What happened in Connecticut this morning -- and what happened here in the Portland area earlier this week -- is tragic, and senseless, and devastating. But it is not news that I need to see Right Now -- and the lesson I take from these events is not the one you might think.
The thing is, I think the fastest way to reduce the number and severity of these mass-shooting events is not to rewrite gun laws or reallocate mental health care resources. It's much simpler than that.
We have to stop paying attention to them.
To the extent that there's a common thread running through these events, it seems to be that their instigators were looking for attention. And in almost every such instance -- the media has given them that attention in industrial-size quantities. Which sends a message to those viewers who are potential instigators: if you do something like this, you will get all the attention you could ever want. (It generally doesn't matter that you may not be alive to revel in said attention, at least not to this specific subset of the population.)
If you're a veteran of Internet or pre-Internet online communities, you're doubtless familiar with an earlier formulation of this premise: "Do Not Feed the Energy Creature". The fastest way to defuse a flamewar or rout a troll/bully is simply not to respond. The same applies in the present context -- if we simply stop giving these events more attention than they deserve, we supply less motive to the next generation of real-world "energy creatures".
The major media outlets need to learn and assimilate this lesson -- and to stop perpetuating the life-cycle of such events as the Aurora shootings, those in Clackamas Town Center, and those today in Connecticut. Saturation coverage, especially when it consists of reporters saying "information is still developing" every five minutes for hours on end, is expensive. If we as viewers stop watching it, we can help teach that lesson; if we tell our media outlets why we've stopped, it may teach that lesson more quickly.
Let me be clear: I don't mean to suggest that there should be no news coverage of such events, especially in communities where they may occur. But the style of coverage needs to be thoughtful and careful and investigative, and the level and focus of coverage should be appropriate to the needs of those directly affected by the specific event being covered.
You Can't Give Up the Sky
And here, too, are another set of lyrics, these by Randy Sparks, to another song I still find particularly memorable and apt five years later (scroll down to the bottom of the thread). I first encountered this on a PBS folk music special several years ago:
Other folk with far deeper expertise have been weighing in all weekend on the current fracas between Amazon and Macmillan over ebook pricing. I don't propose to wade into the main discussion here, but there's a side to the matter to which very few of the commentators have been paying attention. It's this: everyone's been discussing e-book pricing as that pricing connects to corresponding print versions of the same text. But not all e-books have corresponding print editions.
( This has two consequences. )
I also note for the record that much of my own context on the discussion arises from observation of my father's professional career. He spent virtually his entire working life in the nonprofit health insurance field, beginning in the 1950s as a claims clerk for a smaller Blue Shield plan. By the time he retired in the 1990s, the company had become a great deal larger, and his final big project as a senior executive and general counsel was coordinating its evolution into a group of affiliated Blue Cross & Blue Shield plans covering most of four western states. As you might expect, I am therefore easily irritated by those who rail indiscriminately against Evil Insurance Companies; by the standards of many such commentators, I am obviously the Spawn of Evil and thus irredeemably tainted.
However, as e_moon60 points out in an excellent recent post, the foregoing is not itself a point of civil discourse; it's an emotional response. And as it happens, a different post from kateelliott crystallizes for me what one of the key issues actually is.
It's this: people can tell you without too much difficulty what they've spent on health insurance and/or medical care in a given year, and frame that figure as a dollar amount (call it $xxx for simplicity's sake, recognizing that there are often more digits than that in the real figure). But in order to accurately frame the the economic context, we need a second number. We need to know $yyy, where $yyy is the value of the resources received for that expenditure.
( This leads to two distinct levels of complication. )
Earlier this month, all the major broadcast networks spent hours of live air time covering Michael Jackson's memorial service. This morning, there's not one over-the-air station providing live coverage of Walter Cronkite's services (at least not here in Portland, Oregon).
Walter deserves better than that.
ETA: All right, now I'm confused. Regular midday coverage says that the Cronkite service -- unlike Jackson's -- was private (though they appeared to have footage from outside). But I'd have sworn that the crawl I saw earlier this morning indicated that CBS, at least, was providing live coverage of the service via Webcast.
For those following developments regarding Sen. Obama and the remarks made by now-retired pastor Benjamin Wright:
It so happens that I grew up in a United Church of Christ church household (and attended several different UCC churches before eventually falling out of active church membership). And it seems to me that little if any of the news coverage I've heard on the matter has acknowledged a key characteristic of the UCC that provide important context for the response (or lack thereof) to the Rev. Wright's statements.
