a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

a thing: Yo Yo Ma & Chris Botti

Posted on the December 26th, 2008


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Today’s opinion pick: “Dumb blonde — or diehard feminist?”

Posted on the December 19th, 2008

The object of the question above is Barbie, the doll. The inquiry is the focus of a feature in today’s Guardian. As the title blurb says, Barbie will celebrate her 50th birthday next year. It goes on to ask: Should women be celebrating this anniversary – or turning their backs in disgust on one of the world’s most popular dolls?

The pro Barbie position is written by Moira Redmond. Excerpt:

When it comes to careers, Barbie is also a brilliant role model. She’s been a doctor, a vet, a palaeontologist, an astronaut, a firefighter, a pop singer, a teacher and a film star. She has even been a presidential candidate. Here are some things I defy you to imagine Barbie doing: housework; sucking up to men; cowering; being bullied or intimidated; being sexually harassed.

The rebuttal is written by Julie Bindel. Excerpt:

The marketing ploys for the doll have been staggeringly cynical. For instance, early on, Barbie was promoted as a teaching aid to help young girls grow up and get their man, by marketers worried that parents might not warm to such a sexualised plaything. Feminists went berserk and accused the manufacturers at the 1972 toy fair in New York of encouraging girls “to see themselves as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers.”

There is even a syndrome named after the doll. Someone afflicted with “Barbie syndrome” strives for an unrealistic body type. If Barbie was life-size, she’d measure 36-18-33, stand 5ft 9in and weigh 7st 12lb – 35lbs underweight for a woman that height. A group of scholars once worked out that the likelihood of having Barbie’s body shape is one in 100,000.

I chose two paragraphs for the rebuttal as opposed to only one for the endorsement, as you see. Does this indicate my own perspective? You betcha. It may also spring  from a sense of pique — I never had a Barbie!! (sob)

Seriously, I do think the more important factor is that little girls themselves get to choose their own toys. Many are continuing to choose Barbie, yes. But, as I’ve discovered, many little girls are choosing another. The news (to me)  came from my own impromptu Q&A with an eight-year-old houseguest one morning last February — see here.

So –my  last word — I say, may the various marketers battle each other to the death, but may it be the little girls who always win.

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a thing: “She’s gone”

Posted on the December 17th, 2008

Evolutionary biologist John Dennehy wrote a post on his blog last month, poignantly expressing the pain of having to say good-bye to his amazing dog Sarah (The Evilutionary Biologist, Nov 10, 2008).

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Today’s opinion pick: “Capitalist Fools”

Posted on the December 16th, 2008

In his short whodunit article, “Capitalist Fools” in this week’s Vanity Fair, Nobel-laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz identifies exactly who led the world into its current state of economic havoc (Jan 2009).

Intro blurb:

Behind the debate over remaking U.S. financial policy will be a debate over who’s to blame. It’s crucial to get the history right, writes a Nobel-laureate economist, identifying five key mistakes—under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II—and one national delusion

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a thing: Playing for Change

Posted on the December 12th, 2008

Playing For Change: Song Around the World “Stand By Me”

Website: http://www.playingforchange.com/

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The global economy: how bad is it going to get?

Posted on the December 5th, 2008

It’s going to get worse, Nouriel Roubini says in an interview last week (Nov. 28) with Bloomberg.com. He notes that the global economy is now in crisis.

Other comments: the U.S. economy is in free fall and the effects are spreading across the globe, and the European Bank needs to be more aggressive in cutting rates, and more stimulus spending is necessary.

Most interesting questions: is confidence the key to restoring stability in the markets, and will bank rates drop to zero?

Watch video here (17:02)

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That rant against financial market charlatanism

Posted on the December 4th, 2008

Who wrote this?

..He invests his property. He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with the traffic in Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Directors in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blaring images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us!'”

Charles Dickens wrote this paragraph in describing a character in “Our Mutual Friend,” his novel first published in the years 1864-65. The book was written in the years leading up to the British financial crisis of 1866. A footnote from the paragraph explains:

“The 1850s saw an unprecedented boom in shareholding and speculation. The British financial crisis of 1866 and the spectacular failure of Overend and Gurney with other companies confirmed what many observers and moralists had prophesied. This passage shows Dickens aware of changing conditions…”

More about the financial crisis of 1866

Thanks Wikipedia:

Overend, Gurney & Company was a London wholesale discount bank, known as “the bankers’ bank”, which collapsed in 1866 owing about 11 million pounds (£828 million at 2003 prices). Until events at Northern Rock in September 2007, it was the last run on a British bank…

