Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sperm Whales - Oil Strikes Back

Mystery of mysteries -- on June 15, a sperm whale turned up dead in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from BP-Halliburton-TransOcean's most famous team catastrophe:
Based on the estimated size of the whale, scientists believe it is a sub-adult. Its condition suggests it may have been dead for between several days to more than a week. Although it was not found in oiled water, NOAA marine mammal experts are using hindcasting analysis to look into the location from which the whale carcass may have drifted.

While it is impossible to confirm whether exposure to oil was the cause of death, NOAA is reviewing whether factors such as ship strikes and entanglement can be eliminated. Samples collected from this carcass will be stored under proper protocols and handed off when the Pisces comes to port on July 2, or possibly if another boat is sent to meet the Pisces. Full analysis of the samples will take several weeks.
Since approximately 1,600 sperm whales live in the Gulf, many of which cluster near the Mississippi Delta, the prospects are grim for these creatures whether or not this individual whale turns out to be one of the spill's casualties:
The major threat to sperm whales is probably breathing in volatile organic compounds at the surface. The residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, may smell a bad odor from the spill, but imagine, after a 45-minute dive, surfacing into a noxious cloud of contaminated air. Breathing these fumes can lead to pneumonia, damage to the brain, liver and other organs; unconsciousness and death. And the dispersants added to the oil are actually more volatile than crude.

Oil could also contaminate or kill the fish and squid that sperm whales eat. These creatures are highly sensitive to toxic compounds in oil. As the oil spreads, it will create a greater risk.
These whales were once the world's chief source of oil before crude oil rendered spermaceti oil obsolete. Our demand for oil still stands to reduce their numbers again.

Live-Blogging God's Plan

You wouldn't think so, but I am live-blogging god's plan on this precious, precious, blog, and if you have a blog, even if it is a more screechily atheistic blog than this one, you're live-blogging god's plan too! It's all god's plan -- everything is. Every position of every quark is part of god's plan; every machination of every child-raping priest is part of it; every particle of soiled cat litter is part of it; every bob of every chicken's head is part of it; everything that happened in the Atlantic Ocean during the years 1560 CE, 1560 BCE, and last Thursday was part of it; every mis-heard song lyric was part of it; every act of war and every act of kindness was part of it; every little, big, medium-sized, indeterminate, unknowable, green, kangaroo-shaped, and unobserved thing is part of god's plan. This is how god's plan works.

One of the Joker's more insightful moments in The Dark Knight was in his hospital chat with Two-Face -- executive summary of the longer version version embedded below:

Through his insanity and malice, the Joker clearly perceived the justificatory function of "the plan" -- to call something "part of the plan" serves as shorthand for declaring it acceptable, inevitable, natural, even if regrettable here and there.

All of which is prelude to the recent on-camera musings of Senate candidate Sharron Angle:

Manders: I, too, am pro life but I'm also pro choice, do you understand what I mean when I say that.

Angle: I'm pro responsible choice. There is choice to abstain choice to do contraception. There are all kind of good choices.

Manders: Is there any reason at all for an abortion?

Angle: Not in my book.

Manders: So, in other words, rape and incest would not be something?

Angle: You know, I'm a Christian and I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations and we need to have a little faith in many things. [emphasis mine]
The incest and the rape are part of god's plan too, you see -- he has set the dominos up just so, and it would be awful, just awful, for anyone to see it any other way, or go mucking it up by trying to alter the plan's course.

This implies that the current legalized status of abortion is part of god's plan, but -- here's where the story unaccountably shifts -- that, I gather, is part of god's plan that we're meant to chafe at and perturb by granting power to Sharron Angle and like-minded cretins. Thus proceeds god's plan, according to no less an authority than somebody who professes the home-team faith and aspires to be the loudest champion of blastocysts in Congress.

Unless and until someone can articulate this bit of lazy monotheistic boilerplate in a way that doesn't just fold in everything that has ever happened, the idea that everything is part of god's plan remains the the only mildly plausible interpretation of it. I, for one, hope that god's plan keeps Sharron Angle out of the national government.

There's more on this tangle of platitudes and absurdities over at Rust Belt Philosophy.

Where the Wind Comes Grunting, Sweating and Heaving Down the Plain

Yesteryear's hawks making lazy circles in the sky have become today's people making lazy butt-shaped imprints on their couch cushions:
Oklahoma is again ranked among the 10 fattest states in the country, with its adult obesity rate climbing above 30 percent for the first time ever, according to a national report released Tuesday.

The state’s adult obesity rate ranked sixth-highest, behind Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia and Louisiana.

The percentage of obese adults in Oklahoma was pegged at 30.6 percent, up from 29.5 percent last year.

This was at least the fifth consecutive increase for the state ...
An adult obesity rate just above 30% -- that means if you picked ten random adult Oklahomans from a hat, the hat would have to be super jumbo size, and you'd probably throw your back out long before you got all ten. My home state is not alone in its embrace of obesity, but is crowded uncomfortably alongside other states too cheap to buy two seats and breaking open yet another bag of chips:
Ten of the 11 states with the highest rates of diabetes are in the South, as are the 10 states with the highest rates of hypertension. Oklahoma is among the top 10 for both categories.
The south shall rise again -- but later, after a snack.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Freedom is Slavery. What's Slavery Again?

Meanwhile, somewhere in a nightmare, the American political system lurches forward, ever forward, one unbearable syllable and note after the next:

To review: this video features a right-wing southerner using George Washington and then Abe Lincoln to articulate a brand new meaning of slavery that equates it with paying taxes. And then an old guy sings.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Brontes in Action!

I loved Jane Eyre, and now I love it more:

(via Nerdygirl)

"Only thoughts reached by walking have value"

I am pleased to see emerging scientific data supporting Nietzsche's maxim from Twilight of the Idols that walking generates and improves thought:

... [T]he working memory performance of both age groups improved when walking at their chosen speed compared with when sitting or walking at a fixed speed set by the researchers. This was especially the case for more difficult versions of the working memory task, and was more pronounced among the children than the adults. So, this would appear to be clear case of mental performance actually being superior in a dual-task situation.
This was hardly a new idea by the time Nietzsche expressed it in bombast -- Aristotle's peripatetic school linked walking and thinking way back at the very founding of western philosophy, Thoreau wrote extensively about it, and Nietzsche's contemporary, Charles Darwin, famously preserved his mind and body with daily walks along his sandwalk.

I add my anecdotal evidence that the same benefits apply to running, which falls under the same principle of "chosen speed" for those of us who do it. I have long noted that running liberates my thinking as nothing else does, and that overcoming a mental impasse calls for moving my body in a free, unstructured way. This works whether I am seeking it or not -- I frequently jot down notes to myself immediately after a run since I know the thoughts will dissipate a short while after I sit down. I had attributed this to the relative wakefulness I achieve while running -- it's as far from narcoleptic-sleepy as I ever get -- but this research suggests a slightly different dynamic. Then again, maybe greater wakefulness and sharper cognition come to the same thing.

It has now overcome mere maxim, strolled past common sense, and approached the precincts of scientific fact: if you want to think clearly, get up and walk at your own chosen speed.

(via Norm Geras)

The Gathering Dark

This precious, precious blog will look something like the above when the BP-Halliburton-TransOcean spill reaches it, which, at this rate, is only a matter of time.

