Monthly Archives: February 2014

Love and Hate at the Olympics

Last week, I helped a student with a current-events essay of his own choosing.  He selected an excellent topic: the meaning of the Olympics.  Are the games a platform for peace and solidarity through civilian statesmanship?  Or are they a highly visible stage for flexing geopolitical muscle?  Because this is a complicated world, the answer is:  both!  We have all witnessed international superstars like Nadia Comaneci thawing public attitudes during the Cold War.  We have seen countless Olympic stadiums packed with families and fans from every imaginable country, sitting side-by-side.  We have seen athletes from warring nations shake hands or hug on the podium.  On the other hand, we also remember controversial boycotts and attendances, Hitler’s exclusion of Jews from the Olympic team, and even acts of terrorism.

This year, of course, the Winter Olympics are in Russia.  The event has certainly drawn a lot of attention to the policies of President Putin and the national government.  Even seemingly mundane details as construction contracts have raised eyebrows.  Suspicions are that artificially high bids were awarded to contractors close to Putin.  The cost comes out of public coffers, probably lubricated by bribes in high places.

In the months leading up to the games, Russian authorities released several controversial prisoners.  In December, Putin granted amnesty to members of Pussy Riot and Greenpeace who had been detained for months or years.  All had been arrested on charges of “hooliganism.”  Most outsiders had seen the arrests as a thinly veiled suppression of free speech directed against the Russian church and state.  With the Olympics only two months away, many observers speculated that Putin felt uncomfortable justifying the protesters’ continued imprisonment in a glaring global spotlight.  It’s good to know that Olympic media pressure can make a difference like that.  On the other hand, forcing governments into momentary good behavior only permits them to wiggle out of criticism when all eyes are on them.  It’s easy to put on a good face for a few weeks.  One of the pardoned Pussy Riot members actually wanted to finish serving her term in prison.  Her ongoing sentence through the Olympics would have made a much stronger statement than her unheralded pardon and release a few months early.

Two ongoing Olympic themes are especially related to issues addressed in Chapter 1 of this book:  Russia’s gay propaganda laws, and the threat of Chechen terrorists.

Russia has had a complicated history with gay rights.  Homosexuality has only been legal since the 1990s.  In the ‘00s, regional governments started passing laws forbidding gay “propaganda” in the presence of minors.  Last year, the federal government officially made the ban nationwide.   The punishment has generally been fines on gay rights activists.  Gay pride parades are not permitted.  The stated purpose is to protect children from the overtly sexual displays that can characterize gay activism.  In so doing, of course, it is quite a damper on free expression.  It also strikes most Westerners as old-fashioned, as if homosexuality should be shameful and as if propaganda influences children to become gay.   The Russian government in turn has been fined for supporting this law, in a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.  But the law still stands, and actually has widespread support among Russian parents.  For the record, here is an English translation of the actual text.  I have arranged it in outline form for the sake of readability:


of non-traditional sexual relations

among minors

expressed in distribution of information that is aimed at

  • the formation among minors of non-traditional sexual attitudes,
  • attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations,
  • misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations,
  • or enforcing information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest to such relations,

if these actions do not constitute a criminal offense,

is punishable by an administrative fine.”

(Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses)

This law has pitted conservative (especially Russian) and liberal (especially Western) views about the gay pride / civil rights movement directly against each other.  As the Olympics began, Google’s home page featured a quote from the Olympic Charter:

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” 

This was a little bit of an overreaction, because Russia had imposed no discrimination against gay athletes themselves.  But it made the point, a contrast of moral values.

