Go Team Venture!

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Tonight, at midnight (technically tomorrow, I know, but who’s counting) you have the opportunity to experience one of the rarest and most special events in all of geekdom. Like an eclipse, the timing of this event is based on celestial movements, esoteric calculation and knowledge, making its coming unpredictable but all the more satisfying for the accompanying surprise.

I’m talking, of course, about the premiere of the fourth season of The Venture Bros. on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. It’s been over a year coming, and as always (the previous three seasons have been strung out over more than six years), the wait has been long. But, as always, it looks like it will have been worth it:


If you’re familiar with the show, the fact that the first new episode since August of last year is on tonight should be enough information to get you to turn off your computer right now and get yourself set in front of the TV, lest you miss a second.

If not, picture Johnny Quest, all grown up, gaunt, bald, pill-popping and broke, an abject failure stuck in a 70s groove and in the shadow of his hero-inventor-scientist father. Thats Dr. Thaddeus Venture (the real Johnny Quest has cameoed, and he is even worse off). Venture has two teenage sons, Hank and Dean (clones, actually, although whether they are clones of Venture, themselves, or someone(s) else is entirely unclear); one dresses like Buddy Holly, the other like Fred from Scooby-Doo. Throw in their secret agent, licensed to kill, heavily-mulleted bodyguard Brock Sampson (voiced by Puddy from Seinfeld/The Tick from The Tick Patrick Warburton), and their long-suffering cowardly robot H.E.L.P.eR and his meep-moops of love, and you have the Venture family.

The Ventures and the highly-unionized supervillains they are constantly, often accidentally besting all live in the long shadow of the Atomic Age. The space stations, undersea bases and volcano lairs you remember from saturday morning cartoons and Roger Moore Bond films are all still there, but have been victims of neglect, and are now occupied by old men, squatters and lunatics. The superscience and superweapons are all there too, left lying around, but the batteries are dead and the manuals are missing. Venture is very much driving his dad’s car (or, to be more accurate, supersonic spyplane). Nothing is what it used to be.

Drawn in a style that is immediately evocative to anyone who grew up on (first run or rerun) 70’s cartoons, the show is all about the promise of things that never came about. It’s about a lost future.
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Which all might be a bit much if the show were not the funniest thing ever written, at least for the sci-fi, cartoon, comic book in-joke crowd. In The Venture Bros. the geek and pop culture reference come so fast and so deeply layered, that the DVD commentaries could use commentaries. This is a show in which one of the major supervillains turned out to be David Bowie, where most of the core characters spent an entire episode in convention style Star Wars drag for no (very) good reason (Venture costumes have themselves been convention favorites for years), and in which henchmen dream of being licensed arch villains, and are bigger geeks than the fans. The Venture Bros. is pretty much ground zero of geek culture, the place where all the streams converge. Watching, you get the feeling that most writing sessions start somewhere along the lines of the show’s two creator/writers, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer (not their real names), saying something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” And it always is.

If the characters, settings and scenarios of The Venture Bros. all see like you’ve seen them before, it’s because you have. They have definitely seen better days, but hidden in the cynicism and meta-wit are all the things that used to make little boys and girls wonder about what is to come. Past and future clash, and melancholy hilarity ensues.

With last season’s ciffhanger, one can only hope that the new season has some big answers in store (Is Brock really gone? Are we finally going to address the fact that the Monarch and Dr. Venture are virtually identical. Is Dr. Girlfriend a dude?). The fans are anxiously awaiting them, and failed dreams have never been funnier.


Western CPAC – John Ziegler Ejected After Dust-up with ACU Chair

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Rabble-rousing filmmaker John Ziegler interviewed American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene at the ACU’s Western CPAC yesterday, and he turned loose the bulldog style he usually reserves for MSNBC anchors.  Ziegler confronted Keene about comments he made about Sarah Palin, and about the FedEx scandal.  Profanity, threats of violence, and a “Kanye moment” ensued.

