what's wrong with this approach: Kotz argued that markets inevitably give rise to a new wealthy class that pursues its own class interests; Minqi argued that the cycle of accumulation makes recession and crisis inevitable, and Richard Smith--in the most devastating of the presentations--made it clear that it will be ecologically impossible for the mass of Chinese to achieve Western levels of resource use. It was clear that capitalism is not sustainable for China even in the medium run--unfortunately, it was far from clear where an alternative to the present strategy of rapacious development is going to come from.

China, India and Capitalism in the Long Run
Chair: Vamsi Vakulabharanam
Panelists: Giovanni Arrighi, Beverly Silver, Leo Panitch, Gilbert Achcar
Since I'm a political mas ochist, the apocalyptic scenarios of the previous panel impelled me to attend another panel on China. This time, the general theme was one that is becoming a leftist perennial: is China in the process of displacing the United States as the hegemonic power in the world? Arrighi and Silver come from the World Systems Theory tradition, which has pioneered the sinocentric take on this question. So it was no surprise that Arrighi played up the significance of China in the world system, and Silver spent a lot of time talking about the political problem of make sure that the U.S. is "graceful" in its apparently inevitable decline from great power status. Leo Panitch then went to bat for his own trademark claim (with Sam Gindin) that "imperialism" is no longer a valid analysis of the relations between capitalist states. This is an intentionally provocative way of putting the issue, actually, since Panitch pretty clearly believes in something that you would have to call imperialism--that is, unequal and exploitative relations between core and peripheral countries. What he objects to is the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry; he claims that the interpenetration of first-world (North American, European and Japanese) capitals has made major schisms between those powers unlikely to impossible. Essentially, he's reviving Kautsky's theory of "ultra-imperialism". I didn't used to think much of this line of thinking, but as I listened to Panitch, I started to think he was on to something important. His insights have to be integrated with some of the facts about the dollar economy and the disarticulation of state and nation which I've addressed in earlier posts. But I'm not ready to make that synthesis yet. I do, however, hope Panitch gets on a panel with Vivek Chibber at a future Left Forum, since they are both very sharp and yet have apparently irreconcilable views about the nature of contemporary imperialism.

A Soldier's Movement Against the Iraq War: Prospects and Challenges
Chair: Tod Ensign
Panel: Aiden Delgado, Jose Vasquez, Geoffrey Millard
After all the high-falutin' theory, I needed some activist grit, and I was really curious to hear about Iraq veterans organizing against the war. This panel was sponsored by the amazing Citizen Soldier, and all of the panelists were Iraq vets. They were also, to a man, more organized and articulate than most of the academics; military discipline applied to public speaking, or something. There were some moving stories about the process by which these very different people came to their political radicalization; there was also some discussion of the culture class which prevents anti-war veterans from being incorporated into the peace movement. But perhaps the most interesting analysis came from Delgado, who broke down the process that a recruit goes through--from recruitment to training to deployment to homecoming to (maybe) radicalization. He identified the points of vulnerability where a soldier can be politically won over, and he noted that while a lot of energy is going into the small (2-300) core of actively anti-war veterans on one end, and counter-recruitment activism on the other end, there needs to be more attention paid to the training phase. That's the point where a recruit is first introduced to the realities of military life, before they have been fully socialized into the culture of the military; Delgado argues that this is where soldiers are most amenable to anti-war politics. The trick, of course, is reaching them. He noted that all soldiers have government-provided email accounts, which are one way to get at them. Jose Vasquez also drew our attention to a new film which needs to get into the hands of as many recruits and soldiers as possible.

Those were the only panels I saw--I've learned by now that it's best not to try to go to a panel in every session. I was also not that excited by most of the panels. Some of my favorite Socialist Scholars/Left Forum regulars, like Mahmood Mamdani and David Harvey, weren't on panels (or weren't on interesting ones). And there seemed to be a lot of panels that were kind of vague and pointless-sounding. But I was pleasantly surprised at the panels I saw. And of course, there's always the book shopping. I got this and this, plus I subscribed to New Left Review at their special conference rate, mostly on the strength of this guy's writing.

1961-2006

March 7th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized


Kirby Puckett wasn't from Minnesota; he grew up in the projects on the south side of Chicago. I haven't lived in Minnesota since I was 18, and may never live there again. Yet I feel like I'm part of a tremendous collective grief at the death of this man, who is undoubtedly the most-loved figure in the history of Minnesota sports.

My love for the Minnesota Twins, and for Kirby Puckett in particular, were what finally allowed me to understand the emotional appeal of nationalism. In the symbol of that team, and in the image of this one man, there is a glorious imagined community that will follow me wherever I go. And through the adulation of a man like Puckett, through the communion with other Minnesotans--including many who are not even baseball fans--I can affirm and define a Minnesotanness that might otherwise slip away.

And in all of the tributes from Puckett's friends and teammates, we receive an image of a joyous, selfless, warmhearted man--yet one also troubled and ultimately destroyed by his personal demons. In that we find, not our Minnesotanness, but our humanity. Out of the particularism of baseball and baseball heroes, a universalism emerges.

Misadventures in Capitalism: Weekend Roundup

February 25th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

Like Tom Frank always says, it pays for leftists to read the business section. This week's business pages were such a gold mine of capitalist irrationality, I couldn't pick just one story. The lowlights:

The Threat to a Free (Business) Press. (Article is behind the stupid Times Select paywall.) The Bush administration's ongoing attempts to silence journalists are one thing; the bourgeoisie has always been ambivalent about allowing the rabble to speak its mind. But you would think that allowing business analysts to report honestly about a company's revenue and profitability is a basic prerequisite to rational capital allocation. Times columnist Joseph Nocera is up in arms about the antics of Patrick Byrne, CEO of the profit-challenged overstock.com, who is using the courts to silence journalists and research analysts who have written unfavorably about his company. The specifics of the case--including a demented speech in which Byrne refers to a nefarious conspiracy against his company, headed by a "sith lord"--are surreal and hilarious, but the underlying issue is a serious one. I mean, if the business press isn't immune to this kind of intimidation, then truly no one is safe.

The Blackberry vs. the Patent Trolls. This week saw another episode in the ongoing legal battle between Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the Blackberry handheld email device, and NTP, a company which is demanding money for what it says are patent infringments. Now, NTP is not a company which is protecting an investment in its technology--the sort of investment that patents are supposed to protect. In fact, NTP has never invested in or produced anything; it exists solely for the purpose of holding patents and suing people. RIM won a minor victory when a court refused to grant NTP an injunction; at the same time, the patent office has invalidated the NTP patents. Yet the Blackberry could still find itself shut down. Sadly, the judge seems ignorant of the real issues invovled, as he waxes bemused that the courts should be forced to decide on what ought to be purely a "business issue".

The Great Airline Ticket Swindle. When airlines advertise their ticket prices, there are required to list the full price--only certain government taxes and fees can be excluded. This makes price shopping with services like Orbitz and Travelocity easy for consumers. But now the Transportation Department looks set to allow all kinds of special surcharges to be tacked on to the listed price, from fuel surcharges to insurance. This despite the fact that virtually everyone--from individuals to travel agents to low-cost airlines--is opposed to the change. Only the big five, United, American, Northwest, Delta and Continental, are in favor. It's evident that this rule change serves no other purpose than to frustrate consumers and allow uncompetetive airlines to wrangle super-profits out of travellers. The situation that is being generated is what the economists call "imperfect information", and it's supposed to be a major hindrance to the functioning of a free market. But hey, who's keeping score anymore?

Selected Shorts. H&R Block saw its stock drop by two dollars when the tax preparation company announced that it had screwed up its own taxes. And no matter what Irwin Schiff tells you, if you don't pay taxes, you will go to jail.

Meanwhile, the housing bubble is still deflating. And don't let the hijinks of patent trolls and paranoid CEOs distract from the really imporant work that's taking place in the private sector: like the end of the living wage, and exciting new advances in spying-on-you technology.

David Horowitz, Defender of Civilization

February 24th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

The ever-insighful Scott McLemee takes on red-batiter extroardinaire David Horowitz in this week's column at Inside Higher Education. It's an unusually humorous romp through a subject which is, already, inherently hilarious.

D. Ho, as they're calling him these days, is out with his book on "America's 101 most dangerous professors", and naturally communist brainwashers everywhere are incensed at being left off the list. Now normally, it's my opinion that the left is best served by ignoring people who make their reputations off of baiting the left--characters like Christopher Hitchens, Marc Cooper, and to a certain degree Todd Gitlin (who scored a totally unearned spot on the Horowitz list). But in the case of D. Ho, we are dealing with a figure so ludicrous that I'm inclined to just enjoy the silliness. It's true that by talking about him, we raise his profile, promote his book sales, and thereby perpetuate the phenomenon. But I don't think this has very real political implications (in contrast to more measured and reasonable figures), so objecting in these grounds is sort of like observing a personal boycott of Coca-Cola out of concern for Columbian trade-unionists: it may promote feelings of virtuousness, but has few implications in the real world.

So instead, I say, go on and enjoy the Network(s)!

Humor Break

February 23rd, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

Sometimes, thinking about the origins of totalitarianism is just getting me down, and I need some comic relief. Fortunately, I recently discovered something that, for reasons I can't explain, is funnier to me than almost anything else on Earth:

Chris's Invincible Super-Blog.

I admit, this is probably a niche-product. It's a comic book blog, and if you never read comic books, the whole thing will probably seem baffling. Moreover, Chris Sims is my age, which means we both came of age during the insane speculative mania that gripped the comic-book industry in the late '80's and early '90's. Those were the days when a comic that had sold for $1.00 off the rack would inexplicably go for $80 a year after it came out. And while the comics bubble may have inflated a lot of subsequently-dashed hopes of retiring on a speculative comic book fortune, it also produced some of the most hilarious, ill-advised comics known to civilization. And since they're the comics of my childhood, I remember them fondly (or at least, bemusedly).

I don't know why, but something about the combination of bad comics, and Chris Sims' perfect authorial voice, gets me laughing uncontrollably more than anything else I read. If I've still got your attention, here are some teaser, lines that just made my lose it:

What better way to examine Black History in comics than a look back at the history of the character with the uncanny ability to embody a stereotype whenever he appears.

At one point in the story, the Punisher passes by a guy buying a boogie board. We get a closeup of him, along with a thought balloon that reads: "The Punisher does not know that my mission is to guide him--to show him that he must fulfull the grand-master's last wish and become the western world's greatest ninja!"

Just look at it. It's got the Incredible Hulk fighting a character from a classic of European literature.


So what makes me so sure that this time I really have struck gold? Oh, I don't know. How about the fact that it's called Giant Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas?

This would be the point where I tell you why the ISB has deep cultural significance and serious political implications, and why you can therefore feel virtuous about reading it. Fortunately, it has neither, so you can just enjoy the ride.

Stop the Global Cartoon Race!

February 19th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

First, it was the infamous Danish cartoons.

Then, the Iranians decided to prove that Muslims are the equals of the West in all matters of offensive cartoonery. An Iranian newspaper hit on the idea of a contest for cartoons about the Holocaust.

Not to be outdone, an Israeli citizen has attempted to outmaneuver the Iranians by proving that when it comes to anti-Semitic cartoons, no-one can outdo the Jewish people themselves.

This all puts me in mind of nothing so much as this old Monty Python sketch.

Clearly, we are in the midst of a great global cartoon race. If this pernicious competition is not stopped, the cartoon scientists of the great humor powers will soon devise a cartoon so offensive that it will instantly annihilate any civilization that comes in contact with it. People of Earth, I implore you: we must support global cartoon disarmament!

Capitalism and Government Incompetence, episode II

September 29th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

In which we all die of avian flu. Have fun.

Misadventures in Capitalism: DVD formats

September 27th, 2005  |  Published in Uncategorized

Today I inaugurate an occasional topic, or what Harry Shearer would call "a copyrighted feature of this broadcast." I'll be highlighting signs of capitalism's obsolescence, economic developments which indicate the need for production not based on profit. I'll cover products that could be produced better by non-capitalist means, and products which shouldn't be produced at all.

Today's entry is a little from column A, a little from column B. The Financial Times reports today that Toshiba and Sony can't get it together to agree on a format for high-definition DVDs.

The first question is, do we really need a new generation of DVDs? The DVD was a real step forward--I won't debate its superiority to VHS tapes. But DVDs are pretty great looking, and a higher definition format isn't going to be noticeably better looking unless you have a 100-inch TV. The article makes it clear what this is really about:

High definition DVDs look increasingly important for the movie industry on two fronts. First, sales of traditional DVDs are slowing after a fantastic run of growth. The new technology allowing better picture quality and more recording capacity could help stimulate demand, not least from consumers rebuilding their libraries with the new discs. Second, and probably more importantly, the new technology would help confront the growing problem of piracy for the movie industry. The new discs will be harder to copy.

So, the point of a new generation of DVDs is to make everyone replace their DVD library, and to prop up movie industry profits by reducing piracy. There you have it: the magic of the marketplace.

But assuming, for a moment, that high-definition DVDs truly represent a great leap forward in human happiness, is the capitalist marketplace the best way to introduce such an innovation? Apparently not. Rather than having some rational process to determine which is the best format for the new DVDs, this is what we could get:

If both formats are launched, many consumers will hold off buying either until a de facto standard has emerged. Such a stand-off makes no sense for any of the companies involved. With the launch of next generation DVD players approaching, the industry should hurry to bang heads together at Sony and Toshiba and secure a solution.

In other words, get ready for VHS v. Beta, round II. And, as the videotape wars showed us, the best format does not necessarily win.