01 Jul 2012: God Bless Naive Fools

What do you think of Obama NowFor about three and a half years, I've really hated the bumper sticker on the left. There are a lot of reasons. The first was that I saw it within a week of his taking office. Clearly, people were putting "So how do you like Obama now?" on their bumpers because you just couldn't fit, "I'm an asshole who doesn't like Obama so I'm going to pretend that everyone thinks the way I do and further that I was smart to see before you what you don't see now but I'm assuming you do."

Things were certainly as bad for Bill Clinton as they have been for President Obama. What is different is that when Obama was inaugurated, conservatives didn't even pretend to give him a chance. Its like Fox News, which reports every winter snow storm as, "Where's the global warming, liberals?" In February 2009—February!—people were saying, "The economy sucks, I guess Obama isn't the miracle worker he claimed to be!"

After a year, the criticism of Obama calmed to what we have come to expect of conservatives. It was at this point that my hatred of this bumper sticker entered a new stage. I could honestly answer the question, "Not that much, but for actual policy reasons that you would make you love Obama if only he were a Republican." I hated how the bumper sticker implied that the owner knew my original feelings about Obama, which were complicated to say the least; I supported him but I didn't expect all the much (I was still disappointed). Even more enraging was the idea that if I were unhappy with Obama it was for the same reasons they were unhappy with him. The problem is, I could never figure out why they were unhappy with him, except of course, that he was a Democrat. Go team!

Quite recently, I've seen these bumper stickers in a new light—my third stage. I didn't know many people who were Obama true believers; I run with a cynical crowd. As a result, I hadn't thought about these people who believed those campaign speeches about hope and change. But I should have. People who can think of the future in terms of hope and change should be honored. They are the best of what we are.[1]

And the bumper sticker's rhetorical question is offensive. It scoffs at these people. It says, "You are a bunch of naive fools!" But if our culture is to have any hope, we need all the naive fools we can get.[2]



[1] That's a reference to Bruce Cockburn's great Nicaragua:


[2] I don't claim to be anything but a cynic. But I'm smart enough to know that change is needed and that we won't get it from people like me who don't believe it's possible. This is my idea of a bumper sticker: Fuck America!

01 Jul 2012: Absurdity Today

Julianna ForlanoJulianna Forlano, a stand-up comedian out of Brooklyn, has created a regular (every 2-4 weeks) YouTube show called Absurdity Today or "Ironic News Report." She's been doing it for a bit over a year with good results. Her shtick is low key sarcasm—a refreshing change of pace from the fiercely perky demeanor of many of today's vlog stars.

Despite solid production values, the show has not managed to get of the 5,000 view ghetto that I call, "Things Frank thinks are worth watching that aren't baby otters." But unlike Paul Day's brilliant Billy Bob Neck videos, Absurdity Today would seem to have more potential to go big. She was embedded recently Crooks and Liars, which is huge. We look forward to her success.



Just so you don't think that I'm hiding from my incorrect prediction regarding the SCOTUS ACA ruling, I'm bringing you Avedon Carol's correct prediction:


Carol is right: it is all about corporate profits. I don't buy all the discussion to the effect that Roberts is trying to save the legitimacy of the court. What is surprising about the ruling is that the other conservatives not only dissented but the ferocity of that dissent. That in itself calls the legitimacy of the court into doubt: four members of the court were willing to throw their traditional beliefs aside in the name of partisan attacks.

I've also been hearing a lot of people suggest that Roberts might be more moderate than was suspected. This is nonsense. Roberts is a traditional conservative justice: in favor of corporate power, skeptical of individual rights. It is funny how people are forever searching for the conservative moderate, a species with less evidence for its existence than sasquatch. There are conservative moderates, but today they are called liberals, and in some cases, socialists.

What's that sound? It reminds me of a crumbling empire! When empires crumble, you know who gets crushed? The people on the bottom.

We're number one! We're number one!

Update (1 July 2012 10:19 am)

Amy Davidson over at The New Yorker has an excellent article about how Ruth Bader Ginsburg may have shamed Roberts into finding in favor of the ACA. The following quote really struck me, because it cuts to the heart of what I've been talking about:

Roberts is also benefiting from an unfortunate tendency on the part of liberals to be overcome by gratitude, and even deeply moved, when a conservative does one decent thing.