You know how google prides itself on its clean search page? Not for long:

Here is the tool that makes the simulation.

You can get there even quicker with this URL, substituting whatever URL you like (or hate, as the case may be) in place of [URL].[URL]

For even more such fun, watch Gasland, and learn how to set your tap water on fire with the help of industry.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Two Poems by Emily Dickinson

"We Outgrow Love ..."

WE outgrow love like other things
And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
Like costumes grandsires wore.

"Split the lark ..."

SPLIT the lark and you ’ll find the music,
Bulb after bulb, in silver rolled,
Scantily dealt to the summer morning,
Saved for your ear when lutes be old.

Loose the flood, you shall find it patent, 5
Gush after gush, reserved for you;
Scarlet experiment! sceptic Thomas,
Now, do you doubt that your bird was true?

(via The Nation)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Chip - Day 5

I watched the progress of this miscellaneous corn chip on a stair from its appearance on Monday morning (6/21) right through to the time I took these photographs on Friday afternoon (6/25). Its provenance is a mystery; I can only assert, and depend on the reader's indulgence in accepting my claim, that this is not a place where one would normally expect to find a corn  chip.

Since the chip first appeared on the stair on the summer solstice, I am tempted to call it a summer chip, or connect it with the earth's orbit around the sun, or to characterize it as a harbinger of a seasonal change, but not very tempted.

I will, however, observe that the corn chip has a fragment -- a chiplet, or moon chip, next to it, as is shown in this fuzzy artfully unfocused close-up:

I speculate that the moon chip was formed when the larger chip fell to the concrete and fractured, which is more appealing than the idea that it broke from a second chip that was picked from the stair and eaten by the chip-dropper, and less dull than the supposition that it was dropped separately.

If the chip is still present the next time I pass by, I will be surprised, but not very.

Teabaggers Are Republicans

The Teabaggers are a confused bunch, to be sure, but based on my understanding of this poll's phrasing [PDF] and how weasel words work, I'm not sure they're guilty of the particular confusions imputed to them by this ThinkProgress piece, to wit:

Seventy-four percent of self-described Tea Party Supporters would support a “national manufacturing strategy to make sure that economic, tax, labor, and trade policies in this country work together to help support manufacturing in the United States,” according to the poll, put out by the Mellman Group and the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Likewise, 56 percent of self-described Tea Party Supporters “favor a tariff on products imported from other countries that are cheaper because they came from a country that does not have to comply with any climate change regulations in the country where the products were made.”
The Teabagger version of this "national manufacturing strategy" could translate to little more than "crush labor and reduce taxes on the rich," and notice how the stuff about tariffs comes with a hypothetical -- new climate regulations in place -- that to a typical Teabagger would come across roughly the same as would "what rule changes would you support for your basketball league after we remove your dominant arm and poke out your right eye?"

All of which is to reaffirm what this poll really says -- the same thing as every similar poll, and voting patterns, rhetoric, signage, common sense, and every other visible indicator of how Teabaggers view the world: Teabaggers are American conservatives.

To the extent they depart from the Republican party, it manifests as a greater willingness to support the candidacies of relatively unknown lunatics and reject longstanding party hacks. This is a small difference, as will become apparent (I confidently predict) when Teabaggers vote in lockstep with Republicans in November.

Speaking of lockstep, these images are taken from each of the poll's findings that calls out a "Tea Party Supporter" result. The pattern is pretty hard to miss:

Teabaggers are right-wing Americans in a momentary tiff with the Republican party because the Republican party failed so colossally in the 2008 election. Does anyone think we would have anything calling itself a "tea party movement" had that election been closer -- say, had the GOP gained control of either the house or the Senate? I don't. Hypotheticals are like assholes, so whatever.
The ideological alignment of "tea party supporters" and self-labeled Republicans is not hypothetical but demonstrably factual. It's a strange game we're playing to pretend they fill some previously vacant niche in the body politic or merit a separate label.

Friday, June 25, 2010

This Is Not An Objective Post About Crazy Heart

Once in a great while, a movie comes along that seems to have followed me around for several years gathering up threads from my mental and emotional life in order to collect them, bind them, and weave them into a two-hour drama presented in widescreen format. Crazy Heart is such a film, and for all I know, it's possible another exists.

I'll leave it on that purposely vague, admittedly non-objective, and probably unhelpful note and simply add that I can't recommend this film highly enough, even as a little voice inside me resists the urge to exaggerate its overall quality.

It's possible my threads are not everyone's.

I feel firmer ground beneath the claim that the performances of Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duval, Colin Farrel, and minor players in smaller roles are as superb and absorbing as all the hype suggests.

Spaces Yet Remain for Humankind

Rest easy, fellow humans --- for the moment. The day of our obsolescence at the hands of super-intelligent robots is not yet at hand -- in our head-to-head match, I doubled up on evil robot Watson:

Sadly, though, this indicates that the people at IBM are already toiling for our future robot overlords and successors:
For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer.
Though I did defeat the machine -- I would actually put at nothing less than humble the machine, and humiliate the machine fits too, but I digress -- it was a surprisingly good showing, especially in its handling of the "before and after" questions, which call for a fairly nuanced comprehension of natural speech and the broader context of its use.

An example was something along these lines -- I am mangling the phrasing here: "Make a new dynamic duo that combines Bruce Wayne's alter-ego and the legendary Sherwood Forest bandit," with the answer being "Batman and Robin Hood." The tricky part is in how these kinds of questions demand pretty exact phrasing in the answer, so it would not have worked to say "Robin Hood and Batman" or "Batman and Robin, Robin Hood."Others of the same type were more complex than that example, and yet Watson successfully cobbled together the correct answer (or would have if I hadn't answered first).

Impressive and "cool" as it is, the continuing advance of this technology -- really, the basis for its commercial appeal and the explanation for IBM's willingness to invest in it -- threatens to crowd out the demand for old-fashioned human labor. We humans are the gods of the gaps left by the technologies we create, and those gaps are narrowing and closing. Of course, this is nothing new -- it is one of the central dynamics of the industrial age and human civilization in general -- but it's especially unwelcome in this time of economic hardship and ever-sinking prospects. (Here ends the Luddism for now).

Soccer - A Sport for Weeners

This is a plea to futbol-football-soccer players of the world and to the fans of the sport, numbering approximately [total world population] - [total USA population]: the play-acting, in which a player fakes being kicked or tripped or slugged or otherwise fouled to gain advantage, must cease. It's embarrassing. It's disgraceful. It's boring.

Alan Siegel has been tracking such incidents in the World Cup in his "Dive of the Day" feature, the following being an example from the Italy-Paraguay match:

Especially aggravating here is how the Italian player goes into histrionics almost immediately after he has made a promising pass to an attacker on his right. If he had stayed upright rather than pretending (badly) to have been tripped, he would have been in position to accept a return pass or otherwise keep the attack going. But no, he went to the ground with a visible grimace and a grasp at one of his untouched legs, so when his teammate gained control of the ball, he tapped it out of bounds so as to reinforce and support the fraudulent pity campaign.

Points are better than theatrics -- more advantageous, more interesting, more sportsmanlike. Scoring another goal would have been a very good thing for Italy's chances, but after the 1:1 draw with Paraguay and other mediocre results, Italy is out of the tournament now, and good riddance. I wish I could say the surviving teams sides don't use this same garbage.

