May 4, 2007

Passion: Libraries

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) [Thanks to scottbenbow for pitching this show.] The Reading Room at the British Museum in London is another one of my favorite libraries. Marx, Lenin, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells all had carrels there! ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

[Thanks to scottbenbow for pitching this show.]

British library

The Reading Room at the British Museum in London is another one of my favorite libraries. Marx, Lenin, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells all had carrels there! [Christopher Chan / Flickr]

My own passion for libraries started early. I loved my local library. Growing up, I would go there at least once a week, browse with no agenda, and leave with two or three surprises. I read Paul Auster before I knew who Paul Auster was. I went through a biography phase, a John Bellairs phase, and an Ayn Rand phase (although I’d rather not think about that last one now). In that library were all the landmarks of my literary childhood.

On top of that, my mother works at the Library of Congress, a place she cheerily refers to as “the world’s largest repository of organized knowledge.” She’s one of the lucky few with check-out privileges, and when I was little she would occasionally bring me into the stacks — 530 miles of shelving that house 29 million books. I remember glancing through the shelves to find a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin printed in the 1890s, in Russian, or an obscure Japanese architecture magazine with an article about the Italian Futurists. It’s an amazing, cavernous place. And would you believe the librarians blared music while they reshelved?

Apocryphal stories about people like Malcolm X reading every book in the library (in his case, the prison library in Norfolk, Massachusetts) always gave me the sense that libraries are magical places where people who will one day run the world (or write about it) go to receive the wisdom of the ancients. The fact that Mary’s ferociously smart 9-year-old daughter, Annie, aspires to read every book in her school library only proves the point.

What is your favorite library or your favorite library memory? What did you get out of libraries that you might not have gotten elsewhere? Our favorite blogging librarian, Karen Schneider, told David that today’s librarians must be “spiritual advisors for information.” How should libraries adapt now that most people would rather google something than look it up? Are you worried about the future of libraries in the digital information age?

Update, 5/21/07 6:08pm

hurley was kind enough to point out that scottbenbow is not the only one who’s been angling for this show for some time now.

Long live the public library! Especially for kids!!! In our little town here in central MA we are having trouble getting it together to put up a huge addition to our little library which began as a private lending institution in 1792 and grew into a public institution by the 1880′s. Today it is the tiny library that it was a hundred years ago and it desperately needs updating. Will the town fight for it?

Is the library essential anymore or a luxury today?

I think a show devoted to libraries and how they are changing or have to change to survive, how important they are to us as a society would be a a great topic.

Potter, in a comment to Open Source, 12/6/05

I think a show focusing on the nature of libraries in the digital age would be fascinating. Some of the points brought up during the Google Print show touched on some of these issues, and I think it was clear that this is a deep topic worthy of exploration. How has the way we understand and access information changed? How does that impact the role of libraries, schools, and unversities and guardians and storehouses of knowledge?

tsackton, in a comment to Open Source, 12/6/05

Thanks guys.

Rick Prelinger

Founder, Prelinger Archives

Board President, Internet Archive

Paul Whitney

City Librarian, Vancouver Public Library

Bernard Margolis

President, Boston Public Library

Amanda McKeraghan

Director, Stevens County Rural Library District in Washington state

Extra Credit Reading

Michael Baldwin, Can Libraries Save Democracy?, Library Journal, October 15, 2002: “The American public library is the most important invention of our democratic society after the Constitution itself. Libraries can provide the social leverage to return America to a democratic destiny. We will be condemned by history and by ourselves if we allow democracy to perish. I’m no Tom Paine, but I’ll borrow his mantle for a moment. Now is the time for all good librarians to come to the aid of their country!”

Ron Miller, It’s Comforting to Know The Librarian is Still a Journalist’s Best Friend, by Ron Miller, May 8, 2007: “Honestly, I do most of my research online now, but remembering this chestnut of wisdom, I decided to ask the expert. She suggested I go to the University library, so I got in my car again, drove to the University library and spoke to the UMass research librarian, a fellow who looked very harsh sitting up in his chair, but smiled warmly as soon as I addressed him.”

Megan Shaw Prelinger, To Build a Library, Bad Subjects, April, 205: “Most libraries in educational and research institutions hold books in closed stacks. Closed stacks structure access to knowledge in a query-based format. In query-based access, users have to know what they are looking for in order to request it, in order to “find” it. In this system the process of discovery is channeled from one direct link to the next.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Siva in Chronicle of Higher Ed: A Risky Gamble with Google, Sivacracy.net, December 2, 2005: “It pains me to declare this: Google’s Library Project is a risky deal for libraries, researchers, academics, and the public in general. However, it’s actually not a bad deal for publishers and authors, despite their protestations.”

Phil Bowermaster, Library Conference, Day 2, The Speculist, May 9, 2007: “So we’ve got all these older people, showing up in libraries because of an extraordinary invention called retirement. Very recent – roughly 1900 did the idea of a pension-supported retirement emerge. Before that, you just became incapacitated. Often impoverished and then dead.”

