Friday, December 31, 2010

Ready for 2011

Mom would be proud of me for refusing to give up when first I gazed upon the blackeye-pea-free bean shelves at Fred Meyer -- much as she would have done, I refused reality's first offer, considering it only a starting position from which the true bargaining should begin. Therewith I looked more, and then some more, and at last found a conspicuously open space on the upper bean shelf, and looking still more closely, spied an overturned can that had rolled almost entirely behind the cans of some other kind of bean that no one ever buys. Seizing it, I turned it over to reveal the label shown here -- Fred Meyer Blackeye Peas -- the very last can in the store on this New Year's Eve.

Hey, Fred Meyer! Have you ever noticed how your stores don't sell any blackeye peas all year long, and then sell out of them in the two or three days leading up to New Year's Day? There's a reason for that. I'm not saying there's a good reason for that -- frankly, good reasons and I have an on-again, off-again relationship -- but there is a reason, and it's good enough to move cans of black-eyed peas. To wit:

A tradition common to the southern states of the USA dictates that the eating of black-eyed peas on New Year's Day will attract both general good luck and financial good fortune in particular to the one doing the dining. Some choose to add other Southern fare (such as ham hocks, collard greens, or cabbage) to this tradition, but the black-eyed peas are key.
The corollary of this superstition is, of course, that not eating black-eye peas on New Year's Day brings a year of misfortune and hardship, and no one wants another of those goddamn things.

Upon this firmly reasoned basis, I encourage everyone to eat at least one black-eye peas tomorrow. I strongly recommend adding other fare to the black-eye peas because they taste terrible on their own.



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* The careful reader will note that I meander from "blackeye peas," to "black-eye peas," to "black-eyed peas" -- thither, yon, hither, to, fro, back, forth, and so on. There is no logic or plan to it. Food that's this foul-tasting does not merit a consistent spelling.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Damnation by Faint Praise, Illustrated by State

The 1Bog blog has achieved what's destined to be lasting internets fame by enumerating a superlative to attach to each of the fifty US states. Not surprisingly, many of these reveal what we already knew but would usually prefer to avoid stating outright -- that many of the states are terrible, empty, dull, pointless places, and in a better, more civilized world, would close down, hand in the keys, and fold their operations into a neighboring state. Consider Oklahoma, for example:


Uh, yea. I have seen many of these man-made "lakes," if that's the proper word for wretched cow ponds loaded with vicious painted turtles, upturned koi, frightened perch, and desperately underfed bass. Show me a state where people have taken the time and effort to dig hundreds and hundreds of "lakes," and I'll show you a depressing, featureless, life-force-draining flatland whose monotony has driven demonstrably lazy people to dig until they have something that can be habitat for something they can kill. Speaking of show-me states, what is Missouri best at? You'll be glad I asked for you:


First observation: Kansas City is roughly half in Kansas. Second observation: having lots of freeway per capita is nothing to take pride in, especially when there's nowhere to go but to the Kansas half of town. Which brings me to the third observation: Kansas City is the sort of place that moves people to dig until they have something they can fill with water, then fill with small creatures, then kill the small creatures -- or, as the case may be, dig until they can find a new place to site a freeway, then wait for cars to collide upon it.

I make fun of Kansas because it lacks redeeming qualities, but compared with some states, its entry on the list is not so bad:


Everybody loves wheat! Well, except for the gluten-intolerant among us, but they love it from afar, as in the romances of old. And trust me -- driving through endless fields of it is at least as interesting as driving through endless fields of alfalfa or corn. Corn, you say? What about Nebraska?


Put differently, Nebraska is the nation's leading slaughterer of cows. One or another state had to be, right? Right. The real cache of corn lies due east, in Iowa:


Without Iowa's huge corn production totals, what would sweeten our soft drinks, cakes and donuts? Without soft drinks and endless varieties of corn chips, how would we wash down all that Nebraska beef? It's difficult to imagine what people did for sweeteners and corn chips before Congress started massively subsidizing corn production. Maybe they squeezed turnip juice or something? Ew.

If Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa surrendered their statehood and added their distinctiveness to a newly-enlarged Kansas, it's easy to see what would be lost -- the number of stars on the flag would drop to 46, as would the number of illustrations of state-by-state superlatives at 1Bog.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Canon and Pollution

I could be wrong, but I think Matt Yglesias is right about this:

[I]f you examine the classic liberal canon you’ll find not a single iota of support anywhere in it—not in Smith not in Mill not in Bastiat not in Hayek not in Friedman not anywhere—for the assertion that it’s an important free market principle that the Koch brothers should be allowed to put pollution into the air without compensating the billions of people around the world who are impacted by this activity. And yet an absolute consensus has developed around this idea in right-of-center American circles ...
Not that it would have made any difference if Smith, Mill, Bastiat, Hayek, or Friedman had advocated the right to pollute the air, but to my knowledge, they did not.

Friedman arguably came close in "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits," his seminal 1970 glibertarian manifesto advocating know-nothing, brazen insouciance in business management. But note the terms closely:
Many a reader who has followed the argu­ment this far may be tempted to remonstrate that it is all well and good to speak of Government's having the responsibility to im­pose taxes and determine expenditures for such "social" purposes as controlling pollu­tion or training the hard-core unemployed, but that the problems are too urgent to wait on the slow course of political processes, that the exercise of social responsibility by busi­nessmen is a quicker and surer way to solve pressing current problems. [emphasis mine]
Maybe Friedman was just laying down rhetorical ground he would quickly gather back up in subsequent scratchings, but he is openly conceding that government -- or, I gather, capital-g Government if you're glibertarian -- acts within its proper boundaries to set limits on pollution.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gain from Crap

I still haven't seen Black Swan or True Grit, The Fighter, or --- well, I can't even remember the last non-idiotic film I caught in a movie theater -- but I did watch, at my son's insistence, Gulliver's Travels today. Sigh.

