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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The Ludlow Massacre gets its historic due

A little later this morning folks will gather at the Ludlow Massacre site in Southern Colorado for a program marking its addition to the roster of National Historic Landmarks. For obvious reasons, I wish I was there, but events conspired against it. I am, though, there in spirit.

As most of you know, the massacre and the surrounding 1913-14 coal field war were the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, so on a personal level I'm glad to see the site get formal recognition. More than 75 people died during that strike, which was effectively a guerrilla war between the coal mine operators and their striking workers. It took the intervention of the U.S. Army to end the fighting after the union side had seized control of some 275 miles of the Front Range. The biggest convulsion of violence came as the strikers routed the Colorado National Guard after the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre in which 11 children and two mothers suffocated as National Guard-spread fire whipped through their tent colony.

It's long been a source of frustration to me that this kind of violence could erupt on American soil and not be entered into the public history. In school we get taught about the Shays Rebellion and other flare ups, such as the anti-slavery activities of John Brown. But we don't teach about this brutal struggle between labor and management, in which the Colorado events were part of a long and vicious arc.

Interestingly, when the Ludlow Massacre does get mentioned, often the details are wrong, reflecting the success the union side enjoyed at the time in using the deaths of the women and children to draw attention to their struggle. Tellingly, the Ludlow Massacre is what we focus on, not the broader guerrilla war in which they died. And the massacre technically wasn't one, since there's no indication from the historic record that the women and children were intentionally killed.

That does not exonerate the National Guard of brutal acts, but it's important to put such events in as accurate a context as possible. The accepted history is that the abusive companies brutalized their workers, forced them to work in appalling conditions, and then killed their families when the workers stood up for themselves.

The reality is much more nuanced. The owners were brutal and the conditions appalling (mules were valued more than miners because a mule had to be bought, and a miner's time was rented). In my book I argue that the coal miners were in effect freedom fighters rebelling against a corrupt local political and economic system. They were hardly passive victims. Of the dead, most were National Guardsmen (under the control of the coal operators), scabs and mine guards. The strikers won this war, even if they lost the strike. All in all, it reminds of this key passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

To my mind, the strikers -- most of them immigrants -- were acting in the grand American tradition of throwing off the bonds of tyranny, even if it was of the local and corporate variety. We do a disservice to our understanding of what we are as a country by ignoring this part of our history.  Read More 
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Digital TV conversion, or how the kitchen went silent

A couple of weeks ago the nation's TV stations went completely digital, dropping the longtime analog system for a digital system that ostensibly frees up airwaves for public safety uses. In general, a good plan. In execution not so much.

I do most of the cooking in our house (when I'm not on the road), and have a small TV on which I watch sports, the news, and the occasional Sunday morning talking-heads show while I work. The TV is older, I think, than our sons, one of those clunky, remote-less 13-inch models that takes up way more space than it needs to.

But it's worked perfectly fine, except for some snow on Channel 2 and a few of the UHF stations, which is understandable -- we live 45 or 50 miles from where most of the Los Angeles TV stations have their antennas.

So now we've been forced into digital land -- and can't get diddly on the set, even with a new antenna and the federally subsidized converter box. I've moved the antenna, re-scanned, moved it again, re-scanned again, but still get hardly any of the major stations, and even those are so weak we get that impromptu stop-action as the screen pixilates and freezes for a few seconds.

There are other sets in the house hooked up to cable so we're not cut off from the world but it has me wondering -- how has this affected low-income, cable-less families in sprawling metro areas like this, or in rural areas?

I have to think this has been a boon for the cable and satellite providers -- I'm contemplating adding a line to the kitchen -- and the phone companies (from whom the government chose not to take bandwidth). But I also have to think a few more ounces of flesh have been taken from the poor. Read More 
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A few thoughts on Michael Jackson and new media

By now you all know Michael Jackson died yesterday, seemingly of a heart attack. There's a ton of coverage out there, some very solid (check out my friend Ann Powers' lovely tribute at the LA Times) and some pretty bizarre, such as the fan who told KABC-7 here in Los Angeles that the death was "life-changing." Well, yeah, in a binary, lights on/lights off kind of way.

A few things jump out at me. Jackson was a powerfully talented singer, songwriter and entertainer, with a shrewd sense of media manipulation and an admirable ability to break down barriers. He was also a tragic figure with a suspicious devotion to children that eventually overwhelmed his standing as a pop music icon (to most of the public, at least).

But I quibble with the hyperbole about his influence on pop music. Pop culture, definitely. Pop music, not as much. Most of Jackson's influence was in a specific cul de sac in pop music, the hit-hunting R&B neighborhood. He built on the creativity of predecessors like James Brown and wisely put himself in Quincy Jones' hands, but while he was toe-dancing and twirling and bringing old R&B showmanship on tour and to MTV, punk visionaries and the hip-hop generation emerged and radically transformed popular music. Against that backdrop, Jackson was less revolutionary than evolutionary.

Part of any major breaking news story is the media covering the media, including this bit from Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. Okay, so here goes an assessment of the assessment. Niles points out that people who use Twitter were tweeting away about the death long before it had been confirmed anywhere outside TMZ, which apparently got the scoop (and a hearty congrats to them). Ignoring the point that the tweets were, in effect, lightning-fast gossip, Niles argues media outlets should drop their use of email alerts about major news events because they make the outlets seem "clueless and slow."