Ziegler gave Mediaite an exclusive first look at video of the interview, and his subsequent ejection.

The balance of the official interview is comprised of Ziegler trying to get Keene to account for comments that Sarah Palin “whined” about media coverage, and that she “bailed” on her post as Alaska Governor.  Keene largely sticks to his guns, saying that he respects Palin, but that she mishandled the press and her resignation.

Then, Ziegler asks Keene who paid him to trash Palin, a reference to the Politico story that detailed the ACU’s solicitation of around $3 million from FedEx to support their position on pending legislation.  FedEx didn’t pay, and shortly thereafter, ACU endorsed FedEx rival UPS’s position, creating the strong impression that ACU’s opinion was for sale.  Keene says that his position on the legislation was consistent.

After defending the point for a few minutes, Keene gets up and tries to end the interview.  Ziegler follows Keene, continuing to question him about the FedEx incident and his support for Arlen Specter.  Keene becomes agitated and tries to grab Ziegler’s mic away from him.

Ziegler sticks with him for a good 5 minutes more after that, even as Keene calls him a “scumbag,” tells him “I’m not going to hit you, but I’d like to,” then says, “You’re an asshole.  Got that on the air?  Asshole!”

Keene then ducks into a speaking event. leaving Ziegler to heckle him from just outside the room by offering him $20 to write a pro-Palin op-ed.

Ziegler’s speaking spot is then canceled, and he is told he’s being expelled from the conference.  When I spoke to John last night, he told me that he could hear conference organizer Jim Lacy’s comments as he ate lunch, and couldn’t take it.  In the video, Lacy is explaining Ziegler’s exit to the crowd, when John comes onstage to correct the record.  Amazingly, he somehow manages to get ahold of a live microphone, and proceeds to tell the entire conference that David Keene is a “sellout” before being escorted from the stage by security.

I met John Ziegler at February’s CPAC in DC, where he was just beginning his quest to clear Sarah Palin’s name via his film, Media Malpractice. The highlight of that conference, of course, was another Ziegler kerfuffle, this one with Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal. While it was easy for conservatives to choose sides in that fight, Ziegler’s conflict with the organizers of CPAC will be a true test of conservative goodwill toward him.

This is also not Ziegler’s first brush with forcible ejection.  He was arrested earlier this year for trying to interview attendees of a journalism awards show at USC.

Ziegler says he will have video and commentary on the incident online “ASAP.”


Israel Diary: Hello From The Holy Land!

israelite_10-14Shalom! I write this from balmy and bustling Tel Aviv, where I landed Thursday morning, marking my first-ever visit to Israel. I will be here for the next week or so and will be writing occasional dispatches from the Holy Land as I sightsee, get in touch with my People, and eat hummus. Seriously, whoever said this was the Land of Milk and Honey forgot to mention the hummus.

It’s also the land of tension. Even in the jet-lagged jumble of my wide-eyed whirlwind-toured first few days, it is apparent that this place is in a constant state of tension – and not just the kind that brings people fruitlessly to Camp David. No, the tensions here are many-fold: Between history and modernity; religion (and religions!)and unabashed secularism; the official Jewishness that underlies this nation’s raison d’etre; the changing, polyglot demographics that are ushering in an unmistakable shift; politics and security; culture, tradition and innovation.

SLIDESHOW: WELCOME TO ISRAEL! DAY ONE IN TEL AVIV

Roger Cohen wrote yesterday that Israel was in danger of losing its “exceptionalism,” and I’m not sure I agree, changing demographics and fading urgency of the Holocaust notwithstanding. This country is exceptional all right – even excepting its exceptionalism! – as noted by the upcoming book Start-Up Nation by Saul Singer and my friend Dan Senor as they explore how Israel, with its 7.1 million people, heightened violence, and hair-trigger existence on the edge of war, somehow mints more startups than places like Japan, China, India, Canada and the UK. That has nothing to do with Israel’s original “exceptionalism,” or its historical exceptionalism, either.