Joshua Harris, The Room, via Snopes.com: “When I came to a file marked ‘Lustful Thoughts,’ I felt a chill run through my body. I pulled the file out only an inch, not willing to test its size, and drew out a card. I shuddered at its detailed content. I felt sick to think that such a moment had been recorded. An almost animal rage broke on me. One thought dominated my mind: ‘No one must ever see these cards! No one must ever see this room! I have to destroy them!’”

Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, Unshelved, Overdue Media.

LOLbrarians: “im in ur cattylog, makin up subj3ck hedinz.”

Marian the Librarian

May 3, 2007

Mortgage Meltdown

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) Is your payment on time? [Claire Sutton / Flickr] People all over the country are losing their homes, in rather startling numbers. Because of a meltdown in the subprime mortgage market, in Detroit, one out of ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

House and calendar

Is your payment on time? [Claire Sutton / Flickr]

People all over the country are losing their homes, in rather startling numbers. Because of a meltdown in the subprime mortgage market, in Detroit, one out of every 21 mortgages foreclosed last year. In Colorado, 1 out of every 33; in Georgia and Nevada, 1 our of every 41. The national rate is 1 in 92, which last year meant a million households. Estimates predict another 2 million could lose their homes in the next few years.

As a result, subprime lenders — companies that lend money to people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for loans because of bad credit history and the like — are shutting down or going bankrupt in record numbers. And this is causing scary ripples in the larger economy. Not just in the housing market, but on Wall Street, too.

How did this happen? The housing bubble is partly to blame. Bolstered by the hot real estate market, subprime lenders made loans to people who probably couldn’t afford them (and conversely, people took on loans they couldn’t afford, or thought they could afford but now can’t). Now that the market has cooled down and the terms of their loans have switched from their initial, enticingly low rate to a higher new one, people are defaulting on their payments. There are accusations of predatory lending, but also of unsophisticated consumers getting in over their heads. It’s pretty messy. (For a more complete and pretty accessible explanation, check out this report [pdf] from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.)

We’re not entirely sure what shape this show is going to take yet, but we know we’d like to find a good “explainer guest” to sort out all the financial mumbo-jumbo. We’d also like hear the stories of people directly affected by the crisis. We’re tempted to take a race and class lens to this story, as minority homeowners and minority neighborhoods have been severely, and disproportionately, affected.

So tell us how this crisis has been affecting you or your neighborhood or your city, and help us figure out how to shape this show.

Ira Rheingold

Executive Director and General Counsel, National Association of Consumer Advocates

Guy Cecala

Publisher, Inside Mortgage Finance Publications

Mariah Crenshaw

Cleveland homeowner facing foreclosure due to subprime loan

Member of ACORN

Extra Credit Reading

Hearing on Subprime Mortgages: Clay on Race

Beth Ann Bovino, Left Out In The Cold: The Impact From The Sub-Prime Mortgage Collapse, 3 Quarks Daily, May 14, 2007: “While it is obvious that homeowner defaults hurt mortgage-lenders and homeowners, these defaults must be put in a broader economic context. Questions include: How will they affect the broader housing markets? Will it spread into the larger economy? Who will be hurt and how? What will the impact of sub-prime problems damage credit availability?”

Greg Ip and Damian Paletta, Regulators Scrutinized In Mortgage Meltdown, The Wall Street Union, March 22, 2007: “Changes in the lending business and financial markets have moved large swaths of subprime lending from traditional banks to companies outside the jurisdiction of federal banking regulators. In 2005, 52% of subprime mortgages were originated by companies with no federal supervision, primarily mortgage brokers and stand-alone finance companies.”

Robert Reich, The Fed and the Sub-Prime Lending Debacle, Robert Reich’s Blog, March 22, 2007: “The Fed’s decisions can either be a great boon to poorer Americans or a huge curse, depending on how responsibly the Fed manages the credit markets. In this respect, it’s done a lousy job in recent years. In the early 2000s, rates were so low that banks didn’t know what to do with all the extra money they had on hand. But instead of keeping an eye on bank lending standards, the Fed looked the other way.”

JP Smith, You remember the black home ownership rates Bush flaunted?, black…MYstory, December 20, 2006: “What Bush didn’t tell about black home ownership, or even home ownership in general, was that too many of these home were purchased with subprime loans. In other words, with loans having high interest rates and unreasonable terms.”

The Holy Fatman, In the Well, DUHHHH, department, Holy Buck, Fatman!, December 20, 2006: “Not many college students graduate with the ability to even balance their checkbook, pay off their credit cards monthly or open savings accounts, let alone IRA’s and 401K’s. They ruin their credit by the time they graduate and when the times comes to buy a home, they are meat for the subprime lending beast.”

Casey Serin, Last Foreclosure… No Houses, No Money, No Stereo, I am Facing Foreclosure .com, April 27, 2007: “Today I lost my last property to foreclosure. The worst part is that BOTH the first and second approved the short sale but the first (Countrywide) refused to give the buyer a small extension to close. They had a solid offer for $300,000 on the table!”