Sadly, the same fakery works in the NBA too.

Play basketball. Play futbol-football-soccer. Leave the bad acting to daytime tee-vee.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Arcade Fire Flare-Up

I don't know how I managed to miss Arcade Fire on Austin City Limits but here's the remedy for it:

Watch the full episode. See more Austin City Limits.

Arcade Fire will release a new album in August, one that sounds, well, different from their previous efforts, or maybe just the ersatz different that tends to stick to new works by familiar artists. It sounds quite good, of that I am not in any doubt.

The World Closely Observed

Rick Brookhiser has helpfully telegraphed empirical observation as practiced at the intellectual flagship of movement conservatism:

Let’s watch what people do. I suppose many readers of the Corner are evangelicals. Evangelical churches have invested a fair amount of effort and money in humanitarian work in Africa. I imagine this comes up in sermons they hear, which most of them approve, and which they support in any case by some fraction of their giving. Same for Roman Catholics.
So let's walk through that step for step. He starts off by proposing to watch what people do -- hard-headed, fact-driven empiricism! -- then immediately follows by supposing "many" readers of the Corner are "evangelicals." How many? What is the basis for this supposition? While we're observing what people do, who counts as "evangelicals"?

He then goes on to report that these evangelical churches have "invested a fair amount" of money and effort in humanitarian work in Africa. How much money? How much effort? What does "humanitarian work" entail in the context? Where in Africa? Throughout? Here and there?

As shaky as all that is, the "watching what people do" moves on to the form of "imagining" the sermons -- all of them? a few? -- delivered in these unspecified churches, followed by the unsubstantiated claim that "most of the [parishioners] approve" of these sermons. To what extent, if any, does this "most" overlap with the "many" readers of the Corner previously supposed into existence? Moreover, what can we make of "most" -- how many is "most," and what are we to say of those not included in the "most"? Do the non-most quietly ignore these sermons? Rudely interrupt them? Walk out on them? Write angry letters afterward?

It's worth noting that if Brookhiser is only imagining the sermons themselves, then the support of the sermons can only be imaginings on stilts.

"In any case," he continues, these unspecified, uncounted evangelicals "support" whatever it is these unnamed churches are doing somewhere in Africa with "some fraction" of their tithes. I almost hate to ask, what does "support" mean, and what fraction are we talking about? Just to keep things within the range of more or less believable dollar amounts, let's say the fractions range from $1 to $999,999,999 out of every $1,000,000,000. In context, "support" sounds like "passively accept" or "not openly object to," which puts it in tension with the previous claim that "most" parishioners "approve" the Africa-related portions of unspecified sermons, but we're left to guess what this "support" amounts to, both in its kind and degree.

Finally, Brookhiser delivers his coup de grace of half-assed observation packaged as "watching what people do" -- "Same for Roman Catholics." I gather this means all of those suppositions and imaginings, whatever they meant and whatever the basis for them. All of them apply to Roman Catholics, he breezily declares.


My concluding observation, which doesn't claim to be empirical: the flagship has sunk.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Correction - Treme Shows It

From time to time, I am wrong, and at least a few times in a thousand, I am willing to acknowledge it. To that end, I now see that I was too dismissive of Treme, the latest original series by David Simon, creator of the best tee-vee drama ever, The Wire.*

Mind you, Treme is no The Wire, but it does carry over several of The Wire's actors, it preserves the emphasis on believable dialogue, and it brings the same unrelenting focus on evoking the city of its setting. For Treme, this means immersing the viewer in the cultural singularity of New Orleans, centered on but not limited to the music, the food, the music, the local customs, and most of all, the music. Music is everywhere in this series, touching and informing every story thread, and usually playing in the background. It might as well be listed in the credits as a character, and something tells me this is true to New Orleans.

It's one thing to say that --- part of my initial resistance to this series arose from how we have been told ad nauseam of the NOLA's uniqueness and preciousness -- but showing beats telling.

I am not the one to say whether Treme faithfully represents either the spirit or the fact of New Orleans, but I can say it feels and sounds like a real place.

* I know, I know! I'm a white guy and I love The Wire! It's hilarious or something!

In (Qualified) Praise of Unobtainium

Oh, the sweet, sweet blockbusters of yore, pines Ross Douthat:

[N]o golden age lasts forever, and you know what? An awful lot of the middlebrow blockbusters of the 1980s were really, really good. If you just look at the 15 years after Spielberg’s great white shark first terrorized bathers and moviegoers, the legacy of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” includes the Indiana Jones saga, the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Ghostbusters,” “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Alien” and “Aliens,” Tim Burton’s Batman movies, “Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “E.T.,” among other entertainments. That’s a pretty impressive roster of popcorn movies: Not cinematic art on the level of Coppola or Kubrick (though the supposedly-philistine ’80s were bracketed by Martin Scorsese’s two best films, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas”), but a record to be proud of all the same.
Of the 1980s popcorn sales conduits listed, I can imagine rewatching two (Alien and the first Batman), and I could probably bring myself to sit almost all the way through one more, Aliens, but that only for morose nostalgic reasons, i.e., Aliens played for, I believe, seventeen straight months on one of Ponca City's precious few screens when I was in high school, so it became a matter of arithmetic inevitability that the teens would either embrace it or forsake the relatively protected under-age drinking space afforded by the local movie-plex.

The thought of watching the rest make me want to vomit with rage. I hate E.T. I hate Ghostbusters more. I don't think I can survive being drunk enough to locate the sparse good aspects of Die Hard, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, or The Hunt for Red October. The Back to the Future and Indiana Jones movies had a few fun moments here and there, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

So what? Well, not that I care either, but Douthat should know better than to prostrate himself before bygone golden ages of cinema -- even the bounded one he draws here concerning 1980s blockbusters -- because they didn't exist. For as long as the film industry has been prolific enough to produce a critical mass sufficient to abstract sensible evaluations of quality, -- say, the 1940s and beyond -- terrible movies have vastly outnumbered not-terrible movies. And movies that grasp at reaching the largest possible audience, the blockbusters that offer "something for everyone," have always clustered at the far, horrid end of the curve.

There's no reason to expect this to change. Filmmakers long ago realized that they put butts in seats with quality artistry but they attract even more with titillating mediocrity -- violence, boobs, toilet humor, slapstick, smart-ass chatter, visual whizzbang, violent smartass boobs, slapstick involving a toilet, visual whizzbang that includes long, lingering shots of boobs against a backdrop of gunfire and explosions and car chases.

We get the quality of movies we pay for, and we have been paying huge sums of money for trash. And this, in turn, is because we are morons, yes, but also because we aren't necessarily looking for deep artistic engagement when we go to the movies, and often we aren't.* It's a social activity (covert teen binge-drinking, for example; dating for another) and a functional social equalizer: some might grimace at the very mention of E.T. or Rambo, while others might cherish them, but we all know quite a bit about them.

Most blockbusters are bad, now and always. This is the way they roll. It's possible -- it's actually part of the social engagement and the fun of the experience -- to acknowledge and unpack the details of how they are bad -- I am still stuck on "unobtainium," (Cf.) and I plan always to remain so. A world with nothing but five-star movies would be, in its way, bland and colorless.

* Nothing in this post should be construed as a violation of, nor a defiance of, Moff's Law. Moff's Law is law on this precious, precious blog.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What About Saying No?