As the games approached, there was a lot of speculation about whether foreign activists would be punished under the law.  Some athletes themselves had to decide whether to protest the law or respect the host country.  So far, protest has been subtle and unpunished.  The US official delegation to the Olympics includes three gay members, including Brian Boitano, who came out publicly after being assigned to the committee.  A silver medal has been dedicated to “gay friends back home.”  Rainbows have been painted on fingernails.  In summary, the law and its reactions have produced a peaceful collision of cultural values, a dialogue that is a little more global than it was last year.

sochi_mapAnother major theme of this Olympiad is the threat of terrorism.  Sochi is located on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus region, not far from Chechnya and Dagestan.  Since the Chechen wars, this area has become an increasingly popular destination for violent jihadists.  (The Boston Marathon bombers were from Dagestan).  In 2007, separatist leader Doku Umarov founded the Caucasus Emirate.  This militant organization strives for an autonomous Caucasus under Shariah Law.  With only about 1,000 members, their vision is overblown.  However, so is their passion against  Russia and especially Putin, with fresh war memories and lingering depression.  Russia cast the Olympics in the Caucasus partly as a strategic effort to attract tourists and foreign investment, to revitalize the regional economy on Moscow’s terms.  Nothing could be worse for the Islamist isolationists.  Local separatists know that one single blow at Sochi would keep foreigners out for years.  It would be a perfect target.

The Caucasus Emirate has been very active in recent months.  In the city of Volgograd, a major travel hub toward Sochi, it has bombed buses and trains three times since October.  Dozens of civilians were killed.  The Emirate also committed public murders in Stavropol last month.  None of these attacks were expressly Olympic-related.  However, direct threats have been made.  In a January video, two Emirate members warned, “If it happens [the Olympics], we’ll have a surprise for you. This is for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world. This will be our revenge.”  Influential cleric Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has approved of the recent bombings in a manner that some see as a fatwa.  “They are careful to demonstrate security stability in their country especially with the approaching Olympics,” he wrote last month, “so shaking such stability is a required matter and an intended target.”  The threats are taken very seriously.  Russian forces have created a massive “ring of security” around Sochi.

The Emirate’s notorious female suicide bombers are known as “black widows,” because many of them lost their husbands in the Chechen wars.  Last month, there was a rumor that a black widow had already penetrated the ring of security and was lying in wait.  Now it is unclear whether she is actually there.  With their ongoing success with “soft” (less centralized, more vulnerable targets) it seems likelier that terrorists would strike somewhere outside the main Olympic village.  Some experts have assessed a bombing attempt as “almost certain.”

Last year, Umarov himself encouraged attacks against the Olympics.  He was reportedly killed by Russian special forces last month.  Now, thankfully, the rebels may be too disorganized to launch a successful attack.  “That’s why all the talk about the threats to Sochi are absolutely groundless,” said (legitimate) Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  So far so good!

The Olympics are complicated.  In the end, though, we keep coming back to them every two years.  That’s because of the true spirit of the games.  They are about inspiration, competition at the highest level, and sportsmanship.  One of the best moments this month has been the figure skating routine of Jeremy Abbott.  American Abbott fell hard during his routine.  Yet the crowd, mostly Russians, encouraged him to get up and finish, and cheered him on through the rest of his performance.  Despite the forum that they provide for noisemakers, the Olympics foster peaceful cooperation and cultural intermingling.  It is important for everyone to see such international camaraderie; it helps make world peace palpable.  Beyond that, of course the games provide an important goal for the very best athletes and their families.  We can’t help being intrigued by the world’s best.  We will always love to see them represent our home countries in battles of peace.

Since "we know what we see," it is important to witness this kind of international coming-together.

Since “we know what we see,” it is important to witness this kind of international coming-together.