Or does it? “You can’t unentangle things here,” my friend Jeremy, who has long worked on issues relating to the complex conflicts of the region, remarked last night. By then we were on our hotel roof in Jerusalem. Since I started this post giddy in Tel Aviv I have toured a school integrating immigrant children from 48 countries, including refugees from Darfur; seen the arresting, prizewinning work of Israeli war photographer Ziv Koren, graphic and bloody and real; met asylum-seeking immigrants who spent months languishing in Israeli detention centers; been hissed and spat at in Mea Shearim; wrote a note of prayer for my family at the Wailing Wall, and collided with centuries of both history and sexism as I approached it to pray…on the skinny slice allotted to women; looked over Bethlehem and the West Bank, and seen our group waved through a checkpoint that would have taken a Palestinian 2 hours; heard three different versions of what happened at Ein Kerem; buried my feet in a glorious sandy beach; buried my face in a delicious, tangy schwarma. This country will keep you busy, that’s for sure.

So – while I fight off jet lag and acclimatize to a millennium of history under my feet, I’ll do my best to take you with me in this rather unorthodox (ha) column for Mediaite. (You know Moses would TOTALLY have dug the logo). I will also be including slideshows for each of the above-mentioned adventures, because I’m pretty sure that “Thou Shalt Turn Your Vacation Photos Into Pageviews” was written on a stone tablet once. Here’s the first, detailing Day One. More to come – in the meantime, check updates at my Twitter feed for those intersted (twitter.com/rachelsklar) – and thanks for joining me in the Holy Land. Shabbat Shal


Panel Nerds: Clyde Haberman and Jackson Diehl Face Foreign Land

Who: Jackson Diehl interviewed by Clyde Haberman
What: NYU’s Center for Global Affairs’ “Worldly Perspectives with Clyde Haberman
Where: The Center for Global Affairs
When: October 14, 2009
Thumbs: Up

At one point during his hour-long chat with Jackson Diehl, Clyde Haberman wished Diehl luck in forming a succinct response to his weighty question about a certain foreign conflict. Yet, that sentiment could have been attached to any number of Haberman’s questions during the night.

They began with Afghanistan. Diehl addressed the difficulty that Obama now faces with the war, as he’s vocally and ideologically committed to his counter-insurgency policy. With every American general pushing him in one direction, and his cabinet tugging him in another, Obama is virtually stuck. Diehl feared that the pressures might create a middle-of-the-road endgame that he says could be the worst choice of all, as it may put additional soldiers at risk.

Diehl cast aside parallels to the Vietnam War, arguing instead that there’s much more to learn from 1990s Iraq. The proposed solution in Afghanistan is to train the Afghani army to fight in America’s place. But Diehl contends that it’s not possible to train a new army that quickly, after all it took the 1990s Iraqi army four years to get into shape. If there was a delay like that today, it might allow the Taliban to run free.

Haberman wondered if public opinion will hold on long enough to see a resolution. Once he broached the topic of media attention and approval ratings, Haberman turned to the question to whether Obama’s staff is patient enough with reporters. Diehl says that while Obama’s team has obsessively phoned the Washington Post, he recalls President Bush’s staff doing the same thing when they first took over. Eventually, the Bush administration relented and recognized that they had to work with newspapers or jeopardize their public image.

Asked whether we’re seeing an Obama doctrine at work, Diehl said that it’s been Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushing multilateral action as an overall strategy. As the conversation moved to the subject of Iranian containment, it was clear that each of these issues deserved an hour — if not more — of their own.