The image above is from the NY Times interactive BP spill map, the most depressing and informative thing on the internets as of this writing. In the light of the massive and still-expanding extent of the damage done to date, something in this developing story -- maybe a few things -- eludes me:
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans, Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday against the ban, which halted all drilling in more than 500 feet of water and prevented new permits from being issued. The White House said it would appeal the ruling.

President Barack Obama ordered the moratorium after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig off Louisiana. Eleven people died in the blast, which triggered an underwater oil gusher.

Brian Collins, an attorney for the Justice Department, insisted Monday that the suspension is necessary while officials conduct a safety review.
A hack judge with financial ties to the oil industry can find legal-sounding reasons to stop a moratorium imposed by the president. Yawn.

What eludes me is why the moratorium is decisive, or even relevant, here. What's legally decisive in drilling operations is permits, and regulators are empowered by law to either accept or reject permits. Prior to recent events, regulators (we now know) routinely accepted every half-assed application for drilling permits, sometimes waving entire types of reviews and skipping inspections to say yes. That was a mistake, but it doesn't take a presidential order to change it.

To change it, start doing it the right way. Use the powers available under current law. Use existing authority to reject the permits when there is reason to do so; conduct thorough environmental reviews; and oversee and perform thorough inspections of the operations and facilities, noting any discrepancies between the application's claims and the inspection's findings, and use these discrepancies as the basis for rejecting applications.

Federal authorities should stop crying over lost moratoriums and start denying the living fuck out of permit applications that stand to threaten gigantic swaths of ocean and coastal property. They should continue with a big red REJECTED stamp until such time as a would-be driller can propose a credible, proven, no-nonsense, no-bullshit, verifiable means of dealing with a disaster of the kind that, at present, no one on earth knows how to address.

Ascot's Fables

Don't get me wrong, there exists educational value in the video posted below, but it's not what its creators intended. The value of what it teaches ranges from the slight to the dubious to the asymptotically-approaching-zero, but it is something rather than nothing.

First, the person doing the speaking is so cartoonishly gay that he can serve as a baseline, a sort of speedometer check applied to the perception of male sexuality (i.e., "gay-dar"), to wit: if this person doesn't seem gay to you, then you should take this opportunity to re-think and recalibrate what seems gay to you.

Second, the speaker accurately characterizes the view of homosexuality and homosexuals found in the Bible: it is unambiguously against it and them.

The lessons, such as they are, end there, and feckless and unwelcome though they may be, they're more interesting and useful than what the wearer of the gigantic ascot intends to convey: that everyone should adopt his favorite god's view of the gay people, and that to do otherwise is to reserve an indefinite stay in a hell that is, yes, flaming, perhaps colorful, arguably even flamboyant in its way, and quite possibly set to loud music from Broadway musicals, but all of these in a very bad way -- a place where there are no ascots, only sad people with bare necks.

(via Dan Savage)

Neko Smash!

It's a classic story, really, as pure, simple, and familiar as a fairy tale: the band gives out some copies of its CD, and as the live show proceeds, a drunk fan throws the CD to, or possibly at, the stage and its players. Harsh words are spoken, sides are taken, and pretty soon, Neko Case is threatening to fight a hall filled with thousands:

I'm betting on Neko Case, and it's not even close. A blast of her mighty voice could fell a crowd ten times that size.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Federal Deficit, Sourced

The lesson of this graph seems pretty clear: if you want to avoid running a deficit, don't have an economic downturn; don't pick exorbitantly expensive overseas wars; don't spend massive sums propping up private firms; if these happen, don't undertake a large-scale public spending program to revive the economy; and above all, don't combine all of this with enormous tax cuts.

Apart from all that, it's really anyone's guess.

Exotic Solutions, Surely Imaginary

Has anyone ever heard of this place? I can only guess it has been cobbled together from the fitful imagination of a novelist or script writer, probably a closet communist or worse. Or maybe this is actually from The Onion:

The 20 world leaders at an economic summit in Toronto next weekend will find themselves in a country that has avoided a banking crisis where others have floundered, and whose economy grew at a 6.1 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year ... There was no mortgage meltdown or subprime crisis in Canada. Banks don't package mortgages and sell them to the private market, so they need to be sure their borrowers can pay back the loans.
"Canada"? Is that supposed to be cuh-NAY-duh? cuh-NAH-duh? Maybe CAN-uh-duh or CANE-uh-duh? Don't even get me started on how to pronounce this "Toronto."

Whatever. Sometimes the place names are the biggest giveaway that we're in the fever dream of fiction. Here on earth, every credible thinker in economics will tell you there's no free lunch, that wealth is the reward of manly risk -- and, ergo, ever-greater and ever-manlier risk is the only path to wealth -- and that trying to restrain banking with rules is like trying to keep dogs from barking, and therefore, we must reduce the tax burden on the richest people and stop making private enterprises follow rules.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Golden Days

J. Hoberman contrasts the work of film critics James Agee and Manny Farber:

Agee deals with significant movies in short paragraphs and lavishes space on inconsequential bores -- he was not writing the history of cinema so much as reporting the history of his times ... If Agee on Film is literature, it's literature of a particular kind -- filled with political asides, topical jokes, and references to fleeting sensations: a cultural stream of consciousness. Agee was the first American movie critic who could be characterized as a belletrist. By contrast, Farber presented himself as a sort of lumpen cognoscente. His weekly reviews are subliterary. His style is a work in progress. He is less subtle than Agee and more vivid, as well as more brashly dismissive, with little sense of a lost golden era. For Farber, silent movies were only a childhood memory. He came of age with the talkies, and it wasn't until the 1950s that he imagined a cinematic decline -- which he then blamed on the dulled sensibilities of moviegoing middlebrows.
I cite this because, as described, the two approaches are interesting enough to make me want to read some Agee and Farber. More, though, it's a brace against the idea of clinging to idealized bygones in the arts, for here we see a well-regarded observer who considered film debased from its golden heights by the 1950s -- before, we now know, the rise of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Kubrick, Truffaut, Godard, Werner Herzog, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and, well, the list could go on and on.

Suffice to say the art of film kept moving forward, productively so, well into and beyond the 1950s. Golden ages have a way of stretching and bending beyond what we are able to see, and to fall into even the broadest hint of a shape only from the perspective of distant hindsight.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Baseball Explained

I declare this image (via) a Q.E.D. on the li'l point I made about statistics fetishism among American sports fans:
I think people who cherish 'stats' in sports are either just grasping at terms to anchor something less clearly definable about the experience; or they use stats as a proxy for a long-running engagement with the game and an appreciation for its history, which begs the question of what, exactly, is interesting to watch in the ebb and flow of the sport.
So now you know what is interesting about major league baseball: for this season and maybe others too, there exists a non-zero integer that represents the number of active players named Chad. Also, something something slugging percentage, something something earned run average, something something fielding percentage, and so on.

Over an annual season running from April to September, each team plays 162 games.* Batters hit the ball, or try to do so, using bats made of wood; in the rare instance the ball doesn't go into foul territory or fly into the stands (where upwards of dozens of fans are permitted to keep the ball if they need one) fielders retrieve it using large gloves made of leather, then throw it back to the infield so they can be allowed to resume dozing.

It is sometimes called "America's Pastime," and maybe it is, but if so, this underscores how desperate things are here. Please help us. Please send help.