"Irredeemable piece of shit" might be slightly too severe, but Gulliver's Travels was terrible on every level, and while I have no great love for his work, it's best that Jonathan Swift is dead since it means he doesn't have to watch the title of his famous satire abused in this fashion. Before today I would have scoffed at the idea that something could make me want to stop seeing Emily Blunt on a screen, but these 90 minutes showed how easy it is.

I have lost track of what, if anything, gave someone the impression that Jack Black creates funny or otherwise appealing film characters. Jack Black is the new Mike Myers, although with Myers, it's at least possible to cite moments here and there before he was something other than tedious.

But the news isn't all good. There is something to be gained from even the most wretched works of art, and a question posed by Norm Geras concerning the value of the humanities* brings it to the fore, albeit indirectly:

[S]uppose someone says that from reading Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, he or she learned something useful which they then applied to their own marriage(s), that by reading Philip Roth they were helped in thinking about the prospect of death, that after reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy they found it easier to cope with a cruelty they had suffered personally; whereas someone else professes to have had no help at all from reading assorted novels by Anne Tyler, George Eliot, William Maxwell and Anita Brookner, whether in his marriage, or in raising his children, or in coping with her employer, or with a personal misdeed done against her, or with anything. Supposing all this, or some variant of it - are we then to say that the second someone's reading has been a total waste of time?
It won't (say I) be a waste of time if the second someone makes a good-faith effort to gain something from it, and if nothing else, to understand what the work was trying to do and exactly how it failed.

Just as someone might strain to extract meanings, lessons, or resonances from a great work of art, so too might we find valuable things to say about junk like Gulliver's Travels: how it departed from the original by draining it of satire and tacking on a conventional romantic comedy story arc; how it crammed in a few scenes meant to recreate Swift's Brobdingnag but serving only to put Jack Black in a diaper and a dress for a few thin, pointless scenes; how it reveals something deeply wrong with the times in which we live by, inter alia, having a flabby, boasting, cowardly plagiarist come to justice not by social ostracism or legal sanction, but by getting an interesting job and a beautiful girlfriend; and so on.

There are interesting and thoughtful things to say about crap -- whether anything in the above counts as interesting or thoughtful is for the reader to judge -- and these can contribute to the ability to discern it when it appears. This is valuable in a world in which crap keeps being forced into our view, and the study of the humanities makes it possible.


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* Consider also this and this from Norm, and this from Martha Nussbaum.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Learning from Creation

poof!
Matt Yglesias walks us through a few of the necessary entailments of creationism:
The scientific method makes certain claims about the state of the universe 4,000 years ago. Now assume that God created the universe—fossils and all—to look exactly like that 4,000 years ago. That’s obviously a religious hypothesis rather than a scientific one, but it’s consistent with the evidence and doesn’t anyone to believe in a scientists’ conspiracy or anything. Of course this would mean that God is perpetrating a massive conspiracy, which would be an odd thing for a just and moral God to do. But people believe God’s up to all kinds of odd stuff.
Did he say odd? This fan of Jesus doesn't find it odd at all -- no, not in the least:
There is no reason for Christians to deny that all such things have an appearance of age. As with everything else God created, the ground and its features are designed as ways for us to learn. If Jesus does not end history for another million years, and humanity winds up living among the stars, then we shall have opportunities to watch these implied processes at work. Adam watched little plants grow up to become trees, and then he understood what the rings in the original trees meant. He watched Cain grow up to become a fully grown man, and then he understood what his own creation as a fully grown man meant. Humanity may eventually watch supernovae produce heavy elements, animals decay to form oil, and shellfish compress to become limestone, and similarly learn what the original creation implied. It is only that the span of time is longer for these kinds of things to develop. [emphasis mine]
So there you go -- god planted fossils in the rocks, crammed the trees with growth rings, and radio-carbon-back-dated countless trillions of molecules as a way for humans to learn how the universe works.

The thing is, this is an almost exact description of what god could not have been doing. According to the Biblical account, what god presented Adam -- and by extension, humankind -- is two markedly different means by which things come into existence: first, a sudden existence of things willed by a god who just knows how to cause things to exist from nothing (an audible nod as seen on I Dream of Jeannie?); and second, the natural way, in which enormous quantities of energy convert elements to heavier elements, the various elements combine into molecules, molecules combine in more and more complex ways, and a few billion years later, life emerges. And so on.

Concretely: Adam might have "watched little plants grow up to become trees," but by doing so, he could not possibly learn "what the rings in the original trees meant." The original rings were forged in a moment of godly whimsy; to a reasonable contemporary observer, they would have meant, at most, that god wanted some rings in the trees he was poofing into existence. In subsequent trees, the rings were eventually observed to indicate something quite different -- they came to be understood as the physical markers of the trees' gradual, natural, organic development.

Likewise, watching Cain grow from baby to full-grown murderer would tell Adam nothing about his own origins -- Adam didn't have a baby stage, nor a moody teenage stage to connect with Cain's life. It's not even clear how Adam would identify Cain as the same kind of creature Adam conceived himself to be -- even if he somehow pieced together that having sex with Eve is what caused infant Cain to emerge purple and squalling from her vagina, he might reasonably conclude that this was just another of her betraying, spiteful, catastrophic capers -- another collusion with that despicable talking snake. Certainly Cain in his tiny, mucous-covered, placenta-still-attached, definitely-not-talking-or-walking state would not reasonably call to mind "just like me," and it would be many years before he looked truly Adam-like.