References (in no particular order)

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The Paradox of Self-Publication

After writing a couple chapters of TEOH, I am using early 2014 to set up this website and study the world of publishers, promotion, and self-publication.  Chapter 1 of my book discusses the fast-changing pace of lifestyle and technology in the 21st century.  I have found that the publishing world is caught up in sea changes too.  I started writing TEOH in 2009.  The blogosphere was already well-established but still fairly new and growing quickly.  It also happened to be right at the beginning of the e-book revolution.  The Kindle was launched in 2007, the Nook in 2009 and the iPad in 2010.  The growth of E-book sales has been so dramatic in this decade that some experts are wondering which quarter it will be now when e-book sales overtake the market share of print books.  What does all this mean for a small-time writer?

lost_in_crowdThe obvious advantage to 21st-century authorship is that I am now able to post a blog like this and instantly put my work online for worldwide access.  The disadvantage is that every aspiring writer in the world has the same opportunity!  The result is a flood of drivel.  Lost in the sea of self-published content, I am still just as invisible as ever.  A Google search will bury my blog behind 10 or 100 pages of results, many of which are on completely unrelated subjects.  I’ve heard it said that public attention is becoming the world’s scarcest resource.  This is the paradox of self-publication.  Where this leaves us is that big publishers are still necessary gatekeepers.  Those publishers may be becoming more and more electronic and online, but they are still the few visible channels in this hyper-competitive market.

The transformation to self-publishing parallels the music industry.  Everyone under the sun is able to post their songs and videos online.  I recently heard of the site Forgotify.  It is a gathering place for the 4,000,000 songs uploaded to to Spotify that have never been played once!  The web is becoming a junk drawer for creative projects.

E-book sales are largely driven by commercial fiction anyway.  A non-fiction book like TEOH, especially with numerous references and pictures, is not the kind of work that drives e-book sales.  I’m sure that someday I will consider a conversion to formal e-book standards and a listing with Amazon or Apple.  But, as a published work, TEOH is a better candidate for print.  Meanwhile, of course, I will always have my own online presence here.

From what I’ve read so far, the conventional wisdom is that it takes a few months to attract any attention at all online, and a good year or two to get decent viewership numbers.  That’s a year or two of dedicated web management.  It doesn’t happen by itself.  Pundits recommend having an online presence for at least a year before approaching publishers.  You have to prove that you have the potential to sell well.  That presents a nice chicken-and-egg dilemma, doesn’t it?  You have to be published to get attention from readers, but you have to establish viewership before publishers will do business with you!  It seems hopeless without saving up and marketing out of my own pocket.

With this in mind, I’m glad that I was already dedicated to TEOH as a lifetime project for my own edification and enjoyment!  If I were counting on income or public recognition, I would have given up long ago.  Publication is a possibility worth pursuing, though.  It would add a whole new dimension to this book.  I’ve seen plenty of published books that had very little to say.  If they can do it, so can I!

I’ll use this page of my blog to comment on the world of publishing and my progress toward that goal.  I already have a little secret, a networking lead to a successful author in my field.  Stay tuned!  😛


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Why We Mark the Beatles’ Golden Anniversary in America

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

Today, CBS will be broadcasting a rare reunion of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary in America.  The concert was filmed the day after the Grammies, just a couple of miles from me here in LA.  The occasion is also marked by several magazine cover stories this month.

The Beatles were a phenomenon that will not happen again, a band that was both the most popular and the best.  They made their US debut in 1964, when TV was still a relatively new medium and the number of channels was very limited.  The national dialogue was narrowly focused.  Today, we enjoy much greater diversity in entertainment options, but at the cost of being fragmented.  There is no turning back to a time when one band can catch the attention of children and adults in one monolithic nationwide audience.

The Beatles are usually remembered for their popularity and timeliness.  They wrote catchy songs, and they were right there at the leading edge of baby-boomer youth culture.  The 1960s was a decade of enormous social changes, and will probably merit a section all its own when I write Chapter 2.  It was really the beginning of of what we would identify with as “today’s world.”  As a cultural phenomenon, The Beatles were indelibly impressed on the social fabric of the times.  Beatlemania is a necessary ingredient of nostalgia for that period of time.  Even I have always felt oddly retro-nostalgic for the decade before I was born, when I hear the Beatles songs that still dominated the airwaves in my first few years.  And to think, the Beatles almost didn’t make it onto the Ed Sullivan show.  Management had trouble finding a sponsor.  Bayer aspirin came through at the last minute.  Isn’t it interesting how entertainment and pragmatic economics are intertwined.  Ultimately, the Beatles got on TV in February, 1964 because Bayer needed to sell aspirins.