* Even the Kansas City Royals do! Even the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Houston Astros! Even the Seattle Mariners and the California Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Mondragon-Gabriel Prefecture, South Central Section presented by Delta Airlines! You wouldn't think so, but each of these teams and more play 162 regular-season games.

Oh No Man That's Too Easy

For purposes of the present post, if not the larger mood swing from which it springs, cynicism is a refuge of scoundrels. It's too easy, too convenient, too self-serving, too defeatist, and too lazy, as Stereolab's "The Noise of Carpet" expressed through music and lyrics:

I hate to see your broken face
this world would give you anything
as long as you will want to
as long as you will want to
I hate your state of hopelessness
and that vain articulateness
your loser type wreck wanna be
not a pretty sight really
in another world it'd be funny

I hate to see your broken face
a lazy life of fatal waste
of fashionable cynicism
the poison they want you to drink
oh no man that's too easy
oh no man that's too easy
we weren't talking 'bout happiness
apply your leading potential
to be useful to this planet
the world would give you anything
as long as you will want to
as long as you will want to

This is not just a rebuke of the ethos of world-weariness that so permeates present-day culture that it sometimes requires effort to recall that other ways to represent the world have been tried, but it aims even at the tenets of Jesus: it starts with the image of a broken face but pointedly rejects turning the other cheek, then suggests the world's gifts will go not to the poor, meek, and beaten, but to those who rally, question, and struggle.

"In another world it'd be funny" to declare a pox on all houses and sit on the couch, and under another paradigm, timid resignation gains a better afterlife, but in this world, cynicism is not funny nor a path to justice.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Blowing Out a Candle

Maybe it's pointless to be disturbed at anything that happens in Joseph-Smith-fearing Utah, but even as I favor a limited version of the death penalty on alternating Sundays and Thursdays, this is unsettling:

Death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner died in a barrage of bullets early Friday ... Gardner was strapped into a chair, a black hood was fastened around his head, and a team of five marksmen aimed their guns at a white target pinned to his chest ... [the condemned man] told his lawyer he did it because he preferred it ... The executioners were all certified police officers who volunteered for the task and remain anonymous. They stood about 25 feet from Gardner, behind a wall cut with a gunport, and were armed with a matching set of .30-caliber Winchester rifles. One was loaded with a blank so no one knows who fired the fatal shot. Sandbags stacked behind Gardner's chair kept the bullets from ricocheting around the cinderblock room.
Well, then -- the firing squad was still a legal form of execution in a putatively modern jurisdiction as late as 2004 (Utah has since ended it). Neat!

For all the precautions taken, and for all the voluntary aspects of it, it still seems needlessly barbaric: to the people firing the rifles, to the people who have to clean up the mess afterwards, to the medical staff who have to close in and check for signs of life -- presumably this means watching until the man stops squirming and until breathing visibly stops, and thereafter getting hands-on.

It is certainly barbaric to anyone who still cares for the executed man. As for the victims' survivors:
Kirk's daughter, Tami Stewart, said before the execution she believed Gardner's death would bring her family some closure.

"I think at that moment, he will feel that fear that his victims felt," she said.
Maybe. Plausibly. Who knows? "Closure" is notoriously elusive and unpredictable. What sounds more certain is that these people will go forward with yet one more bloody, brutal trauma to replay in their minds, and that doesn't sound constructive. From the comfort of this armchair, I decline to press the point further, but stand aside for the people involved to speak, think, and emote for themselves.

It's nice that Utah got around to ending this means of execution. It appears to be vanishing as a legal practice in the USA -- mostly:
On April 1, 2009, a bill to eliminate firing squad as a method of execution in Idaho was enacted, and took effect July 1, 2009. As of 2010, Oklahoma is the only other state in which execution by firing squad is legally available, though as a backup method only, in case both lethal injection -- the state's primary method of execution -- and electrocution are regarded unconstitutional.
Sigh. That's Oklahoma for you -- doing what it takes to keep a few candles burning in the long-abandoned caverns and sewers of modern civilization.

(via Obscene Desserts)

"It's not like you're really black ..."

If it's any consolation, I don't think she looks like a "black boy" either. Sadly, it is no consolation -- there is no consolation for this:

Did you notice the implicit linking of being black with having chicken pox? I wish I hadn't, but I did.

While we're on the topic of youtube videos featuring racist children, I thoroughly enjoy what someone has done with this one.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Barton - Fink

Representative Joe Barton (R-Bowels of Hell) spoke today:

I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation could be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown--in this case, a $20 billion shakedown--with the attorney general of the United States, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation, and has every right to do so to protect the interests of the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund that's unprecedented in our nation's history, that's got no legal standing, and which sets, I think, a terrible precedent for the future ... There is no question that BP is liable for the damages. But we have a due process system where we go through hearings, in some cases court cases, litigation, and determine what those damages are and when those damages should be paid. So I'm only speaking for myself, I'm not speaking for anybody else, but I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, he's subjected to some sort of political pressure that is again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.
There are so many remarkable things about this statement -- how it conveys a heartfelt apology to BP, which leaves the mind reeling at the variety and number of despicable things Joe Barton has never seen fit to apologize for -- starting with, say, his longstanding, aggressive promotion of oil industry lawlessness; how it speaks of the importance of "due process" only a sentence after its confident declaration that "there is no question that BP is liable," whereas those of us who favor due process even when gigantic corporations aren't in jeopardy realize that it exists to separate mere accusations from findings of liability; for that matter, in how it characterizes this "shakedown" at the White House as though it vitiates BP's rights to due process, when it doesn't -- BP will get its day in court should it come to that; and so on.

Later in the day, Oil's Congressman issued a statement qualifying his depraved, despicable whine on behalf of BP, but no one should be surprised if Barton's view becomes the default right-wing view within a few weeks.

Today's Narrow is Tomorrow's Obsolete

When it comes to the everyday motions of the economy, some measures are stubbornly elusive:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) never has attempted to estimate the number of times people change careers in the course of their working lives. The reason we have not produced such estimates is that no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change. A few examples may help to illustrate the difficulty of defining careers and career changes. Take the case of a BLS economist who is promoted to a management position. Before the promotion, she spent most of her time conducting economic research. After the promotion to the management position, she still may conduct research, but she also spends much more time supervising staff and reviewing their research, managing her program's finances, and attending to a variety of other management tasks. This promotion represents an occupational change from economist to manager, but does it also represent a career change? It depends on how you define a career change.
So much for career changes -- what about job changes? Perhaps it can serve as a rough proxy for career changes -- very rough, for some of the reasons given above and more, but a halting grasp that's better than a blind guess. Some of the best available data indicates that people change jobs roughly eleven times between ages 18 and 42, though the BLS admits this, too, is difficult to measure.

We have, then, a tentative but reasonable conclusion about a particular form of churn in the labor market: one's work life at 18 is likely to differ from one's work life by 42. The proper response to this situation appears in a new report issued from what must be the self-hatred department of Georgetown University:
[T]he lead author of the report said in an interview that the report should also shake up colleges — and challenge most of them to be much more career-oriented than they have been and to overhaul the way they educate students, to much more closely align the curriculum with specific jobs. [emphasis mine]
Fantastic. Twenty-five years ago -- or roughly ten job changes ago, on average -- this advice would educate high school graduates in Michigan for work in the car industry; it would prepare high school graduates in Oregon for work in timber; it would prepare Gulf Coast residents for work on shrimping boats and drilling platforms; it would prepare people throughout the South for work in textiles; it would prepare Pennsylvanians for careers in steel production; it would prepare young people in the bigger media markets for work in journalism and advertising. And so on.

