Sunday, July 30, 2006

Recommended Listening

I'm an agnostic on the best of days. I have an aversion to organized religion that stems from my distrust crowds, and a belief that while they can be inspired to greatness they are more often and more readily tapped to be a seething mob that lashes out under cover of relative anonymity.

But I can still find talk about questions of belief interesting, and some of those with the deepest faiths also nurse the deepest doubts, which makes them the ones worth listening to. In that vein, I heartily recommend Bill Moyer's new PBS series, On Faith and Reason. (I don't know how long that link will last; it may just take you to whatever his latest project is.) Streaming video is available (in Real and Windows Media formats) on the website, but audio-only podcasts are also available, and highly listenable. (The format is a straightforward sit-down interview, so the visuals are obtional.) You can subscribe through iTunes, but if you have an aversion to things Apple, you can get the RSS feed here.

There's a wealth of material there. PBS is one of the best networks for pulling together a lot of media and providing a lot of information. No wonder radical fundamentalist Republicans want to kill it. But I've said it before and I'll say it again, if PBS puts their programs up for sale in the iTunes Music Store, I'll buy a season pass to "Frontline" in a heartbeat.

I Wonder What the Radical Cleric Pat Robertson Thinks About This?

From the New York Times: Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. — Like most pastors who lead thriving evangelical megachurches, the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd was asked frequently to give his blessing — and the church’s — to conservative political candidates and causes.

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called “The Cross and the Sword” in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a “Christian nation” and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

Mr. Boyd says he is no liberal. He is opposed to abortion and thinks homosexuality is not God’s ideal. The response from his congregation at Woodland Hills Church here in suburban St. Paul — packed mostly with politically and theologically conservative, middle-class evangelicals — was passionate. Some members walked out of a sermon and never returned. By the time the dust had settled, Woodland Hills, which Mr. Boyd founded in 1992, had lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 members.

What was a crucial turning point for Mr. Boyd?
Mr. Boyd said he never intended his sermons to be taken as merely a critique of the Republican Party or the religious right. He refuses to share his party affiliation, or whether he has one, for that reason. He said there were Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into “idolatry.”

He said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.

“I thought to myself, ‘What just happened? Fighter jets mixed up with the cross?’ ” he said in an interview.

So what are they going to do about the loss of congregants?

Mary Van Sickle, the family pastor at Woodland Hills, said she lost 20 volunteers who had been the backbone of the church’s Sunday school.

“They said, ‘You’re not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way,’ ” she said. “It was some of my best volunteers.”

The Rev. Paul Eddy, a theology professor at Bethel College and the teaching pastor at Woodland Hills, said: “Greg is an anomaly in the megachurch world. He didn’t give a whit about church leadership, never read a book about church growth. His biggest fear is that people will think that all church is is a weekend carnival, with people liking the worship, the music, his speaking, and that’s it.”

In the end, those who left tended to be white, middle-class suburbanites, church staff members said. In their place, the church has added more members who live in the surrounding community — African-Americans, Hispanics and Hmong immigrants from Laos. [Emphasis mine.]

This suits Mr. Boyd. His vision for his church is an ethnically and economically diverse congregation that exemplifies Jesus’ teachings by its members’ actions. He, his wife and three other families from the church moved from the suburbs three years ago to a predominantly black neighborhood in St. Paul.

Oh, I get it. It's not about right and wrong, good and evil, the will of God versus the temptations of Satan, it's about a bunch of pampered and privileged white folks who want to be told that their prejudices are proof that God loves them best.

No wonder they all love W. so damn much. He's just like them.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Rent-a-Friend

This may be one of the most pathetic things I've read in a while:

Ms. Luardo, after all, is 34 years old. And she had come to be among this sea of dewy-faced high schoolers not as a chaperone or older sister, but because Will is her personal unpaid intern and, in her words, B.F.F., best friend forever. She met him when he came to see her band play in Philadelphia last winter. They subsequently got to know each other through MySpace and instant messaging, and when Ms. Luardo needed to channel the voice of a teenager for a marketing project, she enlisted Will’s help.

Since then he has been her point man for keeping up with all things young. In turn she has been spending many a weekend shuttling him from his home in Moorestown, N.J., to parties, concerts and the occasional summer blockbuster.

At one time there was no way to better broadcast one’s failure to thrive as an adult than to hang around high school kids. It meant that the world beyond senior prom had shut its doors, forcing a return to a place in which your value was determined solely by your ability to drive a car and procure beer. But now, according to young professionals working in fields in which fluency in the dialects and habits of teenagers is paramount, hanging out with high schoolers is cool, and sometimes even professionally advantageous.

Often these teenagers are known as “the intern.” They are working for little or nothing at clothing labels, guerrilla marketing firms and one-person event-planning operations, making coffee, opening mail and tagging along with their employers in environments they deem interesting. While they get college-résumé-boosting work experience, not to mention entree into clubs and parties, their employers get around-the-clock muses and ambassadors to youth culture.

Paying high school students to be your "BFF" so that you may continue to believe yourself to be young and hip. Because that cushy job you got right out of college because you were young and hip isn't going to last forever as long as time keeps having its way with you.

Of course, time isn't the only one having its way:

One exception is 16-year-old Cory Kennedy, who since last fall has been working as an unpaid intern for the Los Angeles party photographer Mark Hunter, 21. Since her job began, she has become both his girlfriend and something of an Internet phenomenon thanks to Mr. Hunter’s Web site, www.thecobrasnake.com, which is dominated by pictures of her with her signature unbrushed hair and improbable outfits.