Specifically: the UCC is a denomination in which there's a very high degree of congregational autonomy -- pastors are hired and employed by each individual local church, and to the extent that there's a central denominational hierarchy, its function is almost entirely administrative rather than theological. An illustrative analogy: the Catholic church operates as a unified corporate hierarchy, in which local churches function essentially as branch offices or wholly owned subsidiaries, with everyone ultimately answerable to Corporate HQ in Vatican City. By contrast, the UCC is essentially a coalition of hundreds of local, independently owned businesses -- while they all operate under the same brand name, and have set up regional and national networks to pool resources and manage the brand, each congregation is fully self-governing.
As a result, when a UCC pastor says or does something controversial, the only people in a position to easily discipline or fire him are the members of his own congregation, which is run in much the same way as any other mid-sized nonprofit organization. Yes, this means precisely what you think it does: the committee structure and internal politics of a typical UCC church aren't all that different from, say, SFWA's....
Local news outlets, as usual, missed the real news story this week as they waxed amused at Stephen Colbert, who claimed during a recent show that Powell's Books owed him $8 for selling his new book at a 30% discount. In a similar amused vein, they uniformly quoted a Powell's spokesperson who said that they'd sent Colbert the $8. (They didn't, he said, plan to send any more than that for additional sales.)
The real story? Colbert out-and-out lied on national television -- and if he cashes that $8 check, one might argue that he successfully committed extortion.
Now for most pro authors, the next paragraph is basic publishing knowledge, but it's important in context, so bear with me.
The truth is that Colbert, like any other author with a book contract, gets royalties from his publisher for each retail sale of his book, amounting (going by general industry standard) to 10%-15% of cover price for trade hardcovers. On a $26.99 hardback, that's about $2.70 to $4.05, which the publisher will either credit against his advance (if the book hasn't earned out yet) or pay out in his first royalty check (if the book has earned out). Moreover, what consumers don't always realize is that most of the time, bookstore discounts don't affect the author's royalty; the author gets his or her percentage on the cover price, whether the book is discounted or not. [There are exceptions, and some publishers now try to key royalties to net price, but generally speaking, percentage of cover price is still the standard.]
Now I'm reasonably confident that Stephen Colbert knows how publishing works, so he should know very well that his publishers will, in fact, pay him the $2.70-$4.05 royalty they owe him on that copy of his book he caught Powell's selling for $18.89 -- just as they will pay him that same figure for a copy sold for $26.99 up the street at 23rd Avenue Books, and for a copy sold for $16.19 on Amazon. He didn't lose a penny on that Powell's sale, and Powell's did not and does not owe him $8 (strictly, $8.10) for selling the book at a discount.
But he said they did, and that makes him a liar.
Now having said that, I should add that I'm actually less offended by Colbert's riff than I am by the local media coverage and by the fact that Powell's caved so easily. Colbert is, after all, a comedian, and you can make a case that what I'm calling a lie is justifiable comic exaggeration. (I'd disagree with such a case, but I can understand it.)
OTOH, I think it's ethically wrong and journalistically irresponsible for the local media to support and perpetuate the lie. Consumers are already confused enough about how authors get paid; this was a chance for media outlets to educate folks on How Publishing Works, and to point out that Colbert was engaging in a Foghorn Leghorn moment (i.e. "That's a joke, son!"). Instead, they covered the joke as if it were a true statement, and thereby did their readers and viewers a disservice. And Powell's, I'd think, would have gotten even better PR value by pointing out that Colbert is probably making more on each sale than they are, and thus Powell's is arguably even more patriotic and civic-minded than Colbert himself.
But I suppose that expecting that much brain out of the mainstream media is an exercise in wishful thinking....
I got a call a month or so back from a political pollster, wanting to know my views on a charter amendment coming up for a vote next month, which would if approved change Portland's form of government rather drastically. I answered all the questions to the best of my ability, but told the caller that I hadn't yet made up my mind, as I was waiting to get my Voters' Pamphlet so I could read the measure and study it in detail.
The Voters' Pamphlet arrived today -- but it's not going to be as much of a help as I'd hoped.
Why not, you ask? Because the text of that proposed charter amendment isn't in it. Nor are the texts of any of the other three proposed charter amendments Portland voters are supposed to be voting on in the upcoming election.
It must be a misprint or a defective copy, right? Apparently not. All the pages are properly numbered. Everything else is there -- ballot title, short summary, arguments in favor and in opposition -- but not the proposed amendments themselves. And a Web check reveals that neither Web iteration of the Voters' Pamphlet (HTML or PDF) includes the amendment texts either. Nor does any version of the Voters' Pamphlet include so much as a URL where one might find the amendment texts.
No . . . as far as I can tell, it appears that city and county officials are asking voters to decide four significant issues without letting us read the legislation we're supposed to be voting on. And here Portland is supposed to be one of the most progressive cities in the US, too.
I have sent off a polite but astonished note via the county elections office's Web-feedback form. I have also sent off a note to my favorite local TV news station. We shall see what happens....
