Friday, September 19, 2008

Judgment Day for Capitalism draws ever-closer

A little less than four years ago, I wrote:

The industrial Communist nations fell, so everyone assumes that Capitalism proved its merit and won. It seems more accurate to say: Communism fell, and Capitalism is still awaiting judgment.

The particulars of my observations at the time were only tangentially related to the current financial crisis, but the larger point about capitalism's fate seems to be proving correct. It's becoming reasonably clear that (a) the United States is nationalizing a significant chunk of the financial engine that makes it the center of the world economy, and (b) if we didn't do this, then our economy would come apart at the seams, taking down a significant chunk of the world economy as well.

It seems possible that the 21st century's dominant species of economy could be the weird technocratic cousin of crony capitalism that's being improvisationally invented before our eyes this week. It's a form of central planning which leaves the details to markets, but periodically stages massive interventions whose ripple effects dwarf the entire economies of most socialist nations.

But then again, maybe it's not so new after all.

(& now I'm off to a friend's birthday dinner)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What the Vice President does every day

I bear no affection for the wingnut train-wreck, but I found that one statement reasonable, and perhaps even irreverently witty.

I mean, everyone knows that the Vice President has no day-to-day Constitutional* powers whatsoever. The VP's tie-breaking powers are rarely called upon — Cheney and Gore did it once every year or two. As for assuming the office if the President dies, that hardly counts as something for the VP to "do every day". And that's the end of the list of enumerated powers. As far as I can tell, the only reasonable argument that the Vice Presidency should even exist is that it discourages political assassination by an opposition party that controls the House of Representatives.

Basically, what I'm saying is: I, too, wonder what exactly a Vice President does every day. Modern Presidential administrations have generally crafted a meaningful role for the VP, but it's never been written into law. It seems technically possible to discharge the office of the Vice Presidency while lying on the beach sipping margaritas, waiting for your party to page you for a tie-breaking vote once a year.

There is, of course, the minor matter of that other page, which is the main reason you want someone who's qualified. But if you were a politician who wanted to accomplish things — and especially if you wanted to do so on your own terms, rather than as a surrogate or adjunct for a President with whom you may frequently disagree — it seems entirely reasonable to refuse the Vice Presidential nomination on the grounds that it's a powerless office. Politicians have done it before (most famously Daniel Webster, whose rejoinder "I do not intend to be buried until I am dead" is a favorite of history buffs, and which all politics junkies know nowadays because it was quoted by John Hoynes on The West Wing).

Not that Palin evinces any such instincts. She accepted the nomination.

* The fact that Cheney has unconstitutionally assumed all sorts of other powers is an entirely different matter.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Against video

Is anyone else out there annoyed that an increasing proportion of web content — particularly on political blogs, although the disease seems to have spread more broadly — consists of embedded videos or links to video files?

As a communicative medium, video on the web:

  • Runs on Flash, and therefore looks lousy.
  • Runs on Flash, and therefore is flaky on any platform where Flash is flaky.
  • Runs on Flash, and therefore cannot easily be saved offline for future reference.
  • Cannot usually be watched muted (no subtitles).
  • Cannot be easily quoted, re-edited, or linked-to. Note the large number of people who embed or link to a video and say "watch for 0:28" or "the relevant bit starts at 4:37" (argh). Again, this cuts against the spirit of the web. Video on the web — YouTube comments and "video replies" notwithstanding (har har) — is not a medium of conversation, the way that text or even images can be. We need the <blockquote> and <a href> tags to work with video.
  • Cannot be scanned, skimmed, or watched at greater than 1x speed (again, usually no subtitles); so in order to watch a video, I have to sit there for however long the person responsible thought was an appropriate amount of time. This is perhaps the worst scourge of all. I probably read word-for-word no more than 10% of the stuff I look at on the web. On any given page of text, mostly I read the title and then skim for interesting phrases; I only Read The Whole Thing for the rare article that appears to be worth the time. Video makes this behavior impossible: the viewer has to suck the content through the narrow straw of the video player, one paltry second's worth of content in any given second. In three minutes I can read a 200-word blog post and skim 5 more; or in three minutes I can watch one video containing, often, about 200 words of contentful speech. What a waste of my time. (Audiocasts are no better.) To make things worse, many web videos are poorly and amateurishly edited. And those which are professionally edited are often no better, as they have often pointlessly long intros/outros (musical, animated, or both) which are frankly holdovers from a pre-Web era where video producers had to do all branding via interstitials instead of overlays or surrounding dressing (that is, time-division multiplexing branding with the content instead of space-division multiplexing). Just cut to the chase already!

Seriously, for any given video I run across on the web, there's roughly a 99% chance that I'd get just as much or more out of a textual transcript. But video seems to be so damn popular and honestly I don't understand it. Is it just because it's campaign season and everyone feels like reposting ads? Or is it something deeper? My previous post was about how video game fans mistakenly seem to think video games aspire to the condition of cinema. Is it possible that the web has the same mistaken inferiority complex with television? But television seems worse in almost every way. I mean, video's fine for carefully hewn narrative works of entertainment — I like The Wire as much as the next guy — but as a medium of online conversation I find video sorely lacking.