For some, these preparations actually would have worked out -- it's not as though any of the listed fields are completely dead in the places indicated. For most, they would have created exactly what we see: large numbers of people with specialized knowledge, limited skills, and narrowed horizons chasing fewer and fewer job prospects. There is no good reason to expect the next 25 years to be any different -- on the contrary.

There is clearly a place for focused technical and vocational training as changes in supply and demand wend their way through the economy, but these should not be confused with, nor suggested as a replacement for, learning -- the art of understanding, thinking critically, adapting to change, noticing the unexpected, seeing horizons for what they are.

This is not rank idealism (or not that only): what employers demand today stands to be forgotten and worthless alarmingly soon. This reality calls for flexibility and improvisation, which aren't covered in Fold A-into-Slot B training exercises.

Advising young people to select a career, immediately, and dedicate their efforts to becoming exactly what that career field demands at that moment, betrays a filthy and small idea of human flourishing -- and it doesn't work. Advising institutions of higher education to reshape themselves to fit this malpractice is an abomination.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Two Faiths of a Teleprompter

The teleprompter (Cf.) might have ended last night's speech on a fairly resounding peroration:

It’s a faith in the future that sustains us as a people. It is that same faith that sustains our neighbors in the Gulf right now.
That form of faith -- a faith grounded in a history of challenges faced and unexpectedly overcome -- was a recurring theme of the address, one that has the virtue of being reality-based.

Alas, no. The teleprompter rolled on past that:
Each year, at the beginning of shrimping season, the region’s fishermen take part in a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe. It’s called “The Blessing of the Fleet,” and today it’s a celebration where clergy from different religions gather to say a prayer for the safety and success of the men and women who will soon head out to sea ... they came and they prayed. For as a priest and former fisherman once said of the tradition, “The blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that He is with us always,” a blessing that’s granted “even in the midst of the storm.”
It's a little concern-trollish of me to carry on this way, but what else is a blog for -- god's blessing is not that he'll do anything, but that he's with us always? Really? That's the upside to a devoted personal relationship with him/her/it?

So, to review: under this second version of faith the teleprompter has invoked, we have an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent leprechaun sitting on our shoulder -- exactly the sort of being we'd want for shoring up our technical acumen in the face of an ongoing calamity -- but he's going to sit this one out, and that's just fine. He'll say nothing and do nothing, but banish all worry because the awesome, fabulous leprechaun is there.

No thanks. The teleprompter rolled a few notches too many.

That Which Cannot Be Unseen

I can give two reliable assurances about this youtube video: (1) It is PG, or at most PG-13, no worse than that. You could watch it along with your parents without breaking any unambiguous taboos -- it's not sexual in nature, nor does it portray harm done to people or other living things. It would not even be fair to say that there is anything degrading about it, or if there is, there is only one person involved, so it is a case of self-dealing. (2) It is not the most extreme of its kind in the annals of the youtubes.

I am purposely not embedding it, though I could -- I'm as astonished as anyone to find that even I have my limits. It might well bring you to appreciate the simple, calming beauty of this fateful image, which has made many appearances on this precious, precious blog:

All of which is to say, don't follow the link. You'll be better off if you just move along and pretend you never heard of it. If you have clicked the link and watched the video, let me just say I'm sorry -- I'm sorry it exists; I'm sorry it can never be unseen after it has been witnessed; I am sorry that I introduced it to you. Really, I am, but as with so many things, I have this notion in my head that sharing a trauma can somehow lessen its damage. This approach almost never works, but I keep doing it.

Again, I am sorry.


The Teleprompter-in-Chief Speaks

Determined to defy the McCain-Palin campaign's accusations that he was a giver of pretty speeches but not an agent of principled change, President Obama last night gave a speech on the BP-Halliburton-TransOcean oil spill that wasn't pretty. Joan Walsh was unmoved, especially with the elements of the speech's "battle plan" that call for moving slightly slower in the same direction and appointing a commission to write a report:

I thought the president was about to do what I'd hoped for, unrealistically, this afternoon – explain why he was wrong to drop his opposition to expanded offshore oil drilling, and recommit to his old position. He didn't ... He then committed to a National Commission to study the disaster and explore what new environmental protections are needed. (If he paid any attention to the House Energy Committee's grilling of top oil industry execs today, he'd know the industry has no idea to cope with a disaster of this magnitude.)
The part in parentheses refers to the sworn testimony of oil executives in Congress yesterday, which included this:
“When these things happen, we are not very well equipped to deal with them,’’ said Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil. “And that’s why the emphasis is always on preventing these things from occurring. ... That’s just a fact of the enormity of what we’re dealing with.’’
So mark that -- as of 15 June 2010, no one on earth knows how to 'deal with' spills of the kind we're seeing in the Gulf of Mexico. The president's speech, given the same day, has an answer to that:
Already, I have issued a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue. And while I urge the Commission to complete its work as quickly as possible, I expect them to do that work thoroughly and impartially.
Notice how we're a mile deep in the compromise position even as the words scroll across the teleprompter: we have no idea what to do, and we have no idea when we'll know what to do, but jobs on oil rigs are in peril so long as drilling is stalled, so this commission should make sure to write its report quickly.

"As quickly as possible," that is, but don't ask how that squares with the definite six-month moratorium. Supposing the commission hasn't finished all its drafts by the end of six months, what then? Or, supposing the commission's final version comes out before six months, but offers no new answers for stopping a gushing oil drill several thousand feet under the water, what then? Or, supposing the commission's final report comes out before six months, and includes a detailed list of new standards, rules, practices, and enforcement mechanisms that stand a credible chance of preventing such disasters in the future --- what then? 

The teleprompter didn't say.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Placing Trust Where Warranted

For what little it's worth, I trust evolution to continue operating as it always has. Hundreds of millions of years from now, some or other current-day insect or squid or may evolve to replace our species, which by then we ourselves will have driven to extinction. When that happens, and when they sift through the archaeological evidence, they'll be right to wonder how an organism like NBC's David Gregory was ever possible. Glennzilla:

[O]bserve Gregory's complete inability even to understand the concept of arms-length, verification-based accountability (h/t Stuart Zechman):
MR. GREGORY: You were quoted this week saying this isn't a very sympathetic figure, Tony Hayward.


MR. GREGORY: Does the president trust this guy?

MR. AXELROD: Well, look, it's not a matter of who -- we, we -- it's not a matter of trust. We have to verify what they're doing, we have to stay on them, and we have from the beginning. That's why we want this escrow account. I'm not here to, to make judgments about any individual's character, but we do know that they have pecuniary interests that may be in conflict with, with the interests of, of our interests, and we...

MR. GREGORY: But, but let --but...

MR. AXELROD: ...need to make sure that the interests of people in the Gulf are protected. That is what our job is.

MR. GREGORY: But this is a straightforward question. If you are in partnership with somebody -- and make no mistake, the government is in partnership with BP to get this problem solved -- does the, does the president of the United States trust the man on the other end who is leading this operation?