What They Said
“The Taliban have become at least as big a threat in the last few years as al-Qaeda, if not a bigger one.”
- Jackson Diehl doesn’t subscribe to Joe Biden’s foreign policy perspective

“I want to see these guys crushed, quite frankly.”
– Clyde Haberman likes his Afghani terrorists like we like our red pepper

“I’ve been covering foreign countries for many years now and we have yet to have any invasion that hasn’t been compared to Vietnam”
– Jackson Diehl finds comparisons to the Vietnam War unhelpful and inaccurate

“I’m sorry, you’re ahead of me. I was focused on Metrocards today.”
– Clyde Haberman response to an audience member who informed him about the most recent developments with the United Nations

“There are very aggressive people around the President. I don’t know if it’s Chicago politics or what.”
– Jackson Diehl says that the Obama administration spends lots of time trying to sway columnists’ opinions

What We Thought

  • We liked how Haberman expanded on points that the audience asked about. Some foreign policy depends on events from decades ago, and Haberman at times added the context that some questions needed.
  • Events at the School of Global Affairs feature refreshments afterward where panelists stick around to meet interested audience members. It’s also a great time for students at the school to network with other attendees. We wish more panels closed with invitations to stay and snack.

PANEL RULES!
Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Competing Moderate Voice
We’ve seen it happen fairly regularly. Someone has a long statement to make before he ends on his question. Patience is hard to come by since we, and the moderator, have no sense of how long it’ll last. So the moderator cuts in, asking the audience member to phrase a question. When this happens, just ask your question; don’t compete with the moderator for the verbal space. It’s a Q and A, not a Crazy Rant and A. The moderator is only trying to keep it that way. Don’t fight him.

Wolf Blitzer Tries His Best To Blow CNN’s Balloon Boy Scoop

wolf_henneOne of the most brutal take-downs of Sarah Palin during last year’s campaign came at the hands of CNN’s Jack Cafferty, who simply played a clip of one of her Couric interviews and angrily referred to it as “one of the most pathetic pieces of tape” he’d ever seen.

Sitting next to him was Wolf Blitzer, he of Gulf War fame, now transmogrified into tepid network nameplate. Blitzer, playing the network’s favorite game (”Let’s Appear Neutral!”) suggested that she had been “cramming a lot of information” – but he wasn’t able to finish before Cafferty jumped down his throat, insisting Blitzer “not make excuses” for Palin. It was an ugly moment, and likely an embarrassing one for Blitzer.

But last night might have been worse.

Wolf Blitzer was handed, on a mylar platter, the scoop of the day – Balloon Boy, Falcon Heene, responding to the question of why he hid in the attic so long with a tenuous, “You guys said that we did this for the show.” His father reacted like the jig was up (”Man…”); his mother, holding out hope, pushed back. That happened shortly before 9:18 p.m. Eastern, which is when I sent a tweet saying, “Um, I think the Balloon Boy just said he didn’t come out of hiding because, ‘we did it for a show.’ Wolf, want to check on that?”

Wolf didn’t want to check on that. Another half hour of interview proceeded, with no mention of Falcon’s statement. The parents and their squirming sons breezed through softballs about how they felt, the nature of the balloon, etc. All of those who felt something was odd about the whole situation, myself included, watched a key point fade away.

This was the story of the day! And it featured a family who had already been on a reality show. A father eager enough to be on CNN that he filed repeated “iReports”, looking at various weather phenomenon, which became a staple of the filler period between the landing of the aircraft and the location of the child. But no follow up from Wolf.

Until the last question of the segment. Coming back from commercial, Blitzer baited his hook:

BLITZER: Richard Heene, the father of little Falcon — Richard, earlier in the show I asked you to relay the question to Falcon. He was hiding in the garage for four hours. I asked you to ask him why didn’t he come out after he heard you and his mom and everybody else screaming for Falcon. And you said to him, “Falcon, why didn’t you come out?”
And Falcon said, hmmm, you guys said that we did this for the show. And you said, hmmmm. What did he mean, we did this for the show?

R. HEENE: I have no idea. I think he was talking about the media.
They’ve been asking a lot of questions. So somebody asked him that question earlier.

