Unmined gold

I have very little acumen for business or music but, if I did, I’d be seriously thinking about starting a company that provides all the services for musicians that major labels do except manufacture and distribution of the final product. That is, this company would be employed by musicians to provide studio time, image management, promotion and tour coordination. The musician would be on her own to find a distribution outlet for their music (though, naturally, would owe the new company a cut of sales). If you were the first company set up this way, you stand to gain a significant portion of the world’s musicians as clients within two to five years, though probably not some of the very biggest musicians.

The reason this would work is Apple and iTunes. Large record companies have serious problems with Apple’s success. Some of them complain and threaten to stop providing their artists music to Apple. Some, like Sony, refused to do so in the first place. It seems likely, though, that the large media companies are playing a waiting game until current iTunes contracts expire in 2006. Meanwhile, artists prevented by their corporate overlords from making their existing music available on iTunes are getting antsy and are creating new material specifically for iTunes and iTunes only. Others are releasing entire albums via bittorrent.

Big media companies have shown a determined, nearly pathalogical, desire to maintain their bloated empires by any means necessary. There is no reason to expect they will suddenly become enlightened to the new possibilities of technology, but will, instead, try to sandbag Apple at the expense of both their artists and the music-appreciating public. This will provide a great deal of incentive for artists to ditch their labels. Some will strike out on their own. Most, however, will probably hold onto the “big label” idea, in spite of its drawbacks, because Apple and iTunes alone doesn’t provide them with everything they need to become superstars.

This is where this new company fits in. It enables musicians to embrace iTunes without losing the promotion and other machinery they need. It will completely eliminate any incentive that musicians might have to stay with a big label. The key to this is that, once it becomes clear what is happening, at least one and probably most of the big labels may eventually be forced into retooling to work like this as well. If that happens, it won’t happen quickly. Still, to be successful, this new company needs to strike very quickly, as widely as possible. Preferably, it would start now, before big media kills their iTunes deals. The company also needs to use the agility provided by its small size in ways the media giants can’t.

If you attempt to build such a company, best of luck to you. And invite me into the IPO.

Foreclosing the fourth estate

Imagine the local network news casters are telling you that a storm is coming. This might require imagining yourself as someone who still watches the local news, which may be a stretch, but bear with me. Can you picture your local news people? The male anchor with good teeth and hair and the hot, yet professional, woman of indeterminate ethnicity joke with each other, then put on their “grim face” as they talk about the “Storm of the Century”. Custom made graphics woosh in each time they cut to another story about it. The Wacky Weatherman gesticulates wildly in front of a superimposed map, showing a spiral storm cloud off the coast. Reporters out in the street stand in the rain and warn of heavy winds and describe the storm as the coming apocalypse. The news offers a brief snippet of the governor calling the storm “the real deal” and that “as of right now”, your area “is definitely the target for this hurricane” and suggests you might want to think about going to higher ground, and take “small quantities of food for three to four days”. The local news shows shots of people leaving and interviews of people staying. They assure you that they’ll be there covering it all, so stay tuned.

Do you leave?

I wonder how many people in Louisiana and Mississippi looked at the dire warnings on the news and decided to stay because the local news always makes dire warnings about even insignificant weather. If this happened to even one person who got killed, it’s yet another indication (if you needed one) of the media’s collossal failure to fulfill their basic purpose. As John Stewart observes:

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy. It serves to inform the voting public on matters relevant to its well-being. Why they stopped doing that is a mystery.

I’m breaking my own rules by bitching about this without a solution to suggest, but I’m at a loss on how to fix this. Do we just stop watching until they shape up? I’ve been trying that for years and it doesn’t seem to be working. If anything, reducing the number of viewers used to thinking for themselves just makes it worse. Do we just beg them to stop? The blogosphere is starting to marginalize the press in some ways, but this is a mixed blessing, as most blogs check facts more loosely than television and most follow no editorial standard at all. Maybe the point of the blogosphere is really that of fact checker for mainstream media. It’s proving that it does that job really well. Will this turn the media back into something trustworthy? Was it ever trustworthy?

Looking back at how the press covered Katrina before it hit has been enlightening, and I recommend it. You can see a map showing predictions of flooding scenarios, for example. You can see the director of the National Hurricane Center describing the coming Katrina as “really scary” and “a worse-case scenario”. (I’d be curious to see how local TV covered that.) You can see New Orleans main newspaper’s June 2002 story about New Orleans washing away if hit by a big hurricane. You can see Bush follow three paragraphs about Katrina, in which he urges people to seek safe ground, with a dozen about Iraq. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but it’s good to see how the world looked before something bad happened, to see if you could recognize the signs of it if it happened again.