The bank’s core business was the buying and selling of bills of exchange at a discount. It was well respected, and expanded rapidly, reaching a turnover double its competitors combined. For forty years it was the greatest discounting-house in the world. During the financial crisis of 1825, the firm able to make short loans to many other bankers. The house indeed became known as “the bankers’ banker,” and secured many of the previous clients of the Bank of England. Samuel Gurney died in 1856…

After Samuel Gurney’s retirement, the bank expanded its investment portfolio, and took on substantial investments in railways and other long term investments rather than holding short term cash reserves as was necessary for their role. It found itself with liabilities of around £4 million, and liquid assets of only £1 million. In an effort to recover its liquidity, the business was incorporated as a limited company in July 1865 and sold its £15 shares at a £9 premium, taking advantage of the buoyant market during the years of 1864-66…

Overend Gurney’s monetary difficulties increased, and it requested assistance from the Bank of England, but this was refused. The bank suspended payments on 10 May 1866. Panic spread across London, Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, Derby and Bristol the following day, with large crowds around Overend Gurney’s head offices at 65 Lombard Street. The failure of Overend Gurney was the most significant casualty of the credit crisis. The bank went into liquidation in June 1866. The financial crisis following the collapse saw the bank rate rise to 10 per cent for three months. More than 200 companies, including other banks, failed as a result.

The directors of the company were tried at the Old Bailey for fraud based on false statements in the prospectus for the 1865 offering of shares. However, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn said that they were guilty only of “grave error” rather than criminal behaviour, and the jury acquitted them. The advisor was found to be guilty. Although some of the Gurneys lost their fortunes in the bank’s collapse, the Norwich cousins succeeded in insulating themselves from the bank’s problems, and the Gurney bank escaped significant damage to its business and reputation.

The thing is…

And I mention this because it seems to me it’s a key underlying factor of the whole current Wall Street meltdown: it’s that we the citizenry can scream in accusatory outrage until the cows come home but the art and practice of fleecing the gullible and unwary is one of the oldest in human history. Just consider the ever popular shell game which has been around at least since the Middle Ages. And poor judgement and stupidity never seem to be in short supply in human behavior.

Why am I bringing this up? It’s this recent Washington Post story on government oversight of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout now underway. The article headline signals the bad news — “Bailout Oversight Lacking, GAO Says Investigators Find Few Safeguards or Gauges of Success.”

So for now…

It seems to be the same old same old — and by old I refer to those days of 1866, as well as to recent times. Some of the Wall Street whizzes who’ve been busily burning down the house for the past several years apparently think the $700 billion bailout is just a new supply of matches. They’re continuing their usual business practices, and happily continuing to fatten on us, as Dickens wrote.

They may even be humming along to the tune of “Everything old is new again” — (I offer this as a little laugh because we dare not cry relief from the dreariness of this post dose of righteous wrath).

But the good news is…

This isn’t 1866. It’s true we don’t have the eloquent and brilliant voice of the fiery Dickens to speak truth to the scoundrels and dimwitted among us, but we do have some pretty good voices of our own day that are fierce and strong, and so offer hope. They’re all telling us that we the people have to get smarter. That we have to read and listen more, read and listen better and more deeply, just as they are.

If  you don’t have your own list of such, I offer my short roster of favorites:

Activist Organizations:

Some who see it and tell it like it is:

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A glance at online news of politics USA

Posted on the December 2nd, 2008

Some items of interest this week:

I. Are Wall Street bankers losing their influence over the White House?

In appointing Timothy Geithner to the cabinet post of Treasury Secretary, President-elect Obama is breaking a long chain of Wall Street bankers running U.S. government, according to William D. Cohan at The Daily Beast (“Obama Gives Wall Street the Cold Shoulder” Nov 24, 2008).

Analyzing Obama’s choice of Geithner, Cohan writes:

But this surely drives home the point that one of Obama’s definitions of change is to not allow Wall Street its traditional role in running things. Tim Geithner, the presumptive Secretary of the Treasury, is all of a regulator, an academic and a civil servant. One thing he is not is a Wall Street banker (although he would have been an effective one.) Larry Summers, soon-to-be Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, is the son of economists, an economist himself, a former president of Harvard University and a former Secretary of the Treasury. He was never a banker and never worked on Wall Street. Indeed none of Obama’s cabinet picks, or rumored cabinet picks to date have worked in any substantive way on Wall Street.

The current U.S. Treasury Secretary is Henry Paulson — previously the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

To see short biographies of Obama’s new economic team, go here (“President-Elect Barack Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden Announce Key Members of Economic Team” TPM, Nov 2008).