Such are the tangles of creationism. Adam -- and by extension, all of us -- would do well to forget, as quickly and thoroughly as possible, everything about Eden. The way forward is to dismiss all of it as a fantasy, a delusion, a vivid hallucination, a name attached to the setting of a deeply misleading tale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Runner in Society

I adore the society of runners that shows itself when one runner passes within sight of another -- we wave at one another, wordlessly acknowledging our common pursuit, and that simple gesture conveys more community than an hour of typical small-talk: each sees the other passing over the same terrain, enduring the same unkind weather, wearing the same silly clothes, accepting the same hardships for the same inexpressible reasons. We could be next-door neighbors, but transfigured by our weird garb, the brevity of the passing, and the absurd setting of the encounter -- a silent country highway, a barely-paved side street, the thin shoulder of an access road -- there is no recognition, and no identification, other than runner. That tells more than enough, and it's a truly beautiful thing.

Not everything about running is quite so ennobling or sunny. Consider this:



It slightly disappoints me that this video portrays a runner who has put in a morning run of 15 miles, and who expects to make a long run of 20-22 miles in the same week, and yet expects to finish the marathon for which he is preparing in 4-5 hours. I don't think you need to put in that kind of training mileage to finish in 4-5 hours, but I could be wrong. Your mileage may vary?

As either of the regular readers of this precious, precious blog will attest, I am loath to say self-congratulatory things about running or my own running. People who do that appall me. With that said, the more disappointing feature of the video is its self-congratulatory stance toward running: the bystander character is a little too awestruck at the physical demands of the sport, whereas my experience is that non-runners pause ever so briefly on awe before moving directly to something closer to pity or scorn. They regard distance runners with roughly the indifference-suffused contempt with which I regard those who fritter away hours and life-span trying to master motorcycle stunts, ascend impossible mountain peaks, or partake of that parkour crap. I hope to see some of the above in funny video reels, but I resent being prevailed upon to stand in awe of what they do.

It's an iron-clad law of human interaction: other people's avocations are fucking stupid.

The 22nd

Nothing of any enduring interest has ever happened on the 22nd of any month in human history -- surely a bold claim, but one I will demonstrate by the unassailable proof* of reviewing the posts** on this precious, precious blog dated the 22nd of each month of this year.

January. "Unobtainium as Cat-Flesh" -- A carefully-reasoned* rumination on the rare occurrence of a male tri-color cat discovered in the vicinity of Salem, Oregon. The cat has since returned to obscurity, for all I know.

February. "Of Narcolepsy and Immunoglobulin Benders" -- In which I beseeched the blank heavens with bootless inquiries as to precisely how much immunoglobulin I need to drink per unit time to cure my narcolepsy. Even to this day, no answer has been forthcoming, but I can report that a gallon and a half per day for ten straight months is not effective, only expensive.

March."A Very Lars von Trier Welcome" -- What would it be like if Lars von Trier produced tourism videos for Denmark? The Onion does the imagining so we don't have to.

April. "Pug Needs Kiss" -- Noting that the blog bitte ein kuss is a steady source of ravishing eye-candy, if you're prepared to fight through the wrapper of emo. This was actually posted on April 23; evidently overtaken with the pointlessness of that month's 22nd day, I couldn't bring myself to post anything.

May. "The Sun Shines on Big Box Stores" -- In this post I remarked on the waste of materials evident in the architecture of a Target store where I had just spent ~$50. Take that, Establishment!

June. "What About Saying No?" -- This was posted in the waning months of the period during which I thought there was still a little point to be made by demanding that the USA's nominally left-liberal political party do a convincing impression of a left-liberal political party. How silly!

July. "Day 22 -- A song that you listen to when you're sad" -- Something something soundtrack of The Piano something.

August. "Triple Bad" -- Another careful rumination,* this time on how Americans** are staggeringly misinformed, or appallingly dumb, or pretending to be, or something.

September. "First Lines" -- Two parts pretension, one part compliance with my legal obligation to participate in all internets memes, the meme in question on the subject of first lines in literary works.

October. "What Matters More" -- Trolling-within-trolling directed at a more or less routine instance of anti-gay animus from one of god's earthly spokesmodels. And a video of a horrifying doll.

November. "Pew Hates America" -- Substantiating the claim that Pew Research hates the people of this country. Otherwise, why would it keep conducting polls that demonstrate that the people of this country are morons**? 

December. This very post. I rest my case.

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* Not really
** Some of them

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Art and ROI

Eli Horowitz muses about the costs and benefits of entertainments:

* $45 for a console video game per 30 hours of play time = $1.5/hr
* $20 for a hardback novel per 5 hours of reading = $4/hr
* $30 for a decent concert ticket per 1.5 hours at the concert itself = $20/hr
* $15 for a CD per 1 hour of music = $15/hr
These are only on the first run through, of course. With live concerts and movies there is only the one run through, but with the others you could re-experience them as many times as you want. Does that, then, make those the worse investments? The other thing that sort of jumps out in the list is that video games are, relatively speaking, incredibly cheap - does that make them the least valuable as art?

