Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chill of Surveillance, the "Freedom" of Silence

It was only a matter of time before Stanislaus Obul would gain access to the internet. Stanislaus, one of my students from Peace Corps days in Kenya, lives in Sudan.

We are both old men now, ”wazee,” in Swahili. In Africa, we are granted the respect that comes with age. We speak our minds; people listen. They think we are wise; we know better, but speak we do.

Back in the mid-Sixties at our school in western Kenya, we both stood out.

Stanislaus, like me, was a foreigner, and was tall, perhaps 6’3.” (In the wisdom of my youth, I taught him how to play basketball.) His Dinka tribe is in the non-Arab south of Sudan, a vast country ruled by Arabs.

I stood out because I was the only American on the remote little campus run by an order of Dutch Catholic teaching brothers. Soon, other Americans would join me in my tour at Rapogi Secondary School, but for a few months, early in my three-year tour, I was as much of an oddity as the tall Dinka youth.

After graduating from Rapogi, Stanislaus returned to Sudan, a country wracked by civil war, brutal banditry and terror. We had corresponded over the years. At one point I had sent money so his wife could buy a sewing machine, but the money never found its way through the Sudanese postal system to her.

In recent years, as the Darfur conflict in western Sudan worsened, I became worried about Stanislaus’ welfare. I had written him three years ago and had heard nothing, until last Saturday

There in my e-mail in-box was a message from Stanislaus. It bore a two-letter note line greeting: “hi.”

In the letter he wrote: “We are still far away from each other, but now with this modern communication, you shall know about where I am.”

Indeed. But what is it now safe to tell each other? Could we share our thoughts?

As I wrote him back, expressing my relief and my on-going concern for his safety, I also wanted to tell him about my concern for my own country and about my opposition to the Iraq war and the Bush/Cheney administration.

And that’s when a chill swept through me.

Here I was an American e-mailing a Sudanese. Wasn’t this is exactly the kind of communication that the American government was “monitoring”? No warrant necessary.

Who else would be reading what I had to say? How might they interpret my anti-government remarks? How might my e-mail affect Stanislaus, who has relatives living here in the United States? How might they be affected?

I have recently been appalled by Kafka-esque deportation of musicologist Nalini Ghuman by our government. If the government could do that to her, what might they do to Stanislaus’ relatives who have found refuge here?

And so I did not share my views about the Bush administration and its Oil War in Iraq. I did not tell him of being part of our anti-war vigil here in Hillsdale, off my placard reading “On to Plan B: IMPEACH!”

In essence, the surveillance of messages between this country and abroad was stifling my speech.

In a small way, the repressive Bush administration’s “War on Terror” had found its way into the sanctity of my cluttered study. It had frozen my fingers on the keyboard.

Even as I write this a twinge of fear has returned because this Red Electric post, as a public form of expression, is also a communication to those abroad who choose to read it. I gave Stanislaus the URL for the Red Electric so he could read my thinking and get a sense of my life and interests.

Might the words “Sudan” and “terrorism” in this sentence and elsewhere in this post trigger some U.S. government surveillance computer? Will these words cause some secretive repercussion on Stanislaus, his family and me?

Do those repercussions stop with us, or does do the government’s surveillance computers record the names of Americans who freely choose to read these words. Are you being watched?

America likes to think of itself as “The Land of the Free.” How free can we be when our secretive, increasingly authoritarian government spies on what we write and what we read?

Will we soon arrive at the day when we are “free” only to be silent, only to be ignorant?

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Dwight "Burgerville" Jaynes to the rescue!

Dwight Jaynes is so okay with the Portland Public Schools selling naming rights in exchange for big corporate donations that he’s willing to transform his alma mater, Cleveland High, into “Burgerville High.”

No kidding.

Hyperbole aside, in today's Portland Tribune, Jaynes lauds the Portland School Board’s decision earlier this week to allow the school superintendent free rein in turning over display space at gyms, and any other school facility for that matter, to corporate logos and advertising in exchange for cash. The board's policy is no policy.