II. Obama’s not happy with Wall Street’s legendary greed is good credo

Obama offered a reprimand to the country’s top businesspeople last week in an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC network (Nov 26, 2008).


BARBARA WALTERS: How did you feel when you read about the three heads of the auto companies taking private planes to Washington?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I thought maybe they’re a little tone deaf to what’s happening in America right now. And this has been a chronic problem, not just for the auto industry, I mean, we’re sort of focused on them. But I think it’s been a problem for the captains of industry generally. When people are pulling down hundred million dollar bonuses on Wall Street, and taking enormous risks with other people’s money, that indicates a sense that you don’t have any perspective on what’s happening to ordinary Americans. When the auto makers are getting paid far more than their counterparts at Toyota, or at Honda, and yet they’re losing money a lot faster than Japanese auto makers are, that tell me that they’re not seeing what’s going on out there, and one of the things I hope my presidency helps to usher in is a, a return to an ethic of responsibility. That if you’re placed in a position of power, then you’ve got responsibilities to your workers. You’ve got a responsibility to your community. Your share holders. That if — there’s got to be a point where you say, ‘You know what, I have enough, and now I’m in this position of responsibility, let me make sure that I’m doing right by people, and, and acting in a way that is responsible.’ And that’s true, by the way, for members of congress, that’s true for the president, that’s true for cabinet members, that’s true for parents. I want all of us to start thinking a little bit more, not just about what’s good for me, but let’s start thinking about what’s good for our children, what’s good for our country. The more we do that, the better off we’re going to be.

III. Obama names his National Security team

Yesterday, Obama held a press conference to introduce his choices for his National Security team. From the Obama website change.gov:

Nominees announced today include Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Eric Holder as Attorney General, Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations, and General Jim Jones, USMC (Ret) as National Security Adviser. President-elect Obama also announced that he has asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense.

Video of the press conference here (27:01)

IV. The everlasting Clinton(s) factor

As noted above, Obama has picked Hillary Clinton to be his new Secretary of State. And as Newsweek‘s Senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe said in an interview yesterday (Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC, Dec 1, 2008):

“…for the media, Hillary Clinton has overshadowed every other pick coming out of this transition…”

My impression while clicking around online is that this Hillary media storm occurred with news outlets worldwide, given the high international profile of the former First Lady. Visiting various USA newsites and blogs, the two questions I saw posed most often were: one, why did Obama really choose his former arch-rival Hillary; and two, what does this choice tell us about what kind of president Obama will be?

The answers, of course, can largely only be speculation. But in a column yesterday, Matthew Yglesias captured the central focus of the discussion well, I think. Recalling some of the major differences on foreign policy between Obama and Hillary Clinton during the campaign, Yglesias writes (“A hawk in the roost?” The National, Nov 27, 2008):

For all the speculation about Obama’s offer to Clinton, there has been no real account of the rationale or motivations for his decision – at least not beyond vague, and endlessly repeated, references to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, a profile of the cabinet Abraham Lincoln assembled under wildly different circumstances. The transition team has done very little to outline the substantive agenda it expects a Clinton-led State Department to tackle, and indeed, perhaps the ongoing financial crisis will mean any bold new foreign initiatives will be put on the back-burner.

What is unclear at this point is whether Clinton joining the Obama team means that Clinton has gained faith in Obama’s approach, or that Obama has lost faith in his own. The very fact of Obama’s election would seem to tilt things in his direction: there was a consistent trajectory to their disagreements, and Obama was on the right side – a judgment vindicated by his victories over both Clinton and McCain. It’s not merely that he won, but that winning demonstrates his supposedly “risky” positions were not so risky after all.

V. Do you wanna speak English, Uncle Sam asks

The U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a new online program offering free English language instruction. Titled U.S.A. Learns, the website…

…promotes programs that help American adults get the basic skills they need to be productive workers, family members, and citizens.  The major areas of support are Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English Language Acquisition.  These programs emphasize basic skills such as reading, writing, math, English language competency and problem-solving.

Read more background about the program here (“Learning English the Web Way” The New York Times, Nov 24, 2008).

See previous A glance at online news of politics USA

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A glance at online news of politics USA

Posted on the November 23rd, 2008

I may be right, I may be wrong, but my impression is…

If it’s true, as widely reported, that President-elect Obama has chosen Hillary Clinton (in effect, the Clintons) to be his new Secretary of State, it seems to me he may be doing something analogous to pushing the reset button on a malfunctioning computer.