Now, it does snow from time to time in Portland. But this particular snowstorm -- which hit, apparently, between 4:00 and 5:00 this morning -- took the entire metropolitan area by surprise; none of the weathercasters had predicted anything remotely as dramatic, and the morning radio team reported that they'd had dry, bare streets when they rolled into their studios at 3:30 AM or so.
This meant that the area's two largest school districts, Portland and Beaverton, were still running on "open, normal schedule" through much of the morning commute, and only at 7:30 and 8:30 AM, respectively, did they go on air and announce they'd be closing. (In both cases, many school buses were already on the road by the time things started to get dicey.) Perhaps not surprisingly, some parents called into the radio station sounding greatly aggrieved -- "How dare they put our children in danger!!!! We will besiege the School Board with our pitchforks and tar and feathers and blast the Superintendent!!!" [That paraphrase isn't nearly as far over the top as you probably think it is....]
While I sympathize with the frustrated parents, I can't really fault the school districts -- which had closed for a day a week or so ago during a weather non-event where forecasters had projected snow that didn't in fact show up. This time, the forecasters (as one of them admitted on the radio) were "gun-shy", had expected the relevant weather system to fall apart before it got here, and universally projected another non-event -- and the district decisionmakers, relying on those projections and the dry-at-four-in-the-morning streets, initially declared business as usual and sent out the first wave of buses.
Me? I suspect I'd best hit the Web and renew some books. Somehow, I don't think I'm going to get them back to the library today....
I got one, and only one, call.
The Caller ID correctly labeled the caller as "Oreg Republican", with a local number attached.
It was a live caller, not a recording.
The caller promptly and accurately identified himself (by name as well as affiliation), and while he noted that he was calling on behalf of the Republican candidate's campaign, he simply encouraged me to vote. (I've got the ballot filled out, and will drop it off tomorrow.)
He was polite, brief, and to the point, and he concluded the call promptly.
Now as it happens, I'm not voting for his party's candidate in that race. But I think it's encouraging that the local GOP was conducting such a courteous, responsible telephone effort. And I think they deserve credit for doing so.
The city of Portland has chopped a chunk out of the center left turn lane on my street, and appears to be in the process of building a pedestrian island/crosswalk smack in front of my small apartment complex.
You would think this was utterly logical; the road is extremely busy, and the nearest safe pedestrian crossings are some distance away (over 1/4 mile east, around twice that to the west) . And as a non-driver, I very much approve of making it safer to cross the road to get to the bus stop. However....
The island is being sited with surgical precision at the worst possible spot for the residents of my apartment complex and the one next door. It's going to be difficult to impossible for drivers coming into my parking lot from the west to turn in, and equally challenging for drivers coming out of the (much larger) complex next door to turn left across traffic.
Amusingly, there is a side street coming into the main road just west of my complex (almost straight across from the driveway of the complex next door). You'd think that the logical thing to do would be to put a traffic light at that intersection -- which is, as it happens, about half way between the two nearest traffic lights. This logic, however, seems to have eluded the Powers That Be.
Clearly it's too late to mount a protest, but I think I'll be making some more calls anyway. (I phoned two different city offices yesterday afternoon trying to get someone to confirm what the construction project was; so far, no one's phoned back.)
Portland, for those not in the area, has a large river running right through downtown. And even as I type, the noon news reports that we have pirate ships sailing upriver, preparing to fire cannon (at 2pm PDT or thereabouts) and send troops of pirates scurrying through the streets hunting for booty.
(One of the ships is the Lady Washington, last seen by many in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film; the other is apparently called the Hawaii Chieftain. This is part of the local Rose Festival summer festival....)
Which is a natural instinct in our present culture of complaint and protest -- but to my mind, exactly the wrong response to present circumstances.
Time (and the labor it represents) is a resource. And right now, the most constructive use of that resource is not complaining, it's doing. Ten thousand quarter-hours spent writing aggrieved emails to George Bush (who will, say all too many of the letter writers, ignore them anyway) are ten thousand quarter-hours that have not been spent in the community, helping people cope with the disaster. Nor do you need to be in New Orleans or Texas or elsewhere in Katrina's path for those quarter-hours to matter; your quarter-hour can go toward replacing the labor of someone in your community who's gone to New Orleans or is otherwise responding in person to the Katrina crisis. It can go toward helping out in your local schools or in other social service programs for which funding may be reduced as Congress diverts money to dealing with Katrina's aftermath.
And what's more, if enough people stop spending enough quarter-hours complaining to the government and start acting to help address the needs of their own communities, the government might not -- gasp! -- need to spend so much time and money addressing those problems with bureaucratic solutions. (We might, as Arlo Guthrie suggests, start a movement....)