As I wrote earlier, those of us in the Coalition for Commercial Free Schools maintain that corporate donations should be acknowledged with simple, one-time recognition and perhaps an unobtrusive plaque. The real reward for the corporations should be an educated work force and citizenry. That’s not a gift but an investment.

In short, the school board desperately needs a policy.

Jaynes, in his sports column in today’s Portland Tribune, says “Baloney” to our views. Apparently he wants the public schools to sell off and transform the public’s facilities into billboards rather than lobby for stable school-funding reform.

You can read more about the sane approach to school funding at Steve Rawley’s blog, More Hockey Less War.

Burgerville High” huh?

How about this, Dwight, since names mean so little to you, why don’t you and the Tribune cut a deal with the school district on behalf of dear old Burgerville High?

Rumor has it that the school’s locker room toilets could use some serious plumbing work. In exchange for a corporate and personal donation to fix the pipes, you could have your face, as it appears with your column, and the Tribune logo on the inside of toilet stall doors.

Talk about a captive audience.

But why stop there? Sell off your own prominent and hence commercially valuable name to Burgerville, the company, and give the money to Burgerville High.

Henceforth, the former Dwight Jaynes shall be known as “Burgerville Jaynes.”

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ad creep at The Oregonian

Today's Oregonian displayed further evidence of the decline of "Old Media."

Ceding more ground to advertisers to an effort to reverse declining ad revenues, editors are being told to let ads actually intrude visually into stories.

I wrote a friend, who is a senior editor at the Oregonian, to complain about a Dodge ad on page A5.

Here, in part, is what I wrote my friend:

"I know the barriers between editorial and advertising have been under siege for years, but this is blatant visual evidence of it.

"Ads and stories, in my view, should be visually separate.

"The line is literally breached with this ad. To me the layout suggests that editorial content is being encroached upon by advertising.

"Those Dodges are 'running over' the news —and journalism is the victim. The page makes a visual statement of troubling priorities."

He wrote me back a one-liner: "Thanks, Rick ... the world is changing ... not always in ways we like."

The response is more depressing than ad-dominated page layout.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

No news, ghoulish scanners, Spike City

I have some interesting news I’m not going to tell you. I’m saving it for issue #7 of the Hillsdale News, which I will publish tomorrow.

No, I am not sticking out my tongue as I write this. It's just that I don't want to scoop myself.

You can make sure the news is sent to you by going to the Hillsdale News site now and signing up to receive the e-newsletter. Many of you are already among the 171 on its e-mail list.

Of course after I send out the newsletter, you can always just go to the site to find the contents.

Journalists always worry about being scooped by the competition, but until now I’ve never had to worry about scooping myself. The Internet makes such things possible by allowing me to create two (or three or four…) potentially competing “publications.”

Why am I favoring the Hillsdale News over "Red" with this story? This site is generally for opinion. The "News" is for, well, news.

That said, I do have one sliver of news to share: We have a date certain for the closing of the Hillsdale Wild Oats store. A clerk told me tonight that it will be Saturday, Oct 13.

As I talked with her about the store's demise, teams of Whole Foods inventory takers roamed the aisles, ghoulishly scanning the shelves.

Finally, my previous post about last night’s gutless school board meeting was read by a record number of visitors to the Red Electric. At last count, 117. The high volume is because Steve Rawley, who has a popular, civic-minded site, More Hockey Less War, sent my post to the Oregonian's Oregon Live site and then promptly “voted” for it as the day’s hottest "Oregon Reddit" post. A couple of others did the same and, voila, “Red’s” link was right there on Oregon Live for the clicking.

Over three hours at mid-day, I had 76 visitors.

Spike City.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Portland School Board flunks media literacy

Like the Portland City Council, the Portland School Board is apparently media illiterate.

They simply don’t get it that it is wrong to sell off public property for commercial advertising in the name of “corporate partnerships” or “recognition opportunities.”

