Category Archives: Essays

Christmas Greetings from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – Spain 1937

The XV International Brigade, nicknamed Brigada Abraham Lincoln, fought against Franco for the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Composed primarily of volunteer battalions from Britain and America, but also Canada, Ireland, the Balkans, France and Cuba, the 15th fought valiantly, and suffered heavy casualties, at Jarama, BruneteTeruel and the Ebro River. Here is the Christmas greetings card sent out by the XV International Brigade and comrades in the Republican Army in 1937….

intl-brigades-xmas-card

 

Del Berg, a 100-year-old veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who was its last known survivor, passed away on February 28, 2016. NY Times Obituary
Read John McCain’s Tribute to Berg: Salute to A Communist
 Watch The Spanish Earth:

The Rise Of Freeform Radio in the 1960s

UPenn_student_hosts_radio_showIn the mid-1960s FM radio featured a handful of “progressive” or “freeform” programs that became foundational influences on a growing counter-cultural generation. Coinciding with the youth backlash against the sterile consumerism of the 1950s, against the “plastic people” as the Mothers of Invention coined them, listeners were primarily urban kids, many recently radicalized by the civil rights, free speech and anti-Vietnam war movements, many others were just lovers of provocative thought and music.

In the early days most FM and AM stations were owned by the same broadcasting companies. AM simply duplicated their programming onto the FM band in an effort to broaden audiences. Everything began to change in 1964 when the FCC moved to enact a non-duplication rule in an effort to broaden the chances for under-represented demographics to be served. The rule, emerging in the midst of the civil rights struggles, was at first vigorously opposed by many established AM/FM affiliate stations as an egregious example of government overreach, not to mention the financial costs of hiring new staff and DJs.

Not all stations resisted, WBAI in New York and Pacifica stations in California were early adopters for example, but powerful owners did manage to delay official enactment until January 1, 1967. Once passed the FM Non-Duplication Rule required FM stations to broadcast original content over 50% of their broadcast day. This little remembered event was a key moment in the cultural formation of the 1960s and early 1970s (and my life!). Programmers could no longer take the lazy route of repetitiously spinning Top 40 banality, they were forced to begin experimenting. Many gave disc jockeys more freedom and control over the material on their shows. These new “underground” jockeys began to manipulate their playlists to feature a broad range of genres interspersed with political and cultural discussions, comedy and interviews. The style came to be known as freeform. There was no preset playlist schedule to follow. The only rules were those laid down by the FCC regarding profanity and station identification. With no stylistic boundaries, programming was shaped by the intellectual eclecticism and uniqueness of the individual personalities behind the mic.

The first prototype for what would become freeform radio was Pacifica Radio (KPFA in Berkeley, California) launched in 1949 by a group World War II conscientious objectors. KPFA was dedicated to free artistic expression and countering many of the accepted political norms of the early postwar period. The first so-called freeform radio show was Night Sounds hosted by John LeonardIt was here that beat poets like Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti and Kerouac were heard for the first time over the airwaves. This was powerful stuff. Other founding fathers included WBAI New York’s Bob Fass, WOR New York’s Murray the K (who called himself the 5th Beatle) and in Los Angeles it was KPFK’s pioneering talk show “Radio Free oZ” hosted by the Firesign Theatre troupe.

But perhaps the most recognized commercial freeform station was San Francisco’s KMPX, with its DJ/program director Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue. His timing was perfect, coming online in the run-up to the summer of love just as the San Francisco sound was beginning to peak. On any evening in San Francisco one could tune in and hear everything from the Stones, Mingus and Miles Davis to Mongolian chants. KMPX-FM and Donahue were the amplifiers that first brought the likes of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service to the Bay Area and world.

One evening in April 1967, Donahue invited Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia to be guest DJs on KMPX. Listen to the show below. This fascinating time-capsule has Phil and Jerry discussing the Grateful Dead’s brand-new debut album, their upcoming first tour in the east and odd topics such as a top-secret “sound gun.” But the real treat is the exposure of the musical influences that shaped Garcia and Lesh, both very young at the time, culled straight from their own personal record collections! I have visions of them riding the Muni bus from the Haight to downtown, stacks of wax tucked under their arms. Listen and Enjoy…

Murray the K interviews the Beatles:

Bob Fass Interviews Bob Dylan on WBAI 1966:

Bob Fass from Chicago ’68: 

Burning Down The House

Woke up in a much scarier world this morning. Europe now descends on a backward trajectory toward its pre-WWII form of division, rivalry and xenophobia, with Britain and Germany facing off and France stuck in the middle. First Brexit, next America? Divisive rightists, people like Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, Hofer in Austria and Donald Trump, with their poisonous nativist rhetoric, just got a big blast of wind in their sails. There is a reason why democracy was feared as mob rule for 2000 years! This clip from Frankenstein captures the spirit of the age quite nicely…

Hegel wrote: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” It’s looking more and more these days like the dusk will come too late….