An alternative interpretation (and unsurprisingly my preferred interpretation) is that the cost-benefit analysis just isn't very useful for making fine-grained distinctions. But it sure is interesting, because I suspect that many of us sort of lump all purchasable art forms together without thinking about it very much. I don't really have any strong conclusions about this, I just think it's worth mulling over for a minute or two.
At the risk of validating a crudely cash-nexus-y view of things, I think cost-benefit analysis has plenty of promise for placing value on forms of entertainment. A film, recording, book, game (etc.) that stands up to repeated viewings, listenings, readings, playings (etc.) is tantamount to a valuable one, and even live, one-time-only experiences -- a play, a concert, a live TV spectacle -- stand out by replaying in the memory, as though happening over and over.  

Van Halen's 1984 included such oft-played songs as "Panama," "Jump," "I'll Wait," and "Hot for Teacher," but "Girl Gone Bad" is etched just as strongly in my memory, for better or worse. (Answer, for what it's worth: surely worse.) Whatever might be said of 1984, there can be no doubt that I got my money's worth out of it, as it almost certainly stands as the recording I've heard the most times of any. Soon after discovering this "music" thing everyone was always gibbering about, and after cobbling together enough cash to buy it (and concluding I wouldn't be able to shoplift it), I bought it and proceeded to listen to it more or less non-stop between, oh, early 1985 and early 1988. Other recordings came and went in the same period, of course, but this seminal work of 1980s cock-rock never left the short list, and no, I am not proud to say so.

All that said, the value I place in these terms is sheerly subjective, as I hope the instance of 1984 establishes: one can get a recording down to vanishingly small fractions of a penny per listen, and enjoy it all the while, but it doesn't follow that critics of the future will similarly prize it. I would only say that the popular appeal of a work of art can only be a noteworthy data point for judicious critics: it suggests that something is attracting eyes, ears, and minds of human beings, but the something could turn out to be nothing more than a glitzy advertising campaign or the self-propelling madness of crowds.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

DADT Gone

After centuries of bigotry, excuse-making, and miscellaneous dawdling, the US Senate has finally voted to allow gay people to serve in the military without pretending not to be gay.

I am willing to concede that President Obama was right to insist that legislation, not presidential action, was an adequate means of overturning this injustice. Too late though it is, this is a positive step toward the ideal of equal opportunity under law, and I congratulate everyone who has struggled and sacrificed to bring it about.

Sadly, this stands to be among the last good things we see out of the Senate in a very long time.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Colbert on Jesus

As a nonbeliever, I claim no rooting interest in whether Jesus is a this or a that -- I can only summon up so much concern for the dispositions of fictional characters -- but Stephen Colbert does have such a rooting interest, and you don't have to follow his comedy very long to realize that he knows more than a little something about the Christianity with which he was raised. Says Colbert, in reply to a bit of Bill O'Reilly's Social Darwinist twaddle:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition. And then admit that we just don't want to do it.
Here is the entire segment from which this is taken -- brilliant stuff:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

Putting the Faux in News

As I was saying, the trouble with FoxNews isn't that it has a biased view of this or that, but that it spreads lies. These are some of the falsehoods it has successfully planted in the minds of its viewers:

– Most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely) (91 percent of those who watch Fox News “almost every day”)
– Most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points) (72 percent)
– The economy is getting worse (26 points) (72 percent)
– Most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points) (60 percent)
– The stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points) (63 percent)
Their own income taxes have gone up (14 points) (49 percent)
The auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points) (56 percent)
– When TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) (38 percent)
– And that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)(63 percent)
FoxNews's distortions coupled with its high ratings has a lot to do with the decoupling of policy-making from reality. Misinformed viewers elect people who repeat the same pleasing lies they see on television, and as a result, more and more, we are governed by falsehoods and nostrums.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Noooooooooooo!

Merry Xmas to me, says the washing machine -- yes, that is the shirt I got for running the Seattle Marathon only a few weeks ago, now featuring a nasty tear in its side. And yes, that's my Oregon-pasty hand flesh showing within.

Truly summer's lease hath too short a date, for this was the unspeakable horror I beheld upon removing the shirt from the machine for only the second time in its brief life of service.

To say that I liked this shirt would be a gross understatement: it has long sleeves for this chilly season, it is made by people (Saucony) who do running clothes very well, it is not white, it commemorates a running event I did. That's pretty much all it takes for a garment to gain my affections; I'm kind of a cheap date when it comes to running shirts.

Now I fear the washing machine. I'll be doing a lot of hand-washing from this point forward.

Like all holiday stories, this one ends happily -- I have already contacted the good people at the Seattle Marathon and they're sending me a replacement for a small fee to cover the expense of shipping.

Speak, Borat Algorithm

I usually don't go for Spam -- neither the meat-ish variety nor the internets variety -- but sometimes the blogger spam filter nets something worth treasuring. I quote verbatim a comment recently received on -- well, it doesn't matter which post:
"I imagine this may well be various upon the subject material.!. nevertheless I still believe that it would be suitable for practically any sort of content material, since it might usually be pleasurable to determine a warm and pleasant face or maybe hear a voice when 1st landing."

my website is Kids Jacket .Also welcome you!
Maybe it's just dada poured out of a mindless algorithm, but I say it really comes alive when repeated in the voice and character of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat Sagdiyev. Granted, it's not exactly something he'd say -- his website would not be "Kids Jacket" but something X-rated, and the "when 1st landing" part would have to be something about a "love explosion" -- but of course, it's not exactly something anyone would really say.

In short, I join the spam algorithm in imagining this may well be various upon the subject material.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cuccinelli! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!

I hope this Washington-administration US statute is not still in effect:
[E]very citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack.
I am woefully out of compliance -- I don't have a sufficient bayonet, and even if I did, I wouldn't have a musket or firelock to which to attach it. Or do I? Off hand, I'm not sure what a firelock is.