Alec MacGillis and John Solomon, Edwards Says He Didn’t Know About Subprime Push, The Washington Post, May 11, 2007: “Edwards said yesterday that he was unaware of the push by the firm, Fortress Investment Group, into subprime lending and that he wishes he had asked more questions before taking the job.”

April 20, 2007

New Zoology

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) As we first touched upon in our anthropomorphism show, the world of science is offering up a lot of interesting new research pertaining to animals right now. For example: elephants suffer from PTSD. Squids, finches, and ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

As we first touched upon in our anthropomorphism show, the world of science is offering up a lot of interesting new research pertaining to animals right now. For example: elephants suffer from PTSD. Squids, finches, and even fruit-flies have personality. Chimps have a sense of morality, and rats laugh:

Oh yeah, and dogs like beer. (Ok, just kidding about that one but it’s probably true.)

It begs the question: is “the rat laughed” still an anthropomorphic statement if it’s been scientifically proven that rats actually laugh? Does it force us to reconsider the most basic divisions between what is “human” and what is “animal”?

We want to hear from scientists doing original research about animals and ask them: what do we know about animals now? How are they both like and unlike humans? If animals have personality, morality, and senses of humor, is there anything left that distinguishes “us” from “them”? How does this new science force us to reconsider our place in the greater animal kingdom?

Marc Bekoff

Professor of Biology, University of Colorado

Author, The Emotional Lives of Animals

Jaak Panksepp

Chair, Animal Well-Being Science, Washington State University

Author, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions

Lori Marino

Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience, Living Links Center, Emory University

Author, Mirror Self-Recognition in the Bottlenose Dolphin

Extra Credit Reading

Smart Crows and Ravens

John Noble Wilford, Almost Human, and Sometimes Smarter, The New York Times, April 17, 2007: “Other researchers combine field work showing chimp behavior in natural habitats with laboratory experiments that are created to disclose their underlying intelligence — what scientists call their ‘cognitive reserve.’”

kittenz, in a comment on Cryptomundo, February 24, 2007: “Reptiles are thought to be pretty low in intelligence, so the idea of a reptile using tools is, well, a novel one. But I had a Burmese python who did learn to use a tool to get what she wanted.”

Steve Wood, human morality qua animal behavior, mai bLog, April 26, 2007: “I’m convinced that what distinguishes human morality from other animal behavior (such as the concern for conspecifics shown by primates) is our ability to reason about our emotional reactions to ‘moral’ situations.”

Jennifer Viegas, Animal Intelligence Resists Definition, Discovery News, June 30, 2006: “‘Chickens practice deception, pigeons can categorize images in photographs as quickly as we can, a gorilla plays a joke on a human teacher, and a tiny fish leaps from one tide pool to another using a mental map formed during high tide.’”

Pete Mandik, Mental Representations in Non-Human Animals, Brain Hammer, March 7, 2007: “Consider the impressive feats of maze learning exhibited by rats. A Morris water maze is filled with water rendered opaque to obscure a platform that will offer a rat a chance to rest without having to tread water.”

Good blog on the subject: Animal Intelligence

roseinpants, in a comment to Open Source, April 29, 2007: “Oh good, this show look like it might address exactly the problem I had with thte anthropomorphism show, namely that if animals and humans share characteristics (and we do), then identifying such surely *isn’t* anthropomorphism? Or is it still anthropomorphism as long as we call them “human” attributes (even if it’s just our shared mammalian past showing through)?”

mynocturama, in a comment to Open Source, April 30, 2007: “What constitutes self-recognition in general? What are its components and levels of complexity? I remember someone on this site, I’m not sure who, on some thread, asking if the fact that animals (All? I can’t say for sure, though I’d think so) don’t self-cannibalize, don’t try to eat their own limbs, constitutes an elementary self-recognition or self-identity. But then, what about thumb-sucking or fingernail chewing?”

April 18, 2007

I Can Has Talking Animals?

The ur-lolcat. [I Can Has Cheezburger ] If you only use the internet for boring things like, you know, reading the newspaper and listening to smarty-pants public radio shows (psht), you’ve probably missed one of this year’s most ridiculous, anthropomorphic, internet memes – the lolcats. ...
Funny cat photo, "I can has cheezburger?"

The ur-lolcat. [I Can Has Cheezburger ]

If you only use the internet for boring things like, you know, reading the newspaper and listening to smarty-pants public radio shows (psht), you’ve probably missed one of this year’s most ridiculous, anthropomorphic, internet memes – the lolcats.

The recipe is pretty simple: take a picture of a cat or another animal which may or may not be funny by itself, add a caption, and voila, hilarity ensues. The blog I Can Has Cheezburger? has collected some of the finer specimens.

I used to think these picts were just random. But after talking to one of the guests for tonight’s anthropomorphism show, I realized they were also a little profound. Marc Shell teaches a class at Harvard on talking animals in culture high and low, from Poe’s Raven to Pepe Le Peu. His thesis is that giving animals speech and then making them talk funny is all about distinguishing who is like us and who is not. Not just who is human and who is not, but also, who is a native English speaker and who is, say, a Mexican immigrant. I was shocked to go through the list of classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters and realize that almost every one of them, from Porky Pig and Foghorn Leghorn, to Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, have some kind of outrageous accent or speech impediment.


