Nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones

SanityFearAppIcon Last night, on the Colbert Report, near the beginning of the segment on Fear for All, Part I, host Stephen Colbert announced the new Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear app for the iPhone (also available in the Android store).

The app was developed by MTV Networks for the upcoming combined Rally to Restore Sanity (instigated by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart) / March to Keep Fear Alive (instigated by Colbert) in Washington, DC, this Saturday, an event that has received considerable attention over the past few weeks on Comedy Central, Fox News and other traditional and new media outlets (though the rally will apparently not be receiving any direct attention from National Public Radio).

PeopleStaringAtPhones Colbert highlighted several benefits to this new mobile social activist application:

If you're going to the rally, well, there's an app for that ... It's really cool! You can use the app to get directions to the rally, check-in on Foursquare, post photos to Facebook and Twitter, and you get a special video message from Jon [Stewart] and me on the morning of the rally. This app will truly enhance your rally experience, because nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones. [emphasis mine]

image from These "features" for enhancing physical world experiences reflect the tensions I recently wrote about regarding the Starbucks Digital Network and its impact on engagement and enlightment on physical world "third places". Although I have not precisely measured it, I have perceived an increasing trend of people standing or sitting together in Starbucks and becoming ever more effective at ignoring each other by staring at / typing on their phones (or laptops), and I predict less physical world engagement will result from the greater online engagement provided by this new location-based network. This may not be universally seen as a "bug" by all, but I have been encouraged to read others urging a shift of attention from the online back into the offline, such as Lewis Howes' recent post predicting the offline shift is coming, and John Hagel and John Seely Brown's recent article in Harvard Business Review proclaiming the increasing importance of physical location.

Malcolm Gladwell has also addressed the relative tradeoffs between online and offline engagement, touching off a firestorm of controversy in a New Yorker article criticizing online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and their impact on social activism in the physical world: Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

image from The Rally to Restore Sanity, however, is more about resolution than revolution:

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

image from The March to Keep Fear Alive is, of course, also intended to promote reasonableness, though employing the kind of parody traditionally used by Colbert in drawing attention to the fear that is regularly promulgated through other media channels:

America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear — forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget — “Reason” is just one letter away from “Treason.” Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.

I will not be present at the rally / march in Washington, DC, but I may attend the Rally to Restore Sanity in Seattle. In any case, I will be tuning in to the main rally  /march remotely - perhaps using my iPhone - to see how the resolution or revolution will be tweeted.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fear for All Pt. 1
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

Update, 2010-11-16: Perhaps due to the fact that the only commercial TV I watch with any regularity is the Comedy Central "news" hour - The Daily Show and The Colbert Report - and even those I typically watch via buffering on my DVR to skip commercials, I was not aware of the Microsoft Windows Phone ad campaign launched earlier in October that promotes the theme of phone-based obsessive-compulsive disorder that Colbert is alluding to. While I like the video, I don't see how this would motivate people to buy Windows Phones (say, instead of iPhones or Androids), but perhaps the goal was simply to draw some attention to Windows Phone. In any case, I'm embedding the Windows Phone "Really" advertisement below.

And finally, just for good measure, I'll embed what I see as the classic short video in this genre, Crackberry Blackberry (though I do not believe this was ever used as a marketing tool by Research in Motion). Interestingly, it was prefaced by yet another Windows Phone ad when I watched it just now.

Conservativism, Liberalism and Independence

As the campaign draws to a close, two classic Doonesbury cartoons have been regularly recurring to me, a visual analogue to the aural experience of a song I can't get out of my head. One of them was the pithiest summary of the differences between conservatives and liberals I've ever read; the other was a parody of college students acting as sheeple, uncritically accepting anything and everything their professor says, despite his assignment of writing an essay on independent thought.

This campaign has been emotionally charged for me (and others). I generally try to be positive on this blog, and yet have been finding myself increasingly indignant from the [literally] incredible smears and fears shamelessly promulgated by the campaigns and their supporters. I've started using my Twitter account to vent some of this irritation by simply and briefly noting some of the acts I find most egregious - occasionally sprinkled with sparks of hope. 

The recent news that Gary Trudeau has created an "Obama Wins!" strip for Wednesday, based on his reading that "Nate Silver at is now giving McCain a 3.7% chance of winning" (though my reading of Today's Polls, 10/31, says "McCain’s win percentage is down to 2.8 percent") leads me to delve into these strips and describe how I see them as framing the current political climate in America.

