Sunday, August 29, 2010
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 Christwire.org. 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. Read more!
Friday, August 20, 2010
I have a confession to make: I don’t really get this whole “9/11 Mosque” controversy. That is, I know what it’s about—some Muslims want to build a cultural center a few blocks away from the big hole where the World Trade Center used to be—and I know that people and news organizations don’t have a whole lot to do during August and things can get a little silly (last August was when we had the whole Town Hall Meeting kerfuffle). But I don’t understand why we need opinion polls to tell us that 70 percent of the country is against the building of a mosque (a cultural center, actually) in a middle of a block that includes restaurants, apartment buildings, and a strip club across the street.
This New Yorker opinion piece sums up the situation nicely. People who don’t live in New York, people who will never walk by the proposed mosque, people who have made their careers badmouthing the “elites” who live and work in New York City—these people don’t think the mosque should be built. But they shouldn’t be involved in this process. What Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich or Howard Dean says about the Park 51 project shouldn’t matter to anyone. Conservatives are constantly bitching about “states’ rights”; well, what about a city’s rights? The neighborhood Community Board—the smallest, most local form of government in New York City—endorsed the project 28 to one. And while New Yorkers oppose it, Manhattanites (you know, the people who actually breathed in the dust and ash from the fallen World Trade Center nine years ago) are in favor of it. So why won’t these goddam out-of-towners just keep their mouths shut?
The arguments against the mosque that aren’t just obvious anti-Muslim sentiments are tidily articulated in this blog post. The author equates 9/11 to genocide and makes no distinction between American Muslims and Middle Eastern Muslims, and describes the mosque’s location as, “within enough distance to pass the mosque coming from one direction and turn your head to see the WTC within a minute.”
I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this blogger isn’t a New Yorker. If he was, he’d know you can’t see the WTC, because there’s nothing to see. It’s not a memorial, it’s just a giant construction site. In a few years, it’ll be a giant office building (housing Conde Nast, among others) in a neighborhood full of giant office buildings. Conservatives and other out-of-towners who oppose Park 51 seem to think that the big hole in the ground is the only distinguishable feature in that part of Manhattan; in actuality, the former WTC doesn’t stand out very much. I used to visit some guys who lived near the big hole to watch sports and get high, and believe it or not, I don’t think I thought about 9/11 once when I was walking past the hole.
America is still getting over the World Trade Center attacks, but Manhattan has moved on, because that’s what Manhattan does. Nothing leaves much of a mark, every scar is built over and built over again. Maybe that’s heartless, maybe it’s a good way to move on, but that’s what happens. I don’t know if the critics in other parts of the country understand how little 9/11 has defined Manhattan and how easily life flows around that big hole. They’re looking to preserve the “sanctity” of a “memorial site” that exists only within their heads.
Another thing I’m not sure the Park 51 critics get is that there are a lot of Muslims in New York. That sounds stupid, but in most parts of the country, Muslims are a rare sight. They’re extremely foreign to most Americans, and possibly a little scary. Even on the subway, where you’re likely to see some weird stuff, it’s a little startling to see a woman in a full-on burqa. But you’ll see those women if you live here, and you might walk by the mosque near my house and hear that Islamic chanting that they do. I’m just guessing, but I imagine that people who have never met (or even seen) a Muslim find the prospect of building a mosque “in the shadow of the 9/11 site”—wait, what shadow?—pretty objectionable, because to them, mosque=Muslim=enemy. New York isn’t exactly Mecca or Tehran (remember that controversy over the Muslim school?), but it isn’t Wasilla, Alaska either. There are enough mosques in town that one more shouldn’t upset anyone—especially when the building in question is already used for Islamic prayer!