BLITZER: Do you want to ask him now. I don’t know if he can hear me? What did he mean by what he said we did this for the show? Do you want to ask Falcon?

R. HEENE: Falcon, they want to know — they want to know why you were in the attic for so long and why you — say it again?

BLITZER: Why he said — he said we did this for the show in explaining why he didn’t come out of the attic.

R. HEENE: Yes. Let me interrupt this real quick. I think I can see the direction you guys are hedging on this. Because earlier you had asked the police officers the question. The media out front, we weren’t even going to do this view. And I’m kind of appalled, after all of the feelings that I went through, up and down, that you guys are trying to suggest something else.

OK? I’m really appalled, because they said out in front that this would be the end, and I wouldn’t have to be bothered for the rest of the week with any shows or anything. So we said OK, fine, we’ll do this.
So I’m kind of appalled that you guy would say something like that. You know?

Notice that Falcon, who had no earpiece, wasn’t asked Blitzer’s question. Notice that the father tried to change what he was supposed to ask. Notice how inordinately defensive his response was. This is the get. This is the moment journalists dream about. Blitzer should have been salivating.

BLITZER: No, no. We’re not asking anything unusual. You were asked earlier about if this was a publicity stunt. You say it wasn’t.
The police say it wasn’t. The rescue operation say it wasn’t. The only thing I wanted to clarify why Falcon had said earlier we did this for the show. I just wanted to clarify. I didn’t understand what he was referring to.

The fish wriggles free. If it hadn’t been for Anderson Cooper picking up the ball during 360, CNN would have completely abandoned their own scoop.

Wolf, I’d check dark alleys as you’re headed to your car today. I have a feeling Jack Cafferty is lurking in the shadows with a cudgel.


Lawrence Lessig: Good Reasons To Limit Open Government

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Last week, The New Republic posted a provocative essay by open-information guru Lawrence Lessig, making a case to which he would seem to be antithetical: that we must temper our headlong rush into universal government transparency.

(I’ll provide here a summary of his argument, though I’d recommend either reading the full 11-page document, or, at least, this short-hand summary of it, which I found through the always-fascinating Jay Rosen.)

Lessig differentiates two types of government information that transparency advocates seek to have made available. The first is what I’ll call legislative and raw data; the other, indicators of influence.

Legislative and raw data is material such as the content of bills and actual numbers generated by government activity (such as you might find at Data.gov). There is some objectivity to this information – one can certainly form an opinion about legislation, but, unless you’re Betsy McCaughey, the substance of them is fairly objective.

“Information, poorly processed, can lead to damning accusations, and it’s easy for those accusations to stick.”

(A brief aside: in order to bring transparency and combat the pervasive assumption that elected officials have no idea what they’re voting on, President Obama has suggested a waiting period between the introduction of a bill and its floor vote. Republicans, who’ve been hammering on this issue, think a longer period is needed, though they certainly had plenty of opportunities to put such a policy into law over the past several years. As for why they didn’t: “It was a different time,” according to John Boehner.)

The other type of data which open government advocates seek is that which deals with contributions to elected officials, what I above referred to as indicators of influence. Who gave how much to who, and how those officials then voted. This data is Lessig’s primary concern – that the necessary interpretation of what those contributions mean can potentially damage the work of elected officials.

Here’s his point: the interpretation of what money elected officials have received is subjective. What timeframe of giving is indicative of undue influence? How much? How much in comparison to what they’ve received from those of an opposing viewpoint? Each of these questions (and many more) can be answered in different ways depending on the point one wants to make. A strong comparison that Lessig draws is to the first-blush assessment of surveillance camera footage. An observer can quickly draw an erroneous conclusion from what he sees on a camera feed, outside of the full context of the scene.