Atrios just put up this video of Janis Joplin with the Kozmic Blues Band performing live in Stockholm. What's important is that she killed with this song whenever she did it:


The first time I ever heard this song was her singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company on their Cheap Thrills album. When I later heard a standard rendition of the song, I could hardly believe that it was the same song. Very few singers are indisputably great, but Joplin was one of them.

The other thing is: I assume that's Sam Andrew on guitar and he really sucks. I know it is live and all, but still. What's more, it really does call into question this idea that Joplin needed a better band than Big Brother. I'm the first to point out their deficiencies (Like Sam Andrew's guitar playing!), but they played well together and they were unique (just listen to the arrangement, which is theirs). I wish she had stayed with them. If you doubt me, here is the original:



30 Jun 2012: Gini Coefficient

The Gini Coefficient is a number between zero and one that measures income inequality, or more generally, how non-randomly distributed a sample is. If everyone in the nation made exactly the same amount, the Gini Coefficient would be zero. If one person had all the money, it would be one. It is defined as follows:

Gini Coefficient Equation

In this equation, y is the income and i is the income bin or "slot." One interesting thing about this is that although this equation converges to zero as all the bin values approach each other, it does not when all the bins approach zero (except one). As the number of bins increase, the equation does converge to one. Or maybe I'm wrong. I've checked it a couple of times and ways. I'll look at it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

Let's look at a five bin system: US household incomes (the lower bound) in the five quintiles:
  1. $0
  2. $18,500
  3. $34,738
  4. $55,331
  5. $88,030

Putting these numbers in the equation, we get a Gini Coefficient of 0.43.

How unequal is this? In The Great Divergence, Timothy Noah presents some data from 2005. In that year, the United States had a value of 0.37. (It is almost certainly higher now, but the main issue is that I've only done a rough calculation here.) There are only three countries out of the 30 in the OECD that are more unequal: Portugal (0.42), Turkey (0.43), and Mexico (0.47).

We're number one! We're number one!

Update 30 June 2012 9:18 pm

This has been bugging me all day, but in fact, the equation really does seem to behave the way I said above. (I can post a proof if anyone is interested. Anyone? Anyone?[1]) I got the equation from Wikipedia. In general, Wikipedia is very good when it comes to mathematics. Anyway, if anyone can figure out the error (which is most likely mine), please let me know.

Also from the same Wikipedia page, this amazing graph of income disparity since World War II. My, what is that country with the long positive trend?

Income Disparity Since WWII



[1] From Ferris Bueller's Day Off:


Interestingly, as far as I know, Ben Stein believes in supply side economics, otherwise known as, anyone? Anyone? Something D-O-O Economics? Voodoo economics.

Killing Device 13417670This is the serial number of a piece of debris from a drone strike in Pakistan that allegedly (but almost certainly) killed civilians. Your tax dollars at work. This was reported tonight on The Rachel Maddow Show. In general, I'm not fond of Maddow's coverage of war because it is too America-centered and far too pro-military. It seems all the time that the reason not to be at war is the thousands of US military deaths rather than the hundreds of thousands of civilians we murder. But this story is worth watching:



Now that's what I call winning hearts and minds!

I can only hope there is no God, because we will never be forgiven.

Antonin ScaliaDespite my reminder, I'm not sure what I wanted to write about. It may have something to do with the fact that I drank a beer and I am a light-weight in the Teetotaler's Drinking Olympics. But I'm not so far gone to forget to mentioned that the word "teetotaler" has nothing to do with "tea" as is commonly believed. I know I wanted to talk about the conservative aversion to facts and science, which is the same as talking about conservatives at all.

Take my father, my favorite conservative. He is kind of anti-Christian (somewhat embarrassingly so). And he hates creationists. He just can't believe that people don't accept natural selection. He's also very healthy—he will almost certainly outlive me. He hates cigarettes and the tobacco companies' long lived claim that cigarettes don't cause cancer. And yet, he thinks that global warming is a liberal conspiracy.

Recently, he told me that he didn't know that Obama was born in the United States because he had never seen his birth certificate. I knew that I could get him a copy and that would bring the whole issue to a close. But I felt the need to push where exactly his head was at. So I asked him why he needed to see Obama's birth certificate when he'd never felt the need to see any other president's birth certificate. He stared at me blankly. Eventually I learned that he felt the need to see Obama's birth certificate because other people (wackos, but still) had called it into question.

I have little doubt that this would not be an issue if my father were 30 years younger—he is now about to turn 80. I've seen a degradation in his thinking over the years, just I've seen one in my own. I don't begrudge him that—it is just more proof that any god who created us was evil. But I do begrudge Antonin Scalia his mental degradation.

At 76, Scalia is no longer the intellect he once was. What's more, as with most people, his degradation of intelligence has gone along with a huge rise in arrogance. There is nothing wrong with this in a regular person. But there is something wrong with this when you are a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States with a lifetime appointment.

Antonin Scalia's opinions have become more bizzare and shrill over the past decade. It used to be that he would at least hide his partisan opinions under a veneer of originalist nonsense. But no more. And I think it is that his mind is gone, which makes him the perfect conservative.

Ben BradleeI'm posting this to remind myself of something I want to write later today. But it also happens to be great.

In an excellent column on Wednesday, Eric Alterman wrote Attack Dog Jennifer Rubin Muddies the Washington Post's Reputation. He tells the story of the Washington Post and their search for a conservative blogger to apease the wacko conservatives in Washington DC. On its third (and worst) try, they have settled upon the repugnant Jennifer Rubin. Read the article, it's worth the time—I promise.

Towards the end of the article, Alterman relates a story about the Washington Post when it was a great newspaper as opposed to today when it is referred to as "Fox on 15th."

In his engaging portrait of Bradlee, Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman recounts an incident from 1969 in which two young Post reporters, Leonard Downie and Jim Hoagland, had worked for months on a story about racial discrimination in the Washington savings-and-loan industry. Titled "Mortgaging the Ghetto," it was scheduled to run over a ten-day period. Just before that happened, a group representing the industry went to Bradlee's office and told him that if the series ran, they would pull all their advertising from the paper�representing, even then, about $1 million in revenue. What did Bradlee tell Downie? "He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, 'Just get it right, kid,' and walked away."

Integrity. Imagine that!

28 Jun 2012: Twisted Stretched

TwistedI was recently reminded of Jonathan Kellerman's novel Twisted. It came up in a conversation about Ayn Rand's novels. There are many things to dislike about them: bad plots and ridiculous characters come easily to mind. But without doubt the most annoying thing about her novels is how she puts her philosophy in the mouths and minds of her two-dimensional characters. John Galt's 8 hour long speech is the most striking example of this.

I stopped reading Twisted about 100 pages in because his philosophy was seeping into his characters' thoughts. It is rare that I just put down a book, but I was very angry. But after mentioning the book, it started to bug me that I didn't know how the plot ended. The novel started fairly well with an unusual string of murders—a new kind of serial killer. So I set out to find the book and finish it.

Finding the book turned out to be harder than I had anticipated. It turns out that Kellerman has written a gazillion novels, most with similar titles: Rage, Deception, Therapy. And similar plots. What's more, he has written so many books that people tend to subdivide them by the series: Alex Delaware is the main one, but there are now five in the Petra Connor series that Twisted is part of.

Eventually I did locate the book. And the first thing I noticed was Jonathan Kellerman's picture on the back of the novel. As a general rule, I hate modern author photos. What ever happened to the somber and serious author? Steinbeck never smiled, but sometimes smirked. Today, they all have smiles as big as their books. This is probably because these writers are paid so well. But Kellerman takes it to new heights: he is clearly wearing make-up. No class.

I got down to the business of reading Twisted. Kellerman is a fast read. He needs to be. I have never read an author who spends so much time on trivial matters. It is as though he really only had a novella and decided to fluff it up into a novel. It isn't enough for Isaac to find the note in the lunch his mother prepared for him. He has to pick up the lunch, ride on the bus, get hungry, look in the lunch, find the note, get off the bus, and get on a different one. I am not kidding. And it could have been worse, because it was, in other parts of the book. For example, we could have been treated to two pages of Isaac's experience of eating his lunch.

It is a lot easier to start a novel than to end it. A great example of this is Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter H�eg. Its first part is very good, but the second part is weak and the third awful. It is all about expectations. Peter H�eg set expectations very high and he had no denouement equal to them. I'm sure that even at his best, Kellerman is nowhere near as good as H�eg. Still, he does set some high expectations at the beginning of Twisted.

Isaac has determined that for the previous 6 years, there has been a murder right around midnight on June 28 that all involved a depressed skull fracture. We don't learn much about these murders once they are brought up on page 32. Then, on page 305 (of a 372 page novel), we learn the reason behind the pattern. And it is neither Isaac nor Petra who figures it out; it is a naughty librarian.

When reading a book like this, part of the fun is figuring out who done it. There was no way to do so in this novel. The author didn't give you enough information until he gave all the information. What was the key? A 1897 book, "The Sins of the Mad Artist: an Account of the Horrible Deeds of Otto Retzak"—a psychiatric examination of a serial killer. And what was the connection? Retzak was an artist and the killer in Twisted was an artist. That's it! That's all the justification Kellerman provides.

What's more, the plot depends upon Isaac having a gun at the end, so Kellerman provides him with one through a preposterous subplot. There are many other subplots. There is a mass murder that initially seems like the main plot. There is Isaac's sex life. There is Petra's sex life. And on and on. It is all filler, and in the end, the whole plot is as well.

I would hope that Kellerman used to be better than he is in this book. Twisted was his twentieth book. But it begs the question: why is he still writing? There is no art in this book. It is pure commerce that starts with the first word and ends with the made-up author's picture on the back cover.

Afterword

On page 302, Kellerman writes, "She threw back her head and laughed." If people threw their heads back and laughed, this would still be a tired description. But I don't ever remember anyone throwing their head back and laughing. The only reason people aren't publicly laughing at Kellerman is that this sentence is late in the book in the middle of a lot of poor writing. Had it been the first sentence in the book, it would rightfully be placed in alongside "It was a dark and stormy night" as one of the worst lines of all time.

Speaking of which. Here are three opening sentences that I think are rather good:

These are the times that try men's souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. —Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer

The Daily ShowThe Daily Show often annoys me. Unlike The Colbert Report, Jon Stewart seems to have at least a couple of "conservative" comedians. Or his otherwise liberal comedians really have to strain when trying to produce comedy from a conservative standpoint. For various reasons, The Colbert Report feels no need to pander. (For one thing, many conservatives like the character in the same way many liked Archie Bunker.) As a result, even though the best episodes of The Daily Show are better, The Colbert Report is far more consistent.

Over the last week, Jon Stewart has done three segments on the BATF's "Fast and Furious" program. He was clearly happy to have the opportunity to tout his cherished even-handed "just the facts ma'am" approach. The problem is that the "Fast and Furious" program was not what it was sold as. Fortune Magazine has an excellent article about it. In it, Katherine Eban tells how the program worked: suspected straw purchasers were allowed to offload their purchases to other buyers, but the weak Arizona state laws prevented (or at least dissuade) prosecutors from indicted the straw purchasers. This contrasts starkly with the cable news meme that the BATF sold guns to straw purchasers who sent them south where one was used to kill Brian Terry.

The Daily Show made the same mistake it often satirizes news agencies for: not waiting until all the facts are in. Here, they threw out the conservative meme that the "Fast and Furious" program was a conspiracy to gut the Second Amendment, but accepted that the rest of the story coming from the conservatives was right.

Those who get their news primarily from Jon Stewart have now had three opportunities to get the conservative myth about the "Fast and Furious" program. And barring the conservatives doing something even more ridiculous, it looks like that's all Daily Show viewers will know. After the contempt vote in the House today, The Daily Show will have one more chance to set the record straight. My bet is that they'll pass.