The man from room five

Though tempted to call this post “riding the hype train” or “anticipating sound and fury”, I thought I might be able to manipulate at least some of the hype in a worthwhile way before the noise gets too loud. In the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd produced a comic book decidedly not for children called V for Vendetta. It has been reproduced in trade paperback and become a cult hit with adult fans, having even been well annotated. In his introduction to the trade paperback, artist David Lloyd sets the tone for the work:

“The Nine o’Clock News” followed “A Question of Sport.” Or, at least for 30 seconds it did, before the television was switched off and cheeky, cheery pop music took its place.

I looked over at the barman. “Just half this time,” I said. As he filled the glass, I solemnly asked him why he’d switched off the News. “Don’t ask me-that was the wife,” he replied, in a cheeky, cheery manner.…

…I finished my drink and left, almost certain the TV would be silent for the rest of the evening. For after “The Nine o’Clock News” would have come “The Boys From Brazil,” a dim film with few cheeky cheery characters in it, which is all about a bunch of Nazis creating 94 clones of Adolf Hitler.

There aren’t many cheeky, cheery characters in V FOR VENDETTA either; and it’s for people who don’t switch off the News.

In a few months, a film based on this comic will be released, created by the same guys that made the Matrix. You are going to hear a lot about this movie pretty soon, and not just because it looks to be a stylistic blockbuster. There will be screaming about it on CNN and (especially) Fox News, because its hero blows up buildings in London in an attempt to destroy the (now fascist) government. Given the bombings in London right now, this is probably going to send the right wing into a tizzy. Add to that the tagline from the marquee (“people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people”) and you can pretty much hear the “think of the children” pining already.

Before all that starts, I’m asking (hell, begging) you to read the original comic. It has its warts, but remains powerful in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) being written twenty years ago. Keep your kids away, though. It’s not that kind of party (“think of the children!”).

By the way, Alan Moore, easily one of the top three comic writers of all time, has a history of entrusting his work to filmmakers that mess it up and has disassociated himself from this film.

Africa’s ruin or salvation

The Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory can now make gem quality diamonds at reasonable speed. This seems like a great thing because it seriously threatens to destroy one of the more repugnant companies on the planet: DeBeers. For decades, DeBeers has enjoyed a monopoly on the world’s diamond market, keeping the price of what is actually a fairly common mineral high by means of controlling its supply. They’ve used this monopoly to fix prices, influence and back brutal governments and indirectly fund violence against civilians. To it’s credit, DeBeers has been strongly lobbying against conflict diamonds recently, though I can’t help suspect this has more to do with further controlling supply than altruism.

Nearly all of the “common knowledge” about diamonds is a direct result of DeBeers marketing. They completely invented the “traditions” of the diamond engagement ring and tenth anniversary band and how much should be spent on each (“two months salary”, unless you live in Japan, where it is three). They are directly responsible for glamour attached to diamonds in film, backing films featuring diamonds and seeding celebrities like Marilyn Monroe with jewels for public occasions, a practice with many imitators today. All of the “common sayings” about diamonds are either DeBeers marketing slogans (“diamonds are forever”) or commissioned songs (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). Recently DeBeers has been using feminism to market the right hand diamond ring. (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were also masters of the altered deal.)

Synthetic diamonds are nothing new. Heck, you can even get the carbon released from cremating your body pressed into a gemstone. What is new is the low cost and high speed of production already achieved by Carnegie Institution. Mass produced gem-quality synthetic diamonds could completely undermine the DeBeers monopoly by creating an essentially infinite supply of diamonds that are higher quality than nearly all mined diamonds and completely independent of geography. Further, if the inventors of this process are really interested in using it to usher in the diamond age, they would license it very widely and cheaply. It’s conceivable that anyone with electricity could eventually grow gem-quality diamonds in their home. In this scenario, though, making gems would likely be a small afterthought to more impressive uses of similar technology (like building an elevator to space). Chances are, this won’t happen, at least for a while. Either DeBeers will come to control this new process or those that do control it will reach a “gentlemen’s agreement” with DeBeers limiting production of gems (tactics similar to those they used with GE and the Soviet Union).