To wikipedia! It helpfully notes that
The term firelock was originally applied, as the name suggests, to the matchlock, but was later successively applied to the wheellock and then the flintlock as each was invented.
OK then. I do not have a matchlock, nor a wheellock, nor a flintlock. Surely this law represents a violation of our constitutional liberties as they were understood before the Washington administration warped them, but the depredations of executive authority will do as they will do. Please write me while I'm detained in the stockade.

Cf. this overheated poem and this overheated hack politician.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Seasonal Afflictions - The Helpful Sales Staff (Hi-Fi Edition)

Over a weekend dominated by holiday errands I had several all-too-typical interactions with Helpful Sales Staff at a few big- and not-so-big-box stores around the area. A few vignettes: 

  • "Do you have any questions?" asked the young woman in the required uniform of the store's Helpful Sales Staff. When I said "yes," and proceeded to ask her suggestions for the most comfortable headphones, she directed me to the $200+ Dr. Dre-Monster "Beats" headphones, but couldn't think of any comfortable headphones in the sub-$200 price range even though we were within arm's reach of several models and makes. Then I mentioned the trouble I've had finding high-quality headphones that will stay in place while I'm running, whereupon she suggested the $100+ Dr. Dre-Monster "Beats" in-ear headphones. I asked her where I might try some of these headphones before purchasing them, specifically the many models not evident on the "try me" counter, and she told me that she doesn't know because she really doesn't work in this department. Why, then, is she walking up and offering to answer questions?
  • In another store, I asked about devices that stream audio from a home network. "No," the old-school salesman scoffed. "We don't do that; that's not our thing." Fair enough, but of course, it is his thing, not simply because digital streaming is The Way Things Are Going in the A/V world (as of this instant, the crack of dawn, 13 December 2010), but also because many of the devices in his very store do, in fact, offer some form of digital streaming capability. I noticed a number of blu-ray players with DNLA capabilities, for instance. I had asked him the question because while I can read "DNLA" or see the Netflix logo on a product description all by myself -- I mean, if I concentrate and wear my reading glasses -- I had hoped the Helpful Sales Staff would point me to some of the better implementations of this sort of thing. That's what the Helpful Sales Staff is there to do, right? In that store, they are there to disparage new-fangled technology, justifiably and otherwise, and wax nostalgically about better times spent listening to Steppenwolf on vinyl or some shit.
  •  A sales guy in yet another store was more than a little disdainful that I would show any interest in a CD player. "Those are going the way of 8-track players," he scoffed, and then popped a USB flash drive into the front of an Onkyo receiver/amplifier and began playing a .WAV format recording of "Drive My Car" or maybe "Eleanor Rigby" directly from the receiver. I mentioned that I was interested in a CD player for reasons not so distant from the little point he was making -- my music collection has been transferred to MP3 format, so I want a CD player that can handle MP3 disks. "But MP3 is compressed!" he gasped. "Once you start getting to WAV and FLAC, it is lossless!" he said, gesturing at the USB thumb drive, and then informed me that even the old-timers who pine away for better days spent listening to Steppenwolf on vinyl are now converting their collections to lossless digital formats.

    Ummm ... OK, this think about this, Helpful Sales Staff guy. I'll grant the point about MP3's terrible, terrible inferiority in audio fidelity compared with lossless formats (still, MP3 has its uses). That said, from the fact that I am expressing interest in CD players, it follows that the source from which I am potentially not losing is ... wait for it ... CD. I happen to have hundreds of CDs and, oh, six or seven vinyl records tucked away in a box in the garage. So if not losing from the source is The Ultimate Good, I would be foolish to convert my CDs to anything, even a supposedly lossless something, because any copy I make can only ever match, but never exceed, the quality of the original. Hence my interest in a high-quality CD player that can also play disks containing some of the vast library of MP3 files I've already made from those CDs. And sure, if it can handle some FLAC files burned to a disk, that's great too.

    How foolish of me! Instead of a $300-$400 CD player, I should purchase a $900 amplifier/receiver with a USB port on the front of it (to replace my perfectly good but USB-port-free amp/receiver); and I should get a high-capacity USB drive for another $50-$100 -- gawd knows those are always reliable -- and load FLAC files onto it, after spending a few weeks creating a library of FLAC files, of course.

    No, really, I should insist on perfect fidelity and only listen to music as performed live, by unamplified instruments and voices, in rooms optimized for acoustics. After having my ears professionally cleaned.
Thanks, Helpful Sales Staff, for so many things, not least the reminder of how much woo there is in the world of hi-fi.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Conventions and Oblivion

Norm Geras finds an otherwise enjoyable novel derogated by an off-putting literary device, and wonders at the ability to set such problems aside

... in order to focus on the 'guts' of the thing, and thus not let the formal features of which you're critical get in the way of appreciating what's good in the story. It's somewhat like... You arrive in the theatre to find a big arrow just in front of the stage pointing to where the drama is to take place and with a sign beside it reading 'Everything that you will see happen here will be real life'. You think 'Yeah, yeah' and watch the play, knowing it's a play, and judge it however you do. So, similarly, I liked The Rain Before It Falls despite its dodgy narrative device.

Is there something more general there? About being able to choose whether a literary defect spoils your enjoyment or not? I don't know. A huge implausibility in the characterization or the plot is harder to overlook. As is tedium. Those who do this for a living - studying literature, I mean - is there an answer?
I don't study literature for a living -- though I am willing to accept payment for it at any time -- but I answer the question with a resounding yes, there is something more general there.

The enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of literature cannot get off the ground without a developed facility for bracketing away conventions of literary form: to get anywhere with narrative fiction, one must accept oddities not found in everyday life, such as third-person omniscient voice-overs, sometimes even first-person accounts of death (see Moses and the narrator of American Beauty); a tendency of characters to explicitly mention the names and histories of other characters; a peculiar absence of everyday necessities and realities (sleeping, eating, defecating, picking up the mail, the passage of time); an abnormally florid, sparse, or elevated manner of expression, and so on.

More than accept, one must learn to to be oblivious of these conventions -- to be swept up in the experience of a work of literature involves forgetting, to some important degree, that one is actually (say) reading words printed on bundled paper or sitting in a darkened room staring at a projected image.

People who study literature professionally are paid, arguably, to unlearn this oblivion -- to recognize the conventions when they appear, know something of their origins, development, and history, and appreciate how they contribute to or detract from attempts at well-crafted, artful storytelling. 

It's All About Demand

source

Albeit in a sidelong way, this blast of the blindingly obvious from Matt Yglesias tells us everything we need to know about the merits of the proposed tax cuts:
If everyone in Yuma, Arizona is unemployed then even a very competent proprietor of a dry cleaning establishment is going to have a hard time expanding his business. He won’t take out a loan to expand, he won’t get an equity investment to expand, and he won’t invest his own money in an expansion. You can give the guy all the money you want, and he won’t invest in expanding his business. That’s because unemployed people don’t need much dry cleaning and also don’t have much money to spend on dry cleaning. A guy with $0 and a good idea and a lot of potential customers will find a way to start his business. A guy with $1 billion and a good idea and no potential customers is just a guy sitting on a huge stockpile of cash. Things like the availability of credit matter, but credit is currently available. What’s not available is customers with money and an inclination to spend it. More government spending and more money-creation will lead to more purchases, more customers, more business expansion, and more hiring. Then people with good ideas will make a lot of money and complain about their high taxes.

While allowing taxes to increase on January 1st would be detrimental, the US economy doesn't need tax reductions. It needs employed people who have enough money to purchase goods and services. The excessive millions of unemployed and underemployed are already paying little in taxes because income and payroll taxes are not levied on earnings that don't exist. If these millions of people had more money and some prospect of continuing to earn it, they would be able and willing to buy things, and if there were more people with more money to buy more goods and services, businesses of all kinds could expand. Taxes have little to do with any of this.

source

American businesses can't exist, let alone thrive or expand, without customers. Customers can't exist without income. Jobs are needed far more than tax cuts.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Food, Too, Is Involved in Our Unspeakable Oppression

I would like to take a brief moment to assure Amanda Marcotte of a few things she already knows connected with this towering instance of bullshit from 

... Matthew Boyle at the Daily Caller, who appears to believe that poor people only eat one dinner a month.
Boyle decided to do an "investigation" into what he believes is a scandalous fact about food stamps, which is you can buy food with them. Boyle's investigative technique appears to have been to defraud the government by lying about his rent to get food stamps---he claimed to pay $1,375 in rent, when in fact his parents pay for it---and he got what he believes is a ridiculous $105 a month for food for a single man.

To prove how ridiculously high this is, he went to Whole Foods and spent $51.10 on a single meal.
I want to assure Amanda Marcotte that (a) this Boyle person is as stubbornly asinine as he seems; and (b) $105 is not a lot of money for an entire month in groceries, even for a single person, (c) let alone a month of groceries made up of $51 meals purchased at Whole Paycheck. And, by the way, (d) by the standards of stick-it-to-the-man-though-the-heavens-fall investigative journalism, proving your Little Point that the poor are overindulged by food stamps by blowing nearly half your monthly budget on a single meal is a massive, direct, full-frontal failure. But as we know from observing right-wing lunacy as it is nowadays practiced, its brazenly nonsensical character is what makes it powerful. Buckle in and feel the G's!

Moreover, (e) wingnuts do indeed dispute the value of nutrition. Many times -- too many -- I've actually had to argue with particular individuals I could but shan't name over the merits of including nutritional information on food sold in stores. (Many of these ideas come from this noxious mendacity factory.) Sadly, one of the enduring tenets of right-wing lore is that mandatory disclosure of nutritional information is a short, sharp step away from Stalinist purges. Force a soup maker to reveal the presence of potential allergens in a product, and soon enough we'll be subsisting (if at all!) on rat meat and rain water out in the forbidding, frigid wilds of the dark outer steppes.

Marcotte is also, sadly, dead on target with this:
I know it sounds weird to accuse conservatives of perpetuating nutrient denialism, i.e. the belief that people don’t need food to survive.  But there’s all sorts of subterranean wingnut beliefs that are passed around in email forwards, fundamentalist churches, and other social occasions that only come to the light of day when there’s a political conflict that brings them to the surface.
It does sound weird, but that's the state of things -- these subterranean nostrums are weird, and weird claims demand weird counterclaims.

How the Wind Knocked You Down

This song shows PJ Harvey's intensity and power, and I'm not sure I can stop listening to it. PJ Harvey, "The Desperate Kingdom of Love":

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What Does God Want to Do With Us When We're Alone at Home?