While Cory said that her internship with Mr. Hunter involved its share of drudgery, she is also getting credit at her charter high school, where she was able to label her work an independent study in photojournalism. Most enticing, though, it gave her an entree to hip fashion and entertainment industry parties. “I was just leading this crazy exciting new life,” she said. (Her mother, Jinx, said she was keeping a close eye on Cory, but in general thought Mr. Hunter was a good influence.)

She's getting school credit for dating her boss.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Saturday, July 22, 2006

High Times for the Mellow Kitty

Musical Follies

Over at Engadget, they've posted a list of known, speculated, and disproved features of Microsoft's new Zune media player, meant to take on Apple's iPod head on this Christmas season.

Of particular interest were these two bullet points under "What we know for sure":
• The Zune brand is intended to be an entirely vertically integrated end-to-end solution, not unlike the iPod / iTunes / iTunes Music Store triumvirate.

The service and device will not be PlaysForSure compliant, meaning you will not be able to use your Zune player with Napster or Vongo, for example. This will be an entirely new system. Microsoft will continue to support and develop for their PlaysForSure initiative, but all things PlaysForSure are handled by two entirely separate division that will not have any crossover. [Emphasis mine.]

Isn't one of the greatest complaints about Apple and the iTunes Music Store it's exclusivity? Leaving aside the ability to burn a CD that plays in any standard CD player (and so many people do), the iPod won't play Windows Media files at all, much less those with DRM from Napster and Vongo, and Apple won't license its Fairplay DRM to anyone else, so those iTMS files work only in iTunes or on an iPod. Exactly what is Microsoft promising that's going to fix that problem? The music you buy from the Zune store will only work on the Zune player, not on any PlaysForSure device, just like iTMS and the iPod. It won't play files from any other download service, just like the iPod.

But it will have WiFi, which stikes me as being interesting, but much like Malibu Stacy's new hat. Otherwise, Microsoft has taken the iPod and iTMS, copied it completely, and changed only the DRM scheme by adding yet another hurdle that users have to jump through. Oh, and while the rumors swirl that MS will offer to buy exact copies of all of your iTMS songs from the Zune store, no such rumors seem to abound for purchases from Napster, Yahoo!, or anybody else.

But no matter what, it won't work with a Mac.

Allow me, as an unabashed and diehard Mac user, to complain that Microsoft is missing something important about Mac users. The joke has long been that Redmond needed Apple to stay in business for two reasons: 1) To prove to the government that there was another commercially available operating system out there, and 2) For research and development. Tracing the history of the iPod, it's important to remember that it was initally an Mac-only device. It did well, Windows users clambored to get them to work with their PCs, and Apple relented and made it possible. The iTunes Music Store was initially Mac-only, started strongly, and Apple quickly released iTunes for Windows and made all of those Fairplay protected AAC files available to everyone.

Much has been written about the "Halo Effect," and Apple's hope that as people buy, use, and fall in love with their iPods, that that love will extend to other Apple products, especially Macintosh computers. There is debate over whether that is a failed strategy, given the Mac's relatively small uptick in market share, or whether it is a long-term game plan that is starting to show real results. Either way, Apple understands that it isn't the only OS in town and makes the iPod and the iTunes software OS agnostic, more or less. (I know, it ignores Linux and older OSes, but bear with me.)

Cupertino would love it if everyone who owned an iPod switched to a Mac, but they know it isn't likely, so they don't require it. MS in Redmond, however, seems to believe that I should be sufficiently motivated to move to their music player that I should ditch my Mac and buy a PC. (Full disclosure: I do own an Intel iMac, and could run Boot Camp or Parallels, but I also own a Power PC PowerBook that won't run either, so for the sake of argument, bear with me.)

What Microsoft is missing is something that John Gruber wrote in a recent post at his blog, Daring Fireball:
Many — not most, just many — Mac users occupy a slot in the computer user spectrum that is often overlooked: that of the non-technical enthusiast. These are people who don’t really understand how a computer works from a computer science perspective, but who do understand quite a bit about how a Macintosh works, from the perspective of the Mac OS UI metaphors. I.e. they’re Mac nerds but not computer nerds.

Back in 2002, responding to a Joel Spolsky piece regarding whether or not the Mac is a big enough market for commercial software developers, I wrote about this:

Sure, some Macs are used in corporate settings, and some are used at home by the “I just use the web and email” crowd. But Macs are much more likely to be used by computer enthusiasts. You pretty much have to go out of your way to end up with a Mac on your desk (or lap). If you walk into CompUSA and say, “I’d like to buy a computer”, you’re probably going to walk out with a Wintel box. If you do that at Wal-mart, you definitely will.

Let’s divide computer users into two groups — people who think computers are fun, and people who just happen to use a computer. Which group do you think buys more software (even including all the Linux nerds in the first group)? Which group do you think most Mac users are in?

Mac users may only constitute four percent of the total number of computer users; but they constitute a significantly higher percentage of the total number of users who do things like install and purchase third-party application software.

If Microsoft could convince Mac users -- "Apple Lovers," for God's sake -- that they were making a product superior to the iPod and providing a service more comprehensive than the iTunes Music Store, then the battle would be half won right there. But they won't, and the product and service that they are planning to offer are in no way discernable from what Apple is already offering, so why would anyone be all that interested in engaging in a long, complicated, pitfall laden process of moving all of my stuff from one device that I know works to another that, well, comes from the makers of the BSoD.