Sooner or later, though, technology will reach the point when diamonds and other gems can be manufactured on a scale large enough to destroy conventional mining. The descendants of DeBeers will probably end up owning a big chunk of this industry, so they should (unfortunately) come out OK. The citizens of Africa, on the other hand, are likely to get really, really screwed by this development.

Over half the world’s diamonds are mined in Africa. In the country of Bostwana alone, in the year 2000, diamonds represented 36% of GDP and 82% of exports. Imagine that just vanishing over the space of a couple of years. Add to that the ancillary economy that supports and surrounds all that mining and you get a fairly bleak future, especially since unemployment there is already between 22 and 40% and roughly a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.

More diversified countries like South Africa should fare better, but trouble in African countries tends to spill into its neighbors one way or another.

Should the rapid collapse of the diamond mining industry come to pass, I predict an equally rapid increase in what Africa has proven, over the last fifty years, that it does really well: genocide. Since the rest of the world has indicated that it doesn’t give two shits about what happens in Africa, loss of mining income will lead to battles for control of natural resources coupled with campaigns against nearby helpless ethnicities. While militaries seize oil fields and logging operations, “terrorists” sporting equipment mysteriously identical to the local military will start slaughtering the scapegoats of the day. The tinpot thug who runs the place will vocally decry the “terrorists” but, equally mysteriously, will be unable to stop them. His wife(s) will embezzle several hundred million dollars and relocate to Europe. After the killing has gone on for several years, Kofi Annan will be horrfied and state that something must be done. The UN will ignore him by endlessly debating “sanctions”.

After a long period of this, maybe fifty years or so, people will start realizing that Africa is the only place left on Earth with easily accessible natural resources (timber, oil, various metals, uranium, cheap labor, etc.) The resulting resource rush and potential Renaissance should be something to behold, for the dozen or so Africans still alive to witness it.

Mabus

Several days after my previous brief mention of Nostradamus, NPR broadcast a story about Mahmoud Abbas. While listening to it, I was still in a prognostication frame of mind and put together some Nostradamus writing with Mr. Abbas.

I don’t put a lot of stock in Nostradamus, but one prediction that seemed to go beyond coincidence is the use of the name “Hister” in relation to a prophesy of a certain German dictator. Nostradamus didn’t use proper names that often, so it’s not like he threw a bunch of names into his quatrains and just happened to get lucky here. He did, however, use another proper name once, allegedly in reference to his “third antichrist”: Mabus.

When listening to the story, I realized it is not much of a leap from “Mahmoud Abbas” to “M. Abbas” to “Mabus”. Foolishly thinking I might be onto something, I googled for “Mahmoud Mabus” and, naturally, got a bunch of hits from Nostradamus fanatics who figured this out a long time ago.

Unfortunately, most of these brains seem to completely ignore what Nostradamus actually wrote. While I have a more or less pluralist view of different belief systems (all belief systems, including mine, are equally useless), it bugs me when people completely ignore the rules of whatever belief system they claim to follow. If you are someone who claims to run your life by following the Anasazi Oracle, that’s great, so long as you actually follow that oracle’s rules.

What Nostradamus wrote about Mabus was this (Century II, Quatrain 62)

Mabus puis tost alors mourra, viendra,
De gens & bestes vne horrible defaite:
Puuis tout à coup la vengeance on verra,
Cent, main, soif, faim, quand courra la comete.

…which means (as translated by John Hogue):

Mabus will soon die, then will come,
A horrible undoing of people and animals,
At once one will see vengeance,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when the comet will pass.

This seems to be a pretty clear prediction that someone named “Mabus” will get killed, then a bunch of bad things will happen immediately after. That’s it. For some reason, however, most of the Nostradamus “scholars” out there will go on at great length about how Mabus is the third antichrist and speculate about who he is, in spite of the fact that the above prophesy says nothing of the kind. It is just as likely that the third antichrist kills Mabus. You can’t tell from this prophesy.

An entire belief system seems to have deluded itself by completely ignoring the rules of the system in which they claim to believe (rules like “pay attention to what the prophet actually said”). There have even been TV shows based on the idea that Mabus is the antichrist when there seems to be no foundation for this idea within Nostradamus’ work.

I’m sure at least one Nostradamus fanatic will point out the error of my ways. (Someone will also no doubt point out that if you hold “Mabus” up to a mirror, you get a good approximation of “Saddam”.) I’d also love to hear from anyone who has references to what people before 1900 A.D. thought Mabus meant.