I’m still wrapping my head around how one would be offended by the presence of this cultural center, which might explain why I can’t understand the grievances of the out-of-towner opposition. Are tourists going to walk past the mosque and be upset because they’re on their way to the 9/11 memorial/New York Doll strip club and the ambience was disturbed? Are the prayers of Muslims going to prevent the 9/11 victims’ souls from going to heaven? Is merely knowing that a Muslim building is near a big hole hundreds of miles away from you upsetting? Or do the opponents agree with Gingrich, who believes the cultural center is part of an “Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." If that last one is true, I really, really don’t understand.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The New Yorker, that great publication that serves to chronicle the lifestyles of the extraordinarily rich for the benefit of the upper middle class, just did a profile of some guy who provides fancy Las Vegas restaurants with delicacies like truffles and cinnamon and (presumably) human skin. Here’s one interesting passage about the world of high food in Vegas that starts with a quote from chef Paul Bartolotta:
“Las Vegas is a pilot project to see if man can live on the moon,” he says. “There’s nothing local—our water comes from somewhere else, our electricity comes from somewhere else.” Fishermen have sent him texts in the middle of the night from their boats in the Adriatic, with pictures of themselves holding fresh-caught specimens and messages like “Want this fish?” On one such occasion, the fish was an eighteen-pound ombrina; when it arrived at the restaurant, forty-eight hours later, Bartolotta walked it onto the floor and offered it to a party of thirty golfers as the main course in a tasting menu they had ordered. He took it back to the kitchen, sprinkled some salt and pepper on it, tied up the tail so it would fit in the oven, and within ninety minutes the golfers were eating it. Their bill came to nearly five thousand dollars, before wine.
To recap: modern technology allows people across the world to communicate to one another instantaneously, and transport pretty much any object from any place to any other place in less time than it takes to watch all of the episodes of The Wire back-to-back, and we use this technology to provide a bunch of wealthy, drunken golfers with fresh fish.
I don’t want to turn this into a rant against the rich or global capitalism—although I suspect this already qualifies as such—but it’s worth noting that no matter how fantastical our abilities become, our ideas for how to use our powers remain bizarre. Why do we have this giant luxurious mecca of sin in the desert anyway? Living on the moon would be a gigantic waste of resources, which is why we never tried to do it. Las Vegas seems like a waste of resources too. Can’t we move all of those casinos somewhere a little easier to transport food and water to? Read more!
Monday, August 9, 2010
Alex Rodriguez, he of perhaps the lamest nickname in the world, just hit his 600th career home run. This was reported as being important because baseball people have an obsession with large round numbers. Because of this “milestone,” we are forced to face the fact that statistically, A-Rod/A-Roid/the smooth-foreheaded one is one of the best baseball players of all time. As this blogger said, “He’s up on Olympus with the rest of the gods.” Which brings up the question, what is he the god of?
The old-time baseball players have acquired a folk-hero status in American lore. Babe Ruth was a Paul Bunyan-esque figure whose appetites for home runs, liquor, and whores exceeded those of mere mortals. Ty Cobb was born in hell and likely returned there after his death. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the disgraced hero who shattered a little boy’s illusions (“Say it ain’t so,” etc.). Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse who, alas, had to be put down. Wille Mays was the genius of center field. Mickey Mantle was an amiable bacchanalian giant who was an alcoholic back when that was okay. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were ciphers with perfect swings. Yogi Berra came from another planet. Mickey Rivers was insane. Carl Yastrzemski made success look like failure. Carlton Fisk pushed a foul ball fair by sheer force of will. Pete Rose had an all-consuming passion for winning, and a fatal flaw. Sandy Koufax had an arm made of rubber and took Yom Kippur off (Don Drysdale was his goyish partner). Dock Ellis pitched a perfect game on acid. Hank Aaron cranked out home run after home run like a true workman. Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. Rickey Henderson was a tower of pure ego. Who else? Ken Griffey Junior was a permanent teenager, beauty and mood swings and all. Barry Bonds hit the hell out of the ball because he seemed to hate the game. Derek Jeter is living proof that ballplayers can have an old-fashioned cool.