But perhaps a better example is the attempt to regulate the financial industry. While there is general agreement that the lack of regulation on securities led to last September’s economic crisis, it is difficult to determine what level of regulation would be both sufficient and loophole-free, if any. (Coincidentally, when Louis Brandeis suggested the mantra of open government advocates, that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” he was seeking additional regulation on financiers.)

Lessig’s concern is that, given the limited attention citizens are willing to pay to complex issues, a misinterpretation of a contribution will be halfway around the world while the actual situation is donning its boots. As he says:

To understand something–an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence– requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding.

Further, the lack of interest by the media in giving as much play to corrections as they do to initial reporting means that citizens often won’t have a chance to hear the truth at all.

Lessig raises a very good point. In addition to the years of my life I’ve dedicated to establishing geek cred, I’ve spent years working politics in California and New York. I can say, from experience, that information about contributions is regularly used to make a political point, both from honest and deceptive purveyors.

For example, I worked this last summer on a political campaign here in New York City. Over the course of the campaign, the candidate, recognizing the significant problem of city officials giving kickbacks to supporters, spoke out publicly against the practice. This resulted in more attention being paid to his behavior – and a completely misleading piece in a local tabloid. It was easy, given the availability of information, to portray innocuous behavior as being illegitimate – therefore allowing a piece about the candidate’s “hypocrisy” to be printed. This is the crux of the problem: that information, poorly processed, can lead to damning accusations, and that it’s easy for those accusations to stick. Whether it is intentional or not, that it can happen is a significant problem. (In the case I just cited, the paper went on to endorse the candidate.)

I’ve also found, over my career, that contributions are far less an indicator of how an elected official will vote than are the politician’s friendships. That these relationships are unquantifiable poses a significant challenge to ever fully understanding why decisions are made – and ultimately means that Lessig’s proposal to bring appropriate sunshine is doomed.

That proposal offers a somewhat tangential solution to the problem. Lessig suggests the passage of campaign finance reform, which would limit the influence of outside money. His point, as I understand it, is less that this would restrict how money comes in, but would decrease the likelihood that an overwhelming contribution from one source would influence action. He proposes the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), though he admits the name is misleading.

There are two problems with this idea. The first, mentioned above, is that it won’t actually capture information about relationships, a prime driver of influence in decision-making. But, second, it also masks where money comes from for all but the most savvy. In San Jose, California, where I once worked in politics, such a law is in place, capping how much money can be given by any individual or group. What this means, though, is that organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, spend enormous energy building fundraising trees – garnering maxed-out contributions from employers, employees and their spouses as deep into member organizations as they can go. To the casual observer, it looks like the Chamber of Commerce has given only once. To those in the know, it’s obvious both how much money has been given, but also, how much time.

Reform, and transparency, are needed. But Lessig is right: simple solutions don’t exist, and currently enacted solutions must be understood to be flawed. What he doesn’t say is the hardest truth of all – that the ultimate success of our democracy depends on an engaged, educated electorate.

No wonder solutions are so hard to find.

Philip Bump is a technology and communications consultant in New York City who will be writing an occasional column for Mediaite about the intersection of history and the Internet called “The Wayback Machine.” Follow him on Twitter here.

This Was Still Wrong: Boy Found Alive Didn’t Change The Risks – UPDATE

balloon_kidCable channels covered the soft landing of the balloon contraption that had earlier been reported to be carrying six year-old Falcon Henne. The balloon was empty at landing, but there is growing concern that the child may have fallen out mid-flight.

Not only did cable news programmers make a risky decision in covering this story live, they may have inadvertently aired his death.

Police say that the homemade dome-shaped, 20 foot, 5 foot aircraft (covered with foil) was tethered with a rope while the family constructed it. Some time this morning, it was reported that the family’s six-year-old son entered the craft and released the rope.

After the makeshift aircraft landed, it was discovered that no one was on board. Sadly, the child has not yet been found, and there is growing concern that he may have fallen out of the balloon early in the flight.

Update – The boy was found! Alive and in a box in their attic.