Could it be that by choosing Senator Clinton, Obama is re-setting USA foreign policy? Could he be (figuratively speaking) returning to the pre-Bush era of eight years ago — returning to the President Clinton era that is familiar and, more or less, reassuring to world leaders? Could it be that Obama (who reportedly is a pragmatist) sees this reset as the best possible starting point to begin building his own, distinctive foreign policy?

Some items of interest this week

I. As mentioned above, rumor has it that President-elect Barack Obama wants Senator Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. But will former President Bill Clinton’s recent, highly lucrative, worldwide business activities pose an obstacle for her? Do some of the former president’s activities — paid speaking engagements, donations to his official library — create conflicts of interest for his wife who would be one of the highest officials in American government?  (“Bill goes to the vet” Politico.com, Nov 19, 2008).

On the other hand, some say Hillary might simply tell Obama “No thanks! (“Clinton Said to Be Unsure About Cabinet Job” The New York Times, Nov. 18, 2008).

II. Another cabinet appointment of great importance to people outside the U.S. (in light of the ongoing worldwide economic crisis) is Obama’s new Secretary of the Treasury. On Friday it was widely reported that Obama has chosen Timothy Geithner as his new Treasury Secretary — a formal announcement reportedly is expected tomorrow.

The news of this choice reportedly caused an immediate surge of optimism on Wall Street, sending markets up a soaring 500 points (“Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary” The Huffington Post).

III. President-elect Barack Obama is already doing something innovative — he’s posting his weekly, three-to-four minute radio broadcasts to the public on his newly created YouTube channel change.gov. As a helpful aid to those who need it, the video has subtitles in English.

In this week’s talk, Obama announces he has directed his economic team to assemble an Economic Recovery Plan that will save or create 2.5 million more jobs by January of 2011.

IV. When she becomes First Lady, Michelle Obama says she wants to be Mom-in-Chief. What does she mean by this (“Michelle’s Closet Agenda” The Daily Beast, Nov 18, 2008)?

Hint from the article:

Don’t be fooled by her Brady Bunch moments. The Mom-in-Chief will promote feminism, speak out on Iraq, and tackle America’s public health crisis.

And one group that seems to be particularly happy with Michelle Obama becoming First Lady is the world of high fashion (“Michelle Obama’s White House Style” WWD, Nov 11, 2008). Now there’s a new website, Mrs. O, solely dedicated to daily chronicling and photos of what that style is.

It was first inspired by Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. The site hopes to be a central, ever evolving resource to chronicle Mrs. O’s look, while providing fashion commentary and information. The site will encourage visitors to contribute tips, photos and commentary, and share enthusiasm for the budding style icon, Mrs. O.

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Laughs along the U.S. Presidential campaign trail (III)

Posted on the November 2nd, 2008

Les Misbarack (One more day):

Laughs along the U.S. Presidential campaign trail (II) here.

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Just a little whistlin’ in the dark

Posted on the November 2nd, 2008

Why Worry – Dire Straits

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The audacious optimism of Barack Obama

Posted on the October 31st, 2008

There’s a telling anecdote early in “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama. Obama has just described what he calls the drubbing he took when he lost badly in the 2000 election after challenging the Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat:

A year and a half later, the scars of that loss sufficiently healed, I had lunch with a media consultant who had been encouraging me for some time to run for statewide office. As it happened, the lunch was scheduled for late September 2001.

“You realize, don’t you, that the political dynamics have changed,” he said as he picked at his salad.

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked at the newspaper beside him. There on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.

“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” he said, shaking his head. “Really bad luck. You can’t change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signalling the waiter to bring us the check.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through reading Obama’s 2006 book. Essentially a political document, as a New York Times review describes it, the book primarily lays out Obama’s political ideas. He recounts some of his experiences in elective political office, and reflects on what he has learned from them. Whether you are a supporter of Obama or not, the book is helpful as a compact refresher course in some basic history about American government and how it came to be.

The book is also a primer on the realities of how the political system functions today. As most of the world now knows, Obama subscribes more to the glass half-full philosophy than the glass half-empty. I find it one of the most admirable things about him. I admit, though, that while reading his detailing at times of the hard, complex dynamics of how the government actually functions, I myself have to resist mightily seeing the glass as dry as a bone.

It may be for this reason that the anecdote above that he related is staying in the forefront of my mind as I continue my reading of his book. I ask myself what I or someone else might have done if, in similar circumstances, life had dished up the same ridiculous name blame game. Talk about a clear cut challenge of how to view that proverbial glass!