The issue arose before the City Council in the spring when some of us tried to block the selling of naming rights to parks facilities. We lost.

Last night three of us from the Coalition for Commercial Free Schools testified before the school board. (By the way I wrote about this issue here a couple of days ago.)

We might as well have been talking to a wall.

At one point our presentation even drew applause for folks who happened to be in the audience to address other issues. They got it.

A couple of them even e-mailed us today offering support. One, Steve Rawley, is commenting on our testimony on his issue-packed blog, More Hockey Less War.

If we persuaded the audience, why not the board?

Two possibilities:

1. These folks just don't think critically about media and its impact on kids. As suggest above, they are media ILLiterate.

2. They are so busy with and blinded by hiring a new superintendent, trying to keep the system running and meeting No Child Left Behind requirements that they don't have the time or inclination to tell the Portland Trailblazers, “No, we will not let you plaster your logo on the walls of 13 gyms in exchange for refurbishing the floors. Alternatively, we will happily accept the $600,000 for the work as a donation, with the understanding that we will publicly and sincerely thank you with a press conference and a small plaque.”

In our testimony last night my colleagues and I told the board of a host of health issues associated with this kind of rampant commercialism in the schools. We also underscored a host of social, educational and ethical issues.

We want the school board to promulgate a policy that clearly defines how corporate donors are to be thanked. The definition should not include PR and advertising “recognition opportunities,” which school marketing staff are blatantly peddling to attract corporate dollars.

By the way, reporters at both The Oregonian and The Tribune are working on stories on the issue.

Here’s what I told the board.

9/24/2007 Statement before the Portland School Board.

Re: Resolution No. 3764

I am Rick Seifert of Media Think, a local media literacy group, which is a member of the Coalition for Commercial-Free schools.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak.

The most instructive aspect of the deal before you is that one of the terms used to describe it is a “recognition opportunity.”

The term goes by less revealing terms as “corporate partnerships” and “corporate sponsorships,” but “recognition opportunity” directly addresses motive. Search the web for “recognition opportunities” and you will find they are rampant.

“Recognition opportunities” are nothing more than contributions made on condition that they will produce a return in advertising and public relations.

High school students, as you know, are a highly sought-after advertising demographic target. They have years of purchasing ahead of them. To plant a logo in front of their eyes repeatedly in an emotionally charged athletic setting over ten years is brilliant marketing.

That logo will carry no explanation for why it is on the floor. For all future students may know, the school district endorses the companies and their products, be they sneakers or professional basketball games.

I suggest you test the motives at work here, not that you have to, because your staff is using the term “recognition opportunity” to seek funds.

Test it by proposing this: We accept and deeply appreciate the money to refurbish these floors, we offer thanks publicly and will put up small, unobtrusive plaques in each gym to acknowledge the gift. The plaques come down when it is time to refurbish again.

Will the donors agree? Apparently not.

Motive is important.

If I knew you ran for the school board in order to seize a “recognition opportunity,” would I vote for you?

If I were appearing here tonight in order to gain a “recognition opportunity” would you listen to me?

Do we want our children to do good works as “recognition opportunities”? Do you want them to know that their schools feed these motives? Do you want them to know that you are basically selling them as a captive audience to advertisers?

Finally, as taxpayers do we want to pay for school facilities only to have them be turned into billboards for “recognition opportunity” seekers.

Here is my advice. Publicly thank the donors for their generous gift. Acknowledge it specifically on plaques and then….do the much needed work of coming up with a clear policy to cover how you will acknowledge such gifts in a way that is open, dignified and exemplary.

Thank you

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Part III: Scooter guy gets hog endorsement. But why?

As DMV added a motorcycle endorsement to my Oregon driver’s license, thanks to my passing a week-end training course, I doubted I would ever again ride a motorcycle.

Let me explain.

Above all, the 15- hour course taught me healthy, possibly life-saving suspicion of motorcycles Some of the course was in a classroom dripping with cautionary tales; most was spend maneuvering these snarling two-wheelers around a parking-lot practice course.