The lolcats are not that far off. Each picture’s caption, which is usually like a little speech bubble, is almost always messed up in some way. Bad spelling, bad grammar, misused words, etc. In other words, the lolcats are funny because they don’t know how to “speak good English.” So to speak. For some reason, it’s a lot funnier to picture a cat saying, “I can has cheezburger?” than it is to picture it saying, “Can I have a cheeseburger?” Eschewing for the moment that these are cats and that they can’t…talk…at all.

Not to mention the fact that this isn’t just about animals talking. The “lol” part of lolcats stands for “laughing out loud,” an acronym that comes from instant messaging. Other computer-esque typos or abbreviations are common in the captions, including 1s instead of exclamation points and thx instead of thanks. So now, it’s not just about animals talking funny; it’s about them typing funny, or even (gasp) sending each other instant messages. Weird, right?

Funny lolrus - "mah bucket."

A variation – the “lolrus” bucket saga. [I Can Has Cheezburger ]

I think the lolcats also reveal the anthropomorphic way we think of our pets. They’re something more than animals, yet something less than hapless toddlers (or ditzy teenagers). They can communicate with us, but they haven’t quite mastered our codes. They have a life of their own. When we’re not looking, we just know they’re secretly engaged in human activities – like fixing computers or even BDSM. The rational part of us knows this isn’t so, but somewhere deep down we want to believe that our cats could really be cyclists. Or hovercrafts.

April 3, 2007

Detroit's Big Three and the EPA

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate the carbon emissions that cause global warming. In doing so they ruled for an assortment of states and environmental groups, and against the ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate the carbon emissions that cause global warming. In doing so they ruled for an assortment of states and environmental groups, and against the EPA and American automakers.

Add this decision to the daily litany of the Big Three’s woes: falling sales, layoffs and buy-outs, and staggering health care costs, for starters. In our Global Warming Goes to the Supreme Court show we delved into the specifics of the case, including states’ roles in emissions regulation, businesses’ claims they could handle the emissions themselves, and carbon trading. Now we’re wondering what this ruling means for Detroit’s Big Three, and the future of the American auto industry.

Those Big Three now say they’ll work with the EPA to craft new emissions standards. But what kinds of standards can we expect? And are efficiency standards alone the best method for reducing CO2 emissions — especially if our insatiable demand for speed and power remains unchanged?

James Womack

Chairman and Founder, Lean Enterprise Institute

Author, Lean Solutions and The Machine That Changed the World, among many others

Joseph Romm

Founder and Executive Director, Center for Energy & Climate Solutions

Author, Hell and High Water: Global Warming–the Solution and the Politics–and What We Should Do

Blogger, Climate Progress

Kevin Wilson

Senior Editor, AutoWeek

Extra Credit Reading

Jon Gertner, From 0 to 60 to World Domination, The New York Times, February 18, 2007: “By any measure, Toyota’s performance last year, in a tepid market for car sales, was so striking, so outsize, that there seem to be few analogs, at least in the manufacturing world. A baseball team that wins 150 out of 162 games? Maybe.”

David Shepardson, Auto emissions ruling could cost Big Three, The Detroit News, April 3, 2007: “Ann Klee, a former EPA general counsel in the Bush administration, said the decision ‘will dramatically change the regulatory landscape for decades to come, laying the groundwork for far-reaching new air standards based on potential global climate change.’”

Joel Makower, The Detroit Auto Show: Where Did the Green Go?, Joel Makower, January 8, 2007: “This year, environmentally minded vehicles and innovations seemed few and far between. The well-choreographed and elaborately staged press events focused far more on horsepower and high-technology than on hybrids and hydrogen. “Muscle” was probably the show’s most exercised buzzword.”

Sebastian Blanco, AFVI Show: notes on the opening speeches (CIA assassination, GM < Honda, and more), AutoblogGreen, April 3, 2007: “Pete McCloskey was the best of the bunch. He served in the U.S. military and as a Republican in the U.S. Congress and gave the most animated talk of the morning. He gave warnings about our energy future, and told stories about how he helped get Earth Day started and the power of the environment in politics in the ’70s and today.”

Kevin Meyer, That Sneaky Honda!, Evolving Excellence, March 11, 2007: “Our friend Mr. Womack even weighed in. You may recall that a year ago he was taking a pretty light stand on the problems with the Detroit Three until many of us in the blogosphere convinced him to start telling the brutal truth.”

Paul Niedermeyer, Detroit Deathwatch – The Prequel (Part 2), Thr Truth About Cars, March 6, 2007: “If you had to pick a moment when The Big Three’s hegemony ended, it’s October 17, 1973. On that day, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) initiated an embargo that effectively doubled the cost of crude oil. And the resulting price shock tipped the U.S. economy into recession. Even worse, Americans experienced massive gas shortages.”

