Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How Hollywood studios promote movie piracy on the Internet

It's good to see that despite people's demonstrated willingness to pay for Internet movie access, Hollywood continues to promote the cultural socialism of free Internet sharing of traditional movie theater fare.

The winner in online movies:
not just on price, but selection
Now you'd think someone like me with access to four video streaming services would long ago have abandoned downloading with torrents, but I've found it impossible. Two categories seem to be especially hard to find in the official channels: the most popular and the most highly regarded.

Let me give three recent examples.

  • Return of the King. Turns out none of the LOTR movies are available either on Amazon video or Netflix for streaming. On Amazon you can buy them, on Netflix you can get it on DVD or Blu Ray if you pay extra for those options.
  • Casablanca. It's 75 years old, for fuck's sake, but only if you're lucky will you find an official "legal" stream ... for $4. It's not even on Netflix DVD. But with more than 500 seeds, it takes only a few minutes to arrive with bit torrent. And it's one of four classic MGM best picture winners on a $4.99 DVD from Turner Classic Movies. Go figure!
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. No, not the movie of more recent vintage but the 1979 mini-series where Sir Alec Guinness portrays the weariness of a life-long dutiful functionary who has spent his career amidst the rot of a has-been empire. He is charged with rescuing a spy agency reduced to a disdained junior partner by one of its offspring and played like a Stradivarius in the hands of a maestro by its enemy. He portrays the character with such droll dignity that his victory at the end becomes that much more humiliatingly hollow.
If it were a few masterpieces and a few items from the content most in demand, Hollywood might perhaps get away with it. But when it's the bulk of the inventory, and especially the good stuff, and you split it up among a maddening array of services, what you're telling people is to stick to the Pirate Bay.

Take, for example, Best Picture Oscar winners. Right now on Netflix there are three from this century, and five from the last one. And that includes DVD's, not just streaming.

That not only pisses people off, if you check Amazon and YouTube, you'll see there are only a few available for paid streaming even though on Amazon you'll find 4- and 5- picture collections of Oscar Winners for a Hamilton, and a Turner Classic Movie collection that includes Casablanca for $4.99. (There's a bunch more awesome collections of old MGM classics from Turner).

The Cinema Cartel has yet to learn the lesson that the Music Monopoly Mafia wound up having no choice but to learn (from Steve Jobs, BTW). Which is, make it faster and easier to download and more convenient to play, and cheaper won't matter. Yes there were a handful of holdouts, most prominently the Beatles, but now that they and remaining classic rock holdouts have come on board, Taylor Swift's resistance and Adele's more limited 1-album hold back don't matter.

That's why the competition in on line streaming movies & video has moved to original content, because the traditional studios are doling out their material with an eyedropper and that is not enough to attract subscribers. 

The studios have effectively transformed what started as distribution services like Netflix and Amazon into competitors who are increasingly unwilling to pay top dollar for other people's video when they can use that money to create exclusive content for their subscribers. 

Looking at fake news about insanely high homicide rates in U.S. cities

Univision's web site has a report claiming that four U.S. cities are among those with the highest homicide rates in the world. The statistics are based on FBI reports, but are computed by some group in Mexico despite the insistent and express warning by the FBI against the procedure followed:
The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, counties, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis on their population coverage or student enrollment. (The emphasis is as presented in the original).
Why? Well for one reason, the original source of homicide data is often a coroner's office; but these are frequently county offices. City boundaries are not the same as county ones, and even if the city's police department is the one reporting the figures, these may well be from a broader area.

But even if totally "accurate," using population statistics doesn't work. A city of 300,000 could easily have a million people in it every weekday. And local political subdivisions in the United States are often arbitrary and fragmented.

In Atlanta, where I live, there are --depending on who is counting-- between five and thirty-some counties and scores of cities. These cross county lines, counties divide neighborhoods and your house might be partly in one county, partly in another. Talking about crime rates might be meaningful or might be a discussion involving a completely arbitrary area created a century or more ago for gerrymandering purposes or to exclude Blacks and that we have inherited even though it simply has nothing to do with the real world today.

A Mexican group used to that country's system of municipalities might not understand this, but a journalist in the United States needs to.

This is why the FBI only computes homicide rates for standard metropolitan statistical areas and NOT individual cities or counties, and warns that even state rates may not be meaningful (because major metro areas cross state lines).
I can't imagine that the writer even bothered to check the original source of the information, which took me about three minutes. If he would have done so, in addition to seeing the strongly worded warning not to do what his source was doing, he would have seen that the statistics for the supposedly most dangerous city, St Louis, MO, made absolutely no sense if handled in this way. By that measure, the city of St Louis itself supposedly had a homicide rate of 59.3 in 2015, making it one of the most dangerous in the world. But the metro area had an overall rate of 10.5, a bit high but not extraordinary, and if you calculate the rate for the metro area outside the city limits only, you get 4.3, even lower than the U.S. national average of 4.9 per 100,000 population. It makes no sense that the murder rate drops more than 90% by crossing the street to get outside the city's jurisdiction. I know that data journalism is really hot right now, but it is no substitute for common sense.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Sanders: 'Make Democrats a party of the working class, not liberal elite'

On Friday night, March 31, "Our Revolution" and several local activist groups hosted a rally in Boston that was also heavily promoted on line and made available through YouTube.  It was very clearly and sharply a declaration of war on the Democratic Party establishment, with the explicit aim of changing the Democrats from "a party of the liberal elite" into one of the "working class," as Sanders expressed it.