Even aside from their cultural signficance, all music nerds will agree that The Beatles were a game-changer in the art.  It’s a little ironic that they started out as a cover band, and actually came to the game kind of late for rock-and-roll.  Many music agents at the time felt convinced that “guitar based bands” were already on their way out in 1962, as the Beatles sought their first record deals.  Their catalog from 1962 – 1964 is usually played on the same radio stations that play the “oldies” of the 1950s.

The Beatles' US debut, 50 years ago today

The Beatles’ US debut, 50 years ago today

From the start, though, one thing was unique:  The Beatles synthesized all of the rock-n-roll roles into one band.  Before that time, the industry had specialists.  There were songwriters (Willy Dixon, Neal Sedaka).  There were great vocalists (Roy Orbison) and vocal groups (The 4 Seasons).  There were instrumentalists (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis).  There were stars (Elvis).  Very few had it all in one package.  With a few concurrent exceptions like the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, the Beatles were the first self-contained rock band.  Their Ed Sullivan appearance set the new industry standard.  After that, it was commonly understood that bands should be able to write their own songs and perform them with panache.  It was an extremely high bar.  Honestly, in the whole history of rock music, only maybe a few hundred bands have ever been capable of pulling it off well.

But it was the next year, 1965, that the Beatles started to metamorphose and to take the art of music in new directions.  That was the year that the Beatles became the first progressive rock band, with a focus on studio production.  They launched two albums, “Help” and “Rubber Soul.”  These included songs the likes of which had not been heard before, such as “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “In My Life.”  1965 was a watershed year for the Beatles and other artists.  The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” brought distortion to the electric guitar while McCartney introduced fuzz bass.  It was the year of “Satisfaction” and “California Dreaming.”  Then the scene exploded.  Psychedelia appeared in 1966, again with Beatles contributions.  Hard rock / heavy metal was appearing by the late ’60s, influenced by Beatles songs like “Helter Skelter” (1968) and “She’s So Heavy” (1969, the year before Black Sabbath’s first album).  Even the bands that are usually given credit for inventing progressive rock, such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, made their debuts only after the Beatles mid-career mark.  The Beatles continued to adapt their sound and be at the forefront of songwriting and production until their last album, “Let It Be,” in 1970.  They went out on top.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire era of classic rock music was just three decades of Beatlemania.  The scene remained rich until the early ’90s.  I regard Dream Theater’s 1992 “Images and Words” as the last significant classic rock album.  It was preceded in 1991 by the sudden explosion of modern rock, a scene that produced great albums for only about two years before going stagnant.  The golden era of rock music is long gone and will never stage a comeback.  Today’s scene is too fragmented.  Audiophilism has given way to iPod miniaturization, live bands have given way to DJ’s.  At bottom, there’s not enough money in the industry anymore to cull talent and foster rock music communities.

I admire all the Beatles, with a special appreciation for Paul McCartney.  Half of the energy that you hear in early Beatles songs comes from his voice.  He drove the band in their late years.  I especially respect the way he has kept an active career all these years.   You remember his Christmas song and his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the ’80s.  His song “Freedom” was an immediate response to the attacks of 9/11/01.  I saw him live in 2006, when he was touring for his great “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” album.  The crowd was riveted by “Jenny Wren” just as much as “Yesterday.”  He likes to stay up-to-the-minute on hot new bands.  He has released some orchestral albums that are really good.  He even did some anonymous albums under the band name “Fireman,” which I enjoy as much as any electronica.

Ringo Starr has distanced himself from the Beatles legacy in recent years, so I was glad to see him join Paul at this event.  It seems that he was very excited by it.  Wish I could have been there!  I’m sure tickets were hard to come by.  😛

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