At last! Texans avowing an obscure brand of monotheism -- "Christianity" (I think I have it spelled correctly) -- have managed to wedge their creed into public view despite wave upon wave of bus-side advertisements touting the harmlessness of nonbelief:



As the man in the vest and the beard says, suggesting what sounds like a very promising Infographic by The Onion (e.g.):

When people go home and they're by themselves, you know, is god there? And what does he want to do with me?
Seriously, is god there when you're there alone? I've heard he's everywhere, but I always just assumed that was just a cheap boast along the lines of channel two's claim that it has an eye in the sky over Portland or the silly schoolhouse folklore that Americans live in a representative democracy.

I hope it's just a boast. I don't want old men who want to do things with me rummaging around my house -- I just don't swing that way. I have this recurring nightmare that I arrive home to find an old coot sitting on the couch eating chips and sardines in his underwear. I try to explain that he's in the wrong house (and eating food that's going to make the house smell of fish for ages to boot), but he pulls a knife and demands that I leave his house. Then it gets worse as he changes his mind and starts demanding that I stay in "his" house and begins rattling on about what he wants to do with me.

I prefer to wake from the nightmare about now. I prefer a lot of things. Don't mess with Texas!

(via Ophelia Benson)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gobsmacking Illustration

This bit of Obama's press conference put me on the floor:
[B]ecause it's a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we're going to compromise ... This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country's founding. And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union. [emphasis mine]
It's true that compromise is necessary in politics. At the same time, if you thought very, very hard about the history of the United States, it would be difficult to come up a poorer illustration of the necessity of compromise than the existence of the union. President Lincoln's dogged stand on principle -- done amid not just the 30-second attack ads of his day but gigantic piles of bloody, mangled bodies -- has a great deal to do with the persistence of the union, not to mention Barack Obama's all-too-late equal opportunity to go through the front door.

Granted, Obama probably had in mind the union built from the tatters of the Articles of Confederation -- the compromises that gave us the present-day Constitution. Still, it is that union that Lincoln, his allies, and his successors did so much uncompromising work to preserve, protect, and justly amend.

The Fierce Urgency of Whatever

President Obama is spitting mad at the people who worked and fought to put him into office because he keeps betraying them and they keep noticing. Those are my words; these are some of his:

[I]f that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out ... [emphasis mine]
Uh, yea, people will not be thrown off their health insurance due to preexisting conditions in 2014, two years into the next president's administration -- if, that is, the law in question does not get repealed, amended, de-funded, administratively gutted, or otherwise whittled out of existence before then. And, yes, those people on unemployment will not see their lifeline run out -- for another 13 months, or in other words, until January 2012, when presidential tracking polls will be trumpeted on a half-hourly basis. That sounds like a promising time in which to schedule a reprise of this same fight.

According to the president, the people who put him in office are too unreasonable, sanctimonious, and self-satisfied to understand his wise tactics given the terrible, terrible stakes:
[President Obama]: Well, let me use a couple of analogies. I've said before that I felt that the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts. I think it's tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.
Hmm. He was willing to freeze the pay of all federal workers a few days ago -- apparently they aren't part of the American people, or freezing their pay is not harmful, or maybe he announced the pay freeze against his own will. As a despicable liberal, ensconced in my own self-righteousness and purity, I can't be bothered to tell which of those is true -- I just don't understand.

Ever the patient school marm, he sighed an exasperated sigh and tried more explaining:
[Reporter]: If I may follow, aren't you telegraphing, though, a negotiating strategy of how the Republicans can beat you in negotiations all the way through the next year because they can just stick to their guns, stay united, be unwilling to budge -- to use your words -- and force you to capitulate?

[President Obama]: I don't think so. And the reason is because this is a very unique circumstance. This is a situation in which tens of millions of people would be directly damaged and immediately damaged, and at a time when the economy is just about to recover.
A very unique circumstance? In 2001, the Bush tax cuts went into effect alongside a provision to expire at the end of 2010. This "unique circumstance" of an expiring tax cut is over nine years old -- a period that includes every single minute Barack Obama has occupied the White House. This "unique circumstance" of tax policy has been sitting out on the horizon with all the subtlety of a scheduled invasive rectal exam.

Still, there you have it, for what good it does you: President Obama will stand on firm principle unless and until questions of federal government policy stand to affect the lives of millions, whereupon he'll surrender. On policies having limited effects on relatively few people, we can count on him.

Hope Replaced

President Obama has had quite a week, starting with an announcement that he will freeze the pay of all civilian federal workers -- in the name of deficit reduction, of course -- followed by craven surrender on gigantic tax cuts that swamps the pay-freeze savings by three orders of magnitude. Paul Krugman marvels at the audacity of flailing, feckless incoherence:

The truth is that America’s long-run deficit problem has nothing at all to do with overpaid federal workers ... freezing federal pay is cynical deficit-reduction theater. It’s a (literally) cheap trick that only sounds impressive to people who don’t know anything about budget realities. The actual savings, about $5 billion over two years, are chump change given the scale of the deficit.

Meanwhile, there’s a real deficit issue on the table: whether tax cuts for the wealthy will, as Republicans demand, be extended ... Mr. Obama's pay ploy might, just might, have been justified if he had used the announcement of a freeze as an occasion to take a strong stand against Republican demands — to declare that at a time when deficits are an important issue, tax breaks for the wealthiest aren't acceptable.

But he didn't.
No, he cut a deal cutting another $4 trillion in taxes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Portland Unmuffled

The Portland Marathon is well worth running, but it's important to know which way to look.