What can be said about A-Rod?
He started out as a kind of prodigy in Seattle, where he suffered under Griffey’s shadow. Then he left for Texas, in a decision that seemed to be based purely on economics. (Mercenaries make for lousy heroes.) The team he left set a (steroid-assisted) regular-season win record and made the playoffs a few more times, while he spent three years of his prime on a last-place team. He went to the Yankees, where he was no longer the big fish in the little pond, and got raked over the coals for underperforming in the playoffs until last year. He’s not the center of the team, and he even moved to third base out of deference to Jeter. (Would DiMaggio, Mays, or Rose show deference to anyone?) He was romantically linked to Madonna, which would have been fashionable a couple decades ago. Oh yeah, and he said he didn’t use steroids until he said he did—even if you don’t mind the steroids, you have to admit that came off as cowardly. How do you sum up that scattered career in one short sentence?
It’s not that A-Rod has no “aura,” or “mystique.” As the philosopher Curt Schilling once said, those are dancers at a strip club. A-Rod’s problem is that his narrative isn’t compelling. He’s really, really good at hitting a baseball, but what else? What stories can you tell about him? If he passes Bonds as American Home Run Champ, he still won’t be as interesting a figure as Bonds, who has the reputation of being a ‘roided-up monster who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, which is in some ways better than being a nonentity like A-Rod.
The stats and the three MVP trophies say A-Rod is an all-time great. But stats don’t make me care about him the way I care about, say, Jeter. Now, I don’t like the Yankees, and Jeter represents everything I don’t like about the Yankees—the apparent sense of entitlement, the clean-cut, country-club aristocrat look, the pride that, okay, maybe is deserved but still goddamned annoying. But I care about Jeter, I can muster up some dislike for Jeter, but A-Rod inspires no feeling in me. If A-Rod has ascended to Mount Olympus because he hit an arbitrary number of home runs, then he’s the God of Bland.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Bill Simmons’s latest piece on ESPN.com is the quintessential Sports Guy column: longer than it needs to be, filled with minutiae about the Red Sox that very few people care about, and obsessed with quantifying the unquantifiable using fuzzy logic. He “breaks down” the average fan's dissatisfaction with the Red Sox’s season and baseball in general by assigning suspiciously round percentage values to the things he doesn’t like about this baseball season. “Injuries” are 10 percent, and “The Bandwagon Effect” is 5 percent, and only Simmons knows why.
Maybe this is a lousy baseball year, all those no-hitters notwithstanding. For the first summer I can remember, I’m not paying attention to the games at all. Maybe it’s because my team, the Mariners, are one of the worst teams in baseball. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a TV. But the NFL team I root for is lousy too, and I don’t have an NBA team anymore (RIP Sonics), yet I’ll go to the trouble of finding a way to watch professional football and basketball, but not baseball. And apparently I’m not alone. Attendance is holding steady (Simmons says that’s because of recent cuts in ticket prices), but TV ratings have been going down for a long time, and the graph of the number of people who’ve watched the All-Star Game gives you a good idea of how baseball is doing these days.
So why don’t people like baseball? In honor of Bill Simmons, here’s my “percentage pie.”