Brij Singh, Joseph Romm on climate, One More Idea, February 18, 2007: “Dr Michio Kaku’s interview with scientist Joseph Romm was by the far the most chilling scenario I have heard in recent time. Coming from a scientist who knows what he is talking this should make people sit up and do something about this global issue. His book – Hell And High Water; uses tons of scientific data to make dire predictions. Which includes Manhattan under 10 ft of water by 2050!”

March 26, 2007

Kurdistan Post-Game: Dispatch from Erbil

Some of you felt that last week’s show on Iraqi Kurdistan came off like one big commercial for the region. There was indeed a lot of positive talk and boosterism in last night’s show, which came from having two KRG reps and one adviser on ...

Some of you felt that last week’s show on Iraqi Kurdistan came off like one big commercial for the region. There was indeed a lot of positive talk and boosterism in last night’s show, which came from having two KRG reps and one adviser on the program.

I had actually booked someone I hoped would act as a bit of a counter to these other guests. Someone to talk about daily life in Iraqi Kurdistan and maybe offer a reality check against the ad campaign. But as you may have noticed when Chris mentioned it on the air, we missed hearing from Bilal Wahab because of problems with the international phone lines. It was really too bad. Bilal is a blogger and NGO worker who grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan, left for a year or so to do a Fulbright scholarship in DC, and has now resettled with his wife in Erbil. When I spoke to him the day before the show, he and his family were headed to Erbil’s biggest park to celebrate the new year, all dressed in traditional Kurdish garb. He said that over 10,000 people were gathered in the park that day. It was a lovely image.

But Bilal also had a lot of criticisms of the KRG and expressed frustration about the small but important inconsistencies of daily life there. Here are some of the notes from our pre-interview. Square them, if you like, against the picture that was painted on the show.

Kurdistan is booming in terms of construction but at a price. Sometimes I think it’s more expensive for me to live here than in DC…When you try to see how the construction boom is affecting people, you find out it’s very elitist. There are very few people benefiting from it. My wife is a school teacher and she earns about $250 a month, and the local hotel is $250 a night.

In Erbil you have only two gas stations that sell at the government subsidized price – you get 30 liters for a week, and you have to wait in a long line for five or six hours, sometimes longer. The other way to get gas is through the black market. The electricity is worse than when I left two years ago. We still have shortages in electricity and power. The local government blames it on Baghdad: ‘It’s Iraq, we don’t have refineries.’

Bilal Wahab in a conversation with Open Source, 3/21/07

With the KRG, at least now you’re talking about one KRG – we used to be talking about two KRGs [when there was a civil war between the PUK and the KDP in the mid '90s]. The unity government is doing much better than people expected…The public problem we have is that we have 1 million public employees and only 10% of them are needed. The government hands out 60% of its budget in salary. It is a loss in money and manpower. The excuse is that the government is feeding the people in a way. But it plays out badly during elections in our region, where many aspects of life have been politicized. They say, if you don’t vote for me, you’ll lose your job.

The media is more vibrant than it used to be. They’re more critical of public officials and corruption; on the other hand, officials are more immune. Newspapers and magazines no longer beat around the bush but rather name public officials, including heads of parties. We have officials who spend like Gulf emirs – they have villas, they go on expensive vacations – but you have a media increasingly critical of that.

Bilal Wahab in a conversation with Open Source, 3/21/07

Do we ache for what’s going on in Baghdad? My father’s generation does. They have friends there. The generation of my young brother doesn’t. They don’t speak Arabic, they think about Kurdish nationalism and Gap jeans and that kind of thing. Some people realize that this region cannot be stable unless Baghdad stabilizes. Then some think the worse Baghdad becomes the better we become…

I don’t see Kurdistan being an independent state any time soon–there is more talk about independence than work in that direction. One big Kurdish nation that homes all Kurds is a far-fetched dream. The people on the street are increasingly realizing we need electricity and water and sanitation and health care more than we need a flag. If you, an American, ask a Kurd, now they will be nationalistic to the bone. But when we talk at home, as friends, nationalism is not a priority. Our daily priority is filling up the tank and switching from one power source to another. People still cling to a hope that things will become better.

Bilal Wahab in a conversation with Open Source, 3/21/07

March 22, 2007

The Power of (Zizek's) Disembodied Voice

In the middle of yesterday’s show, I got this text message from my friend and former Brown U. classmate: I’m going to see 300 w [James] Der Derian bc Slavoj Zizek said we had to on your show. Shepherd Laughlin, in a text message to ...

In the middle of yesterday’s show, I got this text message from my friend and former Brown U. classmate:

I’m going to see 300 w [James] Der Derian bc Slavoj Zizek said we had to on your show.

Shepherd Laughlin, in a text message to Open Source, 3/21/07

Awesome. Town.

March 16, 2007

Iraqi Kurdistan

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) Thanks to brent for pitching us a show about the Kurds. [This show will record at 4pm EST.] When we did our show on Iraq’s Oil Future(s) back in December, I was impressed with the quiet, ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

Thanks to brent for pitching us a show about the Kurds.

[This show will record at 4pm EST.]