In any case, if Nostradamus is to be believed and if Mahmoud Abbas really is Mabus, sounds like his impending wacking will ignite quite the powder keg. I predict it will also ignite a wave of “we told you sos” from the Nostradamus faithful and at least one TV special, probably on Fox.

From the glory of the olive

The pope is sick again. Sooner or later (sooner, I suspect) he will be succeeded, no doubt with intrigue, ceremony and media frenzy. When the white smoke comes out of the chimney, it will be interesting to see how much attention is paid to one of my favorite wacky distractions, the Prophecies of St. Malachy.

According to the story, the man who would be called St. Malachy visited Rome in 1139, where he saw a vision regarding all of the future popes. He supposedly wrote down this vision and gave it to Innocent II, who stashed it in the archives until it was discovered in the early 1590’s by a monk named Arnold Wion. It was published soon afterwards, with many suspecting at the time (and even more so now) that it had actually been written in the 1590’s and really had nothing to do with Malachy at all.

I’ve never looked to such things for much predictive power. What I find interesting about this prophesy is that, unlike most others, it offers predictions on events that are guaranteed to happen. If you read a prediction from Nostradamus that doesn’t seem to match any event, you can say “well, it must not have happened yet”. You can’t do that with this prophesy, because the succession of popes since 1139 (or 1590) is a known quantity. This allows more interesting analysis, as you can score how well (or badly) each pope was “predicted”.

In 2000, John Hogue wrote The Last Pope, which provides such scoring. I’m not sure what the rest of his books are like, but he seems to approach this prophesy with a “this is probably bull, but maybe it isn’t” approach which is distinctly lacking in most prophesy “analysis”. It’s also pretty clear that Hogue has little love for the papacy or the Catholic Church in general.

The prophesy gives each pope a motto in Latin. Naturally, some of these are so generic as to be basically useless, but others fare a bit better. Hogue compares each motto to a number of categories in the actual pope’s life (things like church titles, heraldry, name, birthplace, family, nationality, geography, deeds, etc.). For each pope, he gives each category a hit or a miss. He finds that “clearly the skeptics are right” in that scores from the popes before 1590 are significantly higher than scores from after. On the other hand, he rates some of the post-1590 mottos as “remarkably accurate predictions that go beyond chance”.

When looking at this kind of thing, the main criticism is to say “oh, that motto could be applied to anyone else just as well”. So, do it. For each motto, can you fit it to, say, another pope, or some other religious leader, or even yourself better than it fits to the pope it is supposedly predicting. Sometimes this is not difficult. Other times, it is harder. For example, take John Paul II’s motto: de labore solis (“from the sun’s labor”). This motto hits in three of Hogue’s categories, primarily because in medieval Latin poetry, a “laboring sun” was one darkened by an eclipse and John Paul II was born during a total solar eclipse. Some others suggest that it may be a reference to the fact that this pope travelled far more than any other pope in history, often to tropical countries. Maybe its a reference John Paul II’s link to Poland’s Solidarity labor movement. I dunno. Does it fit you better?

The other thing about this prophesy that fascinates me is that it is almost over. There are only two more mottos on the list. The next pope is de gloria olivæ (“from the glory of the olive”). You can view the odds on who this might be. Symbolically, the olive could be a reference to any (or none) of the following:

  • the Jewish race (for which the olive branch is an ancient symbol)
  • Jesus’ prophecy on the Mount of Olives
  • Peace-making
  • Dark skin
  • Italy, Greece and/or Spain

My money is on Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, but not because of the prophesy. I think the Vatican will aim for a Hispanic pope, as that’s where Catholic growth is coming from at the moment. It will be interesting to see, whoever is chosen, if this prophesy makes headlines. I often wonder about how knowing a prophesy affects its fulfillment.

The last motto, by the way, is Petrus Romanus (Peter of Rome), and it is followed by an inscription:

In persecutione extrema Sacræ Romanæ Ecclesiæ sedebit Petrus Romanus qui pascet oves in multis tribultionibus; quibus transactis, civitas septicollis dirvetur; et Judex tremendus judicabit populum.

Which means:

During the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there shall sit Peter of Rome, who shall feed the sheep amidst many tribulations, and when these have passed, the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people.

There are hordes of people who will happily inform you that this means the end of the world, and that they can’t wait. What it means to me is that people my age will likely be able to see yet another doomsday prediction fail to come true. We just have to outlive two more popes.