I will start with the good news -- the January 2011 issue of Runner's World is right to note that participants in the Portland Marathon can expect to get a view of Mt. Hood if they look to the right while crossing the St. John's Bridge. This google maps snippet shows the view in question, and being familiar with its size and shape, I can verify that the white triangular mass toward the center right of this image is Mt. Hood:


The bad news is that Mt. St. Helens is not to the right, but more to the left, as this image shows:


The white mass slightly above and to the left of the red-brick-colored structure is Mt. St. Helens, and frankly -- stand ready for more bad news -- the chances are slim that you'll get a clear enough day to see it from the bridge.


For all this, the larger point of the RW article is perfectly valid --  the St. Johns Bridge is the scenic highlight of the Portland Marathon, and passing over it a rare treat even for most locals. Along about mile 17, depending on the state of mind and body, a sign reading "unmuffled engine braking" (for example) can come across as surreal, macabre, minatory, evocative-- one way or another, interesting.

If you run the Portland Marathon next year, please obey Oregon's laws against unmuffled engine braking or prepare to pay.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Simpler Times

Things were once simpler. Rap music was still in its incipient stages, refrains from cigarette ads its elemental precursors:



Children were given to fits of laughter, as were their monstrous dolls:



"Men of medicine" had a clear preference for brand of cigarette:



There was more than enough polar ice for all the cartoon penguins, and they loved their cigarettes. What's more, lip-synching was sloppily done and quietly ignored, much like presidential philandering:



Permit me to state the obvious: the brilliance of Mad Men is in how thoroughly it dramatizes the life and times of the people behind such advertising campaigns as these, and by dramatizing them, explodes their simplicity. It's a Nixon-goes-to-China applied to the USA's idealized post-war self-conception: if there is so much turbulence, uncertainty, and pain within and among the very Madison Avenue operators who gave us such ad campaigns as those seen here, surely the rot -- the rot of complexity, ambiguity, and fear -- was always and everywhere present, and it was only through massive feats of will, self-delusion, and ideology that anyone ever believed otherwise.

Through all the bold, confident declarations and broad, unstinting smiles, life in those days was much like life today. Mad Men shows it was something like this:



Only a few hours later -- as it might go in a reality we would recognize from our day-to-day but not typically from television, certainly not from advertisements -- the tone changed markedly. We would recognize, in kind if not in particulars, the added complexity that these two characters are, and know themselves to be, soul-mates of a kind, each the mirror of the other. When Don berates Peggy, he is very directly addressing an important part of himself and his own failings; and when Peggy consoles Don, and decides to grant him concessions she would not grant to others, she is bestowing these affections on aspects of herself.

Even in 1965 -- yes, even in 1965! -- times were far from simple.

It is also obvious to say that dolls should never be allowed to mimic a human laugh. There ought to be a law.

Friday, December 3, 2010

This Banana Republic

The top 1% receive 23.5% of all earnings, which is more than the bottom 50% receive. The top 1/10th of 1% receive 12 percent of all earnings. This is a disgrace.

Senator Sanders:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pro-Choice Left-Libertarian Gay Marriages: Communism, Atheism, and Free Love

Tulsa's annual "Holiday Parade of Lights" has lost the favor of Senator Inhofe and taught us all a valuable lesson:
I did not [participate in the parade] last year because I’m not going to ride in a Christmas parade that doesn’t recognize Christmas,” he said. “I am hopeful that the good people of Tulsa and the city’s leadership will demand a correction to this shameful attempt to take Christ, the true reason for our celebration, out of the parade’s title. Until the parade is again named the Christmas Parade of Lights, I will not participate.
The lesson? It's easy to create an event free of colossal assholes -- just give it a name that acknowledges the multiplicity of holidays during this time of year, or to apply the lesson more broadly, just name things in a way that acknowledges the existence of people, places, ideas, and things that hidebound yahoos don't like. (See title of present post).

Not that Inhofe doesn't have a point -- a really insipid one, as is his wont. He has reiterated the whiny plaint that Christmas is all about the Jesus, and has lately been sullied by consumerism and calendar-crowding by cryptic, unholy observances of mysterious, disreputable Others.

I hate to be the 15,001th to break it to Senator Inhofe and his ilk, but I don't hate it very much, so here goes: Christmas has been an ecumenical (if not outright secular), loud, garish, consumerism-driven cluster of year-end rituals for several decades. I remember a lot of things, but even in my advanced dotage, I don't remember a Christmas that was anything other than a time of year when kids beseech parents for toys, tales of Santa Claus are thrown about, creepy television specials are broadcast, and retailers grow increasingly desperate-sounding in their sales pitches.

Almost none of it has anything to do with the Jesus, unless Jesus taught relying on a strong December to reach one's annual sales goals. Maybe that's somewhere in the back pages of Luke?

Greetings from Poxy

Both readers of this precious, precious blog, please note that I am ill. Yesterday I came down with some kind of stomach flu / avian flu / swine flu / salmonella infestation / anthrax / radiation poisoning / feline leukemia (that was the cat's opinion) / gawd knows that had me lying motionless on a reclining chair, feverish and achy, with barely strength enough to lift and operate a TV remote control with which I sampled daytime programming whose quality made me wish the pox would take me.

While I'm on that: how many goddamn cooking programs are there? Apparently there are enough of them to justify entire cable networks. I am so glad I am paying for a bundle of cable channels from Crimecast that includes so much programming aimed at people who wish to spend hours each day preparing meals, and hours more watching television learning how to spend those hours. If that's you, live long and prosper and so on, but I would rather eat raw tree bark and crap out splinters.

As I have noted before, other people's avocations are stupid.

Anyhoo, Wilbur the cat was kind enough to perform a reenactment of me from yesterday (pictured). He plays this role frequently, it turns out.

Today is quite a bit better, but I am still not well.