Doonesbury-Conservatives-2003-07-13 In the first strip [first published on July 13, 2003], two Doonesbury characters who play the role of commentators on the public radio show All Things Reconsidered, liberal Mark Slackmeyer and conservative Chase Talbot III (who also happen to be homosexual lovers, and eventually became a married couple), discuss the differences between liberals and conservatives. The strip starts out with Mark watching Fox News, where an announcer trumpets "Fox News: we report, you decide!", to which Mark muses "That has to be the most cynical slogan in the history of journalism" [personally, I find their other slogan, "Fair and Balanced" to be far more cynical].

In the main portion of the strip, Chase sums up the differences between liberals and conservatives: "[Y]ou liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of view! But conservatives feel no need whatsoever to consider other views. We know we're right, so why bother? Because we have no tradition of tolerance, we're unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time!" When Mark replies "Actually, you make a good point...", Chase responds, "See! Only a loser would admit that!"

As I noted in my last blog post - and as is reflected in many of my recent "tweets" - what irks me the most this campaign season is the ignorant and incendiary statements made and actions taken by some of my fellow Americans. Revisiting Doonesbury's characterization of conservatives, I can see that many of these statements and actions reflect the core conservative values of righteousness, intolerance and certainty.

Doonesbury-TeachingIsDead The willingness to consider alternative perspectives, think critically, and arrive at independent conclusions - hallmarks of liberalism, from Doonesbury's perspective - is the subject of the other Doonesbury strip that has been on / in my mind a lot lately. In this strip [first published on January 27, 1985], a professor is lecturing to students, who eagerly write down everything he says, without thinking about or challenging any of the increasingly provocative statements he makes:

  • "... and in my view, Jefferson's defense of these basic rights lacked conviction. Okay, any discussion of what I've covered so far?" [no response]
  • "Of course not, you're too busy getting it all down. Let me just add that personally, I believe the Bill of Rights to be a silly, inconsequential, recapitulation of truths already found in the Constitution. Any comment?" [no response]
  • "No, scratch that! The Constitution itself should never have been written! It's a dangerous document! All power should rest with the executive! What do you think of that?!" [no response]
  • "Jefferson was the antichrist! Democracy is fascism! Black is white! Night is day!"  no response].

After the professor slumps over the podium, decrying "Teaching is dead", two students turn to each other; one says "Boy, this course is really getting interesting", to which the other replies "You said it, I didn't know half this stuff."

Now, this strip was originally printed on January 27, 1985, shortly after Rush Limbaugh started his conservative radio show in Sacramento, but a few years before it made its debut on WABC-AM radio in New York during the 1988 campaign. I don't know if Doonesbury knew about the show at that point, but his strip perfectly illustrates the legions of Limbaugh fans - sometimes referred to as dittoheads - who unquestioningly accept and repeat the hateful, righteous, intolerant views he regularly espouses on his show. The strip also has current relevance, given the confusion about the First Amendment recently exhibited by Sarah Palin (the conservative Republican vice presidential candidate), the evangelical furor over [allegations about] Obama being the antichrist that I mentioned in my last post, and the growing acknowledgment (by conservatives) that conservativism is increasingly anti-intellectual and some going so far as to claim that conservatives are addicted to misinformation.

Although I do not listen to Rush Limbaugh nor watch Fox News regularly, I have heard and seen many clips from a variety of their shows, especially this election season, and all of them have exhibited some combination of righteousness, intolerance and certainty ... and none of them has exhibited anything that I would consider to be fair or balanced (though I want to note that I've never heard Rush refer to himself - or his show - as "fair and balanced" ... and in fact, he has strenuously argued against the Fairness Doctrine).

Now to be fair, Fox News is counterbalanced, to some extent, by MSNBC, a network which seems to be increasingly liberal - the "antithesis of Fox News". As I've noted before, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is my hero ... or, at least, he was. I have to admit that as the campaign has worn on, it seems to be wearing down Olbermann, whose candid, direct and provocative style has become increasingly affected by righteous indignation ... and contemptuousness. In his recent Special Comment on "It's Palin doin' the pallin'" (embedded in my last post), which is both a fabulous refutation of Palin's charges against Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists" and a strong indictment on her - and John McCain's - associations with people who might be considered terrorists, he condescendingly refers to "poor Sarah Palin", and uses a mocking tone in many of his other references to her ... a tone I typically associate with Rush Limbaugh and the conservative pundits on Fox News.

In another dimension of "balance" between conservatives and liberals, I was very disturbed to see an article about a mannequin dressed up as Sarah Palin with a noose around its neck hung outside a house in West Hollywood this week, and then to read about an effigy of Barack Obama with a knife through its neck that was hung outside a house in Redondo Beach in response ... all in the spirit of Halloween "fun". Both of these effigies have now been removed after protests, and I was heartened to see that one of the protesters against the Barama effigy was a local McCain campaign official, Pete Kesterson [I do not know whether any Obama campain officials officially protested against the Palin effigy]. I was also heartened to see a video of Daniel Zubairi, a Muslim McCain campaign official, and other supporters, confront other supporters who were promulgating misinformation about Obama being a socialist with an Islamic background (though, disheartened to later read that Zubairi was then asked not to talk about the incident by the McCain campaign).

