Saturday, February 15, 2014

This Monopoly Is Televised

The big corporate news that Comcast Cable bought Time Warner Cable in a friendly acquisition is the latest development in the history of cable television that I've witnessed from the beginning.

Back in the 1970s I did a long magazine story focusing on what was then Warner Cable but including the history of the cable business, and a counterexample to the corporate for-profit cable model in rural Pennsylvania.

In its beginning, delivering television by cable was sold as a no brainer good thing: it meant no more temperamental antennae, clear reception of local channels plus links to other channels all over the country.  There were also myriad possibilities for more locally produced programs at a low cost, since transmitting more shows by cable didn't cost anything.

And there would be any number of new cable channels--so many that they could be very specialized.  At last there would be movie channels, arts channels and even, you know, channels that challenge you intelligence rather than insult it, as well as various sports channels.  And because you paid for all this with your cable fee, there would be no commercials!

Warner in particular promised interactivity that would give the viewer unprecedented power and influence.  But their early experiments with an interactive cable device showed where this was going--a tool for advertisers and marketers, and as a novelty addition to programming that was even further dumbed-down.

Still, it was all so wondrous! There was one fly in the ointment, though.  Because of the cost of laying cable, the "investment," there could only be one cable company linking a given municipality.  In other words, a legal monopoly.

But there was a process, and municipalities could require spending to help local productions, and set all kinds of rules. If the company didn't stick to their agreements, the municipality could just throw them out.

So more than thirty years later, after cable companies essentially bought the loyalty of many municipal officials, as far as I know, not a single one has been asked to leave.  Locally produced programs have generally been relegated to fixed camera coverage of local government meetings, and a "public access" channel, which most of the time is a multi-color bulletin board for local events and advertisers, with maybe the correct time.

Meanwhile there are a zillion cable channels owned by the same half dozen companies, and they are pretty much all the same no matter what they are called, and almost all of them show a plenitude of commercials.  Cable companies have rivaled health insurers in relentless fee increases, and the biggest--Comcast and Time Warner among them--are the most arrogant and least interested in customer service.  Both brag about their monopolies and the even larger monopolies their merger will create.

Now they're getting into the Internet business, and--according to some--attempting to turn it into the same high profit model as cable TV, with the tried and true tiers of service and expensive spats with "content providers."

Once again we go  to the Brits for the stories, both from the Guardian.  This one describes the business, and this one the impact on the Internet.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Parties of Now

At his Bloomberg blog, poli sci guy Jonathan Bernstein often affirms the power of parties and "party elders" in U.S. politics, which he maintains trumps issues most of the time in determining election winners.  This was a common view in past decades, but seems mildly unusual these years.

He recommended a piece by Seth Masket on how political parties now work--basically not as they used to, but as networks. Masket's most daunting sentences: "Now, it is entirely possible that a party network may be more prone to extremism than a party hierarchy. Ideological activists play a much larger role in the modern party system, and many candidates now come from their ranks.Yet just because a networked party may be more extreme doesn’t make it any less effective."

Theoretically this should make a highly progressive party as possible as a highly reactionary one. But that's not the case now; only the Republicans are really extreme, as evidenced in part by how extreme their rhetoric is condemning the historically center-right orientation of the Democrats as socialist.

 What Masket does not mention is that the Democratic Party was national to the extent that it had national allies in powerful labor unions, at least in the period of the 40s-70s. The unions were an institutional countervailing force to the corporatist Republicans.

Today the two party system seems to be fossil fuel money against Hollywood and some progressive tech company money (with Wall Street money as opportunist.)  Basically the money networks favor the Republicans, and so, the extreme right. What the Democratic party has going for it is demographics. But with this kind of party structure, people can be more easily panicked into voting a rashly extreme government into power.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Monarchs, Penguins, Marius and Wildleaks

Back in the mid 1990s I read of concern that Monarch butterflies were disappearing, and that their migration was being disrupted.  Like a lot of species now endangered or going extinct, humans are only recently aware of what they are about. So the Monarchs' actual migration paths were only recently mapped, and still incompletely.  I recall proposing an article on the subject to the Smithsonian Magazine--I was writing for them at the time--but they didn't assign it.

Monarchs, among many kinds of butterflies were common in my backyard in western Pennsylvania when I was a child.  I especially remember the ones with Monarch-like patterns, but they were blue.

In the years since the 90s, some conservation plans were enacted for the Monarchs, many more discussed.  The Monarch migration to Mexico became something of an ecotourism attraction, and one of the California towns which had been witnessing their wintering there for years woke up to the wonder of it (and possible tourist dollars) and amped up an annual festival.

But this year, for the third straight year, the number of Monarchs who made it to their Mexican wintering and breeding spot has declined enormously.  The NY Times reports: Faltering under extreme weather and vanishing habitats, the yearly winter migration of monarch butterflies to a handful of forested Mexican mountains dwindled precipitously in December, continuing what scientists said was an increasingly alarming decline.

The migrating population has become so small — perhaps 35 million, experts guess — that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.

35 million may seem like a lot, but not in comparison to the one billion of past migrations. This year's migration was a record low--and "it was just 56 percent of last year’s total, which was itself a record low."

Monarchs are a kind of beautiful poster child for the small creatures being forced into extinction by human action, indirect and direct.  Disappearing habitat, transportation of species to new places where they disrupt the ecosystem, pollutions of various kinds and the climate crisis are the most frequent causes.

Climate crisis victims include the polar bears and now at least one species of penguin, but again, they are only the most photogenic of larger creatures under severe pressure.  The BBC reports:  Penguin chicks in Argentina are dying as a direct consequence of climate change, according to new research.
Drenching rainstorms and extreme heat are killing the young birds in significant numbers. 

This is happening while the average global temperature is not rising as fast as models predict, at least according to some estimates.  Increased heat trapped in the oceans has become the chief theory for why this has happened for the past decade or so, and now there is some evidence for a mechanism to cause it: the abnormally high speed of winds over the Pacific.  Scientists warn that when these winds (or whatever else is causing this heat trapping effect) slow down again, the average global temperature will shoot up.

Meanwhile, the efforts of professional climate crisis deniers to demonize climate scientists felt a counterpunch when a DC Superior Court judge ruled that the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review website must face a defamation lawsuit for defaming the prominent Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann.

Although the U.S. east of the Mississippi has weathered more snow storms this winter than for a long while,  the winter Olympics in Russia have apparently focused at least ski observers on the global retrenchment of snow.  There is little in Sochi, and this article is about the possible "end of snow" in eastern US mountains.

The extinction of larger animal species is also being hastened by illegal hunting.  Because it is a big business and law enforcement is lax or more often outmatched in technology, it has been very difficult to control.  Now there is at least a way for ordinary people to get involved, assuming they are being ordinary in places where these animals live.  National Geographic reports on a web site for whistle blowers and observers of wild life crime called Wildleaks.  It bills itself as the first secure website for reporting crimes against nature, including illegal forest cuts.

There are species that no longer exist in the wild but only in human-maintained labs or zoos.  That isn't the case yet with giraffes, but the scientific bureaucratic reasoning that led to the killing of a healthy giraffe called Marius has caused a global furor, and has also been the occasion for exposing some of the complexities involved in the current situation, when humans try to compensate for the immense destruction they have unwittingly--but today, knowingly--unleashed.