And yes, that is David Cameron being tossed over the ledge…serves him right!

Hey Waiter– There’s a Silicon Chip In My Soup!

Robot waiterOver the past forty years or so America’s industrial job base has been slowly eroding, and along with it the middle class. A major theme in this year’s presidential election, from both Left and Right, is the claim that this outcome is primarily the result of self-interested politicians making trade deals on behalf of the elites who have bought them, all at the expense of the American worker. There is a kernel of truth there, and yes trade deals were an accelerant, but this description fails to acknowledge the larger causes of decline in manufacturing in America. In truth, the primary driver in this process has been the fusion of automation and globalization over many decades. We’re now being told by folks who know better that all we need to do to bring those jobs back, to resurrect a future we can believe in, or make America great again, is to elect the outsider politician who is not beholden to elite interests like banks, CEOs and politicians. Unfortunately, that horse has left the barn, those jobs are gone for good, they were disappearing long before NAFTA. The Japanese, with their emphasis on automation, were already beginning to dominate the automobile industry by the 1980s for example.

In fact, the real topic that must be addressed immediately is not how to reclaim those lost manufacturing jobs, but instead, what are we going to do in the face of the rapidly advancing automation now facing us in the service and knowledge industries? We are already buying increasing percentages of our goods online, which are then picked from shelves and shipped robotically. How much longer will humans be needed to serve us food at the restaurant, or grow it? Will machines like IBM’s Watson easily advise us on financial matters, or teach our kids at school? Self-driving cars, trucks and trains will cost millions of jobs. These are just a few examples. Some predictions have us replacing close to fifty percent of remaining American jobs with machines within the next thirty years! This won’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be? But how do we survive economically, as individuals, families and communities, in this environment?

Yet who is talking about this on the campaign trail? To be sure some people around the world are very worried about it. Some economists, and even some governments, have already presented solutions but those primarily involve some form of state-based fixes like a universal basic income to all. But what tax base does that money come from when machines are the main producers? What does that leave the individual to sell if not his/her labor or specialized knowledge? To whom does the corporation sell its product, machines? Sure there will likely be some niche work that machines can’t do, sports come to mind, and yes there will be some work in keeping the machines primed and operational, although some scenarios even have the machines servicing themselves.

Fortunately there is still a need to power the machines and that might hold the key. Solar and storage batteries might be at least part of the answer…

Here’s an idea, call it utopian if you will, but progress is rarely made by thinking small, right? It goes like this– at a micro-level families could pull down solar energy individually to personally owned batteries and use only what they need, store what’s left, and sell a percentage of the overage back to a grid. Power would be harnessed first at the personal level then sold to the local level, maybe to a neighborhood, or town-based collective, then sold on up the line to a national grid, powering machines, cars, planes and trains all along the way. So instead of utilities generating power with coal and oil and selling it to us, we generate the power, keep what we need, and sell it to them to run the machines. Thus a market for grass-roots, bottom-up, produced power, which never runs out, could arise. This by the way would be a nice model for bringing communities together to manage their shared resource. Then the owners of the machines would sell their machine-generated products back to the collectors of the energy that fuels them. Thus a nice circular market. We could then stop burning coal and oil to produce power.

So what’s to keep a city or corporation from collecting and storing its own power, thus cutting the individual out? What might keep the grass-roots aspect of this going could be the limit on the storage capacities and physical size of larger batteries. These limiting factors could make it more cost effective to decentralize, much like the computer programs that harness the processing power of thousands of computers linked together to do giant calculations quickly, or like bit torrent uses the storage of thousands of linked computers for example. Of course somehow the ramp-up stage whereby family households could acquire their solar panels and batteries would be needed. Maybe that would be what is subsidized by the government? But that is a more realistic possibility than to think that the Government could sustain a universal basic income to all.

It’s a fast and loose description and in need of some real meat on the bones, not to mention major advancements in battery storage technology, but food for thought. I’m not an economist. So go ahead and shoot me full of holes….

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