Zenith SM3287BT: June 3, 1995 to October 18, 2012

On June 3, 1995, I walked out of Rosa and Sullivan $875 poorer and one Zenith 32" television heavier. I moved it from my apartment on Burkhard to my house now, and it's been around for everything from MST3K nights to screenings of Battleship Potemkin. I bought it a digital TV tuner in 2009 so it could still display off-air TV, although I haven't watched in a while. It's been at least a couple years since the red gun would come on when I turned it on — these days I have to let it warm up and cycle the power before I can watch movies in anything but dingy cyan.

But tonight, 17 years, 4 months, and 15 days later, I turned it on for the last time. Zenith Model SM3287BT, Serial Number 581-35141883, you will be missed.

I was going to watch Paris, Texas so I turned on the power strip and hit the on-off button. The degaussing coil kicked on, and then it made a hideous — quite loud — electrical crackling noise. I stepped back in surprise and the crackling continued. I inched forward and shut off the power strip. I gave it a tenuous second try but it would do nothing.

Needless to say, I found this to be the funniest thing that has happened all week. Finally: television surprised me.

I think my cat thinks I'm crazy.

Thoughts on Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?

I decided to head to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? Filmmaker Frances Causey, and author David Cay Johnston were there to discuss the film with moderator Julie Philipp.

Of course, because I can't remember facts, I'm heading to Heist's Official Website with this outline of the central point:

Beginning with background on the New Deal, HEIST explores how Franklin Delano Roosevelt's progressive policies were derailed by Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidential administrations, benefiting only the wealthiest investors and CEOs. HEIST exposes the full story: how corporate leaders worked with elected officials of both major political parties to create the largest transfer of wealth in history, looting the economy to create a gap between rich and poor previously seen only in impoverished colonial nations. The film is structured as a political thriller, showing the shift from FDR's New Deal reforms to an ideology where the free market reigns. It reveals the impact of the infamous Powell memo of 1971 entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System," which was a call to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for American business to defend its interests against criticisms of unregulated capitalism. The Powell Memo and the 1000 page Mandate for Leadership document published in 1980 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which were written to promote business interests and deregulation, serve as the starting points of the story to show the roots of the class warfare unleashed by big business, and how wealth in the U.S. was transferred from workers to corporate interests over decades of policy shifts.

I walked in there brimming with confirmation bias. The facts presented in the film and the theories behind them fit exactly with my own experience and observation of corporate expansion of scale and power, the behavior of the media, the exploitation of journalistic standards, government, and taxation — pretty much everything.

The other day I was in a restaurant with a TV on some news network, and the on-screen personality was presenting — as news — changes to the contract plans of one of the cell phone companies. To me, this was just the flat-out reading of a press-release generated by that company. I argue this isn't news (but I think I'm more likely to get people to agree that it's the reading of a press release so I'll stop while I'm ahead). This doesn't violate journalistic standards per se — where the goal is to accurately represent statements from an individual or organization. But there's something there that misses the spirit of journalism … perhaps the spirit that journalists are the watchdogs of democracy rather than the lapdogs of the aristocracy [a phrasing that is not exactly right, but far too clever for me to omit].

Heist, however, confirms my suspicions. One of the goals of the 1971 Powell memo was to control the media in exactly this way. Modern journalists don't just go out and pick their own stories: morning e-mails outline the stories they are to cover. Those e-mails are sent by the managers which are driven by their managers, and so on, until you get to realize that there are only a half-dozen media companies making these decisions. A few years ago, I recall watching the nightly news and flipping between channels — horrified that every single story was being reported on the other stations in exactly the same order. The simplest explanation was that the schedule for all three stations came from the same source.

I thought Heist presented a solid case, but it's also affirming what I believe already, so how can I be confident that the theory it presents is an accurate one? I was thinking that people bring their own biases, and they're more likely to be swayed by something that agrees with their established ideas than by something that does not. So why would someone be influenced by this film? I muddled my way through asking a question of the panel and got most of it across.

Frances Causey made a point to say that she had been a journalist at CNN, but left to work on more in-depth projects like this one. She said she spent an extraordinary amount of effort confirming that every fact — especially the most sensational ones — were verifiable and accurate.

What's omitted in all the discussion, though, is the underlying theory. I'm going to take as given that the facts are true, and the sequence of events is as depicted (i.e. corporations are using the 1971 Powell memo as a playbook). But Heist answers the question, "is this good?" with a resounding "no." In fact, it basically presumes that this is not good.

Individually, I think this kind of world sucks. I hate having to constantly be an outsider simply because I observe the world directly and draw my own conclusions.

Working outward, I also think that centralized power and wealth creates an inhospitable society for people to live. I think the core argument opposing that opinion is that the system we have at present provides slightly less than what people want, and that encourages them to work more and work harder, propelling progress. It doesn't actually let people starve (for the most part) but it does ensure people are in a constant state of indebtedness.

What I mean that it's inhospitable is that it could be much better. If all the wealth and power tied up in making more wealth and power were instead used to foster individual household energy independence, health care for all, true theoretical scientific research, elevating everyone's education, and so forth, I think we'd be far better off.

There is a fear — and rightfully so — that this may lead to a bunch of idle hands that become the devil's playthings, but it's entirely possible to get back to some of the good parts of the 1950's: particularly the possibility of income from a 25th percentile individual providing all that's needed to raise a family. Is it not absurd that two college graduates must both be employed to earn a decent living?

Building a Drawdio

Last evening I went to RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) to see Mark Frauenfelder, and Carla Sinclair speak about the "maker movement" going on now. This morning, Mark brought some kits from The Maker SHED — the store for MAKE Magazine's products — to share with The RIT Make Club. Although I just wanted to hang out to see how basic the Learn to Solder Kit really was, I couldn't resist[*] trying to build the Drawdio Kit. With it, you draw a line with a pencil then use the line to change the pitch the Drawdio emits — the line acts as a resistor to complete the oscillator circuit [* har har]. I finished it up pretty quick, and got back that old feeling of how nice it was to build a project from a kit that, well, just worked. If I remember correctly, 4 people were also building the Drawdio's and they all got them working.

Anyway, the Learn to Solder Kit was pretty nice. The circuit board has some extra pads so you can learn to melt and work with solder before going on to build the basic circuit. Mark had also brought several Super TV-B-Gone Kits which were very popular because they were more than just toys, they were actually useful (for turning off nearly any television by sequencing through all the known TV power-button codes).

In all it was a really nice experience. Mary Lynn Broe organized this as part of The Caroline Werner Gannett Project which brings together "21st century thinkers and scholars in the arts, sciences and technologies who ask the unasked questions." Hopefully we can build from this to get people who make things together, as well as the people who don't make things yet.