Finally, I want to also note that I was heartened - and humored - to see John (and Cindy) McCain's appearances on Saturday Night Live last night. Although there was some booing of John McCain from the audience, I have to say that the skits he appeared in seemed to strike a fair balance between the serious issues McCain wants to emphasize in the campaign and a rather self-effacing, humorous look at some of the issues I would have expected that McCain would not have wanted to emphasize. I have to say that the effect - for me - was to re-humanize McCain a bit, after a long, downward spiral of increasing negativity coming from McCain, Palin and their supporters (including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh).

Although SNL is often criticized by conservatives for having a liberal bias, the show has recently been willing to poke fun at liberals (e.g., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Barney Frank in an interpretation of the recent bailout of the banking industry) as well as conservatives (e.g., their interpretation of Katie Couric's interview of Sarah Palin).

To end off on a light note, I'll embed a couple of these videos below.

McCain QVC open:

Palin / Couric open

Oops! I just discovered that last night's show included an SNL parody of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, played by Ben Affleck:

Political Song and Dance - and Humor - with The Capitol Steps


Amy and I enjoyed a hilarious political revue by The Capitol Steps comedy song and dance troupe ("We put the 'mock' in Democracy'") at The Paramount Theatre in Seattle last night with our friends Dave and Lisa. Among the entertaining songs - and insightful (and inciteful) prologues - included in last night's show were:

  • Ebony and Ivory [Ebony and Ivory (Stevie Wonder & Paul McCartney)], envisioning a Democratic "dream team" of Senators and U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton
  • Superdelegates [Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Mary Poppins)], a satirical look at the Democratic superdelegates (and the party's more ordinary delegates)
  • Leader like Barack [Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las)], a glowing affirmation - one even might say "devotional" - sung by an [impersonated] Obama fan ... not entirely unlike my own affirmation of inspiration from Obama's speech on transracialism
  • When I'm 84 [sung to the tune of When I'm 64 (The Beatles)], a riff on Senator and presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain's age
  • Relying on 9/11 [Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)], a retrospective revue - accompanied by a "generic rock star" - of the single issue platform of former mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani
  • Huckabee [Let it Be (The Beatles)], a religiously righteous tongue-in-cheek proposal for the Republican vice presidential nomination of former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee
  • Tap Three Times [Knock Three Times (Tony Orlando and Dawn)], about Senator Larry Craig's indiscretion in the men's room at the Minneapolis - St. Paul International airport (BTW, Keith Olbermann - one of my heroes - revealed a humorous streak I had not seen before in a Dragnet-style re-enactment of Senator Craig's bathroom scene)
  • How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea? [How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (Sound of Music)], a funny look of some of the not-so-funny issues revolving around Korean President Kim Il-Sung and his country's recent emergence as a nuclear power
  • Keep Us Alive [Stayin' Alive (Bee Gees)], a humorous reminder of the ages of the four remaining liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court (Stephens, 88, Souter, 68, Ginsberg, 75, and Breyer, 69) ... and of an important, though rarely discussed, issue at stake in the current presidential election

There is a Capitol Steps YouTube channel where videos of some of their performances can be watched as well as listened to. They even have a MySpace page with some additional songs. And, of course, one can buy Capitol Steps CDs.

One of the actors did a fabulous parody of U.S. President George W. Bush; my favorite quote was the president's purported motto: "uncertain times call for uncertain leadership". I laughed the hardest and longest during the "Lirty Dies":

Lirty Dies are what you get when you mix your basic national scandal with word-initialization-rejuxtaposition closely following the underlying precepts of harmony, alliteration and innuendo.

Lirty Dies follows a great political tradition: We're not quite sure what we're saying; you're not quite sure what you're hearing.

Some might say they are merely spoonerisms taken to ludicrous heights.

We think this is sad. Something comes over people when they learn

Whip their Flurds..or.. Spew up their Screech....

These are people who can:

Flo with the Go...with Mealthy Hinds and Lappy Hives...

People who....umm....

Follow their Hearts
(We'll let you do that one)

The lirty dies targets in last night's show included Haris Pilton, Gush vs. Bore and Cloger Remens.