When we did our show on Iraq’s Oil Future(s) back in December, I was impressed with the quiet, deliberate, even brazen forward momentum of the Kurdish Regional Government. While the rest of the country had yet to arrive at any sort of consensus about how to manage their reserves, the Kurdish north had already invited a Norwegian oil company to start drilling. What was going on with the Kurds in the north?

Turns out a lot. Under the Iraqi constitution passed in 2005, the Iraqi Kurds have a good deal of regional autonomy, and they’ve made good use of it: they have their own parliament, their own army, and depending how you read the Constitution, a certain amount of discretion over the region’s oil.

The region people are starting to call Iraqi Kurdistan, or, The Other Iraq, also has a shocking degree of stability and prosperity compared to the rest of the country, which they’re eager to tout:

While the south struggles daily with car bombs and sectarian violence, the north is attracting foreign investment and has opened new shopping malls and a brand new English-language university. None of the guests in our show about who won in Iraq mentioned the Kurds, but you could argue that’s a pretty glaring omission. Even though Iraq’s Kurds have been living in a semi-autonomous region since the US established a no-fly zone after the first Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan as it stands today is the closest thing to a fully functional, independent nation-state the Kurds have ever had.

But to what end? Do Iraq’s Kurds see themselves as part of a federalized, multi-ethnic Iraq or as trailblazers for a Kurdish state? Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish Regional Government’s U.S. Representative — and son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani — will help us answer those and other questions. Here’s a few more for starters: what are the implications (regional and otherwise) of this quasi nation-state? Is there a conflict between what Iraq’s Kurds want, and what their leadership considers most prudent?

Qubad Talabani

Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Representative to the United States

Son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman

Chair, Kurdistan Development Corp

KRG Representative to the United Kingdom

Bilal Wahab

Regional Training Officer on local governance, Research Triangle Institute

Fulbright Scholar Alumnus

Blogger, Better Kurdistan and Iraq

Peter Galbraith

Former (and first) Ambassador to Croatia under Clinton

Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Advisor to the KRG

Thanks to Nick for suggesting Ambassador Galbraith

Extra Credit Reading

Qubad Talabani, Tennessee Voices: Success in Kurdistan should inspire rest of Iraq, The Tennessean, March 11, 2007: “While it is not fully clear what the future will bring and how Iraq will look, in the success of the Kurdistan region there remains hope for a federal democracy for all of Iraq.

Dr. Nazhad Khasraw Hawramany, Only Mountains, Marshes And Palm Groves As Friends, Iraqi Kurdistan, February 10, 2007: “I thought . . . there must be something wrong with the Kurds that no body cared about them . . . that there was no place any where for humanity in their souls.”

Hiwa, US trying to work out Iraq!, Hiwakan (The Hopes), January 9, 2007: “But I can tell from the Kurdish perspective what should be done to make him happy and consequently the British happy to really really realise that Kurds are different from the rest of Iraq, and the genocide on the hands of the Iraqis supported by both UK and US at its time is enough to consolidate KRG further to become a seed of stability in the north and also a real threat to Iran and Syria that we can stir you up if you act unaccordingly!”

Bilal Wahab, No Justice for Kurds, Better Kurdistan and Iraq, January 8, 2007: “Kurds seem to be running thin of friends. This is not a good sign, especially as the Turkish army lays bare its fangs against the only safe part of Iraq—Kurdistan.”

Seymour M. Hersh, Plan B, The New Yorker, June 28, 2004: “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government decided, I was told, to minimize the damage that the war was causing to Israel’s strategic position by expanding its long-standing relationship with Iraq’s Kurds and establishing a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.” (via hurley)

Yahya Barzanji, PKK Open to Peace Deal With Turkey , The Guardian, March 16, 2007: “Turkey is pressing Iraq and its American ally to crack down on rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who launch attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq. The group has been waging a bloody war in southeast Turkey since 1984 in a conflict that has claimed 37,000 lives.” (via tbrucia)

Ed Morrissey, US Curbs Kurds, Captain’s Quarters, March 15, 2007: “The success of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has fueled Kurdish desire for a de facto Kurdistan, but we cannot allow terrorism to operate under any pretenses in the new Iraq — not if we want to keep the Turks out of it.”

Michael J. Totten, The Kurds Go Their Own Way, Reason, August/September 2006: “Two hours into my first tour of Erbil, my guide for the day taught me to feel lucky. ‘If we were doing this in Baghdad, we would be dead by now,’ he said.”

Rancher, Our Friends the Kurds, Llano Estacado, March 16, 2007: “Whether you believe Palestinians should have a state before or after they stop killing Jews, how can anyone who supports them not equally support the Kurds?”

6:25

When the U.S. came into the country, they were greeted as liberators, candy and flowers and food were thrown in the direction of our friends that came from afar. And I think that really created such a positive environment, to know that that danger against our people, the danger that was Saddam, was no more.

Qubad Talabani

12:50

History has not been kind to the Kurdish people. There is a reality today that confines the Kurdish people to the state of Iraq, and when we’re building this new country called Iraq, many different ethnic and sectarian groups must voluntarily unite to form it. And we have committed to do so. The Kurds have committed themselves to a federal democracy in Iraq.