MR. AXELROD: Our, our mission here is to hold them accountable in, in every appropriate way, and that is what we're going to do. I, I'm not -- I don't consider them a, a, a partner, I don't consider them -- they're not social friends, they're not -- I'm not looking to make judgments about their soul. I just want to make sure that they do what they're required to do.

MR. GREGORY: Do you trust them to get the job done? Yes, no or maybe?

MR. AXELROD: We're going to make sure they get the job done.

MR. GREGORY: But it doesn't sound like there's a lot of faith there at the moment.

MR. AXELROD: Well, our job is to hold them accountable, David, and that's what we're going to do.
Axelrod is explaining exactly what the media is supposed to do concerning political officials if they are going to fulfill the function they like to pretend they have, and Gregory is simply incapable even of understanding what's being explained.
I trust David Gregory to be a raving moron for the rest of his natural life, or more exactly, to continue demonstrating that he is the product of a historically-driven ideological winnowing process that favors his precise confusions.

The idea Axelrod is trying to convey is not a difficult one. Any child can understand perfectly well the idea of holding someone accountable by observing and measuring their deeds against a definite standard, e.g., will the student complete his math assignment by completing all of the problems by 9am the next morning, or will he not? Holding the student accountable entails examining what (if anything) the student turns in by 9am the next morning. There's no question of interpersonal trust between teacher and student or vice-versa touching on the student's accountability; whether the teacher "trusts" the student to complete the assignment is beside the point. I feel a little stupid even summarizing and illustrating the idea.

It requires ideology to be as stupid as Gregory is here -- millions of gallons of stupid. If the earth hosts a next intelligent species, may it find a way past elevating and privileging such astonishing, drenching inanity.

Breaking Bad - Better Living Through Chemistry

The video recap of Breaking Bad's season three finale is embedded below, and it is the mother of all spoilers, so watch at your peril -- but do watch:

Curiously enough, or maybe not, the recap omits the small but tantalizing scene from this episode in which Mike, the tough we saw interrogating the attorney in the recap, conducted a rescue operation of one of Gus's distribution partners, who had evidently been taken hostage by agents of Mexican drug traffickers eager to break in to Gus's lucrative empire. These scenes called to mind Walt's season one and two problems with distribution -- Walt knows, perhaps even better than Gus (as odd as that seems), that making the product and distributing it are very different challenges.

So even as Gus struggles to maintain control of his local production operation by eliminating Walt via cross-training of Gale -- familiar cutthroat corporate downsizing practices complete with the prospect of literal cut throats -- he struggles to keep his most vicious, motivated rivals out of his revenue stream. This suggests an answer to why he took such umbrage at Walt for having dispatched the two ostensibly low-ranking dealers at the end of the previous episode -- it appears Gus is running dangerously short of muscle. He will need more if he is to maintain the tenuous balance on which his business model rests, between a Walmart-ish de facto monopoly on distribution and an Apple-ish emphasis on superior product.

Looking ahead to next season, there is more than enough muscle to keep things interestingly violent, chaotic, and unstable. Gus may come to realize -- in time? -- that there is such a thing as being too ruthless in the pursuit of the Apple-ish side of that balance, whereas the Walmart-ish side is more amenable to the application of blunt force. Mike's mirror and Walt's brother-in-law, Hank, now seemingly recovering and brimming with fresh resentments that could turn him against his DEA loyalties, is sure to figure in what comes next.

I'll be watching.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Salvage Operations

I wish I could believe this movie about Hypatia won't insult the intelligence of everyone over six:

I wish I could believe a lot of things. This has every appearance of being Braveheart in a skirt --- um, I mean, Braveheart in Alexandria. You know, a she-Braveheart: long on melodrama, short on everything else. Is it too late for them to do the entire thing in Pixar? It could work that way; they could still use Rachel Weisz's voice.

Speaking of religious fanatics and reductions of history to simplistic slogans, here's Bill Donahue carping at Stephen Hawking:

How any rational person could belittle the pivotal role that human life plays in the universe is a wonder, but it is just as silly to say that all religions are marked by the absence of reason. While there are some religions which are devoid of reason, there are others, such as Roman Catholicism, which have long assigned it a special place.
Yes, a special place -- lost in one of the Vatican's couch cushions with an old comb, some pennies, and a soiled spork.

I wish I could say I hope to learn more about what Bill Donahue means by the pivotal role that human life plays in the universe. Oh, wait, no I don't. I don't wish that; I think I have a very clear idea of it. It's enough to observe that Bill Donahue considers himself a significant, necessary defender of the One True Faith, and he believes that the One True Faith is essential to human affairs. When Bill Donahue suggests humans play a pivotal role in the universe, then, he's a few brief steps from saying what he means, namely, that Bill Donahue is pivotal to the universe. The rest of us are his guests. He controls the very quasars!

Is it too late to reconsider and render him in Pixar? That would be no less annoying or brash, but it might insult our intelligence a little less.

Yellow Cards for Stupid

The USA's right-wing punditry is predictably calm and thoroughly reasoned in its reception of the World Cup:

"Barack Obama's policies are the World Cup." In an extensive rant on the June 11 Glenn Beck Program, Beck purported to explain how President Obama's policies "are the World Cup" of "political thought." Beck stated, "It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn't matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn't matter how many bars open early, it doesn't matter how many beer commercials they run, we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it." Beck stated that likewise, "the rest of the world likes Barack Obama's policies, we do not."
or, to put that more explicitly:
Discussing soccer's popularity in the U.S. on his June 10 program, G. Gordon Liddy asked, "Whatever happened to American exceptionalism?"
And, lest we forget the conspiratorial and racist elements:
Also on the June 10 G. Gordon Liddy Show, Media Research Center's Dan Gainor said, "the problem here is, soccer is designed as a poor man or poor woman's sport" and that "the left is pushing it in schools across the country." He added: "generally football games in this country don't devolve into riots or wars." He later added that the sport of soccer "is being sold" as necessary due to the "browning of America."
To review, soccer is a man-made plague insidiously worming its way into the United States by riotous hordes of dark-skinned savages who never wear USA flag lapel pins nor go dewy-eyed at the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

So it goes. A certain cohort of Americans will accept that frame, or one like it, and lurch forward with it. Meanwhile, for those of us willing to entertain the possibility that the rest of the world might have its reasons, Marc at Pandagon offers a question-answer frame through which to appreciate soccer, a thoughtful effort (not to say the final word), one that speaks directly to one of the common plaints of American sports fans:
Major American sports are defined by a never-ending stream of recordable micro-events: balls and strikes, first downs, rebounds, completed passes, double plays, blocked shots, and so forth. Box scores for every sport regularly spawn additional columns to satisfy our stats- and fantasy-obsessed fans. From this perspective, watching soccer can seem boring or frustrating - without a bunch of tangible events to track in-game, how can we even be sure something is happening?
Americans do say things like this, but I think people who cherish 'stats' in sports are either just grasping at terms to anchor something less clearly definable about the experience; or they use stats as a proxy for a long-running engagement with the game and an appreciation for its history, which begs the question of what, exactly, is interesting to watch in the ebb and flow of the sport.