Another segment I enjoyed was during Juan Nation, a satirical piece on U.S.-Mexico immigration and border issues that initially made me uncomfortable. An actor impersonating Mexican President Felipe Calderon spoke of how he would do as U.S. president, "As you know, I would do twice the work for half the pay; the downside is that I'd have 19 of my cousins living in the Oval Office, but on the upside, the rose garden would look immaculate". My discomfort yielded to loud laughter when another actor, playing a redneck, came out on stage with one of my favorite lines: "I'm with the insane border patrol group better known as The Minutemen, and my dirt-poor ancestors did not flee Europe so we could let in a bunch of immigrants!"

I think I was uncomfortable because when I looked around the theater just before the show started, I saw only one African-American - and no Mexican-Americans - in the audience of several hundred. I was reminded of the discomfort I felt when I noticed that all but one family of 3 among the 700 people attending a Christopher Paolini talk on his Eragon book tour on Mercer Island in September 2005 were white (though the age demographics was very different than the audience at The Capitol Steps' performance). All but one of the 39 members of The Capitol Steps - and all of the 5 members (3 men, 2 women) who performed in Seattle last night - are white. Although they did seem to focus more of their satire on Hilary Clinton than Barack Obama, they were willing to raise the race issue in the lyrics for Leader like Barack (sung to the tune of the Shangri-Las' Leader of the Pack), with a lead singer and two background singers (whose lyrics are in italics below).

I'm glad I've found someone to embrace (brace, brace)
My friends say he cannot win the race (I can't believe your friends would talk about his race)
Is Barack black? Not very. He's not like Whoopi Goldberg, more like Halle Berry.
I hope some day, it's President Barack.

In any case, I suppose it should not come as a surprise that there is a racial divide in media (books, music, comedy). I know that the few times I've channel surfed to television stations geared towards people of other races (e.g., Black Entertainment Television), I don't find it very entertaining. But, of course, I don't find the vast majority of mass media - especially on television - very entertaining or engaging.

I did, however, find The Capitol Steps very entertaining - I don't think I've laughed so hard since the last time I saw them, 8 years ago, at The Northshore Center for the Performing Arts (in Skokie, Illinois), with our friends Andy and Rebecca. That was during another U.S. presidential election - one in which the outcome proved to be disastrous - so it was nice to inject some much-needed humor into the process ... and I hope I won't need quite so much comedy salve to compensate for the outcome of the current election. Recent stories about a misguided "gas tax holiday" proposal (and its reflection of a "global warming holiday" for erstwhile environmentalists) and an older story from 1995 about Senator McCain claiming that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases" (!) have heightened my concerns that the ongoing and increasingly bitter fight between the two Democratic presidential candidates will lead to a situation in which much humor will be required during the next four years.

The Onion on Voting, Puppetry and Illusions

A week ago, The Onion produced a hilarious - not to be confused with Hillaryous - satirical look at the upcoming "election", from the shadowy perspective of reports of Diebold voting machine hacks in Florida a month ago ... or perhaps demonstrations of Diebold voting machine hackability a year ago ... or perhaps questionable results from the last two presidential "elections" ... or perhaps the last 14, if their reference to "the group of military and corporate leaders that has chosen every American president since Eisenhower" is not entirely fictional. 

The headline: "A minor software glitch at the Diebold corporation today caused thousands of electronic voting machines to accidentally release the results of the 2008 presidential election, months ahead of schedule."


[Update: favorite quotes removed, so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the video.]

[Update, 2008-03-15: the United States, which received generally high scores in the recently released 2007 Global Integrity Index, ranked only 10th in the integrity of its elections.]

I'm grateful for the link to this video sent to me by Ellen Riloff, my long-time friend and former co-conspirator and lab-mate at the NLP Group at UMass, where she so ably executed the duties of Humor Director, and continues to help me lighten up from time to time, even while on sabbatical in California ... her notes from which reveal another obsession we share - whale watching.

Sex and the Nice Guy: My Cousin, Tom Spath, at the Hollywood Improv

My cousin, Tom Spath (or, as we've always called him, T.J.), is a funny guy, in fact, he's one of the funniest guys I know. He recently premiered at the Hollywood Improv, where he delivered a hilarious 6 1/2 minute standup performance exploring issues such as sex, laundry, serial killers, household appliances, nutrition, gratitude and funerals (and did I mention sex?). Highly recommended.

[Update: as evidence that TJ/Tom can take it as well as dish it out (er, pun intended), The Bobs recently released a song, Tom Spath, in his "honor", invoking the metaphor of a bagel, on their new CD, Get Your Monkey Off My Dog.]

Vicariously Experiencing Burning Man

I've never been to Burning Man, but know several people who have participated in the annual event, including Pat Baudisch, on whose office door I recently saw this wonderful list of "How to enjoy the Burning Man experience from the comfort of your own home." I'm not sure how well this approximates the real experience of the event, but it does seem to correspond to some of the reports of experiences I've heard or read over the years.