Maybe, but only to the folks who rely on tweets for their news. And this strikes at one of the flawed undercurrents of a lot of media analysis right now -- it focuses on the technology more than the message. Twitter is still a new and growing social network with some intriguing potential for use (and abuse). But it is hardly pervasive. I have an account but don't receive tweets because I don't use text-messaging. The vast majority of people in this country don't use Twitter. In this eternal rush to the new we tend to forget about the established. Even with the startling decline of newspapers, outlets like my former employer, the LA Times, still sell hundreds of thousands of printed copies a day.

We can't forsake the old just because there's new. What's emerging aren't full replacements for newspapers but added avenues of information distribution (with some serious economic consequences, to be sure). Radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio and the Internet and Twitter aren't going to be murderous entities either. Like Jackson, they're more evolutionary than revolutionary. With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the message is the message. Read More 
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Sanford takes a tango holiday

With the confession from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford that well, no, he wasn't really hiking the Appalachian Trail, you have to wonder who's left on the Republican presidential bench.

Nevada Sen. John Ensign?

Alaksa Gov. and former veep candidate Sarah Palin?

Louisiana Gov. Bobby JindalRead More 
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Chris Anderson, Wikipedia and borrowed passages

A blogger at Virginia Quarterly Review (one of the best periodicals out there) dug into Chris Anderson, of Wired fame, and his book Free: The Future of a Radical Idea, and found Anderson had lifted portions of it from Wikipedia. (Ironically, I lifted this book jacket from Anderson's blog page).

Anderson copped to the problems in an email with VQR (the magazine was preparing a review of the book), blaming it on a last-minute decision to not use footnotes. Beyond the fact that nonfiction books without footnotes always make me suspicious, for the life of me I can't figure out why deciding late in the process to drop the footnotes makes a difference. Lifting passages verbatim and then footnoting is just as lazy -- and dishonest -- as cribbing them in the first place, as Ed Champion also notes on his blog.

But Wikipedia? I mean, if you're going to steal ...
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Painting projects and popcorn ceilings

Since I have some, ahem, time on my hands, and with the school year over, we decided to paint the master bedroom. This kind of project always seems like a good idea when you're standing before racks of paint strips and picking out colors, ignoring that nagging memory in the back of the brain.

Then comes the prep work. Moving everything out of the room. Scrubbing things down. Repairing holes from where pictures once hung. And you begin to remember why you don't like to paint.

Then comes the not-fully-imagined challenge of painting a ceiling covered with that godawful popcorn texturing -- the thick layer of what must have been sprayed on compound that gives the ceiling a shaggy look, like it's molting.

In truth, this stuff is a sponge. One gallon of paint should have covered a room this size. It will likely take four gallons. And as you work with the roller overhead bits of the texturing break loose, raining little sticky cheese curds down on you. They coat your glasses, stick to hair, skin and clothes, and strike the plastic drop cloth with little click/pop sounds, like indoor rain. Which you then step on.

And then you remember why you swore off this kind of project ever again, that you'd hire someone next time. But then, well, you wind up with some time on your hands and figure why not, how hard can it be ....

Back at it later this morning, day two of my own personal paint-flecked hell.  Read More 
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A bit about ethics: Yeah, what he says

My morning crawl around the Internet led me to a link to this blog post by Gary Switzer calling out the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Foundation for what seem to be some rather bone-headed ethical lapses.

The core issue: Accepting arrangements with drug companies for programs for journalists, including all-expenses trips for conferences aimed at informing the journalists about health care issues. Paid for by the drug companies.

I know the journalism world is on its heels, but wrong is wrong. And this is wrong. Read More 
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So much for a 'post-racial' America

I missed the first part of this story when it rumbled through earlier this month, and only caught up with it when the second yahoo bared a rather disgusting soul.

Absolutely appalling. has a piece (thanks to friend Anthony DeStefanis for the steer) about two state level political figures -- one in South Carolina, the other in Tennessee -- who recently choked on their own racism. One referred to an escaped gorilla as an ancestor of Michele Obama, and the other emailed around -- on an official government account -- a racist cartoon (portraits of the presidents, with Obama as just a set of eyes against a black backdrop).

Both seem to have apologized, but not for being stone racists. The "gorilla" joker apologized to anyone who was offended. The "portraits" moron said she sent it out via the wrong email. Which, by extension, means she didn't see a problem with the inherent racism of the item.

So much for the post-racial America...
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Now it's easier to keep track

You'll notice over to the side the little RSS icon, which you can use to load up the blog on your RSS readers. For those not familiar, it's an easy way to keep track of multiple online sources with one easy mechanism.

There are a variety of readers out there. I use Newsgater but Google has its own reader that seems to be pretty user friendly. Read More 
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School's out (which means vacation for half of the house)

One of the joys of being married to an elementary school teacher is you never get rid of the school-age inspired sense that summer begins sometime in the third week of June. I grew up in the Northeast -- Scarborough, Maine, and Wellsville, New York -- and it became ingrained that the end of school meant warm weather. Even when, in reality, days began staying pretty warm in May and continued into late October.

But it's interesting how the cycles of young life stay with you. As a freelance writer, my time is pretty much my own. For example, I was up at three a.m. today to let the dog out and, unable to fall back to sleep, worked on research for a couple of hours on The Fear Within (reading back through letters from and to one of the defendants, Gil Green) then went back to bed.

And living in Southern California -- well, it always feels like summer around here. So this wonderful sense of summer is a bit Pavlovian, rooted in personal history rather than the reality of the present. Similarly, I don't miss the seasons of the Northeast (though I never minded snow) but after 12 years in SoCal I find I've lost track of time. When you're used to measuring years in quarters, and the tethers of memory are seasons ("No, we did that two winters ago"), well, life takes on a sense of suspended animation.

Which also means it flies by incredibly quickly ... but just for related fun (give it a few seconds to fire up):

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