You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out how Obama confronted the situation. On the other hand, it’s now kind of obvious, isn’t it.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

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Laughs along the U.S. Presidential campaign trail (II)

Posted on the October 27th, 2008

It’s been a a few decades since the Smothers Brothers starred in their own television show, a weekly satirical skewering of, among other things, politics and politicians. Earlier this month, the duo appeared on a late night comedy show hosted by Craig Ferguson:

See Laughs along the U.S. Presidential campaign trail (I) here.

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Gray Lady goes for Obama

Posted on the October 24th, 2008

Today, the country’s premier newspaper The New York Times (aka The Gray Lady) endorsed Barack Obama for President.

Excerpt from the endorsement:

Mr. Obama has met challenge after challenge, growing as a leader and putting real flesh on his early promises of hope and change. He has shown a cool head and sound judgment. We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation’s problems.

In the same time, Senator John McCain of Arizona has retreated farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism. His policies and worldview are mired in the past. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in Congress.

If you want details about the candidates and their differences, the editorial’s got ’em in full — the endorsement runs to three pages. If there is still anyone out there who says he or she doesn’t know who Obama is, you have to wonder what planet they live on.

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Michelle Obama on what American voters want

Posted on the October 9th, 2008

Yesterday Michelle Obama sat down for an interview with comedian Jon Stewart of THE DAILY SHOW. An early comment she makes is that she and Barack have been campaigning for 20 months – so for those who feel as if this U.S. Presidential electoral process seems endless, I think she might agree with you.

Part I (04:14) intro blurb
Michelle Obama knows there are some people who will never vote for Barack Obama, but most Americans want a leader who will find solutions that make sense. See video here.

Part II (04:28) intro blurb
Michelle Obama puts herself in the position of a voter when she listens to her husband speak. See video here.

UPDATE: On the same day, Michelle Obama did another major interview, this one on The Larry King Show. Here she talks more seriously about various aspects of the campaign and the Obamas’ home life.

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Sorry, Hillary, seems you just weren’t spunky enough

Posted on the October 3rd, 2008

Upon viewing some of the morning-after reviews of the vice presidential debate:

Spunkiness! Apparently, that’s pretty much all it takes — a perky jut of the chin, a few winks of the eye, and some clicks of the tongue to win some people’s (and some of the news media’s) thumbs-up for your candidacy to land an office in the White House.

These who jab those thumbs upright would have us think that it doesn’t matter what your position is on Iraq, tax cuts for the haves versus the increasingly have-nothing-at-alls, or Roe versus Wade, or gay marriage, or global climate change or energy policies. No, it’s not whether you’re yea or nay or even undecided on these issues that will earn you votes, it’s just the mastering of that cute Gidget goes to Washington attitude that matters.

We’ve come a long way, baby! Wink.

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Watch the U.S. House of Rep. vote on bailout today

Posted on the October 3rd, 2008

If you want to see the debate and the vote today in the U.S. House of Representatives as it returns a second time to Treasury Secretary Paulson‘s $700 billion plus bailout plan for Wall Street, click on to C-SPAN, the only news media organization that regularly televises the legislative proceedings of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

The deliberations begin at 9 am Eastern Standard Time (USA).

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Guess who the world would choose

Posted on the October 1st, 2008

The high marks Barack Obama receives in the arena of world opinion have been noted fairly often in the media. Now The Economist magazine has created a feature that allows its international readers online to vote for one of the two major U.S. Presidential nominees (“Global Electoral College — What if the whole world could vote” Oct 1, 2008).

The voting feature is interactive and includes a world map that allows the viewer to scroll over particular countries and see a pop-up displaying respective voter results. Of special interest, Economist editors have designed the feature to function in the same way as the actual Electoral College institution in the U.S. — you can see an explanation of how it works here.

Small hint — someone is winning by a landslide.

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Man-Sized Wreath

Posted on the October 1st, 2008

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Think you know what YouTube is? Really?

Posted on the September 25th, 2008

As Michael Wesch explains, anthropology is the study of culture. The particular culture Wesch and his students are now studying is YouTube. In the video below (which is itself full of videos) of a talk he gave to the Library of Congress last June, Wesch presented some of their findings.

David Weinberger on his Joho the blog last week (where I learned about the video) describes Wesch’s presentation:

It’s a 55 minute lecture, with lots and lots of examples, explaining the importance of YouTube. And, like his own videos, it’s compelling, brilliant, and moving.

(A warning — don’t watch this if you don’t want to understand YouTube in a whole new way)

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