Steroids: 1.75 percent
You might think people regard steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs as cheating, but football players are practically sprinkling HGH on their breakfast cereal and no one complains. When we watch professional athletes do the amazing things that they do, I doubt that many of us really think, “That 360 dunk doesn’t count because he used a banned supplement.” Let’s not forget that when Jose Canseco, who had replaced all of his internal organs with testosterone glands, was stealing 40 bases and hitting home runs, everyone was talking about how awesome it was. I think the real problem was…
The response to the steroid scandal: 17.39 percent
Major League Baseball’s response to the growing sense that their guys were getting some help in hitting all of those home runs was to test all of their players and then keep the results secret, which ensured that the players who tested positive would get revealed a little at a time over the years thanks to leaks and keep steroid use in the news. The sports media’s response to the discovery that Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were not just working out really, really hard was to talk about steroids all the time and to act like every player who used steroids—when, by the way, there was no rule against them in MLB—was a combination of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. There was a lot of hang-wringing about how now the statistics from the “steroid era” were more invalid than the statistics from the era when blacks were banned from the league or the era when spitballs were legal. Each new “revelation” that a player was using steroids set off more of the same arguments about who was eligible for the Hall of Fame and how awful it was that these guys were “cheating.” If you paid attention to the sports media, you probably got sick of listening to sportswriters bitch about steroids and went over to the NFL Network, where no one ever complains about HGH use because HGH makes players better and the games more entertaining. Which brings me to…
Baseball’s lack of spectacle: 16.4 percent
In this column about baseball’s TV ratings, a guy named Rocky Mamola says, “Baseball is more chess to their checkers in that it requires much more strategy and that pace of the game is much slower and methodical,” which is the sort of thing die-hard baseball fans say because they can’t say baseball is boring. But compared to the NFL—which has exponentially more strategy than baseball—watching a baseball game is pretty dull. All that steroid-taking resulted in more home runs, which are exciting in person but on television highlight reels, all look pretty much the same. The Home Run Derby is about as exciting as watching this over and over. But the real problem is that between home runs and great plays in the field, a baseball game has long, long stretches of nothing happening. Glove adjustments. Conferences on the mound. Pitchers shaking off catchers. Pick-off attempts. Worst of all is probably when a game is clearly a blow-out, yet the losing team still has to get 27 outs, which usually takes a long time, meaning that one-sided games that aren’t worth watching after the third inning last longer than close games. Which is why Bill Simmons is right when he talks about…
The time of the games: 31.23 percent
World Cup games lasted 90 minutes, unless they went into overtime, in which case viewers were glued to their seats anyway. You can plan your day knowing exactly how long you’re going to be watching men kick a ball around. Baseball games, on the other hand, are like acid trips—you never know how long they’re going to take, but by the end you’ll probably want it to be over. These days, most games take between three and four hours, which is insane, especially since most games start at 7 pm. Children who have to be in bed can’t watch the ends of weekday games, and most of the rest of us don’t have the time to stare at David Ortiz stepping out of the batter’s box for hours upon end. At best, we’ll put the game on the radio as a background while we do important stuff like updating Twitter and posting lewd pictures on the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist. And that’s why the biggest slice of my percentage pie is…
Television and the internet: 33.33 percent
Ever try listening to an NBA or NFL game on the radio? It’s not nearly as good as watching in on TV. There’s too much happening too quickly for a play-by-play man to accurately describe. But baseball has the opposite problem. There’s so little happening in the average moment of a baseball game that the play-by-play guy needs one or two other guys to tell amusing stories in between pitches. Baseball is built for the radio. A game is a good thing to give a third of your attention to. You want to hear the background buzz of the crowd, the guys in the booth chatting leisurely with one another, the sudden swelling of noise when a ball suddenly rises towards the sky. Or you can ignore the game on the radio and read about it in the paper, and dissect the results through the box score—baseball is one sport that can be described almost completely through numbers. In the days before cable television was readily available, or further back, before everyone had a television, baseball was great because you could follow it closely without watching a single game. Now, of course, we can watch every game and then watch the highlights on Baseball Tonight and read the blogs written by stat geeks that argue about cERA and UZR. I’m not sure baseball benefits from all this analysis. It’s a slow, almost lazy kind of sport for those lazy summer afternoons, only now it’s only played at night and there’s a lot of other stuff to do on lazy summer afternoons. Increasingly, baseball seems like a weird, almost unmarketable sport that appeals mainly to a shrinking audience of aficionados. Remember when boxing was the biggest sport in America? Yeah, neither do I.
Slicing up the Red Sox's Boring Pie (ESPN)