The question-answer frame is a useful one, but for me, the compelling thing about soccer is precisely in the way the game can be determined by so few events -- a single breakaway attack, a lone blunder by a goalie -- and how the determining event can come at any moment. That's drama, and while billions can indeed be wrong, the world beyond these borders is not wrong to appreciate it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Different Gulf

Matt Yglesias poses a fair-sounding question in light of ongoing calamities:

How often in recent years have we been plagued by this problem? Not black swans out of nowhere, but merely the recurrence of somewhat unlikely events that just haven’t happened for a while. A big hurricane hits New Orleands [sic], a leveraged bubble bursts, a drilling operation goes badly awry. And unfortunately both the business world and the government world seem equally incapable of grasping the fact that “unlikely to happen on any given day” and “will never happen” are totally different things.
"Incapable" is beside the point. The gulf between political viability (e.g., legal limits on offshore drilling whose failures can't be contained by current technical means) and business viability (e.g., offshore drilling as deep as can be technically achieved) is now filling the Gulf of Mexico with oil.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Midgley's Slapdash

Because the world so needs another person to rescue the quiet, unassuming dignity of Christian belief from upwards of several recent books, Mary Midgley has stepped forward:

Today's anti-god warriors ... declare that Darwin's evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of [god's] existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public ... the huge prestige of science is being used ...
She's too kind to list any substantiating instances of scientists using evolutionary theory in this way -- too kind to her own slapdash accusations, that is.

She moves to a provocative question resting on the shoulders of straw-men:
[Newton] reasoned that gravity cannot be physically caused because it acts at a distance and material causes were believed always to work by contact, leaving God – a "god of the gaps" – as the only possible cause. But is today's evolutionary argument – which is often treated as fatal not just to Christianity but to religion generally – actually any stronger?
This would be the place to provide a summary of the argument, not only to expose its shortcomings but also to attribute it to someone more specific than "today's anti-god warriors." She's again too kind to do so -- too kind to her own slapdash.

Midgley's slapdash dashes over to Biblical literalism, which
is also a spiritual phenomenon, a message felt in the heart. Despite its confusions, it involves a genuine response to the real wisdom which can also be found in the Bible. Serious attempts to answer it need, therefore, to acknowledge that wisdom. They must try to show ways of combining it with more modern thinking.
Suppose the embrace of Biblical literalism is, as Midgely claims, "genuine." So what? The 9/11 hijackers were also manifestly "genuine;" BP's senior management was "genuine" in its ambitions to conduct profitable oil extraction with its Deepwater Horizon project; every teenager in the thrall of first love is nothing if not not "genuine;" genuineness is not a virtue. Genuineness is often the problem.

As for "ways of combining ... the wisdom which can be found in the Bible ... with more modern thinking," these are almost too obvious and abundant: literature, history, philosophy, the arts. These are names for well-established disciplines through which people approach questions relevant to the human condition, and they've drawn on Biblical sources for as long as Biblical sources have existed. This approach has thrived at least from The Consolation of Philosophy to A Serious Man.

It takes a lot of work to miss this way of combining modernity with the wisdom of the past, but Mary Midgley has done the work.

(via Ophelia Benson)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Missing - A Child & Adequate Reporting

This child is missing and was last seen in the circled area of Northwest Portland. The number to call with information helpful to locating him is (503) 261-2847.

With that bit of important business done, allow me a cavil. Suppose a newspaper reported that a child is missing and was last seen at Skyline Elementary School. Would you know where that is?

Suppose I narrowed it down as follows: you live somewhere in the TriMet area -- the three of that "tri" being Portland, Gresham, and Beaverton, Oregon -- common shorthand for the greater Portland area. Now do you know where Skyline Elementary School is?

It so happens that a child has gone missing -- the one pictured above, in fact; and that he was last seen at Skyline Elementary School, which I gather is somewhere in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon, perhaps within the city limits. It further so happens that I live in the TriMet area, and have lived here for over twenty years, and yet I have no idea where Skyline Elementary School is.

I know, I know -- I should maintain a current mental inventory of the approximate location of every primary and secondary school in the greater Portland area. What a callous shit I am for not doing so!

Still, I'll say it: news reports that give "Skyline Elementary School" as the center of an ongoing search for a missing child, but that don't bother to state where the fuck that is -- news reports like this one, this one, this one, and too many more -- do the public a serious disservice. The reporting done for such location- and time-sensitive circumstances should make it impossible for even the most casual reader/viewer/listener to miss the details most useful in locating the missing person.

Sigh. This particular less-than-worthless story seems to be trying to avoid useful specifics on the location -- my comments in brackets:
TriMet buses carried searchers early today from the mothballed Wapato Jail -- where they are staying [Neat! Where?]-- to a base camp on Northwest Quarry Road near a Multnomah County road maintenance shop [I don't have the slightest idea where they're talking about]. That is less than a mile southeast of Skyline School [Fascinating!], where Kyron was last seen about 9 a.m. June 4. [Wow! Date and time!]

At about the same time of day that Kyron was last seen one week ago, officials were stopping cars along Skyline Road [Oh, Skyline Road you say? Off hand, I don't know where that is. Where along this road?] this morning, just down the street from Skyline.
To be fair, not all of the reporting has been so awful -- this story bothers to include relevant details, and the map at the top is from another story from one of the local news outlets.

Timely, unambiguous presentation of details in such cases can make the difference between life and death. Present those or don't bother.

The One Thing I Like About Kobe Bryant

My contempt for the Los Angeles Lakers is longstanding and unimpeachable, and because he plays in one of their costumes, I can barely bring myself to acknowledge that Kobe Bryant is anything better than one of history's greatest monsters. Still, I try to wedge some fair-mindedness into my appreciation of sports, so I take exception to this NPR story that exists to report that Kobe Bryant's patience with aspects of NBA super-stardom is finite. The story is mostly concerned with this exchange with reporters after game one of this year's finals:

OK, I could take the cheap and easy here and gab on about how Kobe Bryant doesn't seem to know what surly means. That would be trenchant and stuff! And yet, I will decline, not least because for all I know, he's only feigning as a way to throw off the reporter. Anyway, I suspect he doesn't care what surly means, nor about what the world thinks of his working vocabulary, as he grills the finest of grass-fed steaks for his dogs using piles of wadded-up $100 bills as charcoals.

The NPR story cites the exchange as follows:

[H]is postgame press conference reveals the monochromatic man - pursed lips, flat tone ...

[Reporter]: Do you see yourself as any different than you were a year ago going to the finals? I mean, you were a little surly last year.

KOBE BRYANT: I don't know what that means.

[Reporter]: Kind of short, you know, short.

Mr. BRYANT: Oh, no, I don't know.
I prefer the following interpretation: Kobe Bryant is sometimes "short" -- or if you prefer, "surly" -- with sports reporters because they ask stupid fucking questions that he has no interest in answering. The NBA seems to compel certain "star" players to show up for post-game press conferences of this sort, and his monochromatic, pursed-lipped, flat, surly demeanor suggests he would prefer not to. This unreasonable?

No. I can admire this because it seems genuine. Kobe Bryant's form of "playing the game" is chiefly about playing the game of basketball, including living within the game's odd assumptions that things like scoring, rebounding, passing, defending, managing the clock, winning, and losing actually matter. He doesn't seem inclined to cozy up to sports reporters in hopes of becoming the next player-turned-raconteur-analyst on TNT or ESPN. Nor does he seem to be positioning himself for a future career as a televangelist or right-wing politician, unlike a couple of other famous athletes that spring to mind. This should be counted as a feature, not a bug.

There are better reasons to dislike Kobe Bryant, starting with that costume he wears.