Qubad Talabani

17:25

People imagine that Turkey is very negative towards Kurdistan, but in fact, in terms of foreign direct investment, Turkey is the largest single investor in the Kurdistan region, having invested up to two billion dollars in the region in the past few years.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman

26:50

TThe tragedy of Iraq is the fact that the country was founded on faulty logic. These fault lines have existed in Iraq since the creation of the state of Iraq. And the insecurities that exist between the different communities are not three or four years old; they are hundreds, if not over a thousand years old.

Qubad Talabani

34:40

Where you have a people that unanimously don’t want to be part of a country, you can’t keep them part of that country, so the separation of Kurdistan from Iraq is inevitable. Both Bayan and Qubad are polite about it, but they know full well… among the population, it’s not just that they want indepenence, it’s that the history of these decades in Iraq has been so bitter that reconciliation with that country is simply not possible.

Peter Galbraith

38:00

Among other Turks, there’s a recognition that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing for Turkey. After all, who are the Kurds? They’re secular, they’re pro-Western, they aspire to be democratic, and they’re not Arabs; in short, they’re very much like the Turks. And of course, if Kurdista does become independent, it’s going to be dependent on somebody, and if the Turks play their cards right, that would be Turkey.

Peter Galbraith

46:20

I’ve urged that we redeploy our forces out of Arab Iraq to Kurdistan, both to provide protection there, but also because from Kurdistan, we can strike at Al Quaeda in the Sunni Arab areas, which is the only part of Iraq where it operates, if we need to: if the Sunni Arabs are unable to manage their own security.

Peter Galbraith

March 14, 2007

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) [This show will tape at 2pm EST to accommodate our UK guests.] Zizek mimicking the rowboat scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. [idealterna / Flickr] Uber-theorist Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes have teamed up to make ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

[This show will tape at 2pm EST to accommodate our UK guests.]

Slavoj Zizek mimicks Hitchcock's The Birds.

Zizek mimicking the rowboat scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. [idealterna / Flickr]

Uber-theorist Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes have teamed up to make a remarkable documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.

To put it bluntly, this is one of the coolest and most compelling films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s about using film to understand psychoanalysis, and using psychoanalysis to understand film (both individual films and film as a medium).

Watching it is like stepping into an alternative reality behind the screen. Zizek hops from iconic moment to iconic moment in the history of cinema, moving from the Marx Brothers to Hitchcock to Alien in one fell swoop. Zizek and Fiennes went back to the actual shooting locations or reconstructed sets from many classic movies, like the motel bathroom from The Conversation and Dorothy’s living-room from Blue Velvet, which gives you the eerie impression that Zizek is actually talking to you from inside these films. All the while, he puts films into conversation with one another, using them to illustrate ideas about the unconscious, maternal angst, or the nature of desire.

The art of cinema consists in arousing desire, to play with desire, but at the same time keeping it at a safe distance. Domesticating it. Rendering it palpable…

The problem for us is not are our desires satisfied or not. The problem is how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desire. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.

Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.

Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2007

We’re going to use this cinematic guide as a jumping off point to talk about film, but also about fantasy, reality, sexuality, subjectivity, and desire.

Do you think film is better suited than other art forms to get at the nature of human desire? Do you have a favorite film you’d like Zizek to help pick apart?

Slavoj Zizek

Philosopher and Psychoanalyst

Professor, Institute for Sociology, and the European Graduate School

Sophie Fiennes

Filmmaker

Director, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Screening Room

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema comes to theaters and film festivals in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC this April. (Click here for a full list of screenings or to buy a copy of the DVD.) In the meantime, check out the following clips:

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Theatrical Trailer

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – Excerpt 1 (about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation)

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – Excerpt 2 (about David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet)

Extra Credit Reading

Alok, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Dispatches from Zembla, January 23, 2007: “I think he is arguing for ‘constructivism,’ the idea that reality is not ‘real’ but rather constructed and cinematic fiction helps us understand how this reality is constructed in tune with our desires and psychic needs.”

Joyce Huntjens, Vertigo. A vertiginous gap in reality and a woman who doesn’t exist, Image [&] Narrative, January 2003: “The construction of Madeline reveals that she is not a woman, but John’s object-of-desire, she does not exist as such. When the mystery of Madeline is unveiled at the end of the film, she turns out to be an ordinary woman. John is cured from his vertigo, but at the cost of the woman’s life, for a real relation turns out to be impossible.”

Theresa Duncan, Hollywood Gossip and The Woman Who Doesn’t Exist, The Wit of the Staircase, February 3, 2007: “A brilliant analysis of a bit of celebrity gossip we would otherwise have absolutely no interest in, in which a famous rock star discards his female mates, only to insist his new date transform, Vertigo-like into her predecessor….”

Chris, Analyzing the Exorcist, chris_nunnally, August 9, 2005: “It’s the concept of your body being invaded and destroyed by an alien force beyond your control – be it the devil or disease – that spawns a great deal of the terror that the movie generates. Remove the demon and replace it with cancer and a lot of things in this movie would not change.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door, December 3, 2006: “It hews to the anarchist vaudevillian spirit of its subjects, prefacing a detailed look at the dialogue-free mirror scene in Duck Soup with with a blank page that represents “ghostly, unreal silence.”