In my first two Red Electric episodes about this nervy adventure, I mentioned a young woman who on the first day of trying out motorcycling, managed to overcome a bad case of literal foot-dragging and bike toppling. Yet by the end of four hours of patient instruction, she was zooming around the parking lot with the rest of us.

Well, on Sunday, the second and last day of in-the-saddle riding, she didn’t come back. She’d had it with motorcycles, a friend of hers in our class reported.

Hearing this, my first thought was “too bad,” and my second was “prudent decision.”

Now that I have passed the course and have my motorcycle endorsement, I’m with her. This is not a sane means of transportation.

The rest of my classmates would certainly beg to differ. They could hardly wait to get out on the open road, zipping around curves, blasting up hills, sucking up the asphalt. And I must confess I felt some exhilaration even on the parking lot, leaning into curves, hearing the rasp of the engine, feeling the surge of acceleration.

But I also took the warnings of our instructors seriously. This is one dangerous way to get from point X to point Y, and the fun parts can be the most dangerous. Solo accidents on motorcycles (ie. accidents involving no other vehicle) most frequently happen on those heady curves.

Want more abnormal? Try this: You shift with your big toe (an unnatural act if there ever was one), there’s a growling monster between your legs and the training manual is a catalogue of highway horrors and perilous obstacles— loose gravel, ruts, MAX rail grooves, wet pavement, wind, rain, bugs and rottweilers.

No, I’ve added my motorcycle endorsement in case I decide to purchase a heftier scooter for puttering around city streets. As is, I scoot on a small, 49cc-engined model, classified as a moped. My scoot is perfectly adequate, but I may want to explore scooter options at some point. For one thing, my scoot has a two-cycle engine, which pollutes than its bigger four-cycle cousins.

Riding motorcycles over the past couple of days did teach me a few handy lessons. Let's face it, riding a motor scooter is not a whole lot less dangerous than riding a motorcycle. I can apply new knowledge about how to spot a host of new dangers and about how to avoid them. I even picked up a few cornering, braking and maneuvering skills.

So I’m glad I took the Team Oregon Basic Motorcycle Training class, even for reasons that have little to do with motorcycles, except to convince me that I never want one.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

When soccer isn't soccer

The way playoff soccer matches are settled in case of a tie after regulation and overtime is, in a word, absurd.

The absurdity was on full display tonight at Civic Stadium (aka “PGE Park”).

I left the stadium with a shrug. In my view, the Timbers didn’t lose the United Soccer League Division One semi-final game, nor obviously, did they win it.

No, the soccer game was a tie.

What the Timbers lost was some anemic contest remotely related to a soccer match.

The home team lost to the Atlanta Silverbacks in a penalty kick shoot-out.

The Timbers had clearly outplayed Atlanta during the game. Portland had 23 shots on goal to Atlanta’s 12 — and that’s just for starters.

The problem was that lads in green failed to put any of those shots in the net.

So what happened? The dread penalty-kick shoot-out got wheeled in to decide the "winner." The shoot-out tests just two mano e mano skills — the ability of a striker to score a teed up ball and the ability of a goalie to defend against it.

That’s a great little match-up, but it is hardly soccer with its passing, dribbling, trapping, tackling, heading, teamwork and — grace.

If this kind of resolution were used in American football, tied games would be settled by opposing place kickers exchanging free shots at the uprights from mid-field.

So here’s my suggestion: If a soccer game ends in a tie, the teams are reduced to a goalie, two defenders and five attackers. The five offensive players could only play at their offensive end, where they would be opposed by the other team’s outnumbered three-player defense, which would also be limited to half the pitch. Likewise the opposing team’s offense would have to stay at its offensive end and be opposed by the similarly restricted, three-player defense of the other team. The ball could pass freely from on side of the field to the other.

All the soccer skills still would be involved, but the teams would be reduced in size and limited so that there would likely be a decisive “golden goal,” sudden-death score in very short order.

We would then leave the stadium knowing that the better team had won — playing soccer.

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