The beginning of a social-democratic party in the USA?
The event started with brief remarks from the local groups that co-sponsored the rally including Latino immigrant rights organizations. They were followed by Elizabeth Warren, who began by saying she was there to introduce Bernie but proceeded to make a very substantial political presentation.

She outlined around 10 platform points: health care as a right; debt-free access to college; a living wage of $15; support and promote unions; protect and expand social security and Medicare; we are a nation of immigrants; Black lives matter; women must control their own bodies and democracy is not for sale. Not sure I got all of them but those were almost all. The one point that I would have expected but did not hear was a call for a public works infrastructure program.
She stressed fighting the Republicans through activism and protests. And she clearly identified as being part of the same movement as Bernie (which she did not do a year ago during the primaries) as well as recognizing his senior status, so to speak. So she was very clearly projected as the second most important leader and spokesperson for the Sanders "Our Revolution" movement, which is a very significant development.
Bernie's speech was a call to qualitatively transform the Democratic Party. "We need a Democratic party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class." And, yes, he said working class.

He emphasizes that Republicans didn't win the last few elections, Democrats lost them by being so out of touch with working people that many ended up voting for Trump even though they disagree with cutbacks in social services and giveaways to the corporations and the rich and favor legalization of the undocumented and single-payer Medicare for all.

He spoke on many of the same issues introduced by Warren, but clearly, the open, brazen call for a fight to take control of the Democratic Party away from neoliberals like the Clintons, Pelosi and Schumer was the central message.

Bernie has now projected "Our Revolution" as, in essence, the start of a different party even while operating in the Democrat framework by counterposing the idea of a working class party to a party of the liberal elite.

A lot of my Marxist friends will say Bernie is crazy in trying to transform  into a working class party this giant political apparatus intimately intertwined with the moneyed class and the state at all levels.  
And some will even say that Bernie is playing the part of the Judas goat leading people back into the two-party-system trap.

I do not believe the latter criticism makes sense politically nor is it fair to Sanders and his friends.

But at any rate, I think that Marxists need to recognize the movement towards something akin to a social-democratic party that the "Our Revolution" faction of the Democratic Party represents, and figure out how to relate to it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

#BurnBabyBurn: protesters torch Paraguay's capitol building

The issue is one that has come up time and again in Latin America: the re-election of public officials, especially the President. Now it is Paraguay's turn.

Every flame breaks another chain so burn, baby burn.
From the 1950s until 1992, that country was governed by General Alfredo Stroessner. He took power in a coup and through spurious elections that the OAS never had a problem with, stayed in power for 35 years. 

In 2008, as part of the Latin American "pink tide," Fernando Lugo, a somewhat progressive former Catholic Bishop, was elected president, only to be overthrown by a 2012 parliamentary coup. He was literally charged, impeached, convicted and thrown out of office in less than 24 hours.

Diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks showed right-wingers had been consulting with the U.S. embassy for years about this plot. A 2009 dispatch from the embassy to Foggy Bottom foretold what actually happened as a "dream scenario" of the right:
Find a 'cause celebre' to champion so as to change the current political equation, break the political deadlock in Congress, impeach Lugo and regain ... political relevance.... [The] dream scenario involves legally impeaching Lugo, even if on spurious grounds.
Horacio Corales, of the "Colorados," Stroessner's former party, took over the presidency in 2013 following elections held to legitimize the coup. But now he wants to be re-elected to another five year term so he needs to eliminate the constitutional ban adopted after Stroessner was driven from power.

A clandestine Senate session this week that narrowly okayed the amendment detonated an explosion of rage. And when government forces attacked the crowds, the people seized the capitol building and torched it. 

Complicating the picture, at least as seen from as far away as I am, is that apparently the Lugo supporters backed the amendment so he can run again while some right-wing opponents joined progressives in these protest that wound up offering up in a sacrificial rite the local temple of what has to be biggest con of all times, an American, French, or British style parliament. 

More than half a century ago, Fred Stanton, a revolutionary socialist and singer-songwriter penned a little ditty he titled "Burn, baby burn," after a slogan the mainstream press attributed to participants in the Black urban rebellions of those days.
Several more verses follow this first one in the PDF file.
I don't think it has ever been recorded (except in my memory and perhaps that of a few others who heard it in those tumultuous days) but it was published
(under his pen name) in Broadside magazine, which promoted and spread the protest song movement. And it is now on the Internet.

The verse that sums it all up is the last one that I've copy pasted on the left, but of course, you have to add the chorus:

Burn, baby, burn Burn, baby, burn
Every flame breaks another chain So burn, baby burn

Even back then, a lot of my political associates in the Young Socialist Alliance thought I was an ultraleft maniac because of my instinctive reaction to explosions of rage like this. "Hassan the Assassin" some jokingly called me in the Berkeley YSA. (The YSA was the youth group associated with the Socialist Workers Party. I left the SWP long ago; I believe Fred is still a member).

And I don't even want to think about what these or many other comrades would think of me today: with half a century of experience, I should have learned the wisdom of correct, patient tactics at the service of a long-term strategy. And I think that mostly I have, but not when it comes to cases like this. I would plagiarize Wordsworth to explain myself only changing a word or two:

My heart leaps up when I behold
   Flames that climb into the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
   Or let me die!
It would have to be Wordsworth because his verses about the years of the French Revolution capture my own sentiment about the the privilege of growing up in the 1960s: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!"

And I will not turn my back on the 60s, not the love and not the rage,

I think it is a good thing, a wonderful thing, for politicians to be reminded that if they game their "democratic" processes to defy popular sentiment, when the people finally get fed up with it, they have other ways of enforcing their will. #BurnBabyBurn