Movie Geek, how I see David Lynch, Penguin Pete’s Blog, January 26, 2007: “The point isn’t to be correct, because there is no correct answer to “what do David Lynch movies mean”. The point is to frolic on what Larry Niven would call a “playground of the mind”….First off, David Lynch is a moralist.”

kier, Alien gender or the “monstrous feminine”, Aussie Diary, January 25, 2007: “What is significant in this particular instance is the ‘othering’ of the organic, biological procreator – the alien. The maternal computer’s womb is crisp and sterile. The alien’s womb within the derelict spaceship is dark and slimy with a layer of ominous fog. Technology/masculinity is clean and safe. Biology/femininity is dirty and dangerous.”

6:00

The producers of King Kong visited the Soviet Union just before shooting the film, in the late 20s, and they were showing the modernist plans for the new Palace of Soviets. High tower, on the top of it, gigantic statue of Lenin. And they said, wait a minute, if we replace Lenin with the big ape, we have it. So, paradoxically, the origin of one of the exemplary, iconic, images of Hollywood — King Kong, ape on the top of the Empire State Building — is Soviet communism.

Slavoj Zizek

15:15

One of the things that I learned from Hitchcock was this point that he would always watch a film completely silent, before he locked off the picture, because then he would see how it worked purely visually.

Sophie Fiennes

17:50

And that’s for me the true mystery of cinema. How even after you see the machinery behind, the magic remains. It’s as if there is more reality, more power, in the magic, in appearance, than in the machinery behind.

Slavoj Zizek

26:00

The problem I see with [Werner] Herzog is often the overwhelming obsession, strength, that he puts in the creation of his films — it’s too strong, it simply overwhelms the films itself.

Slavoj Zizek

37:20

In Hitchcock there are always two stories: one story and its counterstory. And I think Hitchcock, in this counterstory of “Vertigo,” in the figure of Judy, presents a more substantial case for female subjectivity than many many of the official feminist films.

Slavoj Zizek

39:55

My own Betty Crocker home-cooked theory is this one which I call psychic transvestitism, where there’s an opportunity for me in fiction to actually kind of surf female experience that they can’t access or actualize for themselves in reality as such.

Sophie Fiennes

47:10

I love the strange moments that shift you, that films can generate. It’s beyond even the narrative, it’s when you actually have a sensation the film generates, and David Lynch is brilliant at manipulating those moments.

Sophie Fiennes

March 13, 2007

The Banality of Evil, Part II

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3) We started this conversation last week with our first show on Hannah Arendt and the “banality of evil.” An hour wasn’t enough. Now it’s time for part two. Arendt resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of ...

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

We started this conversation last week with our first show on Hannah Arendt and the “banality of evil.” An hour wasn’t enough. Now it’s time for part two.

Arendt resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view, or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

And yet, one wonders. What was going through his head? How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him, concentration camp guards and civilians alike? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal. What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Inmates in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Stanford Prison Experiment “inmates.” [Philip Zimbardo]

Probably nobody is more qualified to answer these questions than Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His true to life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundaries between good and evil to shocking and edifying conclusions.

In his most famous experiment, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 normal, healthy, well-adjusted, college-age males were randomly divided into “guards” and “prisoners.” The “prisoners” were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks. But by day two all hell broke loose; the guards were behaving sadistically and the prisoners were rebelling and having mental breakdowns.

The prisoners even nicknamed the most macho and brutal guard in our study ‘John Wayne.’ Later, we learned that the most notorious guard in a Nazi prison near Buchenwald was named ‘Tom Mix’ — the John Wayne of an earlier generation — because of his ‘Wild West’ cowboy macho image in abusing camp inmates.

Where had our ‘John Wayne’ learned to become such a guard? How could he and others move so readily into that role? How could intelligent, mentally healthy, ‘ordinary’ men become perpetrators of evil so quickly? These were questions we were forced to ask.

Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment, 1999

Zimbardo stopped the experiment by day six.

Scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib prison.

A few bad apples or a poisoned barrel? [Dennis Dunleavy / Flickr. Originally secured by FOIA request, The New Yorker.]

Since that time he has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts, and perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances – the barrel, if you will – can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, after serving as an expert witness for of one of the guards tried. (The defense asked Zimbardo to testify that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, it was structural mismanagement and horrendous working conditions at the prison, including 12-hour shifts for 40 straight days and no oversight, that contributed to the guard’s actions.)

Dr. Zimbardo has a new book out; he’ll join us for part two of our look at the banality of evil, and inject his own new thoughts about the flip-side of the banality of evil, what he calls the banality of heroism.

We want your answers to the big questions we’ve been tackling the last few weeks (including how empathy plays into all this), but we also want to hear your stories. Have you or someone you know been faced with an opportunity for wrong-doing or heroism? How did you react, and what was going through your head?

Philip Zimbardo

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil