Monday, December 20, 2010

Why Tron: Legacy Sucked

Why did I see Tron: Legacy last weekend?

I could say I thought it was going to be a good movie—Jeff Bridges! A Daft Punk soundtrack! Shiny things!—but I read the AV Club review and knew it wasn’t going to be “good.” Maybe I thought it would be entertaining, the way Die Hard 4 was kind of entertaining, or the way one of those CSI-esque shows on Fox that doesn’t make any sense but keeps chugging along anyway and sucks you into its bullshit world is entertaining. I didn’t think it would be boring.

Well, it was. Most of the scenes were of people talking, and mostly they were just trying to explain to each other (and the audience) what the hell was going on. The plot is about the people who live in a computer trying to come out and taking over the world with glowing disks and rods, or something, led by Evil Jeff Bridges, and opposed by Good Jeff Bridges and his son, who is played by a guy with only two facial expressions. There’s also some business with some Magical Beings who live in the computer and can “change everything” if they get out of the computer. All of this was treated extremely seriously, with the only comic relief coming in the form of a character who I can only describe as a homosexual Mad Hatter. The action sequences are either sub-Matrix martial arts fights, or stuff ripped off directly from the first Tron or the first Star Wars. Oh, and Good Jeff Bridges talks like The Dude from The Big Lebowski for reasons that are not adequately explained. “You’re really messing with my Zen thing man,” he says at one point. I guess that was supposed to be funny.

It was shiny, I’ll give it that. There were a lot of blinking lights, and when one of the computer people got killed they would collapse into a bunch of cubes. And sometimes entire motorcycles materialize around people! That was cool, but by the climatic, Star-Fox-inspired battle scene, I was back to being bored. It looked about as impressive as a video game, with a story that could have been a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Tron is the kind of movie that makes you incredibly curious about aspects of the story that are skimmed over, despite the mountains of exposition. Like, are all the computer people true Turing-test-passing AIs? And how does Bridges’ 1980s-computer have enough memory to handle all of them? Why does Evil Jeff Bridges only have about five henchmen with him at any one time; why isn’t he using his entire army to track down Good Jeff Bridges? Most importantly, why are the computer programs (apparently) men and women? Do they have sex?

Those last questions, about what kind of sex computer programs have with each other, are kind of unavoidable—there’s a scene at an actually-not-very-exciting-looking party where a couple of sexy lady programs are sitting on guy programs’ laps and we follow Beau Garrett’s hypnotic ass as she walks through the crowd. Seriously, do computer people have dicks, or what? Do they get pregnant? Don’t tell me that Good Jeff Bridges has been cohabiting with his only ally, the smoking hot Olivia Wilde, for what amounts to hundreds of years without knocking neon-covered boots with her. And clearly Olivia Wilde is attracted to Jeff Bridge’s Son The Shitty Actor—there’s an intense one-act play about a father-son-mistress love triangle buried in this movie, but that’s skimmed over. This is a Disney production, after all, and Disney’s house special is creating characters that ooze sexuality (even when the characters in question are animated animals) and then neutering them.

Tron follows a trend, exemplified by Avatar, of extraordinarily stupid science fiction blockbusters. Old-fashioned science fiction was written by people like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who knew their science and wrote intellectually inquisitive stories and novels, albeit ones with wooden prose and thin characters. Hollywood sci-fi keeps the thin characters but doesn’t give a shit about explaining how anything happens or why. Science is just magic in Tron. How does a person go inside a computer and apparently remain a flesh-and-blood being who ages and bleeds? How do computer people made out of data become actual matter when they go outside of the computer? Doesn’t that violate the basic law of physics? No, because everything happens because of magic. You aren’t meant to ask questions or engage with the fictional world or think about anything when you watch a Hollywood sci-fi epic. Just sit back and let the effects wash over you, like you were watching a 120-minute car commercial.

People love this shit, of course—Tron earned 43 million at the box office over the weekend, and at least one sequel is likely. The user review section on Metacritic is filled with high ratings from people who thought it was great, and who use movies to distract themselves from the terrible, soul-crushing reality of their own existences. “It's a moovie for peat sake,” one of the reviews read. Movies like Tron aren’t meant to make you think deep thoughts, the comments section argues, they’re just mindless fun entertainment for you to zonk out to, sort of like heroin but less addictive and more expensive. People like me, who thought that Tron was really boring and not even comically bad most of the time, even when you are stoned and drinking wine in the theater and thinking of snarky things to say about it later, are not supposed to see this movie; we’re supposed to go read the New York Times and re-watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and go to art museums with scarf-wearing women with Etsy profiles. Fine, I’ll go do that. You assholes can have the next five Tron movies, which will be about as fun as watching someone else play a video game.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why the NCAA Sucks

Hello, internet people! I have a new post on, where I am going to be posting regularly about cheating in sports as long as cheating (or sports) exist. This in my favorite sentence from it:

"Cam hasn’t been punished for his dad’s actions (so far) because like Richard Nixon, he can claim “plausible deniability”—the NCAA forgave him, for he knew not what his father did." Read more!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Who Chuck Lorre is and Why He Sucks

The latest issue of the New Yorker contains a profile of Chuck Lorre by Tom Bissell (gated), which answers a question I’ve never asked myself until now—namely, who is Chuck Lorre? Turns out he’s the human force of nature behind the most popular sitcoms of our time, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, as well as not-exactly-classics like Grace Under Fire and Dharma and Greg. It’s a well-written article that has some nice behind-the-scenes details—did you know that all of those shows are actually filmed in front of a live audience?—but it also works amazingly hard at dancing around the fact that no matter how successful and hard-working Lorre is, he’s also a hack.

Ahem. Maybe the polite term for hack is “populist,” or “sitcom traditionalist,” or whatever phrase the New Yorker used to describe him. What Lorre has done throughout his career is create TV shows that are to television what Top 40 hits are to music and McDonald’s is to food. Two and a Half Men is a program for people who want to watch television but don’t care what they want. They want something comforting to rest their eyeballs on, something that won’t challenge them or force them to have an emotional or intellectual response. Fine, I guess. I’ve drunk too much cheap, shitty beer to question anyone’s taste. But the New Yorker, perhaps out of an instinct to not throw profile subjects under the bus, doesn’t quote any of the many, many people who hate Lorre’s lowbrow shows, and halfway defends his work with lines like:

Lorre’s standing among critics is not helped by his staunchly traditional approach to the sitcom. He is well aware of the shifts that have taken place in sitcom writing during the past twenty years, but he does not care all that much about them.

There’s little discussion about those “shifts” in sitcom writing, maybe because if the piece delved into recent sitcom history, Lorre’s attitude would come off as stodgy and willfully ignorant. The sitcoms of the 1980s, watched today, are astonishingly slow-paced and predictable, even the supposedly “good” ones like The Cosby Show. The reason for this is that the last 20 years have represented a revolution of sorts in sitcom writing, which resulted in shows from both sides of the Atlantic like Seinfeld, Newsradio, The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, The Office, Spaced, The Office (again), Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, the first seasons of Malcolm in the Middle and 30 Rock, Peep Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and most recently, Louis, Parks and Recreation, and Community, which competes in the same time slot as The Big Bang Theory, the first of Lorre’s shows to be acknowledged as non-terrible by critics. For a sitcom writer to “not care all that much” about that list of shows is fucking insane, like a film director ignoring all films made after 1970, or a writer refusing to read anything published after 1900. And for Bissell not to find someone to put Lorre’s attitude in context is a bit of a problem for the piece.

Another thing Bissell might have done is to get a critic to point out that, okay, the four-camera sitcom is out of fashion among comedy geeks right now (mostly because all that audience laughter slows the pacing down to a crawl), but it’s not like critics are racist against traditionally structured shows or anything. Newsradio and Seinfeld were four-camera shows, and those are beloved shows whose fans will buy the DVD sets of. Louis CK’s Lucky Louie has less of a following, but there are still a bunch of folks who swear it was brilliant. Who’s clamoring to buy the DVDs of Dharma and Greg? Critics don’t like Lorre’s shows because critics love good sitcoms, have been watching good sitcoms for years, and Lorre’s shows aren’t good sitcoms.

Like most purveyors of critically-reviled pop culture, Lorre hates the critics who revile him. Bissell’s article quotes a message Lorre hid in his production company’s “vanity card” that flashes on the screen for a second after the credits roll:

You [critics] have absolutely no power to affect ratings and the likely success or failure of a TV show. In that arena you are laughably impotent. You are not unlike a flaccid penis flailing miserably at a welcoming vagina.

Beyond the somewhat bizarre sexual imagery (“flailing” at a “welcoming” vagina? Like the penis is being whipped against a woman’s wet pussy lips in some vaguely kinky impotence fetish fantasy?), this is a fairly revealing statement. Lorre defines “success” for his shows as “high ratings.” He wants as many eyeballs as he can to be glued to his shows, and that’s the extent of his ambition. Is it any wonder critics don’t like him?

See, Chuck, sitcom critics—those poor schmucks—did not get into the business to influence ratings. They don’t care much about ratings, by and large, unless low ratings cause a show they like to get cancelled. They became critics not to tear you, Chuck Lorre, down personally, but because they watched way too much TV as children and fell in love with the sitcom form. That’s a bad thing to love, because the sitcom form doesn’t always love them back, but they can’t help it. They want to write about the shows they love seriously and analytically, and they hope to spread the word about these shows to other people, who might also fall in love with these shows. They want, at bottom, for sitcoms to be taken seriously as art, or at least not dismissed by intellectuals as 22 minutes of content indifferently occupying space between ads for erection medication and cars.

That’s why people like Todd VanDerWerff praise shows like Community
and why every comedy geek I know puts Arrested Development on a pedestal. Those are some great, densely-layered shows that reward you when you rewatch them and sometimes have some emotional depth to them. They inspire love and occasional debate among they’re fans, and they actually have fans, unlike your shows, which have viewers. People love all of the shows I listed above—how many people love Two and a Half Men?

Finally, the people who worked on Arrested Development don’t think the show “failed” because it got cancelled. They’re proud of having made one of the funniest shows of the past decade. And the people working on Community, which is getting beat in the ratings nightly by your Big Bang Theory, aren’t worried about “failure.” Donald Glover told me during an interview I did a while ago that it’s an awesome feeling to work alongside a talented ensemble on a really funny show that inspires really passionate fans. What I wonder, Chuck Lorre, is if the folks working for your show have that feeling.
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Super Bowl Halftime Show Will Suck--Here's What I'd Like to See Instead

So, the Black Eyed Peas are playing that great American institution, the Super Bowl halftime show. The criteria for the band that plays the Super Bowl every year (if you can call the Black Eyed Peas a “band”) is that they have to be extraordinarily uncontroversial, the blander and more famous the better. The powers that be are not in the market for another nipple revelation, and are not taking the chance that anyone will be offended by the show. Well, they failed, because I’m fucking offended. I hate the Black Eyed Peas’ marketing strategy masquerading as a musical career, and I hate that I’ll probably end up seeing some of it because I’ll be watching the Super Bowl, for the football game. How many football fans will enjoy hearing “Let’s Get Retarded/It Started in Here”? Conversely, how many Black Eyed Peas fans will turn on the Super Bowl solely because of the Black Eyed Peas’ presence? How many Black Eyed Peas fans can figure out how to operate a TV remote with their hideously deformed flipper-like appendages? (The joke in my head is that in order to enjoy the Black Eyed Peas, one must be the product of centuries of inbreeding, and therefore probably have some weird mutations going on.) So many questions, so few answers. One question I can answer, however, is “What would I rather see than this halftime show?” Here’s a list, in no particular order. An asterisk (*) denotes something that on second thought, I actually would like to see.

1. The Puppy Bowl.
2. The Puppy Bowl, but instead of real puppies, it’s people in dog outfits tackling each other.*
3. The Puppy Bowl, but instead of playing football, the puppies fight each other viciously, like they would at Michael Vick’s house.
4. The Puppy Bowl, but instead of real puppies, it’s people in dog outfits, and instead of playing football, they fuck each other through strategically placed holes in their costumes.
5. Noam Chomsky giving a lecture on the meaning of the word “Muslim” in current American political discourse.*
6. The Beastie Boys performing, and yes, I know MCA has throat cancer.
7. MCA undergoing throat surgery on live TV.
8. The Big Lebowski.
9. The porn version of The Big Lebowski, titled The Big Lebowski.
10. Simpsons reruns, seasons 1-10
11. Peep Show reruns.
12. Larry Sanders Show reruns.
13. Simpsons reruns, seasons 10+
14. Standing cat, looped for roughly the length of the Black Eyed Peas’ performance
15. The guy who runs American Apparel sitting on a toilet masturbating while the 16-year-old heroin addict waifs who appear in the AA ads gyrate around him in what would be a seductive manner if they weren’t strung out and dressed in lime green latex bodysuits.
16. Noam Chomsky being fucked by a man dressed as a dog.
17. The Louis CK porn tape that was almost made.
18. The Black Eyed Peas fucking each other in dog costumes—although I guess you wouldn’t be able to tell it was them unless you recognized the tattoos they undoubtedly have on their genitals—while Sting’s “Englishman in New York” plays.
19. The Last Airbender
20. People having debates about the existence of God via YouTube vlogs. (This actually happens.)
21. One of those videos I made in middle school with my friends when we thought we were HILAROUS.
22. Bruce Springsteen sliding his crotch into the camera like that one time, but this time he’s not wearing any pants and we can see that his cock is covered in blood and we as a nation are like, “Whoa! That is definitely not cool!”
23. Pavement playing Black Eyed Peas covers.*
24. A Police reunion concert.
25. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin talking about how America needs to return to Jesus, but while they’re talking, Glenn slowly strips off his jacket, tie, pants, shirt, and underwear, revealing he has both female and male genitalia. He then puts a ball gag in his mouth while Sarah ties his wrists behind him with zip ties and proceeds to beat him savagely with electrical wire—still talking about Jesus--until his back is stripped bare of skin and he has bit down on the ball gag so hard that blood drips out of his mouth and into a milk saucer, at which point Michelle Bachmann (dressed as a dog, of course) laps the blood up with her tongue.
26. Garrison Keillor reading his work. All of his work.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why Baseball Recruiting in the Dominican Republic Sucks

It's been a long time since I've posted on this blog. If you are one of my few loyal readers, sorry. But you might be interested to check out, where I hope to be blogging occasionally from now on. My first post goes like this:

Last week, the New York Times reported that Scott Boras, one of the most successful, high-profile baseball agents in the world, has been giving loans to the families of young baseball players in the Dominican Republic, then using the leverage that those loans gave him to coerce the players to sign with him. While some bloggers noted that "no harm was done" in this case, and Boras did not technically violate any laws, giving personal loans to impoverished baseball prospects one is hoping to represent certainly seems unethical. Sadly, shady dealings are standard operating procedure for baseball prospect recruiters not only in the Dominican Republic, but also throughout much of Latin America.

Latin America has long been known as the “wild west” of baseball recruiting; with little to no government oversight in place, it’s common for young players to take steroids and to lie about their age in order to look more attractive to Major League suitors, and buscones—self-appointed talent scouts who encourage these behaviors—roam freely about the landscape. A better description, however, might be a “gold rush.” Increasingly, it seems that people are looking at poor but athletically gifted Dominican boys (some as young as 13) the same way 19th-century prospectors looked at hills and streams—there could be gold in them there prospects.

The rest of it is here Read more!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oklahoma Asks, and Answers, a Sucky State Question

Voters are fairly stupid—I think that’s been established. Maybe individually they know what they’re doing: They own landscaping companies and know where the good pizza places are and read the paper and do the Sudoku every day, even on Friday when it gets really hard. But something happens when they get to the voting booth, with those old-fashioned curtains and the ballot that seems more complicated than it needs to be. They freeze up. Who are these judges on the ballot? What’s the “anti-prohibition” party? What the fuck are all these measures I’ve never heard of? Panic sets in. Some circles are filled in, there’s a momentary anxiety that they filled in the circles wrong, the voter realizes they might have voted for the wrong judge, but it’s too late to fix it now. Then they get outside and they’re smart again.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for the passing of Oklahoma’s State Question 755, which amends the state constitution to ban judges from considering “international or Sharia law” when making rulings. Because damn, that is a stupid amendment. It wasn’t as if a bunch of judges were commanding hands to be chopped off and whores to be stoned. I’ve never been to Oklahoma, but I’m pretty sure that Islamic law is about to be instituted there. And the UN isn’t about to take control of the state either.

I’m sure the voters saw that measure on the ballot and said, “Well, better safe than sorry. I really don’t want to see strict Sharia law imposed on me, although it would give me an excuse to grow out my beard.” That’s like amending the constitution to say, “If aliens ever attack Earth, like in Independence Day or that new movie that looks almost exactly like Independence Day, we are totally going to fight back, like Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith.” A fine sentiment, but not something that needs to be in a constitution.

The problem is the anti-Sharia amendment could create difficulties due to vague wording and the general craziness of it. Indian tribes say they’re worried that Question 755 might invalidate their tribal laws, and international law is actually kind of important when resolving disputes between companies in Oklahoma and their overseas business partners. (Who knew international law governed international trade?)

Question 755 will probably get challenged in the courts and likely overturned (it might violate the ever-pesky First Amendment by singling out Sharia). So it’s likely just another example of xenophobic paranoia from the heartland that sounds good on paper but in reality is not a good idea, or even an idea at all, much like the Republican proposal to save money by cutting nonexistent social programs isn’t an idea. It’s fun, and sort of funny, to yell and make laws about problems that do technically not exist, but maybe we have better things to do. Do we? Read more!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Man, That Sucked: The Rally to Restore Sanity

I don’t think anyone knew how big it was going to be. Arianna Huffington definitely didn’t. She generously offered to transport the sum total of New York’s liberati—signs, costumes, iPhones and all—from one baseball stadium parking lot to another in what ended up being 200 buses.

I actually saw Arianna herself while I was waiting in the freezing early October morning. She was surrounded by a bubble of people filming her with digital phones and camera and moving through the shivering, huddled masses like I imagine French aristocrats used to do, smiling and waving as if she was totally used to being surrounded by admirers at six in the morning. “Thank you!” some of the masses yelled at the queen bee of the bloggers.

Those thanks would seem somewhat premature hours later, as it became apparent how late to the rally we all would be. The plan was for everyone to show up at Citi Field (nee Shea Stadium) at 5:30 am and for the buses to leave at 6:00. This did not happen. Instead, 10,000 people stood around in a gigantic swarm for two hours shifting from foot to foot and wondering what the hell was going on. When the group of people surrounding me finally got within sight of the idling buses they finally snapped and ran through the yellow police tape like refugees fleeing across a border. “Come on! Let’s be adults!” a Huffington Post volunteer shouted through a megaphone. But fuck that—our hands were numb and the buses, the warm, warm buses, were right there.

When we were actually on the bus, half-asleep and half seized with that dumb earnest glee that afflicts the young and politically active on their way to a protest, the human gridlock of Citi Field seemed like a bad dream. We drove along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway while those boroughs were sluggishly waking up to the weekend, then switched to the great emptiness bordered by factories that is the New Jersey Turnpike. I woke up from a nap with my head against the window and discovered the highway surrounded by an astonishing wall of trees in the middle of changing colors—impressionistic swaths of yellow and red that make you forget there’s such a thing as a 24-hour news network. That was the high point of the trip.

The low point came about five minutes after we staggered off the bus in DC, when it became apparent that DC’s Metro wasn’t going to be able to accommodate tens of thousands of people all trying to get to the same place. The underground station was packed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with out-of-towners hopelessly trying to figure out how to use the machines. A couple of transit workers kept telling people to step aside, to make room, but how was that going to happen? There was no empty space of tile to step aside to. The rally itself, by the way, had been going on for maybe an hour at this point, and the New Yorkers—tired, hopped up on rest stop coffee, and sneering at DC’s pathetic excuse for a mass transit system—were nervous about missing…

Wait, missing what? What the fuck were we even there to see? A half-dozen comedians pretending to be—or mocking—newscasters or politicians, or something? The Roots and John Legend playing in a venue with terrible acoustics? A bunch of smug liberals smugly parading their liberalism and their predictably ironic signs? After getting three hours of sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and taking two subways and a bus over the course of a nine-hour trip, did I even know why I’d come?

Clearly not. You have to be willing to suspend your cynicism for a few hours to get involved in a political event like this. You have to believe in the power of the people, that signs and slogans can influence policy, that a bunch of blue-staters getting together will change anyone’s mind about anything. Because otherwise what we have is just the world’s largest and most boring Halloween party, with strangers milling about and taking picture’s of each other’s jokey signs, most of which were all about the futility of signs. “SIGN” said one of them. “MEH” said another.

Worse than the ironic signs were the earnest ones. It was supposedly—according to Stewart, anyway—a “non-political” rally, but anti-Tea-Party and anti-Fox-News messages abounded. A fresh-faced volunteer from Media Matters asked me to sign a petition against Fox News with the ultimate goal, I guess, of forcing them and their sociopathic blonde television hostesses off the hair. Other people made puns: Fox News=Faux News; “The only thing we have to fear is FOX itself.” What wit these clever kids have!

As supposedly and convivial as the rally was, the overall message was one of negativity. The Left—at least the bits represented in Washington DC that day—is anti-Fox-News, and anti-Tea-Party, but what are they in favor of? They want certain people not to be elected, but that's about as far as their ideas go. The Tea Party has dominated whatever passes for the “national political conversation” so thoroughly that the candidates they run against almost don't matter. What are the positions of Chris Coons, Christine O'Donnell's opponent? Who cares, as long as he's not that insane woman. These elections are not about pursuing a liberal agenda, but about stopping the conservative agenda, or at least slowing it down. And isn't that kind of a problem?

The Glenn Beck Right has Christian ideals and libertarian ideas, and as bizarre as that mash-up is, at least it gives them a sense of purpose. Ban gay marriage, ban abortion, abolish the EPA, abolish the income tax, build a giant fence along the border, eliminate foreign aid, wrap schoolchildren in flag-colored clothing and allow (force) them to pray in public schools. And repeal the 17th Amendment, for some reason. However contradictory and repugnant you think those goals are, at least they're something to rally around.

The John Stewart Left has—what? Irony? A shield of Not Giving A Shit? A bouquet of opinions on how the current media climate is destroying America? The people on the Left who have actual policy ideas are the people on the “fringe,” the actual Socialists and Communists and Anarchists who want to nationalize health care and probably a bunch of other industries, dramatically increase taxes on the rich and the upper middle class, and (at the very far end of the spectrum) dismantle capitalism itself.
These things will never happen in America, and you're sleepwalking if you think they will. So the people at the rally, no matter how hard they secretly think dismantling capitalism isn't such a bad idea, content themselves with protesting not policy and actual events, but the media's coverage of policy and events. John Stewart's speech was all about not paying attention to the polarizing, often flat-out hateful rhetoric of the talking heads on both ends of the cable news dial, but he didn't say who we were supposed to be paying attention to.

Or that's what I heard Stewart's speech was about after the fact. I didn't actually hear a word he said, or a word anyone said, because I was too far away from the stage. After walking three miles from RFK Stadium to the National Mall (skipping the clusterfuck that was the Metro), I discovered that the Rally to Restore Sanity was half over, and the fenced-in area of grass in front of the stage where the comedy sketches and half-serious speeches were audible was overflowing with people who had arrived hours in advance. I circulated around the edges, getting my sign photographed and sharing the tea I had brought in a thermos. (My personal cause for the day was the tea was a beloved beverage, not a set of political beliefs. I found some kindred spirits in the group advocating for pancakes, french toast, and other breakfast foods.)

There was a big musical number at the end, then the lucky people who had heard and seen whatever was happening on the stage spilled out onto the street, turning several blocks into a human traffic jam. Some people headed for the bars for after-rally drinks, some no doubt took their costumes to Halloween parties, and those of us who had to ride the Huffington Post back to New York began our long trek back to the buses. I assume pretty much everyone at the rally plans to vote today, probably for Democrats who are going to win in a landslide. How many of my fellow sign-holders came from swing districts where their votes would mean something?

I guess we'll find out tomorrow, or the next day, whether or not a larger-than-expected gathering of the Left means that the election will be better than predicted for Democrats. My short answer is no. What the Rally for Sanity taught me was that you can have a large gathering of hundreds of thousands of people without having a coherent message for what that gathering represents--“We don't watch Fox News!” is not good enough. Despite the numbers, it's pretty clear why there's an enthusiasm gap these days between the Left and the Right. The Left thinks the right is sort of a joke and sort of stupid, while the Right thinks the Left are pure evil bent on destroying America. More and more, I'm starting to think exactly the opposite is true.
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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why the Rally to Restore Sanity Sucks

I’m going to Jon Stewart’s big “Rally to Restore Sanity” this Saturday. Why? Well, because I think it will be fun to be in a large group of people who have similar views to mine and are also probably around my age. I like big crowds. Also, some people may dress up and wave humorous signs around, and that’s always fun. Maybe I’ll be on TV! I’m not treating it as a serious political rally, as some critics of Stewart insist on doing. It’ll be fun, I’m taking a free bus ride from New York to DC and back again, and I’ll probably end up getting drunk.

The only thing that worries me is that this rally might very well be the largest lefty political event of the midterm election season—it’s already the most talked-about—and that fits into a disturbing trend: Protests are no longer about anything.

The Civil Rights marchers were protesting the Jim Crow laws and other forms of institutional racism. The Vietnam War protestors wanted US troops to leave Vietnam (I’m leaving out all the protestors who wanted to ascend to a higher level of consciousness through rigorous use of chemicals, they weren’t really political protestors). Today’s big protest movement is the Tea Party and they want—what? Lower taxes? A balanced budget? Prayer in schools? I’ve been reading about them for at least a year, and yet besides the repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act, I couldn’t tell you what these people actually want.

Glenn Beck’s big rally back in August—billed as non-political but pretty clearly linked to the Tea Party—was defined by Beck like so:

This is not a political event. This is to send the message to us and our children and the rest of America: There is a revival going on of values and principles. There is a revival of honor and integrity, and we’re going to demand it of ourselves and our politicians. We are not going to put up with it anymore, in our own lives or in the lives of politicians or our banks and our businesses.

What the fuck does that even mean? In a related question, what the fuck does Stewart’s website mean when it says,

Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence… we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.

I’m pretty sure I could sum up the political view of the participants in a phrase: left-of-center to far left loony. There aren’t going to be a whole lot of Republicans there, just as there weren’t many Democrats at Beck’s rally. (I’m pretty sure the only Democrats in attendance there were making spiteful documentaries about how ignorant and intellectually inconsistent the Tea Partiers were.) Just as there won’t be any Republicans at the Rally, neither will there be any people who are too busy to go to rallies—they’re going to be too busy. Like Beck’s event, this will be a gathering of people who have mostly similar views on politics and on life but few clearly definable shared goals.

This is a problem because without some clear goals, a protest isn’t going to do much more than make the protestors feel good about themselves for waving signs. A protest or a petition can make politicians aware that a large group of people care passionately about one issue, and that can have consequences. The act of protesting is a cornerstone of yada yada yada. But when a bunch of people gather to say, “We need to restore honor and pride to America!” or “We need to have a civil environment for political discussion!” it doesn’t inform politicians that we feel a certain way about an issue. It just informs politicians that we like to yell and wave signs around.

Anyway, if anyone is going to the Rally, I’ll see you there. I’ll be the guy waving a sign around.
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Friday, October 22, 2010

Why the Anti-Drug Movement should Suck on an Exhaust Pipe and Die: Fact-Checking an Evil Pamphlet

The one subject that pretty much everyone who goes to college learns about is marijuana. Even if you’ve been sheltered from any knowledge about bongs, joints, and hemp in high school, even if you’ve never watched the Dave Chapelle Show or seen a movie Seth Rogen was involved in, by the time you graduate from (or drop out of) college you’re no doubt in possession of a lot of information about pot. You’ve probably smoked it at least once, and maybe have gone through a period when you were smoking a lot, to the point where there’s a towel permanently placed against the bottom of your dorm room door to prevent smoke from leaking out. Even if you didn’t smoke that much, you know that pot won’t kill you, it isn’t that addictive, and after the first few times you get high, it isn’t all that big of a deal. It can make you lazy, it can make you sort of boring to be around (you know this if you’re friends with stoners), and it can make terrible music sound interesting. It doesn’t make you cool, but it doesn’t kill you. After you find all of this stuff out, you either continue smoking pot or—more likely—you grow up and get a job where you can’t get high all that much, or they drug test you, and then you only smoke weed when your kids are out of the house and your old college buddies come over.

It’s easy to forget, after you grow up, all those "Drug Free America" messages that we were bombarded with as children. Remember how they told you one puff of pot would leave you dead in a ditch? Remember the “gateway drug” stuff? That time the retired cop came to your middle school and showed everyone photos of emaciated meth addicts? That stuff is still going on, and the anti-drug crusaders are just as crazy as ever. The proof of this is evident from the pamphlet, "The Truth About Marijuana," which is printed by the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.

Because I had some time to kill, I decided to do some fact-checking on some of the "truths"contained in the pamphlet. All of these are screenshots from the online version of this document, which is handed out to children at schools. I’ll start from the beginning. On page three:

That’s pretty much a commonly accepted fact. Pot is more potent now than it used to be. Is that a bad thing? On page five:

We learn that one joint equals five cigarettes. If that’s true, than the Drug Free World should applaud the increased amount of THC in marijuana, since it takes fewer joints to get you high now, and therefore fewer stoners are getting cancer. But does pot give you cancer? A major study from four years ago said no, and the study’s lead researcher is in favor of legalizing pot. And of course, you don’t have to get high by holding smoke in your lungs. You can cook using marijuana, or you can use a vaporizer to get high. Also on page five we get this embarrassing feature:

Due to bad layout design, schoolchildren will think both “White” and “Widow” are slang terms for marijuana. Actually, “White Widow” is a very potent strain, or sub-variety, of pot. And a “J” is a joint, and a “roach” is the last remnant of a joint or a blunt. None of these are synonymous with “marijuana.” Small errors, but they add up. On to page seven:

Alcohol contains only one chemical? Only if you are drinking pure ethanol, which is a good way to die. If you’re drinking beer, you’re drinking a bunch of different chemical compounds and carbohydrates, not just ethanol, duh. And while it is technically true that weed contains 400 chemicals, everything in the world is made up of many, many chemicals. Coffee has 800 chemicals in it. Does this mean you shouldn’t drink coffee? Just so you know, the 80 chemicals that are unique to Cannibis are called Cannabinoids. Pages eight and nine feature some ominous-sounding statistics. First up:

Because none of these studies are cited by name or date, it’s pretty hard to verify them. (Is that intentional?) But at least one study showed that marijuana was not a commonly-used drug among people who had to visit the emergency room. (That article is from NORML, a pot-advocacy group, so it isn’t unbiased, but still.) On the next page, we start to get to the stuff that makes my blood boil:

For that first “fact,” I could ask what percentage of people is arrested solely for possession or use of marijuana, but instead I’ll just state the obvious: Correlation does not imply causation. A large percentage of robberies is committed by black men—does that mean being a black man makes you rob people? No, and neither does marijuana make you break the law. (Although, given weed’s effects, it probably makes it more likely you’ll get caught by the police if you’re high.)

That second statistic makes sense, since people who drink or do drugs before they’re 15 are likely to become drug addicts. Don’t do drugs if you are a child—your brain is still developing and older teens and adults can take advantage of you if you get messed up. That does not mean adults shouldn’t drink or smoke pot.

Also, don’t smoke pot and drive. Being high means your reactions are slowed. But while driving stoned increases your chance of injury of death, it doesn’t come close to the dangers of drunk driving. This study notes that 2.5 percent of fatal crashes are caused by pot, but 29 percent are caused by alcohol. The two are simply not comparable.

Don’t smoke pot when you’re pregnant. That should be sort of obvious. I have no problem with this page. This page, on the other hand…

Jesus Christ, where to start? Firstly, it should be obvious that those who used cocaine used pot first. Pot is easier to find and much, much cheaper. You don’t go straight to cocaine without having used “softer” drugs. Does that prove that marijuana is a “gateway?” No. And the high you get from cocaine (or heroin, or PCP) is different enough from the marijuana high that not a whole lot of stoners go on to use those drugs as their tolerance builds. They just smoke more pot. As for the last line on the page, the one that says that joints can be dipped in PCP, is just naked fear mongering. Sure, some people sprinkled PCP on joints, but hardly anyone does that, and when you smoke a PCP joint, the problem isn’t that you smoked pot, the problem is you smoked PCP! That’s not as bad as the “testimonial” on the facing page:

Fuck. This. Assuming this is a real testimonial and not fiction, it implies that weed leads to heroin. They can’t make this claim using statistics, so they find a heroin user to make this claim. Plenty of people smoke pot and don’t become heroin addicts. Like Carl Sagan, for instance. Remember him? The famous scientist?

Finally, we get the capper:

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World is unbiased. If someone tells you marijuana is okay, they’re probably a drug dealer with a vested interest in hooking you on pot. Like the pamphlet as a whole, the logic makes sense in a vacuum—unscrupulous drug dealers looking to hook new customers would lie, wouldn’t they?

Maybe some of them would, the scumbags who sell pot to middle schoolers or the guys whole sell crack and heroin. But—take this from someone with, ahem, some “experience”—marijuana pretty much sells itself. A lot of people like getting high, and if you have good weed at good prices, you don’t need to tell a bunch of complicated lies. All you need to do, to sell weed, is to say, “Hey, I have some weed.”

But the pamphlet is right in one sense: When someone tells you some information that sounds suspect, you should look into their motives. For instance, who funds the Foundation for a Drug-Free World? Oh, right, the Scientologists. The people who tell you you have aliens in your head.

No matter the source, this pamphlet is full of lies and half-truths, and it’s targeted at children. It seems to me that honesty, intellectual rigor, and skepticism are good traits to instill in kids, especially in kids who we don’t want using drugs. But this pamphlet, along with many other anti-drug programs, teaches the opposite of those things. It tells children that marijuana leads to heroin, crime, car accidents, and cancer. It tells them they’ll be stupid and have deformed offspring if they smoke pot, and they’re supposed to accept all of that just because the Scientologists told them so. Never mind all of the movies, TV shows, and books that depict marijuana use, rightly, as being not all that bad, the pamphlet must be right, since it’s given to them by their teachers or some other important adult, right?

I hope no school is actively handing out this pamphlet, unless it’s as part of a unit on propaganda. To ask children to believe this is to lie to their faces, and the only thing you’ll end up teaching them is to not trust anything an adult says. Which, actually, might not be that bad of a lesson.
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why Elected Officials Suck, According to Hitchens and Adams

Lovable scamp Christopher Hitchens (not pictured) wrote a column for Slate this week about how odd it is that very few of the intelligent and informed people he’s known in his long career as a public intellectual and drunk have ever though about running for political office. Many of them might do a pretty decent job running the country, but they’re put off by the insane slaughterhouse that is contemporary electoral politics. Quoth Hitch:

What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it "works," most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

That reminds me of a line from another famous atheist, the late Douglas Adams, who penned this line about the paradox of government: “Those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

With all the media scrutiny and waves of negative publicity, in order to want to run for office you’d have to be an emotionally damaged narcissist, a delusional reformer who believes it’s possible to change the system in a meaningful way, or an out-and-out power hungry sociopath. Come election time, we’ll all be voting for candidates who are corrupt at worst, relentlessly bland at best, and most likely have something dark and twisted rattling about in their skulls.

Thankfully for us, the United States has a system that, though designed to elect people uniquely unsuited to have power, is also designed to make sure that those elected officials can’t do anything once they sit down in Washington. With massive majorities in both houses of Congress and one of their own in the White House, the Democrats managed to accomplish some reforms that—despite all the Beckian screaming about Nazis—aren’t exactly earth-shattering. Some companies were prevented from going bankrupt, some more people will have health insurance, and these modest shifts in policy will cost a lot of Democrats their jobs. The struggle for the rights of homosexuals to marry one another and join the army to get shot at (why would one want to do either? some straights ask) is proceeding in the courts, where elected officials can’t get in the way.

Considering the quality of politicians we have on hand, deciding things in the courts, where intelligent people debate with one another using a lot of big words, is probably for the best. And it’s probably for the best, too, that however many Republicans get into office this November, no one will be able to pass or repeal any legislation at all, thanks to the labyrinthine rules of the non-robot Senate.

In Douglas Adams’s universe, the problem of government is solved by turning the president into a democratically elected figurehead, someone who is “always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention from it.” The people who run the universe are a sextet of shadowy figures who in turn (spoiler!) make their decisions based on the advice of an insane autistic old man who lives alone with his cat. The system described by Adams seems sinister and despotic on its face, but it’s probably not a bad way to make policy decisions. Not worse than ours, anyway.
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Monday, October 11, 2010

The Most Worthless Thing On The Internet: Yes, Rick Reilly Is Really That Bad Edition

In the past, I’ve been critical of Rick Reilly for being a lazy, unfunny hack of a sportswriter who has coasted along on his name and popularity for more than a decade. But I’ve felt a little guilty about the things I’ve said about him—who am I to criticize a man who has won numerous awards for his sportswriting, who has donated a lot of time and money to the worthy cause of getting malaria-preventing mosquito nets, and who is under pressure every week to produce a column. So what if sometimes he writes a hideously banal column? They can’t all be gems So what if he doesn’t understand soccer? Most American men of his generation don’t. So what if he’s occasionally schmaltzy? There’s a place for that in the world of sports, and maybe I’ve grown too hardened and cynical to appreciate his childlike idealism.

But then on Friday I saw this column and realized I was right the first time: Rick Reilly is a lazy hack who has been half-assing it for at least a decade, probably more, and he deserves to be criticized constantly and mercilessly until he decides to retire from sports journalism and write golf-themed crime caper novels a la Dave Barry or Carl Hiassen.

Let’s break this particular piece of hackwork down. For starters, we’re in the middle of both the college and professional football seasons, and MLB playoffs have just started, so it’s odd that Reilly would pick this time to write about the NBA, which isn’t in the news much. It’s also odd that he’s talking about nicknames for Miami’s star-stuffed team now rather than three months ago, when the team came together. That would have been the time to discuss nicknames—that was when Free Darko ran its “What should we call the LeBron-Wade-Bosh sandwich” piece.

Comparing FD’s column and Reilly’s shows how much more bloggers put into their work than “traditional media” dinosaurs like Reilly. Reilly’s piece is just a list of possible names with no commentary, no context, and no actual thought behind it. Some of the names (“ThreeHeat,” “Menage-a-Dunk,” “Terminators 3”) are so aggressively awful that a sports writer for a college paper would be ashamed to print them. It seems like an early draft of notes for a column rather then a column itself.

Free Darko’s piece, on the other hand, has less nickname suggestions but all of them are considered. You get a bunch of factoids about the Yalta Conference and the history of ancient Rome, and some jokes—actual jokes, unlike Reilly’s middle-aged puns—about the geometry of triangles. It’s way too nerdy and esoteric for ESPN’s audience, sure, but Reilly’s column--or collection of words, or whatever we’re supposed to call a poorly presented list of unfunny nicknames—insults the intelligence of any sports fan who’s out of fifth grade. Seriously, “The Brothers Rim?” That sounds like the title of a particularly hard-core piece of gay porn.

For the record, I don’t think Reilly stole this idea from Free Darko, none of whose proposed nicknames appear on his list. There are only so many topics in the sports world to write about, and no one has a monopoly on jokey listicles. I also don’t think it’s plagiarism because I doubt Reilly reads Free Darko, which is one of the most popular basketball blogs on the web and should probably be required reading for anyone who writes about sports for a living. I don’t think Reilly reads Free Darko because I believe that like John McCain, Reilly never goes online or even touches a computer. I picture him dictating whatever thoughts are floating in his scotch-addled brain to the hooker or 39-year-old cocktail waitress happens to be sharing his hotel room, who then transcribes them on a Selectric typewriter. The hooker then faxes the stream-of-consciousness transcript, misspellings and all, to an ESPN sub-editor, who sighs, crumples the fax into a ball and throws it out, and writes a column in Reilly’s name in about ten minutes. Reilly never notices this substitution, because like most people on planet Earth, it’s been years since he’s read a word he’s written.
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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why the New Anti-Poker Law in Washington State Sucks

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court in my old state of Washington ruled that a law passed in 2006 banning online gambling was perfectly constitutional. It was a 9-0 decision, and thus a pretty easy one for the justices to make, but the ruling carried enough weight for PokerStars, a popular online poker site, to ban anyone with a Washington State IP address from playing on it.

This is the kind of news that affects maybe only a few thousand people seriously, but for professional online poker players in Washington—some of whom I know personally—this was the worst possible news. Online poker has existed in a legal gray area for some time now, but this court ruling eliminated all shades of gray; playing poker on your computer, as opposed to in a casino, is a Class C felony. If all poker sites take this ruling as seriously as PokerStars had, it will become impossible to play online poker in Washington, meaning that online poker players who rely on poker to pay the bills will have effectively lost their jobs.

The more you consider the law, the less sense it makes. There is the old argument, “gambling is evil, all evil things should be illegal,” but gambling is legal in Washington State, and not just on Indian reservations. When I lived in Seattle, you could drive just outside the city limits and play poker in a number of card rooms. This document from the Washington State Gambling Commission says, “Gambling has a history of connection to crime and corruption and as a result is strictly controlled virtually everywhere. Just because gambling occurs on the Internet doesn’t change this potential or the concern.” But surely the converse of that last sentence is true too—just because gambling occurs in a brick and mortar casino or card room doesn’t make it any less addictive or prone to corruption.

So why was this law, which deprives a bunch of people of their formerly (semi) legal income, passed in the first place?

Well, duh, it was passed because a bunch of rich casino owners wanted it to be so. When people gamble online, presumably, they aren’t gambling in a casino, and this understandably outraged the Native American tribes who run large gambling enterprises like the Tullalip Casino. These tribes have boatloads of money and they’ve invested a lot of it in the one enterprise in America guaranteed to give you a good rate of return on your investment—campaign contributions.

The sponsors of the original bill--Margarita Prentice, Karen Keiser, Daniel Kline, and Paull Shin—all received substantial contributions from groups like the “Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance” which have close ties to the Indian casino business. The Congresspeople did what politicians always do and help out the people who helped them out and introduced the online gambling law, which was quickly passed because the other Congresspeople likely wanted contributions from the tribes to keep coming, and also because passing laws against “immoral” activities like gambling is a fun and popular thing for politicians to do. Never mind that the anti-online gambling law was bankrolled by a bunch of people who make their living off of gambling addicts and suckers, and never mind that it hurts the professional and semi-pro poker players (who are the small businessmen of the gambling world). Gambling is bad, so anti-gambling laws must be good, right?

Gambling addiction is a serious problem, yes, but gambling addicts aren’t going to stop gambling because they can’t play online. They’ll just go to the casino instead—which is of course why this bill was passed in the first place, to benefit big in-state casinos at the expense of international poker sites and the people who make money by playing on them. (Not all professional online poker players can simply switch to playing in the casinos and the card rooms—that’s a long car ride for many of them, and many card rooms don’t offer the variety of games that the online sites do.)

The truly maddening thing about this law is not that it’s an arbitrarily oppressive law passed at the request of big-money interests. It’s that this law is an example of the system working pretty much perfectly. A special interest group wanted a law to be passed, they made the necessary (and legal) donations and the politicians did more or less what those groups wanted. Everything was documented, and although there was clearly a quid pro quo exchange, no one can be said to have done anything technically unethical. Everyone cooperated, and we got a law that puts people out of work so large moneyed institutions can thrive. Good job guys.
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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Language Arts Sucks, Revisited

I was just rereading Michael Chabon’s excellent book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and thinking about the circumstances that led me to read it, and my discovery of the whole mess of contemporary fiction authors that have influenced me and whose books I’ve carried in boxes from my parents’ house to my dorm rooms to my apartments. I’m lucky to have found the books I love, thanks to the people (not least my mother) who cared about literature and introduced me to authors they thought I would enjoy, and who turned out to be right. Later on, of course, there were the short story collections I went out of my way to buy, and the writing workshop syllabi that forced me to purchase contemporary fiction, and at present I’m pretty confident in my ability to find authors and stories I will enjoy, as long as I have the time to read them.

While thinking about all of this, I suddenly became enraged.

Why? Because I realized that I had taken seven years, in public middle and high school, of “Language Arts,” which was supposed to teach me how to write but also teach me how to read, and more importantly to point me in the direction of books. I learned something from those classes, I suppose, and god knows my teachers tried their best (well, most of them did), but god also knows that those classes did little to influence my love of reading. It might be accurate to say that my love of reading survived Language Arts classes, that I unaccountably love Shakespeare and 1984 despite my education. Most students don’t, and I often wonder if the way we teach literature is designed to stop students from reading.

I know I’ve written the same post before but fuck, isn’t there a way to teach through contemporary fiction that might engage students a little more than teaching them through ancient fiction? Imagine if I was taught The Fortress of Solitude in one of my AP LA classes in high school. It would have given the teacher the chance to talk about:

  • Race relations in America. I know this subject is often touched on, but the history of blacks and whites usually stops around the time of MLK. Richard Wright is wonderful, but perhaps a little dated on some subjects? (Also, not insignificantly, this book discusses race from a white [Jewish] perspective.)

  • Bullying, intimidation, how you feel when you don’t belong in a neighborhood

  • The music of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and a slew of old soul, R&B, and fuck groups like the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye. How many kids know about the tragic death of Marvin Gaye?

  • A tie-in to Dylan: The practice of Jewish performers changing their names to more “normal” ones. Why was this important? What does Jewish identity mean? Why did black performers not change their names—oh, yes, because they were given slave names by their masters. Whole discussions of the power of naming might ensue.

  • Finally, the idea of superpowers in the real world. What would you do if you had the power to fly? Would you try to fight evil? How? Would you rather be invisible or have the power to fly?

That syllabus for the book I came up with off the top of my head would be far, far, more engaging than any Language Arts class I’ve ever had. With something like Shakespeare, or even Conrad, teachers spend have their time trying to get kids to understand what the fuck they just read, if the kids bothered to read it at all and didn’t give up on the text for being too difficult. (Also, with Heart of Darkness teachers have to wrestle with the question of whether the book is outrageously racist or not.) Would it be too much to ask that teachers teaching literature let their kids know that literature is something that doesn’t just happen in the past?
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Most Worthless Thing On The Internet, Dying Magazine Edition

Today’s most worthless thing on the internet has crossover appeal: not only is it a web page not worth visiting, it might be the least essential piece of political journalism ever published. It comes courtesy of Time magazine, which apparently decided that this obscure new political movement called the “Tea Party” deserves more media attention than it’s getting.

Back when it was one of the few available sources of national and international news, Time used to be an iconic publication—it used to matter who was on the cover. This latest cover had the image of an elephant in a tea cup (get it? Metaphors! Visual shorthand!) and the astonishingly uninteresting headline, “It’s Tea Party Time.” Now, if Time was your sole source of political news, if it dominated the market the way it used to, this might be an interesting cover. “This is intriguing,” you might say. “Tea Party? And they’re taking over the Republican Party? I must read on!”

But, obviously, no one in the world relies on Time this way. Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the news, even someone who gets all her news from The Daily Show, already knows more about the Tea Party than the Time article manages to communicate. On this subject, Time is hopelessly trailing hundreds of blogs and other print publications, but instead of trying to find a new angle on the Tea Party it rehashes events that have been covered already and spreads on a layer of vague generalities.

Among the things the article does not bother to discuss in detail are:

  • -The fractured nature of the Tea Party. There are actually many, many groups that compose the “movement,” and there are important ideological differences between them. Some are more free-market libertarian, some are conservative Christians; Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell do not have the same agenda.

  • -The money trail that leads from some “grassroots” organizations to the billionaire Koch brothers, which the New Yorker covered already. In fact, the Koches are not even mentioned in the Time piece.

  • -Glenn Beck is mentioned, but only in passing, and is lumped in with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—which is odd because he’s widely regarded as the face of the Tea Party and just held that massive rally in Washington D.C.

  • -Most notably, the Time article only focuses on the recent crop of primaries and doesn’t acknowledge the two Tea Party candidates who have actually run against Democrats—Scott Brown, who won a Senate seat in Massachusetts at least partially because of his opponent’s incompetence, and Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd district, who lost his race thanks to Republican in-fighting.

Besides all of those omissions, which make the article instantly outdated, there’s also the problem that Time is a weekly, which meant it could keep up with the news cycle in 1923, when it was founded, but in 2010 it has no chance. Case in point: the Tea Party piece focuses a lot of attention on Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, and even compares her to the “leader of a rebel army.” But less than a week later she’s mostly known for admitting to practicing witchcraft, speaking out against masturbation, talking about feminism in J.R.R. Tolkein, and having a shady financial past. Not coincidentally, she’s trailing by 15 points in a recent Fox News (!) poll, which is not where the leader of a rebel army wants to be. None of that is mentioned in the article, although some of those developments came to light after the article was published. (Sort of argues for the irrelevance of print media, doesn’t it?)

To recap: Time published an article about a phenomenon that was already old news, revealed nothing new about the phenomenon, contributed nothing to the conversation about the phenomenon, and may have overstated the importance of one part (O’Donnell) of that phenomenon. The best you can say about that article is that it doesn’t seem to be factually incorrect. Actually, the best thing that can be said about the article is that it reassures all of those people who don’t read Time that they’re doing the right thing.
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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Louis C.K.'s Life on Television Sucks

I just finished watching the last two episodes of Louie C.K.’s show Louie on Hulu, and I’m no longer sure that the best show on television is on AMC. Louie isn’t the funniest thing I’ve had the privilege to watch on my laptop, but it might be the most ambitious comedy program since—what? I’m trying to think here. Since Freaks and Geeks, at least, and Louie is funnier than Freaks and Geeks.

(Some spoilers in the next paragraph, if you care about that stuff. Go watch the show now!)

Louie is a hard show to describe. It’s probably doomed to unpopularity, thanks to it’s odd format—rather than having the recurring characters and 22-minute story arcs of traditional sitcoms, each episode is composed of two or three vignettes, often unrelated to one another. Or not. Some episodes are one long story. Some episodes feature Louie C.K. as a kid for nearly the entire time. Some episodes feature long stretches of Louie’s stand up, which is usually hilarious. Ricky Gervais appears in a couple of episodes, as Louie’s asshole doctor (“I wouldn’t give your face to a burn victim,” he tells Louie as the comedian lies in a hospital). Various comedians appear as themselves, and one long scene of them playing poker and discussing the use of and origin of the word “faggot” veers from obscenity to honest emotion in the space of a minute. These tonal shifts are common in Louie. In one episode he gets bullied by a violence-obsessed 18-year-old, then follows the kid home, where he discovers that the kid’s father beats him. “Don’t do that,” Louie tells the dad, only to be chased out of the house by the mother—then, in an odd turn typical of the show, the dad comes out and shares a cigarette with Louie, and the two men talk about the difficulties of parenting. In another episode, a terrifying doctor convinces a child version of Louie that he is responsible for Jesus’ death. Louie’s brother breaks down in tears at a restaurant because his mother refuses to tell him she loves him. Louie imitates a monkey having an orgasm on a comedy club stage. Louie gets alarmingly stoned, decides to buy a dog, and the dog collapses and dies as soon as he brings it home. As the van carrying the dead dog in a garbage bag pulls away, Louie’s two adorable daughters pull up in a taxi with their mother for a weekend at their dad’s.

Louie is sometimes surreal, sometimes cruelly realistic, but always concerned with the big, big issues: love, loneliness, abandonment, religion, family, and most of all impending death and how to live with it. (The opening credits have Louie walking around while an unseen chorus sings, “You’re gonna die!”) I don’t know what to compare it to in terms of depth and ambition—maybe Annie Hall?—but it’s worth looking at the comparison between Louie and another show centered around the life of a standup comic, the infinitely more commercially successful Seinfeld.

Both shows portray ordinary mundane life in exact detail. Seinfeld centers around trifles and tiny bits of social interaction that spiral out of control into bizarre webs of lies and recrimination, while Louie concerns itself with Louie’s attempts to live his day-to-day life in a worthwhile manner before he inevitably dies. The contrast between the shows is apparent most of all in the title characters’ on-stage comedy routines. Jerry Seinfeld is seemingly pretty well-adjusted, except for his fixation on the insignificant little foibles of modern life. His offstage life is equally inconsequential—he floats along, dating a string of models he would never consider marrying, let alone procreating with, and trying to avoid embarrassment more than anything. If the character of Seinfeld ever thinks about the purpose of life, he hides it well.

Louie’s standup is different. He asks questions about morality, he worries over his daughters, he talks about God and the Bible, he notes the slow decay of his body in exacting detail. In his life on the show, Louie is trying to find something to care about, and mostly finds it in his daughters, in the passing along of genetic information, life, and knowledge. Seinfeld—his character on the show, at least, and also the character of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm—never seems to care about anything, and is satisfied with that. You’re born, you grow up, you make enough money to eat out at a diner all the time, you argue with your friends about re-gifting and the placement of buttons on a shirt, you date gorgeous women, then you die, simply and without fanfare. Isn’t that a good enough summary of existence?

It isn’t for Louie, and that’s why his character is so miserable. Seinfeld was born without a soul and is fine with that, but Louie isn’t sure whether he has a soul, whether souls exist in the first place, and what you should do if you have a soul. More importantly, the answers to those questions matter to Louie, as they do to a lot of people—which is why we’ll never be as happy-go-lucky as the people on Seinfeld, or any traditional sitcom.

Intelligent people with even an ounce of self-awareness ask themselves at one time or another, “What is the purpose of my life?” On Seinfeld, a “show about nothing” the answer is: “There is no purpose, duh.” On Friends, to bring another sitcom into the mix, the answer is, “Find your soulmate in the most complicated manner possible, at which point you will be happy forever.” (This is also the message of every romantic comedy ever churned out.)

Louie, like nearly every work of art worth discussing, offers no answer, except maybe “Keep looking, there must be a purpose, because otherwise life would be awful and unbearable.” One feature of the show that slips by almost unnoticed is that religion—specifically Christianity—appears more often, and is taken more seriously, than any mainstream show since Andy Griffith. Louie is a character with not only an interior life, but a spiritual one as well. That’s not a common thing these days, and it’s nice to know that a show like Louie can exist on television.

I worry that I’ve made the show sound more serious than it actually is. Here’s the poker scene I mentioned above:
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I Have Another Blog Now

One reason my posting has been a little bit irregular as of late is that I've been setting up and writing for a new blogging project with a buddy of mine, Christopher Morris-Lent, known to the poker world as CML. It's called We Live Off Your Money and is the diary of a our lives as professional (semi-professional, in my case) online poker players. I don't write much about myself or poker on this blog, so this new blog will hopefully be an outlet for content that I wouldn't publish here. If you like my writing on Essays on Sucking, you may also enjoy We Live Off Your Money, and if you're curious about the life of online poker players, it's also worth checking out. Read more!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Can't We Have a Robot Senate?

As election time approaches and the political junkies work themselves up into a state of almost sexual anticipation, the question everyone is asking is, will there be a bunch of new mostly wealthy, mostly white people in the Senate? Will these people succeed in the Republican party's mission to have the government to almost nothing? If Democrats can barely pass legislation with a nearly 60-40 majority, how in god's name is anything going to be accomplished if the Senate is split roughly 50-50?

If you read George Packer's New Yorker article published over a month ago, you'd know that barely anything gets accomplished in the Senate now. Senators spend a couple days a week in Washington and spend the rest of the time flying back and forth from their home states, where they fundraise, pretend to listen to constituent concerns, and occasionally fuck people they aren't married to. The groundswell of populist rage--I have no idea what that phrase means, incidentally--isn't just directed at Democrats, it's directed at Congress in general. People think that elected officials are doing a shit job, and it's hard to argue against that.

To be fair, criticism of Congress comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Right-wingers think the government is trying to take over every facet of their lives, while left-wingers think the government isn't doing enough. But everyone agrees that the people in Washington are clowns at best, and evil, homicidal clowns at worst.

The solution? Replace them all with robots.

I know you can't replace everyone with robots. The House should remain dominated by humans, at least until machines acquire the ability to feel pain and love, but the Senate would be much more efficient, and probably better supported by the populace, if they were robots. The advantages are obvious: no sex scandals, no embarrassing PR gaffs (unlike the late Ted Stevens, the robots would know the internet is not a series of tubes), and they would never make vicious attack ads. Best of all, there would be no filibustering.

In fact, if robots were the only Senators, there would be no campaigning at all. Here's how an election would work:

1. Instead of voting on candidates, voters would go into the booth and decide how they feel about a number of issues. Are you pro-gay but anti-abortion? Do you want your children to pray in school but also support cap and trade? Just check those boxes, and leave a box blank if you don't know what it's talking about--or in the great American democratic tradition, you can let your opinion be known about issues you are totally uninformed about.

2. The Senate robot for your state would be reprogrammed after the election so its views would match those of its constituents, and it would vote accordingly. If you wanted to, you could also introduce a home-state bias so the robots would try to get military bases and corporate headquarters to move to their states, just like the fallible fleshy senators do. Or leave all of that back room politicking to the humans in the House and have the Senate be a realm of pure issues.

3. That's it. The only problem with this system is that if 51 percent of people in 51 percent of the states believe something absurd and dangerous, like "We should go to war with Iran right now," the robot Senate might try to make that happen. So maybe we institute a rule that 55 Senators have to agree on something in order for it to pass. It would still allow more pieces of legislation to be passed more efficiently than the current arrangement, where you apparently need 60 out of 100 Senators to agree on something for it to become law.

The advantages are too numerous to list here, but some benefits of a robot Senate would be an extremely short legislative session (they could decide on every bill in about a minute), and best of all, people wouldn't elect candidates without knowing their positions first. In the current situation, voters elect one party to Congress because they hate the other party and are shocked and dismayed when the new party in power attempts to enact the policies it said it was going to attempt to enact. (I'm talking about the Democrats and their health care policies, in case that wasn't clear.)

What would be the downside to having a robot Senate? Can anyone think of one? Keep in mind that the House would still be human, so legislation and the amendment process would go on as usual, just not as much in the Senate. I guess the robots could suddenly acquire intelligence and force all humans into death camps, but that probably wouldn't happen. Almost definitely not.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Conservapedia Sucks

One of the privileges of contemporary first-world living is that you’re free to live in whichever version of reality you find most appealing. For instance, thanks to the miracles of talk radio, the internet, and ESPN, a sports fan can spend virtually all of his free time consuming sports news and watching sporting events. Those who are really into fashion or indie rock can spend hours every day reading blogs and watching YouTube videos even if they live in an isolated trailer in the middle of a desert where fashion and indie rock do not commonly occur. But the people who have perfected the art of living in an informational bubble are conservatives.

Conservatives have AM talk radio, they have Fox News, they have the vast network of blogs and thousands of conservative-leaning books, all of which makes it possible for a conservative to never consume any chunk of information that comes from the mouth of a liberal, or even a moderate. Granted, liberals have all of these things too, plus liberals can watch standup comedy without being upset. But conservatives aren’t satisfied with just an all-right-wing media environment, they want a right wing encyclopedia. And thus, from the mind of a man who came out of Phyllis Schlafly, we get Conservapedia.

Conservapedia has an origin story that parallels that of Fox News. Just as America’s favorite news network began as a response to the perceived bias of the “mainstream media,” Conservapedia started out because Andy Schlafly thinks that Wikipedia* has a liberal bias—at least, that’s the conclusion he came to after his edits to Wikipedia articles kept getting deleted by other editors. After spending a lazy Sunday afternoon poking around Conservapedia though, his edits getting deleted might have had less to do with an institutional socialist bias and more with Schlafly being two beers and a plastic connecting thingy short of a six pack.

Sure, not all of the content on the site is written by Schlafly, but he definitely wrote (and defends on the talk page forums) a bit where a Bible passage about one of Jesus’ miracles is used as an example for why Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong. And he allows some rather dicey pages to exist, like the one for the “Homosexual Agenda” (the above screenshot is from that page, just in case it gets edited). That page follows the Conservapedia practice of citing only far-right sources, in this case books with titles like Crafting “Gay” Children and That Which Is Unnatural, which might be better than some other Conservapedia pages that don’t cite anything at all, like this page about why capitalism is number one.

The site is clearly still trying to figure out what the hell it is supposed to be. Clicking “random page” over and over sends you to extremely short entries for ideologically neutral subjects like skin and Indian states, then you find odd things like a fairly unorganized biography of Mel Gibson that doesn’t mention his recent nasty rant at his ex-wife, but does mention his charity work (although, hilariously, the article does say he’s “never at a loss for words”).

I’m assuming for now that Conservapedia isn’t high-level trolling like If it’s not, it’s pretty scary—or it would be, if it wasn’t so stupid. Fox News is one thing, opinionated journalism not being anything particularly new, but Conservapedia seeks to do something more fundamental. If the site’s editors are serious about competing with and maybe supplanting Wikipedia, they’re working to change the nature of facts itself. Snide, superior-sounding liberals are fond of saying, “The facts have a liberal bias,” but Conservapedia wants to create facts with a conservative bias by only drawing on certain sources and only caring about certain topics. People who set out to create objective sources of information like encyclopedias or “objective” newspapers should be motivated by a desire to just find out the facts no one can argue with and then reporting them in language that isn’t ideologically charged. Conservapedia doesn’t give a shit about objectivity and doesn’t even pretend to. Its purpose is to give conservatives a place to go where their viewpoint can be reiterated again and again. It’s not a reference guide, it’s a yes man.

Like Fox News, Conservapedia is constantly patting itself on the back for being more truthful than the liberals, who have something to hide. The site says, “Conservapedia provides information about the American people that liberal critics would rather hide: for example, nearly 50 percent of Americans reject evolution and embrace creationism.” Except well-known lefty site Wikipedia says, on its creationism page, that “according to a 2001 Gallup poll, about 45% of North Americans believe that ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.’” It’s not that liberals want to hide the facts, it’s that just because a bunch of people believe in something doesn’t make it so.

And just because you say things are facts and that your website is an encyclopedia doesn’t make it so either, but Conservapedia is trying its hardest. They’ve recently expanded their project to change reality by changing facts by creating a new translation of the Bible that will eliminate the liberal bias former translations had and explain “the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.” How this version is going to handle Acts 2:45 is beyond me.

In Conservapedia’s version of reality, Jesus is Ronald Reagan, the homosexuals are plotting against America, Mel Gibson is still best known for being a successful actor and director. In my version of reality, on the other hand, I’m still not sure Andy Schlafly isn’t the most committed troll in the history of the internet.

*Oddly enough, that entry on Wikipedia includes a quote from noted atheist Douglas Adams, who probably wouldn’t like Conservapedia very much.
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